As promised, I’ll begin a series of posts on some liturgical principles outlined in the US Bishop’s document, Sing to the Lord (SttL). Most of these principles aren’t original to the current crop of bishops and this particular liturgy legislation. Indeed, some of them predate Vatican II. Let’s tackle one of the big ones first, progressive solemnity. The bishops let the principle lead off section IV, Preparing Music for Catholic Worship, part A, ”What Parts Do We Sing?”
Progressive solemnity applies, of course, not only to music, but to other aspects of liturgy and to certainchoices made in the context of worship. Simply put, the principle suggests that since it is humanly impossible to celebrate the worship of God “all-out” every time believers are gathered, that special enhancements are saved for special occasions. These occasions are not determined by the whim of the clergy or musicians, but by the liturgical context.
SttL devotes three sections (112-114) to the principle. I think the basic material covered here is adequate, but the bishops have left a few gaps in the text I’d like to point out in my commentary:
112. Musical selections and the use of additional instruments reflect the season of the liturgical year or feast that is being celebrated.
113. Solemnities and feasts invite more solemnity. Certain musical selections are more capable of expressing this solemnity, adding an extraordinary richness to these special celebrations. Such solemnity should never be allowed to devolve to an empty display of ceremony, however. (“It should be borne in mind that the true solemnity of liturgical worship depends less on a more ornate form of singing and a more magnificent ceremonial than on its worthy and religious celebration, which takes into account the integrity of the liturgical celebration itself, and the performance of each of its parts according to their own particular nature” (MS, no. 11).) The most solemn musical expressions retain their primary responsibility of engaging human hearts in the mystery of Christ that is being celebrated on a particular occasion by the Church.
Perhaps the bishops are assuming an ordinary Sunday baseline for this statement. It is a common practice to add instrumentation appropriate to Christmas and Easter in many parishes–that goes back decades in American practice, if not centuries. Let’s keep in mind that certain feasts (Holy Thursday, Pentecost and Epiphany come to mind) also stand out well above the usual Sunday fare. If your average Sunday Mass is on a setting of about six, and Christmas and Easter rate a nine, some feasts will be more “eightish” than just six-plus.
Liturgical seasons, too, will rate more attention. The Easter and Christmas seasons, certainly, but I would also advocate for a certain attention to be paid to Advent and Lent, too. In the latter case, not so much for the notion of adding instrumentation, but for choosing selections carefully, and ensuring the music has no less care that the festive seasons. How so?
- Practice Advent and Lent music with the same diligence that Christmas and Easter Sunday merit.
- Program only the very best selections for congregational singing and choir presentation. The sieve for Advent and Lent should be as tight as anytime in the liturgical year.
I’m aware that during these seasons, SttL 114 calls for a “certain musical restraint. In Advent, for example, musical instruments should be used with moderation and should not anticipate the full joy of the Nativity of the Lord. In Lent, musical instruments should be used only to support the singing of the gathered assembly.” I read SttL 113 as giving the vital principle, the “… responsibility of engaging human hearts in the mystery of Christ that is being celebrated on a particular occasion by the Church.”
In other words, Lent is not a time for slacking off a bit so we can devote more rehearsal to Easter.
I think that’s enough for today. In the next few posts, I’ll look at SttL 115-117 in which progressive solemnity is applied within a celebration of liturgy–which parts are more important and less important to sing. I also want to touch on the application of progressive solemnity within the Catholic sacramental system. We know the Eucharist is important, but how do and how should the other six sacraments shake out in applying what liturgies get our liturgical music attention and which don’t.