CCTLS 11: Popular Religious Song

I had to go back to see what Sacrosanctum concilium said about “popular religious song” to get to the bottom of what John Paul II was trying to tell us, referring to this term. I confess I still don’t get it. Here’s section 11:

11. The last century, with the renewal introduced by the Second Vatican Council, witnessed a special development in popular religious song, about which Sacrosanctum Concilium says: “Religious singing by the faithful is to be intelligently fostered so that in devotions and sacred exercises as well as in liturgical services, the voices of the faithful may be heard…”[SC 118]. This singing is particularly suited to the participation of the faithful, not only for devotional practices “in conformity with the norms and requirements of the rubrics”[SC 118], but also with the Liturgy itself. Popular singing, in fact, constitutes “a bond of unity and a joyful expression of the community at prayer, fosters the proclamation of the one faith and imparts to large liturgical assemblies an incomparable and recollected solemnity”[John Paul II, Address to the International Congress on Sacred Music (27 January 2001), n. 4].

And here’s the very brief section from SC:

118. Religious singing by the people is to be intelligently fostered so that in devotions and sacred exercises, as also during liturgical services, the voices of the faithful may ring out according to the norms and requirements of the rubrics.

When I hear the term “popular religious song,” I’m not sure I equate that with liturgical singing. “Popular” might mean well-liked, as in the cool kids at school. “Popular” might also express a quality of music that is not classical, “serious,” of jazz, or folk, or other genres that are out of favor with the corporate elites and the fans of their figurehead pop stars.

It strikes me that SC was driving less at “popular” by either of these two definitions, and more a quality of liturgical singing that is “by the people.” In that, I’d say that John Paul’s observations:

  • bond of unity
  • joyful prayer
  • proclamation of faith
  • incomparable solemnity

are all spot on for what good liturgical music, sung by the people, accomplishes.

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Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
This entry was posted in Chirograph for the Centenary of TLS, post-conciliar liturgy documents. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to CCTLS 11: Popular Religious Song

  1. Liam says:

    Cognates can deceive. Indeed, “popular” is merely by the people: it’s about who is singing, not what they like to sing.

  2. Good point. But does that imply that the mere act of people singing together at opportune moments of a liturgy or devotion suffices for that moment? I think you see where I’m going.

    • Liam says:

      I would say the documents do not intend it to be the dispositive value for all moment where they could sing. It’s an important value, but it coexists with other important values.

      As I’ve noted before, one cannot use the documents credibly in a way to find a silver bullet. Taken as a whole, they defeat an easy prioritization of one important value over the other important values. And I believe this was not inadvertent but intentional (at least in the sense that there a deliberate reluctance to force a resolution of the tensions). I believe they are intended to force discernment over time by the Church from the ground up (but that discernment is only durable and valid when the people are regularly exposed to all the options in their best form and presentation). This, to me, is romanità at its best. The problem is that people with a Northern European culture background will tend to abhore the seeming vacuum created by this tension, either by utilitarianism or ideological rigor. We don’t like living in tension, and find it wasteful. (The gift of Advent – the season of Now/Not Yet – is to help us learn to live in tension, I might add.)

  3. Todd says:

    I think that there is a value in people singing at liturgy, wholly apart from the prescriptions of the rite. Clearly, that was the spiritual instinct that kept people singing at Catholic devotions for centuries. It’s also why I would not look favorably at the Colloquium practice of performing the propers. Particularly when the Ordo Cantus Missae cites it as the “better still” option.

    • Liam says:

      For unexplained reasons, the OCM applies that only to intonation/beginning the chant, and to the entrance and communion antiphons, and not the offertory antiphon. If one is going to get literal, it’s a sword with two edges (as Roman swords were infamous for being…) Again, there’s no silver bullet to magically resolve all the tensions in the documents.

      I lean towards giving the congregation the music and text of the antiphon (so they can join in if able) and, if in Latin, a translation of the antiphon and verses being sung. If people are going to be contemplating what the choir or cantor is singing, they should know what it is they are contemplating instead of merely a nimbus of lovely sound. I know there are plenty of folks who are worried that the the Mass can get too didactive/cognitive and insufficiently liminal, and while I think those worries are not entirely without substance, I believe they tend in practice to act as rationalisations to avoid engaging in the tensions set out in the documents.

  4. Deacon Stephenitchell says:

    Prior to my ordination I spent 15 years selecting and scheduling the
    music for our parish. We had a choir that sang in the traditional mode once per month. It was well received. We had few complaints about our music. Whenever we strayed from letting the people join in on the four hymns we got complaints. Many people came to our parish because they got to sing. Now we have a new choir that is strictly following the rubrics which means all the propers, etc. They also sing for the people during the Offertory and communion. Now instead of everyone singing and contributing and feeling as if they are welcome in the liturgy almost no one sings anymore. They have been told that they can participate fully and actively by listening. My children are often in tears at Mass now because they are not allowed or expected to sing. The music that is selected has no meaning in that it slow, ponderous, and has no connection to the readings or season. The explanation for this is that almost none of the hymns are appropriate as they are not scrputurally faithful. Visitors have commented that there’s no joy any more. One visitor who had recently made his first communion asked me after Mass, “Who died?” I have spent thirty years singing in various choirs doing the full spectrum of sacred music. All of it is beautiful, but it does not fill the needs of many young people. The new translation of option 4 says chant, but the Latin cantus is translated as both chant and song. Popular is what the people sing. Having a choir sing for the people is not popular.

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