Singing The Mass

There’s been a bit of discussion here and there about this principle. Let’s get a few things clear:

– Al Gore did not invent it, and neither did post-Vatican II liturgy types. But the latter people have promoted it for at least the last two decades, if not longer.

– The notion of singing the Mass (as opposed to singing at the Mass) has been around for centuries, though it largely went out of practice in the Middle Ages.

The Low Mass + Four Hymn Sandwich combo promoted singing at the Mass. The priest’s words and official texts were paramount. What was sung at the four hymn moments was irrelevant. You could do them or not do them. Theoretically, they added nothing to the Mass. It certainly wasn’t the fault of some parish liturgy personnel to transplant the Low Mass format to the transitional liturgies of 1965-70. But I’m not so sure they didn’t get good direction, even then. The Hymnal for Young Christians, I was amazed to rediscover, contains a substantial section of psalmody and Mass propers. Much of the music is poor to horrid. But the germ of good liturgy is there. If an old-timey folk group wanted to sing the Mass in their own repertoire in the late 60’s, they could have done it. And maybe a few did.

I was first exposed to sung psalmody when a very musical seminarian was assigned to my home parish in the early 70’s. We seemed to get lots of singing seminarians coming our way. I learned to count on the psalm being sung.

When I went away to college, the four-hymn sandwich was in evidence. But gradually, under the guidance of our pastor, we came to acknowledge the virtue of a consistent Mass setting and a regularly sung seasonal psalm. We grew and developed as Catholics and liturgical musicians; I don’t know what else could have been asked of us.

My memory of workshops with the liturgical gurus of the 80’s and of my summer studies in Indiana underscored the importance of singing the Mass. It’s a principle I’ve tried to apply in parishes that I’ve served. But always in light of what the people were ready to embrace and adopt as their own. The Vatican agrees with me on that one.

Archbishop Albert Malcolm Ranjith Patabendige Don, the CDWDS secretary said:

“A liturgy which fails to take the pastoral aspect into consideration can harm our people’s faith! The difficulty lies in achieving formation which instills a sense of the liturgy technically complete but at the same time incisive from the pastoral point of view, and nourishes the faith of the people taking part, leading them to encounter the Lord.”

Some of my internet friends failed to report this part of his interview.

Let’s get back to the principle of singing the liturgy:

– It assumes the priority are the sung texts of liturgy, and that these texts have a natural hierarchy of importance. First would be the Mass propers and texts, acclamations, psalmody, litanies, and as Liam often reminds us, hymns and songs last. That’s what I’ve been taught since my first involvement in music ministry in 1980.

– Pastoral considerations are always important in assessing priorities. The priest can’t or won’t sing? We bypass the dialogues and work elsewhere. Parishioners very used to singing the psalm? Then it’s time for assigned psalms of the day and leave the seasonal psalmody behind. The choir insists on doing it’s weekly share of anthems? We work with them. The Credo too long or a choir or cantor or two are in revolt over it? We work on it.

Shawn Tribe is critical of the progressive approach …

“I would further suggest that if they are for singing the Mass, then let us see the Introit tract used more frequently. Further, let us see the gradual tract used now and again, or the Credo sung.”

… and furthermore seems to be suggesting the Tridentine/traditionalist approach is the only way to achieve singing the Mass. Wrong. The current Roman Rite can be sung very well to very badly. Choices are available to music leaders. It is possible to begin the needed prayerfulness, leadership, and example to get the people wrested from the mindset of church music as entertainment. That is where the most serious danger in Catholic church music lies: not from David Haas, but from popular culture and the secular expectations of music as entertainment medium and now, thanks to mtv, as a visual art form.

These would be examples of singing at the Mass:
– the four hymn sandwich
– choirs emphasizing anthems above service music
– choral singing excluding the congregation, be it anthems or choral Mass settings
– almost any solo performance
– improper use of microphones and other sound reinforcement equipment

Singing the Mass:
– an emphasis on psalmody
– ritual dialogues with the presider
– well-worn and well-loved Mass settings
– incorporating music into other sacramental rituals, including baptisms, weddings, funerals, and RCIA
– a good natural acoustical nave


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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