Progressive Solemnity II: Music Within Liturgy

In section 115, the USCCB document Sing to the Lord lays down the case for progressive solemnity within the celebration of any liturgy. Lest there be any doubt about the applicability of the principle, know that it is derived from the General Instruction Roman Missal (or GIRM).

Singing by the gathered assembly and ministers is important at all celebrations. Not every part that can be sung should necessarily be sung at every celebration; rather “preference should be given to those [parts] that are of greater importance.” (GIRM 40)

SttL gives a hierarchy of importance. First, dialogues and acclamations. Second, psalms and their antiphons. Third, refrains and litanies. Last, hymns.

The notion that the assembly sings the liturgy rather than just sings at the liturgy–this is the essence of progressive solemnity. The parts of the liturgy itself are of a higher priority than any musical extras tacked on. And parts of the liturgy associated with the Gospel and Eucharistic Prayer are most important of all.

While I know the GIRM and SttL give high importance to priest-and-assembly dialogues, I would differ on one point. Here’s what SttL 115a says:

The dialogues of the Liturgy are fundamental because they “are not simply outward signs of communal celebration but foster and bring about communion between priest and people.”(GIRM 34)

I still would put the direct address of God in worship, singing of God in the second person, You, is of deeper importance than “communion between priest and people,” something which can be developed in unison singing, and in the acclamations.

However, this statement is something with which I can agree:

By their nature, they are short and uncomplicated and easily invite active participation by the entire assembly. Every effort should therefore be made to introduce or strengthen as a normative practice the singing of the dialogues between the priest, deacon, or lector and the people. Even the priest with very limited singing ability is capable of chanting The Lord be with you on a single pitch.

Bottom line: the dialogues are easy to achieve. They really can and should be sung at every Mass.

Regarding the other part of 115a, the acclamations of the Gospel and the Eucharistic Prayer:

They are appropriately sung at any Mass, including daily Mass and any Mass with a smaller congregation. Ideally, the people should know the acclamations by heart and should be able to sing them readily, even without accompaniment.

Liam has mentioned this before about good liturgical music having a requirement of being able to carry itself without accompaniment. In my mind a Mass setting that doesn’t work a cappella is a low to non-priority.

Psalms are absolutely essential to just about any Catholic liturgy … or they should be. SttL channels GIRM 102:

The psalms are poems of praise that are meant, whenever possible, to be sung.

… and Tertullian, when describing the Eucharist:

(T)he Scriptures are read, the psalms are sung, sermons are preached.


Keep in mind the three psalms of the Eucharist, not only the psalm that follows the first reading, but also the psalms employed for the Entrance and Communion processions.

Participation in song on the part of the assembly is commended during both of these important processions, as the People of God gather at the beginning of Mass and as the faithful approach the holy altar to receive the Body and Blood of the Lord.

Third in priority are the “refrains and repeated responses,” or the litanies: the Kyrie, Agnus Dei, and the general intercessions.

Last come the hymns.

How does this apply in a parish? Building out from the basics, one would presume the first aspect considered for singing are the dialogues and the acclamations. A very strong case is made from both Rome and the US bishops for singing at every celebration of Mass, and this is where a parish should start. Everything else builds up from that first priority.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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10 Responses to Progressive Solemnity II: Music Within Liturgy

  1. Randolph Nichols says:

    If all the dialogues were sung and melodies were constructed so as to be singable without accompaniment – which is not the same as saying that every bit of music should be unaccompanied – then a step would have been taken toward bridging the left/right liturgical divide. Unfortunately, most priests in my area don’t sing anything beyond the introduction to the Memorial Acclamation (and with that many just recite “Let us proclaim in song the mystery of faith”) and the Doxology. Since music is an elective at our local seminary, I don’t foresee improvement in the musical involvement of priests.

    I don’t have a copy of “Sing to the Lord” with me but perhaps you can relate what it has to say, if anything, about chanting the Gospel on major feasts? As one who grew up in an Episcopal high church environment, I confess to missing that practice.

  2. Randolph Nichols says:

    If I had followed your link to “Sing to the Lord” my question would have been unnecessary. In the Liturgy of the Word section it states that passages of scripture “may be sung.” I would have preferred a stronger emphasis.

  3. David D. says:

    Given the scheme of priorities set forth in SttL it seems that everything starts with the priest and his willingness/ability to actually learn and sing the dialogues and acclamations. While I know these are not difficult and could even be sung recto tono if necessary, I suspect that many priests lack even the minimal training or confidence to implement sung dialogues without some sort of encouragement. Once implemented though, I think most congregations would pick up on the responses very quickly.

  4. Liam says:

    By the way, this prioritization of the dialogues was also mandated in the most significant post-conciliar legislation on liturgical music, Musicam Sacram (specifically, article 16 thereof). As we noted before, the BCL fumbled badly in MCW in 1972 when it de-prioritized these dialogues in what appears to have been a pragmatic gesture recognizing the reluctance of priests to take responsibility for doing their half of these chants. Durn those pragmatists.

  5. Susan Bailey says:

    I recently came across an extraordinary recording called the English Demonstration Mass by Dennis Fitzpatrick. It was recorded in 1963, just as Vatican II was taking up the subject of the vernacular mass. The English Demonstration Mass, while needing some tweaks with regards to translation, beautifully meets the need you speak of. The chants on this recording are incredibly lovely, prayerful, and easy to sing along with. In fact, on the liner notes, it says that the composer rehearsed the volunteer congregation for only 1 half hour before making the recording!

    If you want to hear samples of this recording, check out Ken Canedo’s website at Click on the Podcast link and listen to episode #3 of his podcast series, based on his book, Keep the Fire Burning.

    If we want to bring chant back to the Church and make it possible for the congregation to participate, then we need to adopt easy-to-sing, well written music like that of the English Demonstration Mass.

  6. Todd says:

    Liam, sorry to let your comment slide by for this long. I think a non-pragmatist case can be developed for demoting the dialogues: their texts do not address God directly, and serve as more of a conversation about God, and about the liturgy. They strike me as more like rubrics than ritual.

    A post coming soon on this.

  7. Liam says:


    All good, but I don’t really see there being much value to making that case (other than to Rome itself) when current legislation decrees otherwise. It’s one of those if-it’s-too-unimportant-to-follow-then-it’s-likewise-too-unimportant-to-disobey things.

  8. Todd says:

    Oh sure, but they are so easy to implement there’s no question of compliance. If a sound reason were presented for the importance of dialogues, I haven’t yet heard it. The ghostwriters of MCW were, by the way, all singing priests involved in parishes and religious life.

  9. Liam says:

    I recall that they did not believe that most of their confreres would follow their example in this regard.

  10. Pingback: Preparing Music for Liturgy: SttL Outline | Catholic Sensibility

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