CDCN: Singing The Mass

Continuing our look at Cantate Domino Canticum Novum, the concerned church musicians outline the first of six concerns. They write of “a loss of understanding of the ‘musical shape of the liturgy,’ that is, that music is an inherent part of the very essence of liturgy as public, formal, solemn worship of God.” But I’m not sure this is a loss so much as a partially missed opportunity.

The bullet points are mine, but the musicians prescribe:

We are not merely to sing at Mass, but to sing the Mass. Hence, as Musicam Sacram itself reminded us,

  • the priest’s parts should be chanted to the tones given in the Missal, with the people making the responses;
  • the singing of the Ordinary of the Mass in Gregorian chant or music inspired by it should be encouraged;
  • and the Propers of the Mass, too, should be given the pride of place that befits their historical prominence, their liturgical function, and their theological depth.

“Singing the Mass” is indeed the goal, and it has been stated as such since the early post-conciliar period. For most US parishes, the pre-conciliar norm was to insert up to four hymns into the Latin Low Mass. That heritage carried over into the late 60s. The challenges of that system were multiple. My observations:

  • What the priest does at Mass was considered by far the most essential. The congregation is irrelevant to the validity and efficacy of Mass. Since the rubrics for the Low Mass of 1962 and 1970 Missals do not require or demand singing of the priest, the first CDCN point above was mostly ignored.
  • It was a less-than-common occurence for a priest trained in the pre-conciliar liturgy to emphasize his own singing, certainly at Low Mass. Singing of the people was seen as the priority
  • The first expansion of the Four-Hymn sandwich I experienced were the gradual introduction of the Mass Ordinary in the 70s, and the Responsorial Psalm in the early 80s. I don’t think conteporary composers lagged far behind organists in this implementation. In many parishes, they spearheaded it.

Laudable point here:

Similar points apply to the singing of the Divine Office.

And an unfortunate point of fixed helpfulness:

It is an exhibition of the vice of “liturgical sloth” to refuse to sing the liturgy, to use “utility music” rather than sacred music, to refuse to educate oneself or others about the Church’s tradition and wishes, and to put little or no effort and resources into the building up of a sacred music program.

Among clergy, there is often a reserve about singing the dialogues. Some priests and eacons simply don’t have the natural talent, nor the time to devote to singing. For nearly every priest I’ve known, I’d prefer a good homily over a good chanting voice. I know: these two aren’t mutually exclusive. But poll pew Catholics: if they could choose one upgrade for their parish priest, better preaching or better singing, what would they prefer?

I think the division of music into “utility” and “sacred” begs the question that has yet to be developed so far in this document: what do these terms mean? Does utility mean non-sacred? Does it mean non-musical? Does it mean non-liturgical?

I often cringe when I see “program” attached to something of faith, religion, and especially liturgy. I know what the authors mean. But the aspirations for sacred music in the liturgy are much higher than what one can read and develop as a didactic exercise of implementing musical excellence. I think of a program as a means of acquiring a set of handbells, for example. But a group of people must be formed as a choir of excellence to perform music and present and assist at the liturgy.

Bottom line: sacred music is a ministry. More than a program. Much more. I know: many of my musical colleagues are skeptical of the term. Only priests do ministry, in their view. Keep to that mindset, and precious little progress will be made.


The full document may be found here.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
This entry was posted in Cantate Domino Canticum Novum, Liturgical Music. Bookmark the permalink.

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