In the good ol’ days (the 1980s), singing the Mass was something of a movement. Church musicians were encouraged to look beyond our pre-conciliar inheritance, the four-hymn sandwich. More parishes were singing the Psalm after the first reading. Mass settings were getting more attention. That meant cohesive settings, rather than the best Holy, Amen, and Alleluia that could be judged. It also meant bridging the repertoire across parish Masses, and that led to settings that worked well with both organ and ensemble.
With the implementation of RCIA’s white book (1988), and the revised funeral rites (1989), singing the Mass meant musical settings of acclamations, psalms, and songs for the assembly.
Sometime around 2000, traditional-leaning musicians hijacked the term, knowingly or unknowingly. The extension was into the proper antiphons. The suggestion heaved at Vatican II musicians (for the lack of a better term) was that we weren’t singing the
Mass because we hadn’t allowed the texts of the Roman Missal to dictate or inform our choices.
Needless to say, I don’t hew to that view. Richard Clark is a composer, musician, and minister I respect. I noticed his essay here with one of five questions:
Are we singing the Mass or singing songs at Mass?
In any era, it’s a good question. It’s a query independent of the song being good or not.
Once, the matter in question would be substituting some sacred song for the Psalm at the liturgy of the word. An otherwise good song like “Come To The Water” when the first reading is Isaiah 55. Nice try, but that’s singing a song at Mass.
My assertion would be that if the Gospel involved the passage Matthew 11:28-30 singing that same song at Preparation or Communion, say, that would be singing the Mass. It would be the same as a cleric preaching on Isaiah 55:1-11 at the Easter Vigil: that’s still preaching the Gospel.
I don’t feel the need to program the propers. I do consult them on occasion. If the given text was a Psalm of trust, like the 16th or the 131st, I would have no regret in programming “On Eagles Wings” if I thought that was a better substitute than a setting of one of the others my choir and parish didn’t know. (They do have some of each, but the 91st is also a Psalm of trust.)
Getting back to the question, I think the real answer in any parish is: it depends on the person. Some people sing at Mass, but don’t really engage. Others see every singing moment as an engagement with the Lord, and these people are singing the Mass. Some people make it into a political thing, and I’m not sure they are always singing the Mass.
At its root, the Mass is a participation of the Son’s love and praise of the Father. If any believer is engaged in that, then they are singing the Mass, as long as there’s a faith connection by text and intent in the music.