Singing the Mass, The Anchor, September 2, 2011

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
September 2, 2011

Those attending Masses at many of the parishes in the Fall River Diocese this weekend will hear something different: the new and improved English translation of various sung parts of the Mass, like the “Glory to God in the Highest,” the “Holy, Holy, Holy,” new Memorial Acclamations like “We proclaim your death, O Lord,” and “Save us, Savior of the World,” and, for parishes that sing the Profession of Faith, a new “I believe in one God.” The full implementation of the new English translation of the Roman Missal will take place on the first Sunday of Advent, November 27, but the U.S. bishops thought it would be wise for parishes to start introducing the new music at the beginning of September.

There was a clear practical reason for doing so. Since there is no “Glory to God” during Advent, unless parishes had a chance to learn it during Ordinary Time, they would have had only one occasion (the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception on December 8) to sing it before Christmas. That would mean, in many parishes, that the Christmas Gloria, which builds on the words of the angels on Christmas night, might prove disorienting and distracting rather than buoyant and beautiful. There’s also, moreover, a profound catechetical reason for implementing the sung Mass parts early: As St. Francis Xavier grasped in teaching young children how to pray in lands new to the Gospel, it is much easier for people to learn the words of prayers by singing them than by reciting them. Therefore, singing the prayers of the new translation now will help people to learn them more easily, so that they will already be familiar by the time the missals change in three months.

Hopefully, however, the significance of introducing the sung parts of the Mass this weekend will give pastors and parishioners a chance to focus on something that is more consequential than these practical considerations: the place and importance of music in the liturgy. As Monsignor Andrew Wadsworth, the executive director of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy — which works with English-speaking bishops’ conferences to produce liturgical translations, like the new translation of the Roman Missal — said in a powerful speech to liturgical musicians last August in Atlanta, “Maybe the greatest challenge that lies before us [in the implementation of the new translations] is the invitation once again to sing the Mass rather than merely to sing at Mass.”

That summons to “sing the Mass” rather than merely “sing at Mass” was made in the liturgical reforms of and after the Second Vatican Council but has yet to be acted upon in many American parishes. “Musicam Sacram,” the Church’s instruction on music in the liturgy, stated in 1967, “Liturgical worship is given a more noble form when it is celebrated in song, with the ministers of each degree fulfilling their ministry and the people participating in it. Indeed, through this form, prayer is expressed in a more attractive way, the mystery of the Liturgy, with its hierarchical and community nature, is more openly shown, the unity of hearts is more profoundly achieved by the union of voices, minds are more easily raised to heavenly things by the beauty of the sacred rites, and the whole celebration more clearly prefigures that heavenly Liturgy which is enacted in the holy city of Jerusalem. Pastors of souls will therefore do all they can to achieve this form of celebration.”

Msgr. Wadsworth said that the Council Fathers expressed a “deeply held instinct that the majority of the texts contained in the Missal can and in many cases should be sung.” He went on to clarify that this means “not only the congregational acclamations of the Order of Mass, but also the orations [prayers], the chants in response to the readings, the Eucharistic prayer and the antiphons which accompany the Entrance, the Offertory, and the Communion processions.” “Musicam sacram,” for its part, said, “in selecting the parts that are to be sung, one should start with those that are by their nature of greater importance, and especially those which are to be sung by the priest or by the ministers, with the people replying, or those which are to be sung by the priest and people together. The other parts may be gradually added according as they are proper to the people alone or to the choir alone.”

It may come as a surprise to many Catholics what sung parts of the Mass the Church believes are of “greater importance.” Most Catholics from experience might think that the hymns are the most important, because that’s where most attention is given in the sacred singing of most parishes. “Musicam sacram,” however, categorizes the music at Mass in three “degrees.” The first and most important degree includes the Entrance Rites (the greeting of the priest together with the reply of the people and the opening prayer), the Acclamations at the Gospel, the Prayer over the Gifts, the Preface Dialogue, the Preface itself and the Sanctus, the Doxology (through Him, with Him…), the Lord’s Prayer through the “For the Kingdom…”, the Sign of Peace, the Prayer after Communion, and the Blessing and Dismissal. In the second degree are listed the typical “Mass parts,” the Kyrie, Gloria and Agnus Dei, but also the Creed and the Prayer of the Faithful (which the Church wishes to have sung, just like on Good Friday). In the third degree are the songs at the Entrance, the Offertory and Communion, the Responsorial Psalm, the Alleluia before the Gospel, and the readings of Sacred Scripture.

As is apparent, since the Council, the majority of Catholic parishes in the United States have gotten it almost exactly backwards, singing things considered by the Church to be of “lower” degree and not singing the things of “greater importance.”

Since the bishops of the United States hope that the occasion of the new translation will be a time of liturgical renewal in every parish, in which we will do — and do better — what the Latin Rite asks of us, this time of the introduction of the new sung prayers at Mass is an excellent opportunity for pastors and parishioners both to focus on the importance of liturgical music at the Mass and the Church’s goal that the Mass will be sung rather than merely feature some singing. This is a time to begin a gradual change of the Church’s culture with respect to liturgical music, one parish at a time.

“Ours has essentially become a predominantly Low Mass culture with music increasingly seen as incidental rather than integral to our liturgical celebration,” Msgr. Wadsworth noted. “Regardless of the quantity of musical overlay, the underlying impression remains basically that of a said Mass with music added. In this respect, it is not only our lay people who face the challenge of a changing liturgical culture,” but also priests, deacons, lectors and liturgical musicians.

There’s a certain urgency, he continued, to change the culture of the “low Mass” and a temporal and aesthestic minimalism that undergirds it, both in terms of the formation of those who come to Mass as well as to draw back those who have given up the regular practice of the faith. “The liturgy is the point of contact for the greatest number of our Catholic people. It is not only a window to heaven, but also the Church’s shop-window in a largely unbelieving world. If we are to draw many more to the hope that we hold, I believe that our experience of the mystery which is ‘ever ancient, ever new’ must effectively convey the spiritual realities that we celebrate in all their richness and depth, both to the Catholics of our own time and those yet to come. … We need both beauty and truth and our liturgical song can be a vehicle for them both.”

“The one who sings well prays twice,” according to the ancient aphorism most often attributed to St. Augustine. The introduction of the new sung parts of the Mass is an opportunity for all of us not merely to increase the quality and quantity of singing at Mass, but also to learn how to “sing the Mass” itself and show the Mass to the Church and the world as the most beautiful prayer ever lifted heavenward, the prayer Christ and his mystical body and bride make in unison to the Father for the salvation of the world.