The best of both worlds

In these days of ‘liturgical wars’ in sacred music, there seems to be quite a big divide in Catholic culture. On the extreme ends, there are those who could be labelled as ‘conservatives’, who want to see the Mass go back to its traditional roots of Latin, Chant, very traditional hymnody and psalmody with only organ playing.

Apr 16, 2014

In these days of ‘liturgical wars’ in sacred music, there seems to be quite a big divide in Catholic culture. On the extreme ends, there are those who could be labelled as ‘conservatives’, who want to see the Mass go back to its traditional roots of Latin, Chant, very traditional hymnody and psalmody with only organ playing. On the other extreme, we have the more ‘liberal’ viewpoint that values pastoral concern over the proper liturgical function and encourage music that is more relatable and easy to the ears of pop culture at the expense of good composition of music and texts.

This discussion of preference has been going on for about 20 years now, but really took off just a few years ago with the arrival of Pope Benedict XVI and the translation of the Roman Missal. His papacy gave birth to what is referred to in liturgical circles as ‘The Reform of the Reform’. It was an explosion of liturgical resources, many of them free online, encouraging the revival of the Propers at Mass, chant both in Latin and English, and a barrage of new free settings to make it more accessible.

We then come to Pope Francis as our new leader, who has captured the world with his pastoral nature. The liturgical discussion seems to be slowly shifting to the inevitable, and brought up the discussions on what’s the point of going back to traditional music if it’s not accessible to the people.

It would do us well to remember that much of the world’s impression of Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis are very media driven by large news corporations with religious and political affiliation, and by social media. Anyone well versed in their Catholic dogma knows that these men share more in common than what is portrayed. The fact of the matter is that, like our Catholic dogma and teaching, liturgical music and the nature of its function don’t really change with what we think is each Pope’s fancy. We have the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, and various church documents and instructions that give us quite detailed instruction about what can and cannot be done.

The solution is that some liturgical musicians are finding a way to merge both preferences together. With the chants of the new translation of the Roman Missal now being sung for a few years, the congregation is now slowly redeveloping its ear for chant-based material. This now allows us to reintroduce the singing of the Mass Propers. For those unfamiliar with the term, the Mass Propers (Introit, Gradual, Alleluia/Tract, Offertory, Communion) are the liturgical texts that are specific and ‘proper’ to each day. They are usually scriptural, or based on a scripture passage, or it is sometimes a patristic text.

There is the option of doing the Propers without necessarily sacrificing the hymnody we have been singing. For example, you could sing the Entrance Antiphon (without the psalm verses) and go straight to the Entrance Hymn. You could also do it the other way and have the Antiphon sung after Entrance Hymn, right before the Introductory Rites. The same technique could be applied to the Offertory and Communion Antiphons.

The official book of the Roman Rite is still the Graduale Romanum, but to date, there still has not been an official English translation that has been approved by the Church. Christoph Tietze has released through World Library Publications a collection called Introit Hymns for the Church’s Year, which is 100 hymns based on the texts of the Propers, all set to common hymn tunes. There are also plenty of free resources online of settings of the Church propers, namely on the websites of the Church Music Association of America and Corpus Christi Watershed.

We cannot hide from the truths that both sides present. On the one hand, the Church documents, namely The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium, cf. no. 116) and the General Instruction for the Roman Missal (c.f. no.41) states that Gregorian chant holds its pride in place and is specially suited for the Roman Liturgy. On the other side of the coin, it also states in these documents that other types of music are ‘by no means excluded’. It is important to note that it does specify which types of music are appropriate, such as polyphonic singing by a scholar/choir, psalmody/ hymnody sung by a congregation, and songs in the vernacular.

Singing hymnody and other sacred songs is a valuable way to enhance people’s participation in the Mass. However, they were never intended to completely replace the Propers of the Mass, they were intended as alternatives. Singing hymns and songs are a good way to sing at Mass but singing the Propers allows us to sing the Mass. There is no reason why we cannot put our prejudices aside and try and find a way to blend both ways. Why can’t we have chant and hymnody and songs both traditional and modern? Why can’t we have choral singing that encourages the contemplative (internal) aspects of active participation by listening to a well-trained choir?

One thing is very clear on the matter. Neither side is going to win this fight. We can however attempt to correct the interpretational mistakes that were made post Vatican II by educating ourselves on what the Church asks of us by reading the documents as opposed to just going by our ‘feelings’. We can also take a step back, and look at the positive things that have come from the past 40 years, namely the publication of some good quality liturgically appropriate music, and investigate the best way to use this materiel.

Recently, the Pontifical Council for Culture launched a new initiative, ‘Sacred Music: 50 Years after the Council’. It is a very useful document that includes a 40-question survey on the state of Sacred Music in the past 50 years. The document is addressed to the Episcopal Conferences and Major Religious Institutes and Faculties of Theology, but encourages the downloading of the document for our own use and refection. It can be found at enquiry.html.

There is no reason we can’t have the best of both worlds, but this can only be achieved if all parties put ego and personal preferences aside, and have an open heart and mind with working towards the same goal. Whether they are volunteers or paid musicians, there is a tremendous amount of self-education and skills that needs to go into this ministry to administer it effectively. The following has been said many times, and it is worth repeating: diligent and ongoing liturgical AND musical training of our church musicians, with the full support of clergy and congregation is imperative to successfully shape and choreograph the liturgy so that we may have a richer, more authentic experience of the Mass.

--If you have any questions with regards to music in church please feel free to send your questions to the Archdiocese Liturgy Commission at [email protected]

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