If you have not read part one of this series entitled: “Music in the Roman Church, part 1 – What is Sacred Music?” please go read that first for background. In this part of the series, we will get a bit deeper into the specifics of restoring Sacred Music in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church.
Full, Conscious, Active Participation
Our role as laity differs in degree from that of the priest. The priest is offering the Mass in persona Christi capitis (in the Person of Christ, Head of His Body). The priest offers the holy sacrifice. We, the people, offer the Mass as members of the Body of Christ. We do this by praying, singing, and focusing our mind, heart, soul, and strength on the liturgical action.
As Pope Francis said in a homily in 2013, “Active and conscious participation in the liturgy constitutes being able to ‘enter deeply’ into the mystery of God made present in the Eucharist: thanks in particular to the religious silence and musicality of language with which the Lord speaks to us (Sample, 11).”
Notice, liturgical activity is not a jamboree. It is not a festival. It is a sacred foretaste of the heavenly banquet. Above all, it is the presentation once more of the one sacrifice of the Cross in an unbloody manner. This is a great mystery. Our active participation, as a member of the Body of Christ allows us to enter this sacred reality.
Full, conscious, and actual participation in the Sacred Liturgy, by the laity, is a disposition of mind and heart which is aided by our posture and activity of the body in specific and guided ways. We stand, sit, and kneel. Ideally, each of our senses is engaged and draw us deeper into the transcendent mysteries which the Mass makes present to us. We smell incense. We hear and sing beautiful music. We see beautiful art and architecture.
Singing the Mass
As Catholics, we are not called to sing at Mass. We are called to sing the Mass. We are not spectators at Mass, we are called to offer our own personhood, body and soul, in the celebration of the sacred mysteries.
The parts of the Mass which are sung consist of the Ordinary, the Propers, the Orations and the Dialogues.
The Ordinary are the parts of the Mass that are the same every Sunday (with the exception of Advent and Lent): Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, Mysterium Fidei, and Agnus Dei.The Creed (Credo) can also be sung. These parts are ordinarily for the congregation or a choir. These are beautifully done with the music which receives pride of place in the Roman liturgy: Gregorian chant.
The Propers consist of five parts in two sets. The first set: Entrance Antiphon, Offertory Antiphon, and Communion Antiphon. The second set: Responsorial Psalm and Gospel Proclamationwith its Verse. Each of the Propers has accompanying refrains and verses. These are often done antiphonally with the cantor or choir singing the refrain, the congregation repeating the refrain, and then the cantor or choir singing the verses.
Just as the 1stand 2ndReading and the Gospel, there are Propers selected by the Church for each Sunday Mass of the year and for every major feast or solemnity.
These are to be sung, when possible, as they are part of the Mass. Unfortunately, this integral practice has been neglected in the Church for many years. I will go into detail a bit later about why liturgical chant is more appropriate and efficacious for the Mass than a hymn or song.
Orations and Dialogues
The Orations and Dialogues are “the texts of the Collects and other presidential prayers, and those in which the celebrant and people address each other, for example the greeting and its response: “The Lord be with you” – “And with your spirit”. Musical notations for these dialogues are provided in the Missal and should be used (Arch. Sample, Pastoral Letter 2019, 13).”
Hymns at Mass?
Hymns, in the mind of the Church, belong primarily in the Liturgy of the Hours, also called the Divine Office or the Breviary. This custom of singing hymns at Mass arose during the Low Mass of the Extraordinary Form of the Latin Mass when the priest was speaking in an inaudible voice praying in Latin. The congregation would sing vernacular devotional hymns during these silent prayers.
Though this was the case historicaly, the mind of the Church is to sing the Ordinary, the Propers, and the Orations and Dialogues. Hymn-singing at Mass is not envisioned in the documents of the Second Vatican Council or any subsequent magisterial documents.
The normative practice of music at Mass was not envisioned by the Church. It was set in many ways over the last decades by large music publishers which gave us the processional, offertory (preparation), and communion hymns, and then usually a recessional hymn or song. The recessional, by the way, is not in the Missal or any of the Church’s music documents. It was simply tacked on to give a sense of closure. However, for many centuries, after Sunday Mass, it was customary to sing antiphons in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary. These four antiphons were done seasonally. More on those here: https://adoremus.org/2007/09/15/singing-the-four-seasonal-marian-anthems/
Liturgical vs. Devotional
Hymns are devotional by nature. They are written by men and women and arise from the human heart up to God. Liturgical music, on the other hand, is handed down by tradition directly from Scripture (not paraphrased). In this way, liturgical chants are the written Word of God, which speaks to our hearts and comes to us from above, from God. We make these words our own as we sing them. By chanting, we are conforming ourselves to the word of God rather than giving God our word, as beautiful a gift as that can be.
There is a time and a place. In a rosary prayer group, praying Marian devotional songs is always appropriate. In the Liturgy of the Hours, devotional hymns are always appropriate and called for. During praise and worship, devotional songs are our expression of our faith in God, our hope in Him, and our love of Him.
However, there is something distinct and set apart, something utterly universal, something transcendent about the words of Christ coming down into our human existence in the context of the Mass. We take in these words, they form us more into Christ, and we glorify God. This is the action of the liturgy made flesh! The Son eternally offers Himself to the Father in the Spirit! As members of the Body of Christ, this is what we are participating in when we do liturgical singing and sing the Mass.
I would be remiss to not comment on instruments in Mass. The Church gives us a clear vision of what has preference and what is likely inappropriate, regardless of popular opinion.
The Second Vatican Council says unambiguously, “In the Latin Church the pipe organ is to be held in high esteem, for it is the traditional musical instrument which adds a wonderful splendor to the Church’s ceremonies and powerfully lifts up man’s mind to God and to higher things… (Other instruments may be admitted) only on condition that the instruments are suitable, or can be made suitable, for sacred use, accord with the dignity of the temple, and truly contribute to the edification of the faithful (SC, 120).”
For example, rock drum kits and electric guitars, even if used for Christian Rock, are intended for use in Rock, Jazz, and Country. These are secular manners of playing music and therefore those instruments are not appropriate for playing music at Mass. As someone who played these for years at Mass, after learning the mind of the Church, I have come in line out of obedience.
As a side note, pre-recorded music is not to be used. Further, musicians should not be prominent. Choir lofts are the ideal, but may not be possible given your Church’s architecture. It is simply always the standard that musicians at Mass should add to the solemnity of the occasion (which is joyful, solemn does not mean somber) and never distract or detract.
It is also important to retain silence. God is manifest not only in the beauty of liturgical singing, but also in the powerful silence in which we hear His still, small voice. There is a rhythm to the Sacred Liturgy which must not be rushed or unduly prolonged by the music. Silence fosters communication with God. It allows for reflection and meditation.
In all things, pastors and musicians should familiarize themselves with the documents of the Church’s Magisterium on Sacred Music and Liturgy. Special care should be given to Sacrosanctum Concilium, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, Tra Le Solicitudini, the USCCB document Sing to the Lord, Musicae Sacrae, Mediator Dei.
As a parting gift, I would urge you to seek out the Liturgy Guys podcast. Season 3, Episode 1 is on Sacred Music and it is excellent! Also, Season 2, Episode 40. And, finally, featuring Adam Bartlett (he’s a champion of the restoration of Sacred Music), Season 3, Episode 14.