And so, with Angels and Archangels,
with Thrones and Dominions,
and with all the hosts and Powers of heaven,
we sing the hymn of your glory,
as without end we acclaim:
Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts…
On the First Sunday of Advent in 2011, these words will mark the inaugural use of a newly translated Preface from the Third Edition of the Roman Missal. As with many of the revised texts in the new Missal, it more clearly calls to mind a scriptural passage — in this case, Colossians 1:16 and St. Paul’s reference to “thrones or dominions or principalities or powers.” However, this effusive segue into the Sanctus also underscores a key reality: that music is integral to divine worship both in heaven and on earth, and that the use of sacred music should be emphasized more heavily with this new Missal.
As evidenced by its prominence in the Old Testament and throughout human history, music is a fitting and intuitive work of praise to God. Sacred music might even be described as a sacramentalization of human speech, and its numinous potential as a reflection of the heavenly liturgy.
The new Missal presents many opportunities to encourage a greater appreciation for sacred music in divine worship. At a basic level, the revised Missal itself will include more musical notation for the prayers and dialogues in the Order of Mass. In addition, such beautiful sung texts as the Proclamation of the Birth of Christ at Christmas and the Proclamation of the Date of Easter on Epiphany will now be incorporated into the appendices of the Missal itself.
And of course, most of the people’s parts of the Order of Mass have been revised to correspond to the original Latin. This provides an excellent chance to introduce exemplary new pieces of sacred music into parishes across the country, replacing many Mass settings that have become somewhat stagnant over the decades, and whose styles may not have complemented our worship as well as they should. At the same time, this task is a challenge, especially with the overwhelming number of new settings being advertised by music publishers.
In the midst of all this commotion and decision-making, a critical question might be asked: if a principal aim of the new translation of the holy Mass is to foster a distinct “sacral vernacular” (as described by Liturgical Authenticam, No. 47), should not our use of sacred music be moving in a similar direction? Should not what we sing at Mass be in accord with this elevated language of prayer, and also with the reverent exercise of a ritual ars celebrandi, as advocated by Pope Benedict XVI?
Such considerations must be weighed, and then combined with strong catechesis on the new sung texts. Indeed, certain observations can be noted to support deeper practical and theological motivations behind musical choices in parishes.
For instance, the USCCB’s 2007 guidelines, Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship, acknowledge that through-composed settings of the Gloria (wherein the Gloria text is sung straight through, without the opening line being repeated as a refrain) “give clearest expression to the text” (No. 149). Yet it should also be noted that singing the Gloria straight through ensures that the whole assembly learns and sings the entirety of this “very ancient and venerable hymn” (General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), No. 53), thereby promoting greater participation. Moreover, this practice better preserves the structure of the Gloria, because the first half of the hymn is addressed to God the Father, and the second half to the Son. As such, interjecting lines from one part into another may actually disrupt the theological content. These are subtle effects that we should consider when selecting music for the Mass.
On a broader level, and perhaps above all, the implementation of the new Missal affords a tremendous opportunity to recover the proper place of chant in the celebration of the Roman rite. We Roman Catholics typically do not seriously ponder the fact that we worship in the Roman rite. Eastern-rite Catholics, in contrast, treasure their liturgical identity (whether Byzantine, Melkite, etc.) and adhere to that identity fastidiously, allowing it to shape the way they pray publicly and in private. Roman Catholics would do well to reflect on the rich history and tradition inseparably associated with the manner in which we should celebrate the Rite, especially as we welcome a new Roman Missal — the very title of which bespeaks our liturgical and cultural heritage.
The Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, emphasized that, while there is a place in the liturgy for the pipe organ, polyphony, and other forms of music, chant holds a particular place of esteem in the Roman rite: “The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services” (SC, No. 116). Chant grew up alongside the Roman liturgy and has an integral place in its development. The Council affirmed that the faithful should know their parts of the Mass Ordinary in Latin, and Pope Paul VI facilitated this with the publication of Jubilate Deo, which includes a “minimum repertoire” of Latin chants that all the faithful should learn.
The USCCB reinforced this in Sing to the Lord, recommending Kyrie XVI, Sanctus XVIII, and Agnus Dei XVIII as a bare minimum basis in chant for all Catholics. The GIRM, No. 41, also asks that Catholics be taught the simple chant melodies of the Ordinary, including the Credo and Pater Noster, so that Catholics worldwide will know these same chants when they come together for international celebrations, such as World Youth Day or other multilingual liturgies. Pope Benedict XVI notes this benefit as well in Sacramentum Caritatis, No. 62.
But while chant has its origins with Latin, this new translation affords us an opportunity to embrace it in our native English as well. For the people’s parts, the new Missal, along with all newly-published hymnals and missals for the assembly throughout the English-speaking world, will contain one common setting that is based on the same basic Gregorian melodies recommended by Paul VI, along with a simple Gloria based on Gregorian Mass XV. The hope of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL) is that this setting will allow all those celebrating the Mass in English to learn these Gregorian melodies, thereby establishing a link back to the Latin chants.
The Missal chant setting, along with the many other simple, chant-based settings that are being published in conjunction with the new translation, also gives English-speaking Catholics the opportunity to step back and focus on the new words themselves. The beauty of chant is that the music is written around the words, rather than the words being made to fit a metrical tune that is set to a beat. Elaborate music can do much to raise the people’s minds to worship, but it can also (and often does) distract from the amazing mystery that is taking place. It is especially important to avoid these distractions when the Church is learning new words for its official prayer, and choosing a simpler setting based on chant will make the transition much smoother.
It is also worth noting that, while there is a temptation to continue using a revised, familiar setting of the Mass so that the music will not change along with the words, in reality, the music for these revised settings has changed so that they now fit the new texts. There could be great confusion in an assembly trying to learn the new texts while singing familiar music that calls to mind the old words. It may be worth looking for a new musical setting during the initial transition, and then consider implementing a revised version of a favorite setting only after the people have gained a better grasp of the new words.
Moreover, apart from the typically sung parts of the Mass Ordinary, the new Missal presents us with the chance to musically enliven our worship in another way: through the singing of the dialogues between the priest/deacon and people, as well as the prayers specific to the priest, and even the Mass propers.
Since the Council, the Church has repeatedly emphasized in almost every document on music at every level that the dialogues between priest and assembly are the single most important parts of the Mass to be sung. From the Roman document Musicam Sacram in 1967 to the USCCB’s most recent Sing to the Lord, the Church’s vision of “progressive solemnity” in the Liturgy expects that, if anything at all is to be sung at Mass, these dialogues should be sung. They both reflect and actually bring about the communion between the priest and people, and thus play a special role in the Liturgy. They are very easy to chant, do not add extra time to the Mass, and add much to the celebration. Sing to the Lord notes that “even the priest with very limited singing ability is capable of chanting The Lord be with you on a single pitch” (No. 115a). The documents list the dialogues with the Eucharistic acclamations — the Sanctus, Memorial Acclamation, and Great Amen — as together taking the first priority in “singing the Mass.”
Perhaps more closely linked with the new translation itself is the singing of the prayers proper to the priest — the Collects, the Preface, etc. In many ways, these prayers are where the change in translation philosophy from dynamic equivalence to formal equivalence is most obvious, and also one of the places where the use of chant can be most helpful in truly engaging the new texts. In fact, the translators kept in mind the Church’s preference that these prayers be chanted when formulating the structure of the elevated language in the new texts. These new prayers will show the fullness of their beauty, depth, and even their content when they are sung.
Also worth noting is the increased interest in singing the propers of the Mass — the Introit, Offertory, and Communion chants that are almost universally supplanted by hymns. These proper texts are actually the preferred option in the GIRM, but resources for their singing in English have only been rolling out in the past few years. Their use is beginning to gain traction, often in addition to the hymns Catholics have come to love.
All of these preferences for singing amount to what those closest to the translation have called “singing the Mass” rather than merely “singing at Mass.” The liturgical ideal has always been a sung Mass, and too often in the English-speaking world we have maintained a “Low Mass” mentality from pre-Vatican II days. Singing the prayers of the Mass in a simple tone, or at least on a single pitch, is doable for any priest with a little practice, does not add a significant amount of time to the liturgy, and can greatly enrich our worship. Imagine if, instead of reserving sung dialogues and prefaces for high feast days, singing them was the norm for all Sunday Masses. The Gospel and Eucharistic Prayer could then be chanted when we wished to express added solemnity.
Ultimately, the arrival of the new Missal is an opportunity for a renewed sense of reverence in the sacred liturgy — and the potential for heightening a transcendent sense of solemnity and majesty hinges largely upon the music. The GIRM quotes an ancient proverb: “One who sings well prays twice” (No. 39). How often this adage is quoted (especially in a liturgical music context) with the key word “well” omitted! And this forgotten modifier is not simply a reference to having musical talent (although that helps!), but can also be understood as affirming that what we sing is of inestimable importance.
The traditional Scholastic language of “ex opere operato” (“by the work performed”) and “ex opere operantis” (“by the action of the one working”) is helpful in conveying the value of reverence. In sacramental theology, ex opere operato establishes that the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass always has an efficacy and a wellspring of grace associated with it, owing to the priest acting in persona Christi. On the other hand, our receptivity to this grace is described according to ex opere operantis, and is a subjective set of criteria — dependent on our spiritual disposition.
Thus, how much sacramental grace we gain from Mass really is determined by the extent of our full, active, and conscious participation. We aid in the pursuit of holiness by consciously striving to make the Mass more beautiful and reverent — qualities which draw worshipers more deeply into the divine mysteries. The new translation, therefore, is truly an evangelizing opportunity. It should come as no surprise if it contributes to a “new springtime” in the ars celebrandi on the part of clergy and laity alike — or even to a rise in vocations to the priesthood and religious life.
To accomplish this, it is essential that priests possess a clear vision for the future of sacred music. Unfortunately, a great many church music directors are not theologically astute, nor attuned to the Church’s instructions on liturgical music. Pastors in particular should not hesitate to take a proactive role in guiding the parish music program, in educating musicians and parishioners, in music selection, and in hiring directors who understand the Church’s desires for worthy foundational repertoire.
The new translation of the Mass is a marvelous step toward implementing the Second Vatican Council’s liturgical aspirations, but it cannot succeed without a concurrent revival in sacred music. TP
Mr. MacMichael is Director of the Office of Worship for the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend. Mr. Roesch is Director of the University of Evansville Newman Center for the Diocese of Evansville.