Liturgical Singing and Our Parish School

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

The Lord be with you! On school days, we are privileged to have at Mass the added participation of students from our school. Rather than taking a break from their education, our students are at Mass on these days precisely for the educational purpose of learning full, conscious and active participation in the Sacred Mysteries of Calvary. As adults, it is our happy responsibility to welcome this opportunity to support their liturgical formation. So, please allow me to offer the following reflections on one aspect of this educational opportunity: liturgical singing.

Prior to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), the Roman Mass was either “said” or “sung”. In a “said” Mass, no parts of the Mass could be sung, although the congregation could add four hymns to be sung while the priest quietly offered the Mass, an arrangement pejoratively called the “Four Hymn Mass” by later reformers. These hymns were not counted as parts of the Mass, but were “extra-liturgical”. In a “sung” Mass, on the other hand, all parts of the Mass that could be sung had to be sung. So, in those days, it was all or nothing: either the whole Mass was sung, or none of the Mass was sung.

The Second Vatican Council initiated a new era in liturgical planning. Among other things, the reformers introduced the principle of “progressive solemnity”. According to this principle, there is a prescribed, gradual order for choosing which parts of the Mass to sing. Preference is given to those parts that are of greater importance, so that “degrees” of importance emerge. “These degrees are so arranged that the first may be used even by itself, but the second and third, wholly or partially, may never be used without the first” (Musicam Sacram, The Vatican, 1967, no. 28). The Dialogues between the priest (or deacon) and the congregation are of the 1st priority for singing, along with the Acclamations. Antiphons, psalms, refrains and repeated responses follow in the 2nd degree of importance. Finally (3rd), hymns may be added, and the Biblical readings, including the Gospel, may be sung.

The U.S. bishops issued a statement in 2007, Sing to the Lord, which, among many other things, applies the principle of progressive solemnity to weekday Mass celebrations: “At daily Mass, the above priorities should be followed as much as possible, in this order: [1st] dialogues and acclamations (Gospel Acclamation, Sanctus, Memorial Acclamation, Amen); [2nd] litanies (Kyrie, Agnus Dei); Responsorial Psalm, perhaps in a simple chanted setting; and finally, [3rd] a hymn or even two on more important days. Even when musical accompaniment is not possible, every attempt should be made to sing the acclamations and dialogues.” (STL 116)

We are working hard to ensure that our children are formed fully and faithfully in these reformed principles of the Roman liturgical tradition. This we are doing at Mass on school days from Monday through Thursday. It could be suggested that a choir would help with this, but it must be remember that a choir functions only while the congregation is silent, and not while the congregation is singing (STL, 30-31). Similarly, a cantor can lead congregational singing, using gestures or voice to start the singing, but otherwise should not be heard above the voices of the congregation (STL 38-40). There’s just no substitute for the hard, but rewarding, work of getting the students themselves to participate in congregational singing.

I should also say something here about Latin and Gregorian chant. The Roman Empire was the instrument of darkness used to kill the Messiah, but Christ overcame the darkness with such success that now the imperial capital, imperial cross and imperial language are all instruments of Christ’s mercy. Similarly, Gregorian chant emerged as imperial persecution of Christians gave way to the flourishing of Christian communal life. Therefore, according to the norms of the Roman liturgical tradition, pastors should ensure “that the faithful may also be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Vatican II, 112), and that, other things being equal, Gregorian chant be given “pride of place” (CSL, 116). However, given the discomfort that many Saint Mary’s parishioners experience with both Latin prayers and Gregorian chant, I prefer to limit use of these traditional elements to Mass with students, Monday through Thursday. We will not, therefore, use Latin or Gregorian chant on Fridays, school holidays or weekends.

If you have any questions, complaints, concerns or suggestions, please feel free to contact me so we can discuss them together.

Thank you for supporting us in the liturgical formation of our children!

In Christ,
Father Shelton