About this blogger:
Aristotle A. Esguerra has served in the Diocese of Madison since 2009 as music director at the churches of St. Mary, Pine Bluff and St. Ignatius, Mount Horeb, and as the chant instructor to the Cistercian Nuns of Valley of Our Lady Monastery, Prairie du Sac.
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“More and more as we grow older, we find that the people we see most of are recent acquaintances; not (perhaps) very congenial to us, but chance has thrown them in our way. Meanwhile, the people we used to know so well—for whom we once entertained such warm feelings—are now remembered by a card at Christmas (if we can succeed in finding the address). How good we are at making friends, when we are young; how bad at keeping them! How eagerly, as we grow older, do we treasure up the friendships that are left to us, like beasts that creep together for warmth!”
— Msgr. Ronald Knox (1888-1957)

Singing Scripture throughout Mass: Why We Must and How We Might
published 17 June 2013 by Aristotle A. Esguerra

OR A LONG WHILE I’ve been ruminating on the nature of the Liturgy, Scripture as found in the Mass Propers, the Golden Calf narrative (thanks to Ratzinger’s Spirit of the Liturgy), Good Friday tradition, and episcopal authority. Here are some semi-organized thoughts on the matter.

Nature of the Sacred Liturgy:

The Sacred Liturgy is Christ’s eternal offering to the Father, in which we participate “through him, with him, and in him in the unity of the Holy Spirit”: Christ makes the perfect sacrifice, and we configure ourselves to it through submission to his liturgical action as laid down by the Church—“without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

The Latin Rite, Scripture and its Nature, and the Mass Propers:

On paper, the Latin Rite Mass may well be the most explicitly Scriptural rite in all of Christendom. Scripture is not limited to the readings and psalms of the Liturgy of the Word. The Order of Mass itself is awash in Scripture. Moreover, the proper texts of the Mass—most neglected during the Processions of the Mass—come from the psalms, Old and New Testament canticles, and Gospel/Epistle passages. (Non-Scriptural proper texts are insignificant in number compared to the vast array of Scripture intended to be sung—and even these non-Scriptural texts are in most cases to be paired with verses from Scripture when possible.)

What does Jesus sing? Psalms were sung perfectly by Christ to the Heavenly Father during his earthly life as the perfect Jew, making the perfect sacrifice to the Father by following the Law perfectly in every way (Matthew 5:17). As Christ is the Eternal Word (John 1:1), the words he utters are a touchstone to eternity; they echo forever. Therefore, when the Propers are sung, Christ sings—I tell my choirs that singing Scripture allows for a “communion” of sorts even before they receive his Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity; “they do not sing, but Christ sings through them” (cf. Galatians 2:20).

Liturgical Norms: GIRM (I use the US edition since this is where I live), via the examples given in the ritual books cited, calls for Scripture to be sung at the three processions of the Mass (GIRM 48, 74, 87):

  • Option 1 prescribes the Proper (Missal or Roman Gradual) — scriptural

  • Option 2 prescribes the Proper (Simple Gradual) — scriptural

  • Option 3 prescribes selections from other collections of Psalms and antiphons, provided they are approved by the bishops — scriptural

Golden Calf, Good Friday, and neglect/abuse of episcopal authority in the liturgy:

The Golden Calf and GIRM Option 4: Aaron the high priest fashioned the calf from the contributions of the people, at the behest of the people (Exodus 32:1–6). God did not approve this; in fact he hated it to the point of eradicating his chosen people (Exodus 32:7–10); but the people may well have led themselves to believe that Aaron’s command was divine (neglect of priestly authority, i.e., “Aaron allowed us to do it, so it must be right”). Ratzinger observes that the people may have believed they were truly worshiping God, though of course they were not (Spirit of the Liturgy 22–23). When Moses confronts Aaron about the abuse he committed, Aaron heaps more sin upon his misdeed by being disingenous (“I cast it into the fire, and this calf came out”, cf. Exodus 32:24). The rest of Exodus 32 outlines the grave consequences of this error.

In the United States, Option 4 allows “another suitable liturgical song” approved by the bishops. Despite many suitable liturgical songs from the treasury of the Church’s liturgy (hymns of the Liturgy of the Hours, Sequences, Litanies, Responsories, etc.), many songbooks intended for use in the liturgy and “printed with ecclesiastical approval” include texts of questionable merit. The people in this instance believe they are worshipping God in spirit and truth, but is that the case? People are developing an attachment to these words, but are the words of Christ?

Good Friday and Option 4: Barabbas means “Son of the father”; tradition tells us that his first name also was Jesus (i.e., “God saves”). The mob, incited by the high priests and scribes, chose Barabbas—a savior of their own imagining—to be released instead of the true Savior, the Son of the Eternal Father. With the new Mass, Option 4 allows the Word of God (Options 1–3) to be cast aside for words of people’s own choosing. In doing so, do we not unwittingly repeat Good Friday, in that we choose the words of man over the Word of God living and effective (Hebrews 4:12)?

At least with the Responsorial Psalm there is clearly delineated demand for Scripture: “Nor is it lawful to replace the readings and Responsorial Psalm, which contain the Word of God, with other, non-biblical texts” (GIRM 57). But the Church also demands Scripture be retained for the processional chants of the Mass (Sacrosanctum Concilium 116).

Episcopal Authority: Until the bishops speak and act in one voice on the matter, calling for the restoration of the Word of God to God’s own liturgy, individual bishops, priests, and laity sympathetic to the sung Mass, propers in their Gregorian/polyphonic genres, etc., are stuck with “more Catholic than the Pope” accusations, etc. The biological solution works on everyone, and for those unsympathetic to these genres, they too can play a “waiting game”. How many people consider Benedict XVI’s pontificate a blip on the radar?

GIRM Option 3, a “third way” back to Scriptural liturgy regardless of musical style

Sidestepping the style wars: >

Option 3 as a textual upgrade from Option 4 as popularly applied: An Option 3 solution—“a chant from another collection of Psalms and antiphons, approved by the Conference of Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop, including Psalms arranged in responsorial or metrical forms“—regardless of the musical style, would constitute a vast improvement over the Option 4 fare that passes for worship. Since selections from Option 3 have a greater guarantee of being Scriptural, they are more likely to allow access to singing with Christ to the Father rather than singing amongst ourselves.

Many Option 3 selections are well-known in some way: Many settings of Responsorial Psalms and their paraphrases are well-established staples of existing ensembles’ and congregations’ repertoires; therefore, using these at the Entrance, Offertory, and Communion would not constitute a wholesale discarding of repertoire, which in some cases has taken much effort to master. Other selections that can fall under Option 3, e.g., Hymn Tune Introits, are easily adapted to hymn tunes that exist in parish repertoire.

Textual upgrade, not stylistic downgrade: Since Gregorian chant is the sung prayer proper to the Roman Rite, Masses that incorporate the propers in this idiom should not be eliminated, nor should efforts to learn this repertoire be abandoned. However, in those environments where this is not feasible in any way, moving from Option 4 to Option 3 would foster throughout the Mystical Body of Christ a greater unity with him who makes his eternal song to the Father.

May be the only way forward in many places: Singing Scripture that is clearly identifiable as such would go a long way towards fostering true unity in the Church’s liturgy—a unity centered on and in Jesus Christ, who alone makes the true sacrifice to our heavenly Father. In places that frown upon the Church’s traditional ritual music, moving from non-Scriptural lyrics to Scriptural lyrics may be the only feasible transition at this time.