About this blogger:
Richard J. Clark is the Director of Music of the Archdiocese of Boston and the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. He is also Chapel Organist (Saint Mary’s Chapel) at Boston College. His compositions have been performed worldwide.
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“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.”
— Vatican II Council

Decisions, Decisions…Progressive Solemnity, and Who Gets to Decide?
published 31 May 2013 by Richard J. Clark

NDOUBTEDLY, MUSIC IS THE FOCUS of controversy in many parishes. Music Directors can simultaneously enjoy great praise and catch a lot of heat, all for the same music. Perhaps this is because music is so immediate in its impact, highly subjective, and the purpose of sacred music in liturgy is so misunderstood. Music should make us feel good, right? (Hopefully so, but we are in prayer which helps us far beyond our immediate surface feelings.) To quote the “Nirvana” hit song, “Here we are, now entertain us!” (Ok, I’m dating myself.)

Last week, I examined the musical “hierarchy” of importance in what parts of the mass should be sung according to the 2007 US Bishop’s document Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship (STTL) This ranking is found in section IV. of the document: PREPARING MUSIC FOR CATHOLIC WORSHIP. This section is filled with extremely valuable information very much worth absorbing and, hopefully, passing on.

In the New Order of Mass, the Novus Ordo, gone are the days of “high mass” and “low mass,” although this is still very much part of the Extraordinary Form, 1962 Missal. Instead, we are governed by the rather common sense guideline of The Principle of Progressive Solemnity.

The mass is a sung prayer. That prayer is sung is shared by the Eastern Church and is an ancient understanding of prayer in the Hebrew tradition. Therefore, it has at times been expressed that when we plan what parts to sing, we are not in fact adding music to the mass. We are in fact subtracting music from the mass. This is not a judgment, but an insight to understanding of the sung nature of the liturgy:

110. Music should be considered a normal and ordinary part of the Church’s liturgical life. However, the use of music in the Liturgy is always governed by the principle of progressive solemnity.
111. Progressive solemnity means that “between the solemn, fuller form of liturgical celebration, in which everything that demands singing is in fact sung, and the simplest form, in which singing is not used, there can be various degrees according to the greater or lesser place allotted to singing.”(MS, no. 7. See General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours (GILH) (Washington, DC: USCCB, 2002), nos. 271-273.)
112. Progressive solemnity includes not only the nature and style of the music, but how many and which parts of the rite are to be sung. For example, greater feasts such as Easter Sunday or Pentecost might suggest a chanted Gospel, (see the Book of Sung Gospels.) but a recited Gospel might be more appropriate for Ordinary Time. Musical selections and the use of additional instruments reflect the season of the liturgical year or feast that is being celebrated.
113-114. Solemnities and feasts invite more solemnity. Certain musical selections are more capable of expressing this solemnity, adding an extraordinary richness to these special celebrations…At other times, the liturgical season calls for a certain musical restraint…

Progressive Solemnity is exactly what it sounds like: Not all parts that can be sung, should be sung, but such decisions and judgments are made as is appropriate to the feast, the season, and the nature of the liturgy.

Also, let’s not forget the integral role of Sacred Silence to music in the liturgy:

118. Music arises out of silence and returns to silence. God is revealed both in the beauty of song and in the power of silence. The Sacred Liturgy has its rhythm of texts, actions, songs, and silence. Silence in the Liturgy allows the community to reflect on what it has heard and experienced, and to open its heart to the mystery celebrated…The importance of silence in the Liturgy cannot be overemphasized.

Sacred Silence may seem to some like unnecessarily awkward silence, but it is an invaluable tool of prayer—not the ends but the means towards our “full and active participation”. Silent time to absorb what is heard is just as or more important than any externally busy participation. We listen to scripture, then we reflect silently. We listen to the homily, then we reflect silently. We listen to the choir sing a polyphonic setting of the offertory antiphon, and in our hearts we must reflect.

So, when planning music for a liturgy, some decisions have to be made. This section gets even MORE interesting. STTL also asks the question about how, and perhaps more controversially, WHO should make those decisions.

HOW: STTL emphasizes that “Music for the Liturgy must be carefully chosen and prepared.” (no. 122) Time, care, scholarly consideration, and prayerful mediation are deeply important to preparing music. This cannot be underestimated!

WHO: Quite directly, STTL asks the question “Who Prepares Music for the Liturgy?” The answer is that the final responsibility lies on the shoulders of the pastor and even the priest who celebrates any given mass, with the caveat that music selection should not be simply according to one’s own taste. (This same must be true for music directors.):

119. Preparation for the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy, and particularly for the selection of what is to be sung at the Liturgy is ultimately the responsibility of the pastor and of the priest who will celebrate the Mass. (see GIRM 111) At the same time, “in planning the celebration of Mass, [the priest] should have in mind the common spiritual good of the people of God, rather than his own inclinations.” GIRM, no. 352.

Furthermore, it is important to note:

120. …the pastor may designate that the director of music or a Liturgy or music committee meet regularly to make the preparations necessary for a good use of the available liturgical and musical options.
121. When a Liturgy or music committee is chosen to prepare music for the Liturgy, it should include persons with the knowledge and artistic skills needed in celebration: men and women trained in Catholic theology, Liturgy, and liturgical music…

Still calling back to the Principle of Progressive Solemnity, we are reminded that music for the liturgy is not chosen simply in order to entertain:

125. The role of music is to serve the needs of the Liturgy and not to dominate it, seek to entertain, or draw attention to itself or the musicians. However, there are instances when the praise and adoration of God leads to music taking on a far greater dimension. At other times, simplicity is the most appropriate response. The primary role of music in the Liturgy is to help the members of the gathered assembly to join themselves with the action of Christ and to give voice to the gift of faith.

Pray for wise judgment when preparing music for liturgy. We are going to need it! It is not our goal to “make” something happen in liturgy. Only God can do that. Any role we have is God’s gift of grace to us. The sooner we understand that, the better we will fulfill our ministry and mission.

All of this finally leads directly to the very heart of STTL: “The Three Judgments: One Evaluation” which we will look at next week. In the mean time, Oremus pro invicem. Let us pray for each other!