About this blogger:
A theorist, organist, and conductor, Jeff Ostrowski holds his B.M. in Music Theory from the University of Kansas (2004), and did graduate work in Musicology. He serves as choirmaster for the new FSSP parish in Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife and two children.
Connect on Facebook:
Connect on Twitter:
“In the 17th century came the crushing blow which destroyed the beauty of all Breviary hymns. Pope Urban VIII (d. 1644) was a Humanist. In a fatal moment he saw that the hymns do not all conform to the rules of classical prosody.”
— Fr. Adrian Fortescue (d. 1923)

ABOUT US  |  HEADER  |  ARCHIVE
What's So Great About The Mass Propers?
published 5 November 2013 by Jeff Ostrowski

229 St. Augustine ISHOP SHEEN famously pointed out in his Preface to Radio Replies that the world is not progressing intellectually. (It’s doubtful Sheen would have changed his opinion if he were alive today, especially considering the nonsense being uploaded to the internet on a daily basis!) Those who aren’t familiar with the Preface can read it here, but here’s the gist of his argument:

In the early centuries, controversy centered on such lofty and delicate problems as the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the union of Natures in the person of the Son of God. What was the last doctrine to be defined in 1870? It was the capability of man to use his brain and come to a knowledge of God. Now, if the world is progressing intellectually, should not the existence of God have been defined in the first century and the nature of the Trinity have been defined in the nineteenth? In the order of mathematics this is like defining the complexities of logarithms in the year 42, and the simplification of the addition table in the year 1942.

A document approved by the USCCB in 2006 called “Directory for Music” seems consonant with Sheen’s theory, stating (among other things):

“Liturgical songs must never be permitted to make statements about the faith which are untrue.”

Wow … talk about going back to the basics! In so many ways, our liturgical life has also regressed over the last forty years. For example, consider the revision of the Lectionary. A Responsorial psalm was inserted into the Mass, based on a few enigmatic references of Pope Leo the Great and St. Augustine. (We’ll talk about St. Augustine again below). We know one thing for certain: not one of the hundreds of Responsorial psalms created by Bugnini’s team remotely resembles or sounds like anything the 5th century might have had. Amazingly, the Ordo Lectionum Missae even calls the Responsorial psalm a “special type of Gradual” (and this is repeated in the Introduction to the Lectionary).

LEAVING ASIDE THE TOTAL LACK of historical basis for the Responsorial Psalm, the superficial way the psalm batters “themes” from the readings is distressing. I’ve been planning to write about this for some time, and hopefully I can find time at some point. Briefly stated, the Responsorial psalm “interprets” the readings in a juvenile, simplistic way that is not profound. Whoever picked them out seems to have no understanding of the true depth of sacred Scripture. As Sheen hinted, if we were “progressing,” our understanding of Scripture ought to be getting deeper each year, not more superficial.

Regarding the effort to find a “theme” for each Mass from the readings (ignoring the Propers, of course!), many good people have been fooled by this notion, and we will continue to discuss this. However, Fr. Deryck Hanshell’s important article (“Elephantiasis of the Word”) is germane, and here’s an excerpt:

The notion has bedevilled us that the Mass must have a “theme.” But there is no need to seek for this. The theme of each and every Mass is one and the same: the redemption.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the Propers ought never to have been discarded, and the Second Vatican Council was called (in part) to help people pray the Mass, not replace the Mass. Consider the beautiful Alleluia Verse for the feast of the Purification:

Senex Púerum portábat: Puer autem senem regébat.
The old man carried the Child: but the Child governed the old man.
Modern Translation: The old man was carrying the infant child; but it was the child who was guiding the man.

This is a beautiful verse from a Sermon by St. Augustine (see below). What makes this verse truly unique is that it’s not from Scripture, whereas in the Roman Rite, most of the Propers are from the Bible. Some people think this entire feast (Mass & Office) were heavily influenced by the East, since the Eastern liturgies often use non-scriptural texts.

Bugnini tried to get rid of this verse in the new Missal. Happily, however, it was retained in the Graduale. But why replace the verse at all? On the one hand, they inserted the “Responsorial psalm” (based on an ambiguous statement or two by St. Augustine) which has no historical precedent. On the other hand, they tried to get rid of St. Augustine’s beautiful verse, which has been part of the liturgy for more than 1,000 years, as you can see here. It makes no sense.

By the way, one nice feature of the Lalemant Propers (simplified settings of the Propers in English) is the inclusion of solemnities, like St. Joseph, the Purification, the Annunciation, and so forth. Because they’re based on the Graduale texts (as the Church has asked), they have the beautiful verse from St. Augustine.

Sermon by St. Augustine the Bishop

Concerning that time it was written: And of Sion it shall be reported that he was born in her, and the Most High shall stablish her. O how blessed is the omnipotence of him that was born! Yea, how blessed is the glory of him that came down from heaven to earth! Whilst he was yet in his Mother’s womb, he was saluted by St. John the Baptist. And when he was presented in the temple, he was recognized by the old man Simeon, a worthy who was full of years, proved and crowned. This ancient one, as soon as he knew him, worshipped and said: Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation.

He had lingered in the world to see the birth of him who made the world. The old man knew the Child, and in that Child became a child himself, for in the love wherewith he regarded the Father of all, he felt his own years to be but as yesterday. The ancient Simeon bare in his arms the new-born Christ, and all the while, Christ ruled and upheld the old man. Simeon had been told by the Lord that he should not taste of death before he had seen the birth of the Lord’s Christ. Now that Christ was born , all the old man’s wishes on earth were fulfilled. He that was come into a decrepit world now also came to an old man.

Simeon wished not to remain long in the world, but with great desire he had desired to see Christ in the world, for he had sung with the Prophet: Shew us thy mercy, O Lord, and grant us thy salvation. And now at last, that ye might know how that, to his joy, his prayer was granted, he said: Now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation. The Prophets have sung that the Maker of heaven and earth would converse on earth with men. An Angel hath declared that the Creator of flesh and spirit would come in the flesh. The unborn John, yet in the womb, hath saluted the unborn Saviour yet in the womb. The old man Simeon hath seen God as little Child.   [Sermo 13 de Tempore, post init.]