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Ordained in 2011, Father Friel served for five years as Parochial Vicar at St. Anselm Parish in Northeast Philly. He is currently studying toward a doctorate in liturgical theology at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
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When Christ gave the bread, he did not say, "This is the symbol of my body," but, "This is my body." In the same way, when he gave the cup of his blood he did not say, "This is the symbol of my blood," but, "This is my blood."
— Theodore, Bishop of Mopsuestia, writing in the 5th Century

Progressive Solemnity
published 21 December 2014 by Fr. David Friel

ITHIN THE STRUCTURE of High Mass and Low Mass in the Extraordinary Form, the liturgical elements to be sung at a particular Mass are well established. With the loss of that structure in the Ordinary Form, there has come about a new principle, referred to as “progressive solemnity.” In this new model, the rule of the Church permits for only some elements of the Mass to be sung, decided by the priest and liturgical musicians.

In recent weeks, there has been some online discussion of “progressive solemnity.” It began, so far as I can tell, with an article posted by Fr. Thomas Kocik on NLM. Ben Yanke posted a nice response, also on NLM. I would like to add a perspective that has not surfaced in those two very good posts.

“Progressive solemnity” may be a fair theory for working in the Novus Ordo, but, in practice, is it perhaps a concept that is too often employed in reverse?

Quite commonly, priests & musicians ask the question, “What are we going to sing today?” It’s as if there is an assumption that a purely spoken Mass is the default base onto which we add the ornamentation of a little music here, a little music there. But, as the documents on sacred music take great pains to make clear, true liturgical music is never just “ornamentation.”

Would it not be better, more proper, more consonant with the view of Sacrosanctum Concilium, to view the fully sung liturgy as the default and to make that the norm from which we make adaptations?

HE VERY TERM “progressive solemnity,” I believe, is part of the problem. It makes it sound like we should be minimalists, starting with a tabula rasa rather than with the richness of totally sung liturgy. It also seems to advocate the simplistic approach that sprinkling music over the rite adds solemnity. In the Roman Rite, however, solemnity is added not so much by singing more elements, but by raising the form—the nature and style—of what is sung. This explains the existence of the ferial tones & solemn tones found in the missal.

This point has been made persuasively by Prof. William Mahrt, President of the CMAA:

The differentiation of the solemnity of days should be achieved principally through the kind of music employed, rather than how much. As a matter of principle, I would suggest that “progressive solemnity” does not properly serve the sung liturgy, since it omits the singing of certain parts of the Mass which should and could be sung and thus gives up on the achievement of a completely sung service. (Mahrt, The Musical Shape of the Liturgy, 168)

At the very least, if we are to adhere to the principle of progressive solemnity, we should first agree that our starting point is the fully sung Mass, not an entirely spoken Mass. Otherwise, we fall into what might better be called “regressive solemnity.” The fully sung liturgy is our root chord, so to speak, and the innumerable permutations of partially sung liturgy are its various positions.

The phrase “progressive solemnity” first appeared under the heading “Singing in the Office” in the General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours (GILOH). It says there:

A celebration performed entirely with singing is commendable, provided that it has artistic and spiritual excellence; but it may be useful on occasion to apply the principle of “progressive solemnity.” There are practical reasons for this; there is also the fact that the various elements of liturgical celebration are not then treated indiscriminately, but each of them can be restored to its original meaning and genuine function. (GILOH, #273)

Of course, the selection of more solemn elements of the liturgy is not limited only to sacred music. Progressive solemnity can refer also to other matters, such as the number of candles on the altar, the nobility of the vestments worn, the length of the processions, etc.

After several decades in force, it is time for an evaluation of the merits of progressive solemnity. Arguments could be made in its favor on the basis that it is a practical solution and that its initial intention was to increase the amount of sacred music at Mass, in contrast with the restrictive High Mass/Low Mass model. The evidence, however, bears clear testimony that the principle of progressive solemnity—whether intentionally or not—has significantly reinforced the errant perception that music is an “extra” in the sacred liturgy. Who hasn’t heard the simplistic argument: “It’s just a ferial day. Why would we sing the [insert name of any Mass part]?”

All of this is why I see a degree of conflict inherent in this teaching from Sing to the Lord:

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. (Sing to the Lord, #110)

Instead of adopting the view that “adding singing” to the Mass adds solemnity, would it not be better to take the view that “subtracting singing” from the Mass subtracts solemnity? When we embrace this fundamental shift in perspective, the principle of progressive solemnity loses some of its luster in its governance of our liturgy.