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Andrew Motyka is the Archdiocesan Director of Liturgical Music and Cathedral Music for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.
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“The sun, at one moment surrounded with scarlet flame, at another aureoled in yellow and deep purple, seemed to be in an exceedingly swift and whirling movement, at times appearing to be loosened from the sky and to be approaching the earth, strongly radiating heat.”
— Dr. Domingos Pinto Coelho, noted lawyer from Lisbon and chairman of the Bar Association (1917)

Propers and “the Menu Approach”
published 14 May 2014 by Andrew R. Motyka

AY WHAT YOU WILL about the music put out by most mainstream Catholic liturgical music publishers in the last 25 years, but they do have an effective business model. The publisher that is largest by far has an approach toward liturgical preparation that removes all necessity for training, familiarity with literature, and quite a bit of time from the planning equation. Pick up their quarterly magazine, flip to this week’s Mass, and there it is laid out for you: handy selection of appetizers, entrées, and desserts to plug into each musical “slot” of the liturgy. Five minutes, tops, and you are ready to go with music for the Mass.

I know that description is pretty snarky, but actually, I admire the simplicity that this publisher has boiled the process down to. Since most music directors are part time (if they are compensated at all), they don’t have the time to be familiar with six different hymnals, several Gregorian propers, and the vast and growing collection of online resources of music for choir and congregation. When you have another full time job, and your “Church gig” is what you do on the weekends, you have to budget your time accordingly (protip: spend time on what feeds your kids).

There is most certainly a glut of “options” when it comes to celebrating the Ordinary Form of the Mass. The presence of these options make it far more difficult to prepare for Mass than it would be without them. Do we have a chanted Introit? A processional hymn? Are we using the Sprinkling Rite? If not, which setting of the Penitential Act are we using? How many different Glorias does our parish know? Yikes. We haven’t even started the readings yet, and we have already been asking musicians with little-to-no liturgical knowledge to make many decisions that impact the prayer and disposition of the faithful in their parish. It’s no wonder we’ve turned to handy little periodicals that spell it out for us.

I used to use this exact same approach when I was younger and first starting out. You have Publisher X’s resources in the pews, so isn’t it easier to plan the liturgy using their resources? What’s that you say? There are other publishers? There are lots of free resources online? Pay no attention to the Other Options Behind the Curtain. You’ve already subscribed to our resource, so you should use what we tell you to.

Okay, I’ll stop being snarky now, I promise (for now). When I started to learn more about the Propers of the Mass, whether Gregorian or otherwise, I realized that the Church already has a menu set out for us, one that has been refined for hundreds of years, not just picked out last month by an editor hawking this year’s hot new partner song to Amazing Grace. These texts, this music, fits the Scripture readings of the Mass perfectly because it almost always is Scripture. The Communion Antiphon hearkens back to the Gospel. The Introit calls us to go together to the altar.

The “menu approach” has a much longer tradition than the most recent planning resource. Check out the proper texts and find a good setting. There are hymn tune settings, plainchants, choral settings, responsorial settings, and everything in between. Plus, you’ll never have to worry about choosing that piece with sketchy theology; every one of the propers is not only approved, but encouraged by the Church. So break out the menu and order.

Just don’t get cole slaw. Nobody likes cole slaw.