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A graduate of Thomas Aquinas College (B.A. in Liberal Arts) and The Catholic University of America (M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy), Dr. Peter Kwasniewski is currently Professor at Wyoming Catholic College. He is also a published and performed composer, especially of sacred music.
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"Religious worship supplies all our spiritual need, and suits every mood of mind and variety of circumstance."
— John Henry Cardinal Newman

Breaking News: The Communion Hymn is an Optional Add-On
published 11 September 2014 by Dr. Peter Kwasniewski

HE TITLE OF THIS POST is meant to be a bit tongue-in-cheek, as the latest edition of the GIRM (General Instruction of the Roman Missal) has been around since 2011, offering plenty of time for study and implementation. Nevertheless, reading the GIRM often leads to surprising discoveries—not least of which is that many clergy and music directors do not seem to know the contents of this normative document, or, if they do know it, do not seem to take it very seriously, since the Church in the United States continues very largely to pursue a course of objective discord with the GIRM.

Here I would like to focus on one very interesting section, nn. 86-88, concerning what the GIRM calls “the Communion Chant,” which is introduced as follows:

86. While the Priest is receiving the Sacrament, the Communion Chant is begun … The singing is prolonged for as long as the Sacrament is being administered to the faithful. However, if there is to be a hymn after Communion, the Communion Chant should be ended in a timely manner.

To borrow a phrase from a popular Epiphany song, “Do you see what I see?” The ubiquitous communion hymn—in most parishes, the only kind of piece sung at this time of Mass—is NOT what the norms are referring to by the Communion Chant, since the chant is specified to be sung prior to a hymn, if there is to be any hymn. Thus, the intention of the GIRM is to tell us that first the chant is sung, and only afterwards is a hymn to be sung.

This interpretation is confirmed by the next paragraph:

87. In the Dioceses of the United States of America, there are four options for singing at Communion: (1) the antiphon from the Missal or the antiphon with its Psalm from the Graduale Romanum, as set to music there or in another musical setting; (2) the antiphon with Psalm from the Graduale Simplex of the liturgical time; (3) 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; (4) some other suitable liturgical chant (cf. no. 86) approved by the Conference of Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop. This is sung either by the choir alone or by the choir or a cantor with the people. However, if there is no singing, the antiphon given in the Missal may be recited either by the faithful, or by some of them, or by a reader; otherwise, it is recited by the Priest himself after he has received Communion and before he distributes Communion to the faithful.

This is one of several famous paragraphs that list four options for singing. Can it be an accident, a mere incidental feature, that in every such case, the antiphon or chant proper to the day’s Mass, from the Graduale Romanum, is listed as the first option? Can it be a matter of chance that the second option is a seasonal antiphon or chant from the Graduale Simplex, which might be described as the Graduale Romanum’s baby brother? Is it a total coincidence that the third option is a “chant from another collection of psalms and antiphons”—a description that points us to the same kind of texts and functions as those we find in the two Graduals? And is it insignificant that the fourth and last option, as we move from the repertoire most native, proper, and stable to the Roman Rite to that which is more extrinsic and mutable, is nevertheless still characterized as a “suitable liturgical chant”?

THE OBVIOUS READING OF PARAGRAPH 87, taken with 86, is that the “Communion Chant”—the piece that is to precede any communion hymns—is optimally a communion antiphon from either the Graduale Romanum or the Graduale Simplex, with substitutes possible as long as they preserve the character of text and function that the two Graduals exhibit. This, my friends, is a far cry from the usual practice, although thanks be to God, things are beginning to change and have changed in many places.

Our common sense reading is again confirmed by paragraph 88:

88. When the distribution of Communion is over, if appropriate, the Priest and faithful pray quietly for some time. If desired, a Psalm or other canticle of praise or a hymn may also be sung by the whole congregation.

Note carefully: If desired, a hymn MAY be sung by the whole congregation, AFTER the distribution of Communion is over. What was happening during that distribution? The singing of the Communion Chant. (It is worthy of note that the first suggestion of this paragraph is that the priest and faithful “pray quietly for some time” after receiving communion. The Chant is part of the very structure of the liturgy, but singing this or that hymn during or after communion is purely optional.)

We all need to find ways to move towards the primacy of the Communion Chant, whether in Latin or in English, and away from the hegemony of the communion hymn. “If desired,” keep the good hymns, but do not let them crowd out the music and text proper to the communion procession. Let us fully trust the tradition and wisdom of the Church in this regard, and see what fruit it will bear.

Related Article: Versions Of The Proper Communion English

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