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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“Oh, the happy choir director who is hired to start work on a brand new choir, or who walks into his first rehearsal a total stranger to the existing group—what a fortunate man he is! The new choir director who is a former member of the choir, or a member of the congregation, or the nephew of the alto soloist, or a former altar boy, or otherwise well acquainted with the choir, is in for a few headaches.”
— Paul Hume (1956)

Permission Needed to Replace the Propers?—(1 of 7)
published 20 February 2015 by Richard J. Clark

N RECENT DECADES, the need to seek approval for texts replacing the propers required barely a second thought. In fact, it didn’t require a first thought as the propers were laid to waste in a blight of ignorance or were relegated to history as a delicate museum piece. I don’t write this to be derisive or disrespectful. It is the reality of where we have been as a Church–-perhaps even where we needed to be for a time. But in light of a liturgical reawakening, many are beginning to reacquaint ourselves with our roots—our traditions—where we come from and therefore, who we are.

This is what tradition does: It informs us of our identity—not through passive reception of information, but through self-discovery. It lives and breathes in our lives today; it shaped who we became and has relevance to us now and tomorrow: “Christ yesterday and today…Alpha and Omega…”

Embracing our Roman Catholic traditions is the cutting edge of self-awareness, no less than a path to communion with Christ. As the fruits of tradition breathe into our lives, this series of articles is not simply about getting to the bottom of legalistic interpretation of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM). It is about allowing the fruits of tradition room to speak. It is about the voices becoming less cluttered with false prophets of self-centered sentiment or misleading theology. It is about clearing the way for Christ as the center of our worship.

SSUES SURROUNDING OPTIONS OF WHAT TEXTS may be sung at mass is a fascinatingly complex and broad topic. Daniel Craig’s recent article examines in great detail the affirmation made by Msgr. Hilgartner, Secretariat for the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, that in effect, songs—i.e., non-official texts of the Church that replace the assigned Entrance Chant—do not require approval. However, official texts do. In seeking clarification, there were many, many layers of complexity and intrigue. One will learn much from this fascinating article:

      * *   “No Approval Needed for Substitute Songs” says USCCB

So as we ironically dive into the legalistic interpretation of the GIRM (and it is Liturgical Law), understand that serving the GIRM is not an end, but a means towards serving the liturgy. Therefore, clarity in the GIRM’s intention is intended to shine the light on our greatest prayer, which is the Mass.

To review, §48 of the American GIRM provides four options for the Entrance Chant. Here are options three and four:

(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) another liturgical chant that is suited to the sacred action, the day, or the time of year, similarly approved by the Conference of Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop.

Having seen these options for years now, I always found the language on approval from the Bishops to be curious, because the requirement for approval has had little to no impact upon parish life for decades. Why is this? Looking at common practice in Roman Catholic parishes, it would seem that the bishops have abdicated their authority in this matter. Now we are told that approval is not truly necessary in the vast majority of cases. Another curious discovery is that the USCCB’s stamp of approval you’ll see in most every hymnal does not extend to the actual music or hymns in the publication. Curious indeed.

HY IS ANY OF THIS A BIG DEAL? It wouldn’t be were it not for the unintended consequences that played out in the last half-century. Generally, options in §48 of the GIRM are given to provide flexibility when one does not have the resources or ability to choose the preferable norm. Although hymns are primarily the domain of the Divine Office, this flexibility is a wonderful pastoral response; hymns and songs provide a rich source of spiritual nourishment.

But without greater oversight of texts, there were two unintended consequences:

1 • The allowable exception became the rule. The norm—the preferred option of singing the official texts of the Mass—was relegated to the dustbin.

2 • The most destructive fallout has been the introduction of at best, vacuous or self-serving lyrics, and at worst, poor or incorrect theology. Such problems are prevalent and occur regardless of musical style.

So what do we do? In some ways I sympathize with aspects of Msgr. Hilgartner’s response, as he cites the current “state of affairs in regard to music for the liturgy in the United States.” He describes the problem as vast, complex, and impossible to keep up with: “While some might want greater or more strict oversight, it is just not feasible in the U.S., and the law allows for discretion on the part of the Conference of Bishops. To do otherwise would be difficult…”

Furthermore, he emphasizes the vast array of pastoral concerns that require local discernment. As such, he defers to the local bishops on the matter citing the principle of subsidiary. But they too are stretched thin and overworked, and problems remain forever unaddressed. “Tacit approval” alone isn’t getting the job done. It is abdicating authority to composers and publishers, pastors and liturgists.


E MUST BEGIN somewhere. Fortunately, a positive direction began in 2011 with the USCCB requiring approval for the texts for all Mass settings, which before could be changed at will. Publishers have also been doing their part with the Responsorial Psalms by no longer accepting new submissions of Psalm settings that are not from the Lectionary or from the 2010 Revised Grail Translation—both pre-approved texts. Additionally, mainstream publishers are increasingly getting on board with publishing new and accessible settings of the propers. A few years ago such a development was rare or laughable.

But if the problem is so vast and unmanageable—which it currently is—then I recommend a manageable starting point. The obvious place to begin is to exercise oversight for theological content of significant hymnals and publications. Is it asking too much for the small number of mainstream publishing houses to be held accountable for theological content? (Some do a great job already. Some don’t.) This is a minimal standard. Is this request unreasonable and impossible? Of course not.

Yes, this may be fraught with political problems when very popular songs are theologically incorrect. But is not truth more important than fear? Furthermore, is “tacit approval” of a popular hymn with bad theology a proper pastoral response? No, it is the opposite.

The Church is the people of God. For now, it is up to us to allow our traditions room to speak, room to breathe life into our daily lives, room to nourish us. There is much to discuss!

This article is part of a series:

Part 1 • Richard Clark

Part 2 • Veronica Brandt

Part 3 • Andrew Leung

Part 4 • Dr. Lucas Tappan

Part 5 • Andrew Motyka

Part 6 • Cynthia Ostrowski

Part 7 • Aurelio Porfiri