HE LIFEBLOOD of our work as sacred musicians are the Church documents such as Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (1963) and Musicam sacram (1967).
However, realities in parish life often find resistance to those documents, which leads us to relying upon the guidelines handed to us by the bishops. I have often made reference to the 2007 US Bishops’ document Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship (SttL) Fortunately, SttL frequently points back to the GIRM and the Vatican II Documents. If the Vatican II documents are ignored, let’s look at the bishops’ guidelines.
So, after nearly six years, where do we stand in our parishes? As imperfect as it is, often ambiguous and arguably self-contradictory, SttL still has worth as a teaching tool in certain areas. So, how much of this document have we implemented on the parish level? Some parts of SttL are worth a look, as they serve as reminders and include many surprises for some congregations. In coming weeks, I will be taking a closer look at certain sections of SttL.
Before we begin, we are reminded of the “non-binding” status of the document as the bishops decided not to seek Vatican approval, which would have granted SttL the authority of binding liturgical law. However, it quotes the above-mentioned documents as well as the GIRM quite extensively which, as Dr. William Mahrt reminds us in his article A Critique of Sing to the Lord do represent binding liturgical law:
“The result is a document with extensive recommendations about the employment of music in the liturgy. It incorporates the views of many without reconciling them: Everyone will find something in the document to like, but the astute will notice that these very things are in conflict with other statements in the same document. Essentially, it states the status quo, with the addition of principles from Vatican documents; what comes from Vatican documents, however, does represent binding liturgical law.”
One of the most important sections worth a review (and full of surprises for most parishes) is the “hierarchy” of importance in what parts of the mass should be sung. Let the surprises begin!
a. Dialogues and Acclamations
These are of the highest priority.
“Among the parts to be sung, preference should be given “especially to those to be sung by the priest or the deacon or the lector, with the people responding, or by the priest and people together.”(GIRM, no. 40; MS, nos. 7 and 16. ) … By their nature, they are short and uncomplicated and easily invite active participation by the entire assembly. Every effort should therefore be made to introduce or strengthen as a normative practice the singing of the dialogues between the priest, deacon, or lector and the people. Even the priest with very limited singing ability is capable of chanting “The Lord be with you” on a single pitch.”
Dr. Mahrt further indicates:
“One of the most positive and fundamental statements in the document is that the priest celebrant should sing the most important parts that pertain to him. “The importance of the priest’s participation in the liturgy, especially by singing, cannot be overemphasized” (¶19). Seminaries should give sufficient training in singing, so that future priests can confidently sing their parts in the Mass (¶20). In my opinion, this is the lynchpin of a successful sung liturgy. When the priest sings his parts, the parts of congregation and choir fall naturally into place as integral parts of an organic whole. When the priest speaks these parts, the parts the congregation and choir sing seem to be less integral to the liturgy. That the parts are all sung gives them a continuity that binds them together into a coherent liturgy.”
Most profoundly, the singing of the priest celebrant gives proper liturgical perspective to the singing roles of the congregation and choir.
b. Antiphons and Psalms
The second most important is quite interesting with tremendous implications most often overlooked in most parishes. It places great emphasis on the singing of the psalms—not just the Responsorial Psalm, but the psalm verses along with the antiphons as part of the Entrance and Communion Chants. What SttL does not say explicitly, it implies rather directly—that this document gives very high priority to the singing of the propers!
“The psalms are poems of praise that are meant, whenever possible, to be sung. (See GIRM, no. 102.) The Psalter is the basic songbook of the Liturgy.”
How do we sing the psalter—this “basic songbook of the Liturgy”? By singing the propers! Remember that most antiphons derive their texts from the psalms, while we sing their accompanying psalm verses:
“The Entrance and Communion chants with their psalm verses serve to accompany the two most important processions of the Mass: the entrance procession, by which the Mass begins, and the Communion procession, by which the faithful approach the altar to receive Holy Communion. Participation in song on the part of the assembly is commended during both of these important processions, as the People of God gather at the beginning of Mass and as the faithful approach the holy altar to receive the Body and Blood of the Lord.”
SttL profoundly states with regard to the propers:
“117. Proper antiphons from the liturgical books are to be esteemed and used especially because they are the very voice of God speaking to us in the Scriptures.”
Kathleen Pluth has a very insightful article regarding the importance of the psalm verses with the antiphons: A Psalm with its Antiphon? Or an Antiphon with its Psalm? Here she states: “Fr. Nicholls convincingly demonstrated that the Introit Psalms in Ordinary Time are not chosen according to the readings of the day or according to any other external device, but run sequentially through the Book of Psalms from beginning to end. In effect, the Introit Psalms of the year are a Psalter.”
Furthermore, we are reminded that the responsorial psalm is part of the propers of the mass and of great importance to the sacred liturgy:
“The Responsorial Psalm in the Liturgy of the Word of the Mass and of other rites “holds great liturgical and pastoral importance, because it fosters meditation on the word of God.”(GIRM, no. 61)
c. Refrains and Repeated Responses
It may come as a surprise that singing the psalms and Entrance and communion chants are more important than the following:
“The Liturgy also has texts of a litanic character that may be sung as appropriate. These include the Kyrie and Agnus Dei of the Mass, the response to the Prayer of the Faithful at Mass or the intercessions at Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer, and the Litany of the Saints in various rites.”
That hymns are of the lowest priority may come to many as something of a bombshell—no less a surprise!
“A hymn is sung at each Office of the Liturgy of the Hours, which is the original place for strophic hymnody in the Liturgy. At Mass, in addition to the Gloria and a small number of strophic hymns in the Roman Missal and Graduale Romanum, congregational hymns of a particular nation or group that have been judged appropriate by the competent authorities mentioned in the GIRM, nos. 48, 74, and 87, may be admitted to the Sacred Liturgy. Church legislation today permits as an option the use of vernacular hymns at the Entrance, Preparation of the Gifts, Communion, and Recessional. Because these popular hymns are fulfilling a properly liturgical role, it is especially important that they be appropriate to the liturgical action. In accord with an uninterrupted history of nearly five centuries, nothing prevents the use of some congregational hymns coming from other Christian traditions, provided that their texts are in conformity with Catholic teaching and they are appropriate to the Catholic Liturgy.”
I hope in the end that the greater “surprise” will be in how our prayer is formed by what we sing. I hope this will be the most pleasant surprise of all.