NYONE WHO ATTENDS a High Mass in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite will surely notice one characteristic feature: all texts that are meant to be heard by the people are sung, from start to finish, and the people, too, or the schola on their behalf, respond in song—as in the Byzantine liturgy. (The only exception to this rule might be the Confiteor said right before communion, but in many cases this is said so quietly as to be barely audible.) And of the texts that are sung, none, to a newcomer, would seem a more surprising candidate for this treatment than the Epistle and Gospel. For, sadly enough, in the Ordinary Form the readings are perhaps the least sung of all the customarily sung portions of the Mass.
Given that they can and ought to be chanted, however, and that handsome books are available with the readings already pointed for chanting (for examples, see here, here, and here) why has this beautiful treatment of the Word of God not entered into the mainstream of parish life?
The reason, I believe, is twofold. First, the readings are, 99.9% of the time, in the vernacular; and speaking broadly, the only singing of words in the vernacular with which people are familiar is, for the majority, pop songs (including in this category pseudo-folk music), and, for the upper crust, classical music. Otherwise, in our world nothing is sung—and what is sung in our world is hardly sacred. In other cultures and societies, both historically in the West and presently in non-Western parts of the world, singing is a widespread activity, loved and practiced by all, and put to a very wide variety of uses, especially religious ones. It is natural for people of most times, places, and cultures to sing; we modern Westerners are aberrant in that regard.
The second reason is that the priest or deacon or lector is facing the people when he reads, and there are very few, at least nowadays, who will chant a reading while facing the congregation. This may just be a sign of psychological immaturity, but the fact remains, and perhaps it is not merely immaturity: in the modern West, when a man sings towards a group of people, it is generally for entertainment, and it always involves a certain “stage personality.” This is abhorrent to the spirit of the liturgy. Significantly, in a solemn High Mass in the usus antiquior, the subdeacon chants the Epistle facing eastwards, and the deacon faces northwards to chant the Gospel, while in a Missa cantata both readings are chanted at the altar, again facing eastwards.1
It seems to me, therefore, that solemn chanting of the readings was undermined, first, by the abolition of Latin, which is a language eminently suited for sung proclamation and one for which an elegant set of lection tones developed over time (there was, in other words, a centuries-old custom of singing readings in Latin), and second, by the prevalent view that everything ought to be done towards the people. Either of these, by itself, would not have meant abandoning the chanting of readings; but combined, they pretty much guaranteed it. I can count on one hand the number of times in my entire life that I have heard readings chanted at a Novus Ordo Mass. The loss of this beautiful, solemn chanting of the revealed word of God is inestimable. It is something we need to recover.
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 In the Byzantine East, where the priest does face the people to chant the Gospel, it has no appearance of a performance. The entire feel of the liturgy prevents that association. The Latin liturgy did not develop in the same way, and since the Novus Ordo was implemented in an often theatrical and personality-driven way, chanting facing the people is going to have a much harder time escaping this gravitational field.
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