EVERAL YEARS AGO, I had the very good fortune to have several lengthy conversations with the Director of Music at a cathedral in the United States. This church has an astonishing music program, featuring a world-class children’s choir and professional schola. Each week at the principal Mass of the cathedral, the schola sings chant and polyphony, including the day’s propers (in Latin chant), a full Mass Ordinary (typically Renaissance polyphony, also in Latin), and motets at Offertory and Communion (to follow the chanted propers). The children join them on much of this music (particularly the polyphony).
I thought of these conversations as I perused this thread at the Musica Sacra Forum. The question under discussion is whether a choral Ordinary (that is, an Ordinary sung solely by the choir) is in keeping with the Church’s guidelines on how to celebrate the Ordinary Form. Many think that choral Ordinaries are to be eschewed, because the congregation doesn’t have anything “to do” while the choir provides music for the Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus & Agnus Dei.
His answer was very surprising to me, and I thought it both prudential and catholic. He said, “We do a choral Ordinary each week because we can. We are the only Catholic church in the state with the resources to offer the Mass in this manner, and so we do. We don’t prescribe it as normative, and we only do it at a single Mass each weekend. We offer it as a way that the Mass can be celebrated, not as the way that it should be celebrated.” In essence, he provides the Catholic community a greater diversity of liturgical experience by having one Mass per weekend which features some of the most beautiful music man has created, intended for the glory of God and the edification of the faithful. And every week at this Mass, the church is full.
I found his reasoning to be prudent: putting the stewardship of the faithful to wonderful use in service of the Holy Mass. I also found it to be catholic, in the meaning of that word as “universal.” The musical treasures of the church, “greater even than that of any other art” (SC 112), are universal and timeless, just as precious and beautiful today as when they were created. Beauty is one path by which God opens our hearts and leads us to Himself; let us rejoice wherever the church’s music effects this.