WENTY YEARS AGO, I remember learning that during High Mass the FSSP parish in Sacramento sang vernacular hymns at Communion. (This was long before my colleague, Keven Smith, took over as music director.) At that time, this practice struck me as odd—because I knew Pope Pius X declared in Tra Le Sollecitudini (22 November 1903): “The language proper to the Roman Church is Latin. Hence it is forbidden to sing anything whatever in the vernacular in solemn liturgical functions.”
But #727 from the Brébeuf hymnal (“Jesus My Lord, My God, My All”) is in English—so how did my choir sing this during an EF High Mass? *
* Live Recording • Jesus My Lord, My God, My All
—Number 727 in The Saint Jean de Brébeuf Hymnal • Recorded live in Los Angeles.
We sang in English for three reasons:
First Reason :
California’s draconian Covid-19 restrictions have been in place for more than a year, and we’re doing whatever we can under these circumstances. I wrote about this in a recent article: Music For Two Voices.
Second Reason :
Readers already know that before Vatican II it was normal and expected for vernacular hymnody to be sung during Low Mass. We have provided profuse documentation which leaves no doubt about how common that was. Having studied legislation on sacred music for twenty-five years, I have come to realize that the prohibition against vernacular music at High Mass was aimed at the parts of the Mass. It was not really intended to forbid vernacular music during the distribution of Holy Communion, because the reception of Holy Communion was extremely rare in those days, partially owing to very strict fasting laws. Indeed, in 1945 (Journal d’un prêtre ouvrier en Allemagne)—because of the fact that Mass was always celebrated early in the morning due to fasting regulations—Father Henri Perrin declared: “It is not normal or right for Mass and Communion to become the special prerogative of those who have nothing to do: viz. old women and the well-to-do.” If you doubt what I am saying, you can examine screenshots which show Holy Communion was normally distributed outside of Mass before the Second Vatican Council. For example, notice headline from 1943 which says: “Women to Receive Eucharist April 18.” Hundreds more examples could be given.
Whenever we read pre-conciliar documents, we must remember there was no “Communion music.” The priest alone received Holy Communion, which meant the entire Communion lasted about 90 seconds—and I saw this with my own eyes during Covid-19 when only the priest was allowed to receive Holy Communion. But our current circumstances, in the year 2021, are not the same as 1921. We have six Masses every Sunday, and sometimes as many as 450 people attend a single Mass—which means Holy Communion can easily take 25 minutes.
Writing in 1917, Father Fortescue said that, technically speaking, nothing prevents the distribution of Holy Communion at any Mass.
Third Reason :
We adhere to the 1962 Missal. Under Pope Pius XII, the Sacred Congregation for Rites issued De musica sacra et sacra liturgia (“Instruction on Sacred Music and Sacred Liturgy”) on 3 September 1958. This document allowed vernacular singing at the Communion under certain circumstances:
Whether we like it or not, the custom in Los Angeles for more than half a century has been Masses completely in the vernacular, with Zero Latin. Our current bishop would certainly allow us to have Communion songs in the vernacular, but a very wise priest told me “not to ask” because the bishop would find the question so absurd.
I believe in something called “the spirit of the law,” in addition to the letter of the law. I would love to hear your thoughts.
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
* Full disclosure: In terms of the melody and text, I personally am not a huge fan of this hymn; but choirs really love this piece, and so do congregations.