Question Submitted on 1 August 2022
I am the music director at ————. I also sang in the EWTN choir for about eight years. As much as I love polyphony and chant (and believe they are truly beautiful and holy), your offerings of Mass parts such as these leave me feeling frustrated and confused. If we are to promote the full, active, and conscious participation of the assembly in the Mass, how do we justify singing Mass parts that the assembly can’t possibly sing? It’s always been my understanding that these Mass parts belong to the people. Do you have any suggestions on practical ways this kind of music can be used in a typical parish? Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.
Response by D. F. F.
Vatican II • You ask: “How do we justify singing Mass parts that the assembly can’t possibly sing?” It is true Vatican II said Gregorian Chant should have “first place” (principem locum) in liturgical services, demonstrating clearly that the council fathers believed pieces sung in Latin were not a hindrance to “fully conscious and active participation in liturgical celebrations.” The council also specifically and explicitly praised polyphony (Sacrosanctum Concilium §116). Moreover, Vatican II said: “The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art” (Sacrosanctum Concilium §112). Then the council fathers said: “The treasury of sacred music is to be preserved and fostered with great care” (Sacrosanctum Concilium §114). In several other places, the council fathers addressed choral singing; e.g. “Choirs must be diligently promoted” (Sacrosanctum Concilium §114).
Clear Verdict • Normal human beings—provided they can read—will understand what Vatican II meant by the declarations cited above. For example, “preserved and fostered with great care” does not mean “denigrated and eliminated.” When the council fathers said choirs “must be diligently promoted,” the meaning is clear. Vatican II spoke of the Roman Catholic “[musical] treasure of inestimable value”—and the most important components of that treasury (most would agree) are the Mass settings by great composers. Palestrina composed something like 120 Mass settings. And we can’t forget about Josquin, Guerrero, Lassus, Victoria, Mozart, and so many others. In other words, Vatican II did not say: “Some parts of the treasury are fine, but other parts are deficient and must be eliminated.” Therefore, it seems impossible to accept the view that choral settings of the Mass Ordinary—such as the one you cite—would be prohibited.
“Participatio Actuosa” • How much should the congregation sing? How much should the choir sing? Choirmasters who have been ‘in the trenches’ generally agree it is not advisable to have congregations sing too much. They should not sing everything. (To force them to sing everything might even damage their voices.) Rather, they should sing certain things—and sing them well. The definitive statement on participatio actuosa (“active participation”) was written by Monsignor Robert A. Skeris:
* PDF Download • “Participatio Actuosa” (17 pages)
—Published by Dr. Robert A. Skeris in 1973.
People’s Parts • We highly recommend that article by Monsignor Skeris, especially since it deals with the famous question of partes quae ad populum spectant (“parts that concern the people”). Essentially, the Holy Mass consists of certain texts and prayers that must be proclaimed in a new time and space. Whether these texts are proclaimed by the Deacon, the Celebrant, the Cantor, the Choir, or the Congregation does not invalidate them in any way.
Addendum • We believe that Corpus Christi Watershed has done a great deal to provide dignified settings that can be sung by the congregation. Consider Richard J. Clark’s “Mass in Honor of Pope Saint John Paul II,” which was included in the fifth edition of the famous SAINT MICHAEL HYMNAL. Jeff Ostrowski recently featured four Mass settings that work well with congregations. Other contributors to Corpus Christi Watershed have also written vernacular Mass settings which can be sung by congregtions.