Sunday, August 02, 2015

About Scripture and music as part of Mass (Sunday homily)

As mentioned last week, in my homily for the next several weeks, 
I’m looking closely at the Holy Mass. 
This week I want to focus on the way we use Scripture at Mass, 
which goes beyond the readings.

The Mass obviously has many parts; 
and yet it is one, sustained prayer, from beginning to end.
Because this can be hard to appreciate, 
one of the principal ways we cultivate this sense of unity is with music.

And yet, I need to warn you:
what I’m going to say about music and the Mass 
may be different from what expect. 
It may even surprise you. 

I suspect a lot of us think of music at Mass 
as something that’s added to Mass.

Well, it’s true that this is often what we do—
at funerals and weddings, or on special occasions, 
folks will want to “add” this or that bit of music to the Mass—
but it’s not what we’re supposed to do!

Rather, the approach the Church intends is not to “add” music;
But rather simply to pray the Mass, sometimes in a musical form. 
In other words, singing the prayers of the Mass.

This the Roman Missal; 
it’s the book with all the prayers needed for Mass. 
This is the lectionary, which has the Scripture readings.  
The “missallettes” in the pews are abbreviated combination 
of both these books, for your convenience.

If we went through the Missal page by page, 
you’d see that every part of the Mass is intended to be sung, 
if not every time, then at least on special occasions. 
That even includes the Creed, the Eucharistic Prayer, 
and even the readings! 
By the way, in the older form of the Mass, 
this would happen at a “high” Mass: 
the readings would be chanted, not simply read.

While I will occasionally chant the Gospel, 
I doubt our readers will be doing any chanting! 
But stop and think the effect that would create, 
if everything were chanted, until you sat down for the homily.

Two things would be much clearer: first, this is one, sustained prayer. 
Second, we’re doing something really important. 
Because, after all, all that chanting is really hard – 
which is why we don’t do it all the time. 
So if we did do it, it says, “this is a big deal.”

So to repeat, we don’t so much add music to Mass; 
but rather, we simply sing the Mass. 
So where do the hymns we use at Mass fit in?

Again, this will surprise you, but it’s true: 
the guidance the Church gives us 
does not envision us singing hymns at Mass!

Let me refer to what’s called 
the General Instruction of the Roman Missal – that is, the “rulebook”:

When the people are gathered,
and as the Priest enters with the Deacon and ministers,
the Entrance Chant begins....

In the Dioceses of the United States…
there are four options for the Entrance Chant:
(1) the antiphon from the Missal
or the antiphon with its Psalm from the Graduale Romanum, 
as set to music…

Let me pause and explain two terms here: first, what’s an “antiphon”? 
That’s another word for a refrain, 
just like when we do the responsorial psalm: 
the part you sing is an antiphon.

And what is the Graduale Romanum? 
That’s just a name for a book 
of such psalms with their antiphons, set to music.

To continue:

 In the Dioceses of the United States…
there are four options for the Entrance Chant:
(1) the antiphon from the Missal
or the antiphon with its Psalm from the Graduale Romanum… 
(2) the antiphon and Psalm of the Graduale Simplex…—

That’s another such collection—

(3) a chant from another collection of Psalms and antiphons,
approved by the…Bishops…
including Psalms arranged in responsorial or metrical forms;
(4) another liturgical chant that is suited to the sacred action….

Did you notice? The first three options 
all speak of an “antiphon with its psalm”—
only the fourth option speaks of some other “chant.” 
When we use hymns, we’re choosing option 4. 

But isn’t it clear that the strong preference of the Church 
is to use psalm texts—that is, from Scripture—
as the opening chant or song?

By the way, the same guidance is provided 
when it comes to the offertory chant, 
and then the communion chant. 
Three times we have a procession to the altar, 
and all three times, the Mass envisions the people—
or perhaps just the choir—chanting a psalm; not a hymn.

Why does the Church want us to do this?

Well, what’s the difference between, say, Psalm 42, 
and “Amazing Grace”? 
The difference, of course, is that one is the Word of God. 

So why did we ever get to using hymns all the time? 
The answer involves some history.

The custom of singing hymns at Mass goes back 
at least to the late 1800s, in Germany, 
when people would sing hymns in German, 
rather than sing the chant which was in Latin. 

That was probably true elsewhere; 
and in any case, that same custom found its way to this country. 
Some of you may be old enough to remember, 
from the 1960s and before, when Mass was in Latin, 
you would still sing hymns in English.

Then, when the Second Vatican Council called for changes in the Mass, 
and the Mass was translated into English, 
guess what wasn’t translated right away?
Those collections of psalm texts I mentioned. 

It just took a while—many years—before they were translated, 
and then also set to music. 
It is just in the last ten years or so 
that these collections are easily available, in English, set to music.
It’s easy to see why something familiar simply continued.

So, what do we do with this?

Well, as I mentioned, the use of hymns isn’t “bad”—
but it’s the option of last resort. 
Carla and I have talked about this a few times, 
and I think it would be good if, over time, 
we made the attempt to move toward using the psalm texts 
that the Church encourages us to use.

If you look in your missallettes on page 215, 
you’ll see what’s called the “Entrance Antiphon”—
there it is, ready for us to sing, 
while the choir or the cantor would sing the rest. 
On page 217, it gives the “Communion Antiphon.” 
This book doesn’t provide the one for the offertory procession, 
but other resources do. 

Look, I’m not proposing a sudden or drastic change. 
But I would like to ask us to consider, in the years ahead, 
how we can move toward using psalms as the Church envisions.
That doesn’t mean we’d never use hymns, but use them less.

Let’s talk about the Scripture we just heard. 
They might seem to be about food, 
but I think they’re about something else: about trust. 

The people who grumbled in the first reading 
had witnessed so many wonders, 
and yet it didn’t take long for them to turn ugly: not much trust. 
In the Gospel, after Jesus, with a miracle, provided food for them, 
notice what they asked him: 
“What sign can you do, that we may see and believe in you?” 
Again, not much trust.

As I said last week: Mass isn’t necessarily about what we like, 
but what we need. 
It’s what Christ does to save us. 
Part of that is asking us to stop, sit down, and listen. 
But to really listen is to be truly open. 
Will we let the Word of God challenge us, and change us? 

I don’t necessarily ask you to trust me; 
but I do think that for us as a part of the Body of Christ, 
the Holy Mass won’t be truly fruitful in us 
if we aren’t open and yielding. 

Recall Jesus’ parable of the farmer sowing seed. 
Some ground was rocky, some was thick with weeds; 
only a part of the field accepted the word, and it sprouted. 
What will you and I allow to sprout in our lives?


rcg said...

Good luck with this. I just said a prayer for your success. I prefer the sung psalms and prayers, yet I enjoy the old hymns and music since I play banjo, fiddle, and mandolin. Truthfully, I think of most of the popular hymns as semi secular or actually in error so inappropriate for Mass. That is what started me out the door of my old parish. Yet I love singing those old songs. I wish people would hang around after Mass to play and sing. My parish now might, we are having a square dance in October.

Anonymous said...

Fr. Fox: You are spot on, but it is the $10,000 question how we return to what the Church actually envisioned after 40+ years of entrenching the less desirable alternative in nearly every American parish.

Unfortunately, most Mass-goers are now very attached to the dreadful "four-hymn sandwich", and most parish musicians don't "get" that they can't just pick whatever hymns they happen to like, as a sort of "emotional booster" to the Mass, because the music makes them "feel good."

I think it will take a massive re-catechesis by our bishops, since it is unlikely to change much from the grass-roots level up.

But I applaud you for trying.

To show you how deeply entrenched this misunderstanding is: In my own parish, I have parishioners complain that I "don't stay to sing the closing song with them." (i.e. I kiss the altar after the dismissal and leave while a recessional hymn is played). When I explain that the "recessional hymn" isn't actually part of the Mass, they are deeply skeptical and don't really care, because, after all, that is the way they have been doing it for 40 years!

- Cincinnati Priest

Jenny said...

Father, you and "Cincinnati Priest" are exceptional compared to the norm. TBTG for your answer to His call. Once again (sigh!) I admit to envy Of the parishioners of St. Remy Church!

Anonymous said...

I am an Eastern ((Ukranian Greek) Catholic. We always sing the Divine Liturgy from beginning to end, including the Epistle and Gospel. The Latin Church has forsaken it's rich musical heritage.

Patrick said...

Much luck be with you and your parish!

I've always wondered why more priests wouldn't be willing to push for some liturgical reforms in their parishes...especially in crowded areas. I have 7 churches within 25 minutes of home, and I am confident that although some might leave with the reforms, others would come. Why must all 7 be essentially identical in their Americanized liturgies?

Fr Martin Fox said...

Cincinnati Priest:

You're correct. That's why my goal is really rather modest.

I'm not aiming at eliminating hymns. What I hope to do is to open up new possibilities. In my prior experience, the "propers" -- that is, the Scripture texts the Missal intends be sung for the processional chants -- are well received by many; but many others prefer the more familiar hymns.

So I just want to foster some openness, and see what comes of that.