Friday, March 08, 2019

8 Reasons to Sing the Proper Chants of the Mass

In my last post, I explained about the proper texts we are supposed to be using at Mass, including what is sung at the beginning, at the offertory and at communion. The use of familiar hymns it turns out is the least-preferred option precisely because they displace Scripture-based prayers that are meant to be used. It shouldn’t have to be said, but the Word of God is always the best option, isn’t it?

Still, someone might well ask: Why do we have to sing at Mass at all?

A lot of people prefer a quiet Mass, and would be fine if there were much less music, or even none. The traditional “low” Mass includes no singing, and is dominated by silence. Many people love this, despite not being familiar with Latin. Lots of people don’t like to sing. So why sing – at all? In other words, who cares?

Well, God cares.

It’s true that our worship adds nothing to God; he does not need it. Even so, God commands us to worship him. Why? Because it is good for us. Worship demands our best, including our best effort. Singing demands more of us. Singing creates unity and expresses solemn purpose. When was the last time anyone recited the National Anthem? No; we always sing it!

The Holy Mass is the highest expression of worship; indeed, it is the most important thing we do as Christians. Ideally, virtually the whole Mass can be sung. More usually, the Church envisions various parts to be sung, depending on how special the occasion and the capacity of those participating. Thus, it’s entirely reasonable to have some Masses with very little sung, and others with a lot. That tends to satisfy more tastes, to boot.

So what am I planning at St. Remy? To quote a Broadway show from 50 years ago: “something for everyone!”

We have the Traditional Latin Mass five times a month. Most Masses involve congregational singing; on more solemn occasions, the priest will sing his prayers as well. Our 9 am Mass is the most solemn, involving lots of chant and incense. Again: “something for everyone.”

As far as restoring the use of the proper chants I’ve been talking about: During the past two years, at my direction, Carla Meyer has been slowly introducing some of the proper chants intended to be sung during communion. She has generally sung them herself, but that is only because she is still teaching herself. These can be sung by a choir, and they include a refrain that everyone could sing as easily as the psalm response, or a refrain for a hymn.

Will hymns disappear? No! My intention is that we routinely include at least one of the proper chants each Sunday, and routinely at weekday Masses. We’ve been using the communion chant, but it could be one of the others. Since hymns are allowed, we will continue to use them. Since different people have different preferences, there will be variety. My goal is that the proper chants go from being exotic and unheard of, to being a familiar part of how we worship together. And I’d like to see a day when on some occasions – such as the 9 am Sunday Mass –  we would have Mass using only the proper chants.

Finally, I realize that all this may seem a lot of trouble. Here are eight reasons this effort is worth pursuing:

1. God’s Word is better than mere human words. The point of this isn’t that hymns are bad, but rather, that hymns are an inadequate substitute for the texts of Scripture. The Proper Chants, which we aren’t using, are drawn from Scripture. Some hymns draw on Scripture, but most do not.

2. The Proper chants are integral to the Mass – so maybe the better question is, what justifies slicing them off and forgetting about them? For a long time, they were only available in Latin, so that limited their appeal. But today, we have many resources, in English. Shouldn’t we restore to the Mass those parts that got left out?

3. This is what Vatican II called for. Consider two points from the Second Vatican Council: “The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 116). And in “sacred celebrations there is to be more reading from holy scripture, and it is to be more varied and suitable (Ibid., 35). When we sing the Propers in English, that isn’t Gregorian chant, per se, but it is based on it.

4. Using the Proper Chants connects us with our Tradition. These texts – translated into English – are ancient; they have been part of the Mass beyond memory. These are prayers that Mother Seton, Francis of Assisi, Gregory and perhaps even our patron, St. Remy, would have known and prayed. Since they are mostly psalms, they are texts that Jesus, the Apostles, and the Virgin Mary would have known and prayed.

5. We aren’t really supposed to sing “songs” at Mass; we sing prayers. That simple statement bears some reflection, in order to see the difference.

6. Mass music is not “mood music.” If I go for a drive on a beautiful day, I might turn on some up-tempo music to suit my mood. Or, when I get home in the evening, I might like something relaxing. In many ways we use music to get “in the mood” – and sometimes people will object to liturgical chant at Mass, because they think it’s not “upbeat” or cheerful enough. But when we sing the Our Father, does anyone want that to have a jazz tempo?

7. The music of Mass must not sound like anything else. Music has a unique power to evoke a mood and to spark memories and associations. As a result, I need only hum a few notes of a familiar tune, and you will immediately think of a TV commercial, a TV show, or a play or movie associated with it. One unfortunate feature of many contemporary hymns is that they were composed in a style very similar to Broadway tunes or other popular songs. “Here I am, Lord,” by Dan Schutte, has a section that reminds many of the theme from the TV show, “The Brady Bunch.” In many funerals, one of the final prayers is sung to the tune of “O, Danny Boy,” because it’s Irish and a sentimental favorite. The result is that such music doesn’t draw us toward the awesome mystery of the Mass, but away from it – to some other association.

Meanwhile, the Catholic Church has her own unique music, intended for – and associated with – one thing: worship of God. Isn’t it curious that in recent years, Catholic monasteries have released CDs of this ancient music, which people use for prayer and meditation in their cars or in their homes. Why does this music have such power? Because it doesn’t sound like anything else – it evokes heaven and longing for God. As such, it is perfect for Holy Mass, which is the closest we can come to heaven while still on earth. As much as we can, our experience of Holy Mass should take us out of our everyday life, and bring us to experience eternity – and to hunger for more.

8. Obedience, fidelity and humility are attractive and fruitful virtues. The Church has given us guidance on how best to celebrate the Holy Mass. Being docile to that guidance will bear great spiritual fruit. What’s more, many younger-generation Catholics are attracted to the celebration of Mass that is more timeless, more transcendent and more reverent. This has drawn such Catholics to our parish, and similar things are happening in parishes around the country, where there is a kind of “new traditionalism.” What I think would probably be best would be a “something for everyone” approach, using more hymns at some Masses, but pursuing the use of the proper chants at others.

(Adapted from St. Remy Parish Bulletin.)

1 comment:

Brad said...

At St. Joseph Church in downtown Dayton, we've been singing the Propers each week since 2015. I chant the Introit as an "introduction" to the entrance hymn. It flows effortlessly. At communion, I either chant the antiphon as the priest receives, and then we sing a hymn; or (more regularly during Lent), I've been using the St. Meinrad Propers for Communion, which has a part for the a cantor and/or choir, as well as a simple refrain for the congregation, alternating with psalm verses. My congregation has picked up on these communion antiphons easily. We've been effectively able to implement the Propers without sacrificing hymns either. I'm happy to hear there are churches out there who are interested in restoring the Propers to their rightful place in the liturgy.