Friday, March 08, 2019

What are the 'proper chants' for Mass and why should we use them?

Suppose I told you that there are prayers which the Church intends to be included with Mass, but we never pray them? You are never given access to them. They have been left unused for a long time. Would that not seem odd? Wouldn’t you be curious? Wonder why we never pray them? Wouldn’t you want to know more about this?

This is not a hypothetical; it is the actual situation in most parishes.

There are, indeed, proper chants assigned to every Sunday Mass, meant to be sung. But what usually happens each week is that Mass begins instead with a hymn, substituted for the prayer text which is designated. The same thing happens while the offering is taken and the bread and wine go to the altar and during communion.

But this is not what the Church intends. Instead, Holy Mass is intended to begin with a psalm-prayer called the “Entrance Chant,” or “Introit” – it accompanies the priest and servers entering the church. The people are encouraged to join in singing this prayer, or else a musician or choir can chant this prayer. When the bread and wine (and collection) come to the altar, another prayer – drawn from the psalms is meant to be sung: the Offertory Chant. And a third prayer is sung during Communion. Once the priest or deacon says, “Go in peace,” that is the end of Mass, and nothing is called for afterward (although prayers or hymns can follow; or silence).

It is important to realize, these are prayers, meant to be sung. They accompany processions (entrance, offertory, communion), they are drawn from Sacred Scripture, and they vary with the calendar.

This is something I’ve written and spoken about before. For the past three years, as a parish we’ve taken some modest steps to re-incorporate these proper chants. Periodically, we use the proper communion chant at Sunday Mass and on some feast days, and we use two of the proper chants at every funeral. Over the next few weeks in this column, I’ll explain more about this, including the small steps I propose we continue to take. Nothing sudden or wholesale. Yet I hope you’ll see this as an opportunity to deepen our faith.

So the obvious question: how did it happen that these sung prayers the Church intends to be used at Mass have been habitually omitted, and replaced by hymns?

It had to do with the old form of the Mass. The Traditional Latin Mass ideally is offered with the priest, deacon, choir and people singing everything – but for various reasons, this was rare. More common was the “low” Mass, in which nothing is sung, and the priest offers a lot of his prayers in a low voice. So, for example, the Traditional Latin Mass offered at St. Remy early on Wednesday mornings and on First Fridays, is a “low” Mass. Before the Mass was reorganized in 1970, this was the most familiar form of Mass for centuries.

As the prayers were all in Latin, and often prayed in a low voice, in many places it became customary for the people to add devotional songs – in their native language – while the priest prayed his prayers silently. When the Mass was revamped in 1970, and it became possible to have Mass in English, and also for much of it to be sung, the old habit of substituting hymns continued. Re-introducing all the proper sung texts of Mass was a part of implementing Vatican II that was left undone. Only recently have a variety of musical settings even been provided, so that parishes can begin to use them. And then, only if a pastor actually cares to bring it up (like me!) That brings us to the present moment.

To be clear, substituting hymns for these Mass texts isn’t “wrong.” The General Instruction for the Roman Missal allows for it, but makes clear that it is the least-preferred option:

(1) the antiphon from the Missal or the antiphon with its Psalm from the Graduale Romanum, as set to music there or in another setting; (2) the antiphon and Psalm of the Graduale Simplex for the liturgical time; (3) a chant from another collection of Psalms and antiphons, approved by the Conference of Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop, including Psalms arranged in responsorial or metrical forms; (4) another liturgical chant that is suited to the sacred action, the day, or the time of year, similarly approved by the Conference of Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop. (Also see GIRM paragraphs 47, 74, 86-87.)

Did you notice? The first three options all are a “psalm” with an antiphon – in other words, texts taken from Scripture. That’s what we ought to give preference to. As mentioned last week, my intent is not to upturn everything. Rather, I want to make modest additions of these proper chants here and there, which is what we are gradually doing now. It really is “baby steps” at this point. I realize someone might say, “why change”? And I understand, change can be frustrating. But obedience – in this case, to the teaching and norms of the Church – is a virtue. God will bless us and our parish if we are open to greater use of Sacred Scripture in our worship.

To be continued in another post...

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