Tuesday, April 24, 2012

What Happened to "Singing the Mass"?

Wendi at Cradle Stories recently had this to say about a trip her family made to the Cathedral of their diocese (my emphases):

So we took the opportunity to go to Mass at the Cathedral. It's the first time we've done so since moving to this diocese.

Mass was...interesting. The music was ok, but actually a little disappointing.

What they did sing was beautiful, although the choir was sometimes overpowered by the organ.

I just expected them to sing...more. It was the 11:00 Mass. It was the Cathedral...you know the Bishop's home parish.

So I expected that all the first degree stuff would be sung...it wasn't.

As I said, a little disappointing.

I thought the whole point of being the Bishop was leading by example.

So...it then follows that his home parish should do that too...right?

I could have gone to the same Mass in any Suburban parish and it would have been pretty much the same.

Ah well...it did give me a greater appreciation for what I have at home.

I admit I do not have the opportunity (or inclination) to travel far and wide – even in my own diocese – to see whether the new translation of the Roman Missal has resulted in an improvement in the music, and whether or not priests are singing their parts of the Mass. But I suspect that what a correspondent wrote to me is true:

…[There has been a] consummate failure from the top down to properly implement the new English translation of the Missale Romanum. The Church clearly intends that the Mass (yes, the Novus Ordo Missae) be sung: that's patently obvious from the profusion of chant settings for the Order of Mass – something unprecedented in comparison to the edition that's been in use in the US now since the seventies.
The new missal provides either the chant or the chant formulae for singing the entire Mass - Propers, Ordinary, and Order of Mass. There's no excuse now to NOT sing the Mass.

Prior to the implementation of the new translation, the USCCB’s website promotion of the changes stated (my emphases):

[The Church] has been blessed with this opportunity to deepen its understanding of the Sacred Liturgy, and to appreciate its meaning and importance in our lives… [T]he parish community should be catechized to receive the new translation.  Musicians and parishioners alike should soon be learning the various new and revised musical settings of the Order of Mass.

Some parishes prepared, and some didn’t; some did a little, and some did a lot.

But the above quote from the USCCB website hints at a very important component of the new translation which could have made a big difference:  “musical settings”.

The third edition of the Roman Missal contains more music than the previous editions, and it reflects the Gregorian chant roots of the liturgy. There has been much talk (at least in some circles) of “singing the Mass” instead of simply “singing at Mass”. Singing the Mass – especially singing the Mass in the way it is presented in the new Roman Missal – is a much more far-reaching change than the changes in the translation. It’s a change not just in the words, but in how the words are presented – with music that is truly liturgical.

Singing the Mass requires a priest to be willing to sing his parts; it requires the choir director to motivate the choir to learn a new style of singing along with some changes in the words; and it requires a congregation that will embrace the effort to learn new, sung, responses. None of this is easy, but it would be well worth it. It would bring up the sense of awe and reverence in the liturgy by more than just a few notches. It would lead souls toward holiness.

But it also requires a bishop who will lead his priests in implementing the singing of the Mass.

Bishop Olmsted of the Diocese of Phoenix is the only bishop I know of who has done some serious teaching about singing the Mass. That doesn’t mean others haven’t, but Bishop Olmsted’s teaching was highly visible; he published his comments in his monthly column in the Catholic Sun, the diocesan newspaper. (You can read all four parts of that series here.) I don’t know whether the Mass is sung at Bishop Olmsted’s cathedral, but at least the priests of the diocese – as well as the faithful – should have a pretty good idea what Bishop Olmsted thinks about the importance of liturgical music.

I did notice, as I was googling around for some information on this topic, that Bishop Joseph B. McFadden of the Diocese of Harrisburg, PA, instituted a diocesan-wide program for “singing the Mass”, complete with a “liturgical musicians symposium”. Perhaps such preparation and promotion of singing the Mass is more common than I have been thinking. Let’s hope so!

Meanwhile, where I live, there hasn’t been much change in the music at our local cathedral, nor at the surrounding parishes. 

There is a new Gloria, of course, but the choir chose a setting with a repeating refrain, which is clearly not permitted (GIRM §53). At the diocesan level, a rather bland and notably music-less presentation was created and is available at the diocesan website for parishes to show as a Power Point presentation, or simply download a booklet. But the presentation merely introduces the changes in the people’s parts, and “singing the Mass” isn’t even mentioned.

My general sense is that, in most parishes across the country, few have switched to singing the chants, even in English, and priests don’t seem to be using their singing voices.

And that is a problem which those of us in the pews can’t fix. Those who have been exposed to the beauty of the chant begin to see how the liturgy can become an integrated whole rather than a hodge-podge of styles and languages. But they also immediately see that the priest needs to sing his parts, too, and they ask, “How can we get Father to sing the prayers?”

The answer is: we can’t.

That’s where the leadership of the bishop comes in. And that brings us back to the point Wendi made in her post: bishops should be leading by example. When they do, we’ll see the Mass begin to be sung.

And then we will begin to see progress in returning the liturgy to its rightful state of beauty and noble simplicity.

Oh…by the way…if you want to learn more about chant, and if you want your priest to learn how to sing his parts, consider kidnapping your priest and taking him to the 2012 CMAA Colloquium in Salt Lake City, Utah.

The Chant Café notes in a post inviting priests to the event (my emphases):

From Reverend Robert Pasley, CMAA Chaplain:

We send out a special invitation to all seminarians and priests. Please consider attending the 2012 CMAA Colloquium in Salt Lake City, Utah, from June 25 through July 1. Pope Benedict XVI has called for a hermeneutic of continuity in interpreting all Catholic teaching. There is no greater need for continuity than in the Sacred Liturgy. If we follow the official musical program given by the Church, we will immediately begin the process of restoring our Catholic Identity and revivifying the Sacred Treasury of our musical heritage. Priests, however, must be at the forefront of this revival. If they do not sing their chants, then the solemn sung Liturgy can never be realized, no matter how magnificent the parish choir is.

…We have a new Missal and the chants are now standardized in our Roman Tradition. You do not have to be a professional musician. You may not even know how to read music. You will have seven days to begin the process of understanding what you have to do…Fathers, you not only are absolutely necessary to consecrate the Holy Eucharist, you are also absolutely necessary for the Mass to be sung properly according to our Tradition!!!!!


  1. I had to jump into this one. In our parish we have three books available. The missal, the music, one in English and one in Spanish. All three published by the Oregon Catholic Press now only known at the OCP. The OCP is infested with progressives. Here is how it goes when you walk into church. The choir is in full practice. So if you want to say any before mass prayers, forget it. You can't hear yourself think. Our choir director is dressed like she is out for a stroll down main street. Most times she is wearing jeans and flip flops on her feet. When she uses the organ she kicks off the flip flops and plays bare foot. I have no idea who picks what is to be sung. Our Pastor is a very nice man but refuses to have anything to do with singing. We do have a Parochial Vicar that will try to sing the priest parts but sometimes he has a conflict with what the choir is doing. Anyway at times I just want to scream.

  2. I feel your pain, Bill! At the Cathedral, Bishop Vasa would usually intone the "through Him, with Him, in Him", and then the choir would chime in with a rollicking country-style "Amen". I wondered why they couldn't hear the incongruity; they are musicians after all!


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