When the Song Comes to a

Paragraph 112 of Sacrosanctum Concilium declares: “The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this preeminence is that, as sacred song united to the words, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy.”

Paragraph 23 of “Music in Catholic Worship,” originally issued by the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy in 1972, states that “among the many signs and symbols used by the Church to celebrate its faith, music is of preeminent importance.”

In paragraph 5 of their 1982 document “Liturgical Music Today,” the US bishops characterized the liturgy of the Catholic Church as “inherently musical.”

Paragraph 23 of the updated 1983 “Music in Catholic Worship” repeats the 1972 claim about the “preeminent importance” of music.

The bishops’ 2007 document “Sing to the Lord” states in paragraph 5 that the “common, sung expression of faith within liturgical celebrations strengthens our faith when it grows weak and draws us into the divinely inspired voice of the Church at prayer.”

Across the history of the church, one can find similar endorsements of music and / or singing in liturgy.  Yet, as with many principles in theology and in liturgy, music comes with a “both / and.”  For example, both versions of paragraph 23 in “Music in Catholic Worship” follow the claim about the preeminent importance of music with a caution that “the function of music is ministerial; it must serve and never dominate.”  Each version advises in paragraph 35 that “there is no place in the liturgy for display of virtuosity for its own sake.”  Both preeminent and ministerial.  No. 68 of “Sing to the Lord” puts it this way: “The musical setting must allow the rite to unfold with the proper participation of the assembly and its ministers, without overshadowing the words and actions of the liturgy.”

Here, I would like to direct attention to the “both / and” of the duration of a song. For example, concerning the entrance song, the 2002 General Instruction of the Roman Missal notes that such a song is optional and in no. 47 states: “After the people have gathered, the Entrance chant begins as the priest enters with the deacon and ministers. The purpose of this chant is to open the celebration, foster the unity of those who have been gathered, introduce their thoughts to the mystery of the liturgical season or festivity, and accompany the procession of the priest and ministers.”  Three paragraphs later, the GIRM directs that “when the Entrance chant is concluded, the priest stands at the chair and, together with the whole gathering, makes the Sign of the Cross.”  Does the opening song end when the presider is ready to make this initial Sign of the Cross or does the presider make this initial Sign of the Cross when the opening song ends?

Consider paragraph 19 of “Liturgical Music Today”:

While the responsorial form of singing is especially suitable for processions, the metrical hymn can also fulfill the function of the entrance song.  If, however, a metrical hymn with several verses is selected, its form should be respected.  The progression of text and music must be allowed to play out its course and achieve its purpose musically and poetically.  In other words, the hymn should not be ended indiscriminately at the end of the procession.  For this same reason, metrical hymns may not be the most suitable choices to accompany the preparation of the gifts and altar at the Eucharist, since the music should not extend past the time necessary for the ritual.

And paragraph 143 of “Sing to the Lord:

Care must be taken in the treatment of the texts of psalms, hymns, and songs in the liturgy.  Verses and stanzas should not be omitted arbitrarily in ways that risk distorting their content.  While not all musical pieces require that all verses or stanzas be sung, verses should be omitted only if the text to be sung forms a coherent whole.

Apparently, if a “suitable” metrical hymn is employed, one makes the initial Sign of the Cross when the opening song has concluded.  One must respect both the form of the musical composition and its musical and poetic progression and at the same time the principle that the music (and the choir and instrumentalists) are there to serve the liturgy, not to dominate it.

Although each version of “Music in Catholic Worship” asserts in paragraph 73 that a “recessional song has never been an official part of the rite” and paragraph 199 of “Sing to the Lord” explicitly states that “it is not necessary to sing a recessional hymn,” that same paragraph goes on to say that “when a closing song is used, the procession of ministers should be arranged in such a way that it finishes during the final stanza.”

Liturgical celebrations should never be long for the sake of being long, nor should they be short for the sake of being short.  How (well) do parishes that you know balance the both / and of the integrity of musical compositions on the one hand and on the other hand the principle that music must serve the liturgy and not overshadow it?



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25 responses to “When the Song Comes to a”

  1. Lee Bacchi Avatar
    Lee Bacchi

    First point, I wish more liturgical musicians at Catholic parishes/institutions would read these documents and apply them. Second point, when there is only 90 minutes between Masses on a Sunday, sometimes brevity is needed for the sake of preserving Christian charity in the parking lot, allowing people enough time and safety to leave from and come for adjacent Masses. Therefore, waiting until the final stanza of a going forth song may not be possible. Third point, I know presiders who insist that the gathering song end as soon as they arrive at the chair, as if the only purpose was toe cover the action of the procession.

    1. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
      Karl Liam Saur

      Well, unless they are studying liturgical documents for other reasons, they can skip Music in Catholic Worship and Liturgical Music Today, which were never legislative in nature and even so have been superseded. (And these, along with Sing To The Lord, are for Amurkans.) As things stand, there’s a welter of documents that do have varying levels of legislative authority, and that are not exactly in complete harmony with each other, to consider!

      More to Mr Brunk’s question: things appear to work best when the corps of clerical ministers shares a harmonious understanding of how these liturgical moments ought to be as a general matter (and concerning circumstances when the ideal might not be prudent under acute circumstances) with the corps of musical ministers.

  2. Fritz Bauerschmidt Avatar

    As I recall, in Ordo Romanus primus it says that when the Pope arrives at his throne he signals to the cantors to sing the Gloria Patri and wrap up the introit, so at least in 7th/8th century Rome the opening song ended when the celebrant was ready for Mass to begin.

    At my previous parish, at the end of Mass the celebrant and I did not begin to “recess” down the aisle until the final verse of the song.

  3. Alan Hommerding Avatar
    Alan Hommerding

    I’m all for respecting the form and integrity of strophic hymn texts – but am also aware, as someone who has edited hymnals and researched hymnody – that hymnals don’t always show that same respect. In particular, with many-stanzaed hymns (esp. from previous centuries), stanzas have already been cropped out by the time it reaches the pew.

    That being said, there are pastoral/adaptive ways to incorporate lengthier hymns: split up the stanzas between opening and closing, isolate one or two stanzas at the end that may be strongly connected to a reading of the day, and/or a sing a single stanza that is a doxology.

    Whether gathering together to offer the sacrifice of praise, or going into the world to live it out, the entire assembly – in persona Christi – joining together in song is a marvelous sign of unity in Christ and as Christ. (I like to affirm the assembly in their role at liturgy as being “in persona Christi” through the power of the Spirit, especially when they prayer and sing. [CSL 7], and reassure them that the presider is “in persona Christi capitis” – we are all one Body.)

  4. Jennifer Dworak Avatar
    Jennifer Dworak

    Another thing to at least notice is the fact that for those who have trouble standing for extended periods of time (for whatever reason) the extra time required to sing all verses of a hymn can potentially mean the difference between being able to stand for the entire beginning of the Mass and not being able to do so.

  5. Doug O'Neill Avatar

    Sorry, but why are we quoting Music in Catholic Worship? You might as well quote the opinion of my 9-year old son, because the authority is the same. That quote about serving rather than dominating, and then about not having “virtuosity for its own sake” is problematic. Who gets to determine those things? “Virtuosity” is a code word for showing off, but what about highly developed skill used in service and with proper intent? For instance, I have sometimes used an alternate harmonization for a hymn, and then been accused of showing off, even though my intent was to add vigor and variety to the singing. Lines like that have been used as a canard to excuse a mediocre or worse level of musicianship.

    1. Jim Pauwels Avatar
      Jim Pauwels

      I also appreciate some virtuosic musicianship, offered to the greater glory of God. I expect the admonition against virtuosity hearkens back to previous historical periods when, we are told, practices more suited to the opera were occasionally transported to the choir loft. If we have a Bryn Terfel in our choir, even he should modulate his participation to support the communal singing during the entrance song, rather than treat every piece as a solo opportunity.

  6. Todd Flowerday Avatar

    Hymn or psalm: I’d say to keep it cohesive as far as possible. If the antiphon is linked to Psalm 147B, I’d make sure all the verses got in, if at all possible. Accompanying the procession is one of four functions, so I don’t pay attention to the clergy finishing their walk on this one. And if people like to sing, as they do at my parish, I have no problem with the length of music at entrance.

  7. Anthony Hawkins Avatar
    Anthony Hawkins

    The definitive documents are surely the Praenotanda to the Graduals. The GR says, for example, that if the entrance procession is short, have just one verse of the psalm or even just have the antiphon, and the GS gives similar advice. So the principle is that song covers the action and no more. GS also mentions that a selection of verses can be used, but they should give continuity of thought. If hymns are substituted for the antiphons and psalms, it may be difficult to reconcile the coherence of thought with the cutting to length.

    1. Jim Pauwels Avatar
      Jim Pauwels

      “The definitive documents are surely the Praenotanda to the Graduals. ”

      Possibly that is an Extraordinary Form viewpoint? For the Ordinary Form, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal contains the applicable instruction. As the Graduale Romanum and Graduale Simplex are just two of several legitimate options given by GIRM for entrance chant music, the principle you deduced from the GR wouldn’t be applicable universally. In fact, the GIRM explicitly says that that principle is not the only one to consider.

  8. Ed Nash Avatar
    Ed Nash

    I appreciate TFlowerday’s observation of how all these song lengths get determined by the congregation’s joy of singing together. Some of these comments on when to shut down a song make it seem that singing as a community is a painful experience that needs to be done and finished (much like a Victrola song when one pulls out the electrical plug).

    If the G.I.R.M. wants to have the song to open the celebration, foster unity, open the experience of mystery and accompany the procession, then allow a pleasant experience of music. And let us listen to the opinion of a 9 year old son on this one.

  9. Jim Pauwels Avatar
    Jim Pauwels

    Hello – regardless of the formal authority of the documents cited in the initial post, the wisdom they contain would seem worthy of respectful consideration.

    1. Doug O'Neill Avatar
      Doug O’Neill

      True, in the sense that we can quote saints, popes, or anybody we think has something wise to say. But it may not be wise at all, even from saints and popes, considering they have faults; and we are certainly welcome to disagree with it without consequence. However, when we are discussing liturgical documents, it should be made clear what is legislation and what isn’t. Sancrosanctum concilium and Musicam sacram have authority. We ought to at least strongly pay attention to Sing to the Lord and consider the bishops’ recommendations. Music in Catholic Worship is a document with no authority anymore, with which we can dissent at will.

  10. Jim Pauwels Avatar
    Jim Pauwels

    “Does the opening song end when the presider is ready to make this initial Sign of the Cross or does the presider make this initial Sign of the Cross when the opening song ends?”

    Such a good question :-). As a practical matter, of course, it’s the latter; the presider can’t begin speaking until the song finishes. That does leave the presider “stranded” sometimes – standing and waiting (and, one hopes, singing) until the song completes.

    Most presiders, in my experience, are pretty patient about waiting for the music to complete. As well they should: in the spirit of both/and, it’s worth reiterating the original post’s point that the Entrance Chant has more than one purpose, and among them is to “foster the unity of those who have been gathered”. That unity is fostered better by two verses than one, and even better by three verses than two. If the priest wishes the song to complete as he reaches his chair, while also respecting the function of fostering unity of those gathered, he can elect not to begin the procession until the 2nd verse.

    1. Lee Bacchi Avatar
      Lee Bacchi

      Jim — It depends. I don’t appreciate waiting 7 minutes at the preparation of the gifts for a song to finish. A community song at that point is not necessary. The EP awaits.

      1. Jim Pauwels Avatar
        Jim Pauwels

        Lee – let’s agree that 7 minutes is an eternity. On the other hand, those at the altar should make *some* allowance for the integrity of the piece being sung, as well as for the multiple purposes of the Offertory Chant, which are not only to accompany the ritual action.

        If the presider and/or deacon know that a longish piece is going to be used for the offertory chant, they can simply stay in their chairs for a verse or two before beginning the business of preparing the table. Of course, knowing the length of the song would require a modicum of coordination and preparation which doesn’t often happen.

        At our parish, getting the amount of music to “coincide” with the ritual action and other purposes of the Offertory Chant is among the trickier details. Funnily enough, the problem we run into is not so much stranding the priest and deacon for seven minutes, but rather in the other direction: the three verse song is sung while the chalice is still being raised (or the gifts still are being brought forth), and the musicians have to figure out how to “cover” for the remaining ritual actions.

      2. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
        Karl Liam Saur

        FWIW, *if* there’s singing during the preparation it covers the raising of the paten and chalice because the “Blessed are you” prayers and responses are only said aloud if there is none – otherwise, the priest just says the “Blessed are you” prayers in a low voice. (One of those finer points in the rubrics, not the GIRM, that is often ignored, or so it seems.)

  11. Alan Johnson Avatar
    Alan Johnson

    I always imagined that the Entrance (and others) song is everyone’s, including the priest and ministers. I would be alarmed at any suggestion that songs should be cut short so the priest can get on with the important stuff.

    1. Lee Bacchi Avatar
      Lee Bacchi

      But at what parts of the Eucharist are hymns necessary? Community song is supposed to highlight the important parts of the Eucharistic celebration — whether by hymns, acclamations, antiphons, etc. The idea of progressive solemnity is important to remember.

  12. Anthony Hawkins Avatar
    Anthony Hawkins

    There is something more important than the documents I cited, which is that the priest celebrating is the presiding officer. He is offering the Holy Sacrifice on our behalf and the singing should be under his control (within the rubrics). I am of course aware that circumstances may prevent this happening, I have seen them.

    1. Anthony Ruff, OSB Avatar
      Anthony Ruff, OSB

      “He [the priest] is offering the Holy Sacrifice on our behalf…”
      In a word, no. The ordained priest has an essential role, and the church’s offering of the Sacrifice cannot take place without an ordained minister, but the offering is done by the whole church – all the baptized including the priest.

      1. Anthony Hawkins Avatar
        Anthony Hawkins

        Yes, your right of course, we all offering, “my sacrifice and yours”. The priest is voicing the prayers on our behalf, “may the Lord accept the sacrifice at your hands”.
        I was in part reacting to the thought that anybody should impose a seven minute Offertory on the celebrant. In the OF the celebrant is free to decide that the assembly should listen to a seven minute Offertory, but that would be at his discretion.

  13. Aidan R. Rooney, C.M. Avatar
    Aidan R. Rooney, C.M.

    Preparing and executing our liturgy requires a great deal of study, dialogue, pastoral sensitivity, and humility on the part of all. A broad knowledge of liturgical law is important but insufficient. See these important paragraphs of the GIRM.

    352. The pastoral effectiveness of a celebration will be greatly increased if the texts of the readings, the prayers, and the liturgical chants correspond as aptly as possible to the needs, the preparation, and the culture of the participants. This will be achieved by appropriate use of the many possibilities of choice described below.

    Hence in arranging the celebration of Mass, the Priest should be attentive rather to the common spiritual good of the People of God than to his own inclinations. He should also remember that choices of this kind are to be made in harmony with those who exercise some part in the celebration, including the faithful, as regards the parts that more directly pertain to them.

    Since, indeed, many possibilities are provided for choosing the different parts of the Mass, it is necessary for the Deacon, the readers, the psalmist, the cantor, the commentator, and the choir to know properly before the celebration the texts that concern each and that are to be used, and it is necessary that nothing be in any sense improvised. For harmonious ordering and carrying out of the rites will greatly help in disposing the faithful for participation in the Eucharist.

  14. Michael O'Connor Avatar
    Michael O’Connor

    I am not sure “waiting” is a helpful word here; it suggests that “music” is holding up “liturgy”. Vatican II considered but discarded the language of music as “handmaid” to the liturgy for precisely this reason: when employed properly, music is liturgy.

  15. Sean Connolly Avatar
    Sean Connolly

    I’m thinking of that oddest of Versuum Alleluiaticorum, “Alleluia: in exitu Israel de Aegypto, domus Jacob de populo barbaro. Alleluia.”

    Not even the Roman Gradual, it seems, can always be counted on to respect the integrity of a sentence… 🙂

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