Anything you can sing, I can sing … correcter.

If you’ve not yet read Paul Inwood’s excellent PrayTell post “Can we sing just anything at Mass?” (from this past July), I recommend that you do so. Even if you have, a re-read would likely be a good thing.

In the post, he makes reference to people who have said or written that there’s no liturgical rule stating that the song of the day needs to match the [Lectionary] scriptures of the day. Since I am someone who has made statements similar to that (though not precisely like it), this led me to do some further reflection.

The early decades of post-conciliar reform in the U.S. often found parish musicians and/or music committees searching each week for a song or songs that directly quoted (full disclosure: “parroted” is the term I’ve often used when referring to this phenomenon) a scripture of the day. Most often it was the Gospel, but if a favorite prophet—often Isaiah—or St. Paul had ended up as the lyricist, then that was the song to be done! There was a flurry of Lectionary-based songs and hymns writing, which was a good thing. In my view, the effort got derailed in the quest to essentially set every Lectionary reading, verbatim, to music. We ended up with a sola lectionarium or sola evangelium approach, which (to use a favorite term of mine, learned from Fr. Lucien Deiss) is an “unnecessary impoverishment” since it frequently doesn’t encourage a more thoughtful opening up of the scripture passages.

Annie Get Your Gun:
Anything You Can Sing …

Yes, the weekly song of the assembly needs a connection to the lections of the day. But that connection doesn’t need to be outright—or even close to—repetition. Perhaps to think of the assembly’s song as having resonance with the scriptures may be a better (and more sonic) way to approach it. Sometimes that resonance will occur in the propers of the day in the Missal or one of the Graduals. Sometimes it doesn’t. Let’s search, then, for that resonance outside the propers on those occasions. If the theme of mercy is woven through the readings, find a sung text that amplifies that theme—perhaps quoting another scripture on the topic of mercy, or opening up that focus in a new or different way.

I realize that the advocates of always/only using prescribed texts are correct that these texts don’t (or rarely) run the risk of error. While I wholeheartedly agree, it simultaneously occurs to me that their use likewise doesn’t run the risk of creativity. If we only allow new (or only allow inherited) musical settings of the same fixed texts, then we have—to an extent—quenched the Spirit. (This attitude, for example, would have discouraged Aquinas from writing his eucharistic hymn texts.)

Our attitude in this matter certainly cannot be cavalier, for we know the power that music has to help people embrace things “by heart.” I will, however, likewise trust that Spirit to guide us in avoiding, correcting, or occasionally forbidding error when or if it arises.

No, we cannot sing just anything at Mass. But, on the flip side, neither can we be certain that our mere correctness, or accuracy, or purity alone—much less our inflexibility—will guarantee that the song of the Body offering the sacrifice of praise will truly lift our praise to the living God.

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