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.

Can we sing just anything at Mass?

Over the past few years, some have seemed to question if what we sing, whether antiphons or other songs or hymns, needs to tie in with the scriptures of the day at all. One noted speaker even went so far as to say that nowhere is it stated that what is sung at Mass needs to relate to the readings. While that may be technically correct, the comment was certainly unhelpful in the context of today’s discussions.

There are frequent debates on Facebook and other forums revolving around the question of why the “propers” (usually meaning the entrance and communion antiphons) don’t necessarily fit with the readings. Interlocutors often use the fact that the propers don’t actually fit as a way of “proving” that it doesn’t really matter whether they do or not. The fact that the propers are in the Missal, they say, is sufficient justification in itself, and therefore those propers should always be used, regardless of their relevance to anything else that is going on in the liturgy.

This assumption needs to be tested. First and foremost, are we aware that the propers are actually hangovers from the preconciliar rite?

The Ordo Lectionum Missae of 1969 provided a completely new and different Lectionary from what had existed prior to that date. However, the antiphons of the current Roman Missal mostly make use of texts that were to be found alongside the previous Lectionary contained in the preconciliar 1570 Missal of Pius V, not the present Lectionary. (The 1570 Missal did not have a separate lectionary; the readings, chants and prayers were printed as complete Mass formularies.) As stated above, some have used the fact that preconciliar antiphons rub shoulders uncomfortably with postconciliar readings as a justification for actively not trying to tie in what is sung with what is prayed, but I believe this position to be of dubious validity. Furthermore, it shows a lack of awareness of why the antiphons are even in the Missal at all today.

Fr Pierre Jounel, who was a member of a number of the working groups of the Consilium in the years following Sacrosanctum Concilium, said in the course of a lecture in 1977 that those responsible for the liturgical reforms seriously contemplated omitting the antiphons from the 1969/70 Missale Romanum altogether. He said the only reason they retained the antiphons was so that those who wanted to continue to use the Latin chants of the Graduale could continue to do so. The phrase he used was “to placate the Gregorianists”. According to Jounel, the antiphons in the new Missale Romanum were never intended to be sung in the vernacular as they stand (and indeed GIRM still tells us that they are only there for recitation when nothing else has been sung, is being sung, or will be sung at those points — current paras 48 and 87, final sentences).

The antiphons, Jounel said, were retained in order to remind us that we should be singing something at those points in the rite, but not necessarily those actual texts. (I have used the word “placeholder” to describe this function of the antiphon, a term which is disliked by those whose agenda is different from mine.) An increasing number of composers have spent many hours of time setting the actual vernacular antiphon texts to music, and publishers have expended much investment in order to issue these settings; but I believe that they have based their work on a misunderstanding of what the reformers intended. When GIRM tells us that the antiphons should be recited if there is no other singing, this is demonstrating the real purpose of the antiphon texts as envisaged by the reformers.

Aside from being unaware of Fr Jounel’s testimony, an important additional reason why composers and publishers have been misled is those same paras 48 and 87 of GIRM, where the current US version of GIRM is different from the text issued to the rest of the universal Church. At the request of the BCL, Rome included an extra provision in the 2003 US version of those paragraphs, saying that one of the options for singing at those points in the rite is the antiphon from the Missal. Other countries do not have this provision, but only allow for the singing of chants from the Graduale Romanum, or the Graduale Simplex, or another collection approved by the bishops’ conference (the US version helpfully adds “or the Diocesan Bishop”). In those countries, singing the antiphons verbatim as in the Missal is simply not an option.

In passing, we might also note that paragraphs 47 and 86 of GIRM outline the theological principles behind what is sung at the Entrance and at Communion. They were the original descriptive paragraphs in the first draft of the document, which was then passed to other persons and institutions who added paragraphs 48 and 87, the practical implementation of those theological principles. However, those who inserted paras 48 and 87 into the draft had a different agenda: they wanted to preserve what they had always done in the past. This is why GIRM, a typical committee document, still contains internal contradictions today. The later inclusion of singing chants from the Graduale Romanum and Graduale Simplex in some respects undermines and contradicts the theological principles enunciated in the preceding paragraphs. Perhaps the day will come when these internal contradictions are ironed out.

Returning to the history of the Missal, when the English translation of the Third Edition of the Roman Missal was in progress, ICEL had set up a special working group for the Antiphonary. That working group obtained permission from Rome to use a slightly “looser” translation of the antiphons than the author of Liturgiam Authenticam would have approved of, specifically with the aim of making the translation more suitable for the purpose of setting to music. They finished their work, and very good it was, too; but before it could go through the approval process with episcopal conferences it was suddenly withdrawn.

What happened is that Monsignor James Moroney, at that time secretary of BCDW and a member of Vox Clara, belatedly became aware of Pierre Jounel’s testimony indicating that the present antiphons were never originally intended for singing in the vernacular. He immediately pulled the antiphonary from the approval process, and Vox Clara itself then commissioned a completely new Liturgiam Authenticam-style translation of the antiphons that was intended not to be music-friendly at all.

[Interestingly, every time the antiphon was a verse lifted directly from the psalms, the Revised Grail Psalter (RGP) version was used — i.e. its incarnation before being tweaked yet again for the latest version, Abbey Psalms and Canticles (APC). Presumably this meant that Vox Clara felt that RGP was not music-friendly either, which means that the decision to use APC for the psalms in all forthcoming English-language lectionaries and the Divine Office is strange, to put it mildly.]

This new, non-music-friendly Antiphonary was then incorporated into the final text of the Missal at the last minute, without ever going through a formal approval process by bishops’ conferences as the other fascicles of the Missal had done. This means that we now have the following bizarre situation:

(a) the antiphons of the Roman Missal were never intended to be sung in the vernacular as they stand;
(b) the vernacular translation of those antiphons was specifically designed not to be music-friendly;
(c) that translation of those antiphons was also never formally approved by any episcopal conference;

and yet

(d) composers and publishers have been busily producing music settings of those same non-music-friendly antiphons in different idioms, ranging from chant through choral to contemporary;


(e) some bishops, pastors and musicians are insisting that these settings be sung, especially the chant settings, as if they were somehow the traditional music of the Church that all should use in preference to other hymns and songs.

In fact recent comments on Facebook indicate that some uninformed pastors are insisting that the text of the antiphons be sung in addition to whatever other hymns or songs are selected for these points in the rite. Musicam Sacram 32 makes it plain, however, that those other hymns or songs are substitutes for the antiphons, not additional to them.

Here is a concrete example to illustrate the issue. The Communion antiphon Passer invenit appeared in the 1570 Missal on the 3rd Sunday of Lent. As a matter of fact it had nothing to do with the readings of that day, so no change there! The text, taken from Ps 83(84): 4-5, runs as follows in the current English translation:

The sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow a nest for her young:
by your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God.
Blessed are they who dwell in your house,
for ever singing your praise.

In the 1969/1970 Missal, this antiphon once again appears on the 3rd Sunday of Lent, and also on the 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time. On 15 OT, the antiphon has no connection whatsoever with the scriptures of the day in any year of the cycle. On the 3rd Sunday of Lent, a case could be made for a marginal connection with the readings in cycle B, but in the other cycles there is still no connection. However, it is pleasing to note that the same antiphon is now also used for the Mass of Dedication of a Church and Altar, where it is clearly relevant to the celebration.


So — returning to the question where this paper began, should what is sung at Mass tie in with the scriptures of the day?

Para 48 of GIRM, referring to chants other than those in the Graduale Romanum or Graduale Simplex, specifies chants that are “suited to the sacred action, the day, or the time of year” [my emphasis]. It seems pretty clear that the intent behind this wording is precisely that what is sung should be appropriate to the part of the Mass and the feast or season being celebrated; and the way you define what is appropriate to the feast or season is precisely by looking at the readings of the Lectionary for the day. In other words, what is sung does need to tie in with what is prayed and read.

Further justification can be found in the 1974 edition of the Graduale Romanum. The monks of Solesmes went to great pains to include options for the Communion antiphon for all three years of the Lectionary cycle. (They even made life more difficult for themselves by limiting what they added to existing pieces of chant from the mediaeval repertory, instead of composing new chants in the style of, or making adaptations of, existing pieces of chant, as had happened in previous decades whenever a new feast needed new propers. And no one has yet explained why only the Communion antiphons were given this treatment by Solesmes, and generally not the Entrance antiphons.) Whatever the case, it is quite clear that the aim was to tie the Communion antiphons in more closely with the scriptures of the day.

We have spent many years trying to encourage pastoral musicians to use settings that reflect the scriptures of the day, so that our assemblies may be fed richly and coherently. Liturgy planners from the different publishers, liturgy commissions, and other resources all attempt to make the celebration of every Mass a unified whole (recommended in Sing to the Lord para 123). The Collegeville Composers Group, responsible for the Psallite project, which provides alternative antiphons and psalms for every Sunday and major feastday of the three-year cycle, based its work on an intensive shared lectio divina of the scriptures of the day. Some have said that these alternative antiphons are preferable to those in the Missal, and they are certainly more singable.

To attempt now to demolish all the formational work and effort of the past 50+ years on the grounds that no Church document actually stipulates unambiguously that there should be coherence between what is read and prayed and what is sung does seem somewhat perverse.

Brief Book Review: The Women’s Lectionary

The Women’s Lectionary:
Preaching the Women of the Bible throughout the Year
By Ashley M. Wilcox

Who should read this? Ashley Wilcox intends this lectionary as a resource primarily for preachers and urges them to take a year to focus on women in the Bible and feminine images of God. I suggest that many others — catechists, teachers, Bible study groups, and anyone wanting to learn about and reflect upon the stories of women in the tradition — would find this volume thought-provoking and enriching.

What’s the main point? This volume is a lectionary based on women in the Bible and feminine images of God. The texts follow the liturgical calendar and may also appear in the Revised Common Lectionary, Year D, or other alternative lectionaries. The author includes commentaries for each text, which offer background, suggestions for preachers, and questions that could be used not only by preachers but individuals or small groups for reflection and discussion.

Why is this book significant? The author lifts up and probes the stories of the many inspiring and influential women of Scripture, women whose stories are too often overlooked, misinterpreted, or omitted in lectionaries. She also explores images for God that can lead Christians to deeper reflection and relationship with the Sacred.

Kudos. Kudos to Ashley M. Wilcox for asking a poignant question, “What if the church took one year to focus on the stories of women in the Bible?” What if…?  The Women’s Lectionary helps us to imagine the “what if.”

Wilcox, Ashley M. The Women’s Lectionary: Preaching the Women of the Bible throughout the Year. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2021. 294 pages. $45.00. ISBN: 9780664266196.

REVIEWER: Anne Koester
Anne Koester is Senior Compliance Specialist,
Protection of Minors Policy Manager,
and Adjunct Instructor of Theology at
Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.

In This Issue: Studia Liturgica 51, no. 2 (2021)

Founded in 1962 by Wiebe Vos (a pastor of the Dutch Reformed Church), and now published by Societas Liturgica, Studia Litugica is a peer-reviewed journal published twice a year. It aims to encourage research in the field of worship and allied subjects and explore the pastoral implications of such research, facilitate the exchange of results and other liturgical knowledge, and deepen the mutual understanding of the various liturgical traditions and seeks for ways to make clear the relevance of liturgy in the contemporary world.

Recording as the Re-Membering Work of the People:
A Catholic-Jewish Dialogue on the Body and Liturgical Memory
Kimberly H. Belcher, Kevin G. Grove, CSC, Sonja K. Pilz
The word leitourgia, meaning the work of the people, is often used to describe Christian worship and has also been adopted by many scholars of Jewish public worship. This word implies that liturgical worship in the Jewish and Christian traditions is a work that incorporates a people or assembly. The time- and place-shifting afforded by new recording technologies, however, alters the nature of liturgical work and its relationship to tradition, memory, and the assembly. In this article, phenomenology and reflexivity are deployed to examine the role of the body and its liturgical formation on producing and revisiting recorded liturgy. Liturgical work is already practiced by worshippers who (often in defiance of official leadership) record and view recorded liturgies. The embodied work of this displaced assembly reveals unexpected similarities in Jewish and Catholic ordained leaders’ “flattening” before the physical and metaphorical cameras of Western public life. Finally, diverse experiences of recorded liturgy are used to compare theological concepts of liturgical memory in Jewish and Catholic thought.

Musicking as Liturgical Speech Acts: An Examination of Contemporary Worship Music Practices
Laura Benjamins
This article examines the genre of Contemporary Worship Music (CWM) within worship contexts in terms of its formative and purposeful nature. In CWM settings, the worship leader plays a particular role in the selection and facilitation of CWM repertoire to be led by praise bands. Through the leader’s consideration of the message of the CWM lyrics, and the relational nature of CWM practices, a worship leader’s pedagogical decisions are integral to contributing to a space of dialogue for worship musicians. Drawing on previous literature addressing liturgical language in worship, I analyze the CWM context as a particular case where liturgical language shapes musicians’ spiritual formation. This examination of CWM practices includes an analysis of musicians’ engagement in relational musicking and meeting through I-Thou encounters. I therefore explore both the need for worship leaders to consider the multitudinous theological implications of their actions, as well as the way musicians are shaped and formed intimately through their musical engagement with CWM.

New Frontiers in American Evangelical Worship
Melanie C. Ross
This article puts Frederick Jackson Turner’s “frontier thesis”—an interpretation of American history that held sway among historians and the general public from the late 1890s to the 1930s—in conversation with James F. White’s depiction of an American liturgical “frontier tradition”—an interpretation of evangelical worship that became popular in the 1990s and continues to hold sway in the twenty-first century. It analyzes both through the lens of contemporary critiques and proposes new lines of inquiry that will contribute to a more robust understanding of American evangelical worship.

Redacting Acts: The Acts of the Apostles in the Three-Year Lectionaries
Martin Connell
The representation of the Acts of the Apostles in the three-year lectionaries—the Roman Catholic Ordo Lectionum Missae (OLM) and the Protestant Revised Common Lectionary (RCL)—favors the first half of the twenty-eight-chapter book over its second half. The OLM prescribes nine times more verses from the first half than from the second half, and the RCL prescribes four times more. This article compares the proportion of Acts in the lectionaries to the other twenty-six books of the New Testament, shows when in the three-year lectionary cycle readings from Acts are proclaimed, presents how much of each of the twenty-eight chapters of Acts appears in the lectionaries, hypothesizes about why the second half of Acts is slighted, and argues that the church’s liturgical tradition is weakened by muting significant passages about post-resurrection eucharists.

“Essentials” for Worship: Evelyn Underhill’s Prayer Book
Robyn Wrigley-Carr
This article explores some of the theological principles required for effective church worship. In 1927, Evelyn Underhill (1875–1941) outlined four “Essentials” or principles for effective liturgy, identified in the context of revisions to the Anglican Book of Common Prayer: adoration, the historic, the Eternal, and the interplay between spirit and sense. This article explores the extent to which these four theological principles are actually embodied in prayers that Underhill selected and wrote for retreat leading at The House of Retreat, Pleshey (north London, UK), recently published as Evelyn Underhill’s Prayer Book. Additional theological principles, not mentioned in Underhill’s “Essentials” essay but evident in her book of prayers, are also evaluated and exemplified. Underhill’s guidance to her spiritual directees about the value of liturgy in their spiritual lives is also briefly touched upon.

“Let the little children come”: Liturgical Revision and Paedocommunion in the Christian Reformed Church
Ryan L. Faber
This article examines the Lord’s Supper liturgies of the Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRC) and inquires into a possible relationship between liturgical changes and the admission of children to the Lord’s Supper. The stern warnings and emphasis on communicants’ understanding of the sacrament in the CRC’s oldest liturgies necessarily excluded children from participating in the sacrament. The 1968 Order for Communion was a milestone in the denomination’s liturgical growth. The absence of a preparatory exhortation and lengthy exposition provide a liturgy which can imagine children participating in the Lord’s Supper. An increasing emphasis on communicants’ communion with one another, evident in the 1981 Service of Word and Sacrament and the formularies adopted by Synods 1994 and 2016 may have helped facilitate the denomination’s acceptance of paedocommunion.

“Not My Will But Yours be Done”: The Use of the Mercy Seat in Theodramatic Perspective
Adam Couchman
The “Mercy Seat” performs an important function within Salvation Army worship. It symbolizes the central theological tenet of the immediacy of grace to all. Historically, its function was intended for use by those intending to “receive Christ” for the first time. Over time, its use has broadened to include other intentions whilst simultaneously diminishing in the frequency of its use. This article suggests that when viewed from a theodramatic perspective, the act of praying at the Mercy Seat becomes a contemporary, and improvised, performance of Christ’s Gethsemane prayer, “Not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). The broadening of the understanding of this act to become a deliberately repeated and embodied performance of Jesus’ prayer may help to overcome the loss of use of this symbol. Drawing upon the work of Adrienne von Speyr and Kevin Vanhoozer, this article will demonstrate how the prayer of Christ in Gethsemane is embodied through contemporary, improvised performance of his prayer at the Mercy Seat by Salvationists and those new to the faith alike.

The Influence of Liturgy on Human Memory: From the Perspective of Neuroscience
Hwarang Moon
Generally, there has been a lack of understanding about liturgy and ritual among reformed tradition. The Reformed and Presbyterian church has had a tendency to look down on the formative power of Christian liturgy while emphasizing cognitive knowledge and catechism education. However, liturgy is not just the repetition of a meaningless act. Liturgy has a formative power in the process of faith formation through its practice and repetition. This article studies how liturgy impacts human memory and faith formation based on several brain studies. First, while examining split-brain studies, it is argued that there is the possibility of ritual knowledge while participating in Christian worship. Second, through the discoveries made in mirror neuron studies, the way human learning is a result of not only interacting with objects, but also the observation of objects, is examined. Third, based on Eric Kandel’s habituation and sensitization experiment, it is claimed that even though liturgical worship can suffer the pitfalls of habituation, a well-balanced liturgical worship can aid sensitization. Lastly, while examining various sorts of memory, various ordo and elements of Christian worship are revealed; in combination these can create a Gestalt perception, and greatly impact human memory and the formation of Christian faith.

Liturgical reading and the Rule of Benedict

Keizersberg (Mont Cesar) Abbey cloister, Leuven, Belgium.
Keizersberg (Mont Cesar) Abbey cloister, Leuven, Belgium.

One of the most important patterns of liturgical prayer is the periodic return to certain texts and actions—for example, the slow turning of the three-year lectionary cycle, or the genuflections and signs of the cross that mark our crossing the threshold between sacred and ordinary space and time. At the heart of these patterns is our faith that the words and actions of tradition are inexhaustible: no matter how many times we have heard and done them, there is still room for them to further transform us, to mold us into the divine image.

Benedictine monastics read the Rule of Benedict this way, as well as the Office. And so do I. This week, I was reading through the passage for March 5, slowly, with a pause after each line for the Holy Spirit to stir up some response. Here it is:

If a sister who has been frequently corrected for some fault,
and even excommunicated,
does not amend,
let a harsher correction be applied,
that is, let the punishment of the rod be administered.

But if she still does not reform
or perhaps (which God forbid)
even rises up in pride and wants to defend her conduct,
then let the Abbess do what a wise physician would do.
Having used applications,
the ointments of exhortation,
the medicines of the Holy Scriptures,
finally the cautery of excommunication
and of the strokes of the rod,
if she sees that her efforts are of no avail,
let her apply a still greater remedy,
her own prayers and those of all the others,
that the Lord, who can do all things
may restore health to the sister who is sick.

But if she is not healed even in this way,
then let the Abbess use the knife of amputation,
according to the Apostle’s words,
“Expel the evil one from your midst” (1 Cor. 5:13),
and again,
“If the faithless one departs, let her depart” (1 Cor. 7:15)
lest one diseased sheep contaminate the whole flock.

This slow cycle of reading allows for interpretations to change, even while the text stays foundational to the community. So, for example, corporal punishment is no longer a staple of Benedictine life! Rather, what struck me about this reading was Saint Benedict’s deep and abiding faith that the ultimate father of the monastery is the Lord. As a parent, I read slowly through this passage, and can relate to the Abbess’s mounting frustration. “Will nothing work? I have tried everything, talked and talked, I’ve explained, I’ve taken away privileges, I’ve even punished, but my efforts are of no avail!”

Benedict is familiar with the temptation to ever escalate the payout of bad behavior, and its logical consequences in a spiral of out-of-control violence. After all, this is what happened with the first monastery he led, whose monks tried to poison him due to his inability to adapt his asceticism to their spiritual abilities. Here, he counsels his successors against repeating his mistake. The realization that one’s efforts are of no avail is a critical moment for discernment.

When human efforts come to naught, it is time not only for the conversion of the troublemaker, but of the whole community, for if one member is sick, the whole body is sick. Thus, the Abbot or Abbess should “apply a still greater remedy,” that is, humble and insistent prayer, “that the Lord, who can do all things may restore health to the sister who is sick.” Benedict’s resolution that his “school for the service of the Lord” should “introduce nothing harsh or burdensome” (Prologue) is not only why the Rule is still so powerful but also why so many Christians still esteem him as saint, father, and brother in Christ.

We need look no further than the news to see the spiral of violence caused by ongoing repression and alienation of peoples who instead need love, security, and support. As we walk towards Holy Week, let us reflect on the example of Jesus Christ, who at the crucial moment of human history, said, “Forgive them, Father.”

Only unmerited forgiveness can undo the knots of history. If we cannot find this forgiveness in ourselves… then let us pray.