One of the tragedies of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it prevented us from singing the liturgy. When we were all sheltering in place and only a cantor and a keyboard player were performing for streamed Masses, there was a vestige of singing. But we did not have the voice of the gathered assembly.
And then once we were able to gather in small or limited groups for liturgy, we were told not to sing because singing could spread the virus at an elevated rate.
All this not singing or partial singing can lead us to think that singing is optional in the liturgy. It is not. Speaking the liturgy with no or limited music is akin to speaking (not singing) Hamilton. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy says:
Although it is not always necessary (e.g., in weekday Masses) to sing all the texts that are of themselves meant to be sung, every care should be taken that singing by the ministers and the people is not absent in celebrations that occur on Sundays and on holy days of obligation. (40)
When singing must be reduced, either for pastoral reasons or because of a pandemic, some parts must always be sung. This is based on the principle of progressive solemnity. The more “solemn” or important the liturgy is, the more that must be sung. More of the liturgy is sung at the parish-wide Easter Vigil than at a weekday Mass in Ordinary Time, for example.
In the liturgy, there is a hierarchy of sung parts.
Dialogues and Acclamations
Many new liturgical planners are unaware that the first preference for singing goes to the dialogues and acclamations in the liturgy. In many parishes, the dialogues are often spoken, and it can seem like that is the norm. We tend to hear them sung only at more formal liturgies. But that is not what the church intends. As a norm, we should always be singing these elements:
The Lord be with you. And with your spirit.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
The Gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ
While the “Lord be with you” dialogue would ideally always be sung, the opening prayer (collect) and prayer after communion might be chanted on more solemn or festive occasions. Similarly, while the “Gospel of the Lord” dialogue would be sung at most liturgies, the chanting of the Gospel itself might happen at more formal and ceremonial liturgies such as Christmas and Easter.
These dialogues and acclamations should always be sung. They should be simple enough for even those with limited ability to be able to sing. And, of course, they should be familiar enough to be sung from memory.
The reason the dialogues are the number-one element of the liturgy that we sing is they reflect the nature of who God is in relation to us. God loves us and is always reaching out to us, And we are always responding. By singing the ritual dialogues, we are reminding ourselves and teaching the catechumens and the children who God is and how God acts.
The acclamations share the number-one spot because they are all fundamentally acts of praise and worship. Our gut-level response, once we realize who God is and how God acts, is to shout with praise. So the acclamations are always sung.
When singing must be reduced, either for pastoral reasons or because of a pandemic, some parts must always be sung. This is based on the principle of progressive solemnity. Click To Tweet
Antiphons and Psalms
Next in order of importance are the antiphons and psalms. The Responsorial Psalm in the Liturgy of the Word is usually sung on Sundays in most parishes. At weekday mass, the Responsorial Psalm is more often spoken. However, to the extent possible, parishes should strive to sing simple chant versions of the Responsorial Psalm even at weekday liturgies.
The Entrance and Communion chants are the two most important antiphons to be sung in the liturgy because they accompany significant processions. Almost always, these are replaced by an opening song and a song during communion at Sunday Mass. During weekday liturgies, if the musical ability of the presider or assembly is limited, the simple antiphons could be chanted on a single tone as an alternative to foregoing music altogether during these processions.
The purpose of the Responsorial Psalm is to foster meditation on the Word of God (see General Instruction on the Roman Missal, 61). It is in fact a proclamation of the word of God itself. As such, it should always be sung from the ambo where the other readings take place.
The purpose of the antiphons is to accompany the entrance and communion processions. The processions themselves are metaphors for the worshiping community as a People of God. We are pilgrims on a journey of faith, sent by Jesus Christ to bring good news to the word. The antiphons or songs that we sing during these processions remind us of the importance of our mission as disciples.
Refrains and Repeated Responses
The third level of importance for liturgical singing includes the response we make to the general intercessions (e.g. Lord, hear our prayer), the Kyrie, and the Lamb of God.
The purpose of the general intercessions is to perform our role as members of the baptismal priesthood. As a priesthood, we are obligated to intercede to God for the needs of the world. To sing our intercessory prayer elevates the importance and dignity of what we do as a baptized priesthood.
The Kyrie and Lamb of God are litanic prayers that were always sung in the ancient church. Litanies tend to feel more graceful and beautiful when sung.
Strophic hymnody was not part of the Roman Catholic Mass in its origins. However, liturgy is a living, breathing thing that adapts to the cultures in which it is celebrated. Over time, hymns came to be used more and more in the Mass. However, Sing to the Lord and other documents still list hymnody as fourth (and last) in importance of the music that must be sung at Mass. The placement of hymnody is familiar to most of us: entrance procession, preparation of gifts, communion procession, and recessional. Indeed, this line up is so familiar that many Catholics think of these four songs as the most important in the liturgy instead of the parts of the Mass the church says have higher priority for singing.
Here is the purpose of each of these hymns.
In most parishes, the entrance hymn replaces the entrance antiphon. Some people read the liturgical documents very strictly to say that we must always sing an entrance antiphon and we have the option of additionally singing an entrance hymn. But most parishes find this to be an unnecessary duplication.
The purpose of the entrance music–whether an antiphon or a hymn–“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” (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 47).
In most North American parishes, a well-known hymn will accomplish this goal more effectively than the entrance antiphon. However, a good pastoral musician might want to try introducing the antiphon on occasion to expand the musical skill and spiritual repertoire of the parish.
Preparation of gifts song
While the gifts for the eucharist are being brought forward, music accompanies the procession and the preparation of the altar. However, unlike the entrance song, the purpose of the music here is simply to accompany the ritual action. The music might even be instrumental with no singing. Or it might be the choir or cantor singing alone, without the assembly. This would be a good spot to occasionally introduce the singing the antiphon instead of a strophic hymn.
Song during communion
The song during communion can be either the antiphon or a hymn. The purpose of the song “is to express the communicants’ union in spirit by means of the unity of their voices, to show joy of heart, and to highlight more clearly the ‘communitarian’ nature of the procession to receive Communion” (General Instruction on the Roman Missal, 86).
It seems to me that most parishes fail to meet this goal with the song during communion. Pastoral musicians need to do more work, experimenting with more kinds of music until they find a simple, repeatable repertoire that will accomplish the purpose of expressing a “union in spirit” and “joy of heart” through singing while processing to the table.
Note that because of the communitarian nature of communion, this song, whether antiphon or hymn, the singing starts immediately as the priest consumes the body of Christ. The singing continues until all have shared in the body and blood of Christ at the altar. That means the singing must continue while the choir is receiving communion.
The recessional song is more of a custom than a ritual element. It is not required, and there is no assigned antiphon for the recessional in the liturgy. However, to say the recessional song is a custom is not to diminish its importance in fostering a sense of unity and mission among the assembly. Oftentimes it is a musical highpoint in the liturgy. Even so, for less solemn liturgies, musicians might try accompanying the procession of ministers at the end of Mass with instrumental music or even silence.
Once we know the purpose of each of the sung parts of the liturgy, we can prioritize the order of what must be sung, in this order:
- Dialogues and acclamations (Gospel Acclamation, Holy, Holy, Memorial Acclamation,
- Litanies (Kyrie, Lamb of God);
- Entrance and Communion Antiphons (unless replaced by hymns)
- Responsorial Psalm, perhaps in a simple chanted setting
- Hymns (preparation of gifts and recessional)
Even when musical accompaniment is not possible, every attempt should be made to sing the acclamations and dialogues.
Photo by Mateus Campos Felipe on Unsplash