Music and Liturgy, where is our inheritance?

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Music and Liturgy, where is our inheritance?

Something that I have wanted to write about, something I encounter week and after week in the parishes, but also in the Catholic Church generally, is music. I needed some time to read more, but also to remain calm, since this subject is connected with the liturgy and touches on a very sensitive area of the Church and its life. Some may tell me that there are more worrisome issues at the moment found in the Church and the world, and I realise this. But this is an issue that I hear on the weekly basis at the Sunday Mass. I often wondered, after becoming a Catholic, why the music of the Catholic Church which is so rich in history and development, but rarely ever used at the parish level. And while there are some very lovely hymns and hymn tunes, not all of these are from the Catholic tradition.

The music I had come to think of as Catholic continues in use for Masses in those parishes and dioceses which have Masses in the Extraordinary Form (the 1962 Missale romanum) as approved by the Motu proprio Summorum prontificum of 2007 of Pope Benedict XVI celebrated in Latin. The music for this Mass continues the ancient traditions and was envisioned to be continued by the Council. But for the general working of parishes, the sounds of Latin and the Gregorian musical tradition disappeared after 1970 and will take a great deal of effort on the part of the parishes if it is ever to  return.

Most of the music found in parishes today has not been reflective of the wishes of the Second Vatican Council, but have been introduced since 1970 into the Liturgy to match the new style of Mass and the vernacular languages through a poor understanding of the documents of the Council. The Second Vatican Council states clearly in Sacrosanctum Concilium (36 and 116) that Gregorian chant and the Latin language were to continue as before as the centre pieces of liturgical music of the Catholic Church.

There are many publications in use across the globe in a variety of languages for use at the Mass. The publications most used in the parishes I have had are Catholic Book of Worship (CBW) II and III, (the latter being the most recent edition which included some changes to allow inclusive language and less frightening visions of God) and D’une même voix, a hymnal of French language hymns and chants for use in the French language liturgy. But these are a reflection of the current state of the liturgy and what has become an acceptable norm, and are not a reflection of the wishes of the Second Vatican Council.

A very good article concerned with these changes and the current state of liturgical music is “The Mass of Vatican II” by Father Joseph Fessio, S.J. printed in 2000, in which he lays out the lead up to the current situation, what the popes had envisioned before the Second Vatican Council, and the results of the jettisoning of the musical heritage of the Catholic Church from 1970 onwards. Further reading should include but is not exclusive to the following: Te Deum, The Church and Music, by Paul Westmeyer, The Musical Shape of the Liturgy,by William P. Mahrt, and Iota Unum by Romano Amerio. These as well as many more illustrate the history and state of the Sacred Liturgy and liturgical music in the Catholic Church today.

We cannot but see this state of musical affairs as being disobedient and disingenuous to the Council Fathers who thought they were perhaps setting the Church on a path of light changes here and there to the Sacred Liturgy, when in fact they opened the door to the whole sale destruction of 1500 years of musical tradition and nearly 2000 years of Catholic liturgy. We are left as the inheritors of a shadow, the inheritance of a few copper pennies that remain after the loss of the golden traditions and sounds of centuries of liturgical development.

What we have, generally, is a hymn of some sort to process into the assembly and a hymn to retire from the assembly at the end of the liturgical action (Gathering and Scattering hymns according to Fr Joseph Fessio). During the Mass there are a variety of pieces sung that correspond to the parts of the Mass in English, French, German, Italian etc. Sometimes there are Latin elements added but these are rare. The use of Latin has been nearly completely abandoned in most parishes and dioceses across the globe even though: “The Council permitted the vernacular in certain limited  ways, but clearly understood that the fixed parts of the Mass would remain in Latin” (Fr J. Fessio).

A recent article in the Living with Christ publication (available in most parishes in Canada) by Father Gilles Mongeau, SJ, states: “The manner of singing proposed by the GIRM [General Instruction of the Roman Missal] offers some significant clues: the preferred manner is call and response (i.e. dialogue) between choir/cantor and assembly. This use of dialogue singing creates a dynamic of ritual interaction that brings participants together into one body… The GIRM mentions here the Graduale Romanum and the Graduale Simplex; these are collections of antiphons for the Church year which are to be used with seasonal psalms. The entrance and communion antiphons we see in our missals come from the Graduale Romanum. This focus reflects the GIRM’s overall concern for singing TEXTS”.

Books of liturgical music are available that reflect better the musical traditions of the Church, even if not sung in Latin such as: Simple English Propers: For the Ordinary Form of the Mass, Sundays and Feast Days by Adam Bartlett, Parish Book of Psalms: English Responsorial Psalms for Mass in the Gregorian Tradition by Arlene Oost-Zinner and The Parish Book of Chant by the Church Music Association of America to name a few.

As Benedict XVI said in 2006: “An authentic updating of sacred music can take place only in the lineage of the great tradition of the past, of Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony.” The people have left the Sacred Traditions, for the most part, under a leadership that willed it so. But the music of the Mass is something that can be administered well and improved where there is a desire on the part of the pastor, organist and choir. Even if only a small scola, the situation can be rectified. Perhaps in our own small corners of the vineyard we can make it so.

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