Songs at Mass

I first would like to thank Chris Yeo for putting me on the list of bloggers who can post. Now to fire my first salvo.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us in paragraph 1158,

The harmony of signs (song, music, words, and actions) is all the more expressive and fruitful when expressed in the cultural richness of the People of God who celebrate.25 Hence "religious singing by the faithful is to be intelligently fostered so that in devotions and sacred exercises as well as in liturgical services," in conformity with the Church's norms, "the voices of the faithful may be heard." But "the texts intended to be sung must always be in conformity with Catholic doctrine. Indeed they should be drawn chiefly from the Sacred Scripture and from liturgical sources."

In the CCC paragraph highlighted above, it basically says the text for songs used at Mass has to be chiefly from Scripture and Liturgy, and in harmony with Catholic doctrine. Firstly, scriptural text. Open your Sunday Missal and you have the "Entrance Antiphon" and "Communion Antiphon". We have different antiphons for each Sunday. Look carefully to see where they come from. They come mainly from the Psalms and various parts of the Bible.

Those who pray the Liturgy of the Hours regularly will know that the Psalms themselves are hymns expressing all sorts of emotion. Some Psalms beg the Lord for mercy, some praise Him for his goodness and so on. We know for sure that Jesus and Mary prayed the Psalms. The Antiphons have been used at Mass for a very long time, and the liturgical reforms of 1970 did not do away with them.

Yet, I'm sure we all agree it is common practice in our Archdiocese for choirs to make their own choices of hymns to be sung at Mass. Sometimes, (and often) the choices made tend to reflect the personal preferences of whoever is in charge of choosing the songs - and not the suitability for use at Mass. However, it is not a question of whether people know how to choose the right song. What I want to ask is this:

Why are we ditching the Psalms and Scripture Verses, meticulously chosen for us by the Church which have been in use for centuries, in favour of our personal preferences? And in the process, run the risk of going against what the Church teaches?

This question results from observing current liturgical practices.

Firstly, musical issues and the use of the vernacular at Mass. Musical settings of the Antiphons come down in the form of Gregorian chants (in Latin), which are difficult to sing. It would take some time for a group of singers to be competent in singing chant. There are simpler settings, such as the Simple Gradual, which is a collection of Psalms set to vastly easier melodies. These are approachable by anyone who has had basic musical education. Yet the Simple Gradual is in Latin - which generally conflicts with the normal practice in parishes nowadays to have Mass (and everything at Mass) in the vernacular.

Secondly, we actually can sing hymns at Mass- provided they are in a collection of hymns approved by the Bishop (see the GIRM, para 48) - and of course the hymns have to be in harmony with the Catechism's requirements. Unfortunately, Singapore does not have such a collection of hymns. The best we can do is to buy a hymnal which already has an imprimatur. Yet, policing is lax and choirs are left to choose from whatever music they can get their hands on, whether imprimatur or not, protestant, evangelical, lutheran etc etc. It also seems that not many people are well-formed enough (myself included) to look at texts inorder to check their conformity with Catholic doctrine.

Thirdly, the mistaken notion that the liturgical term "active participation" means external actions like singing, moving, doing and so on. This leads to choosing hymns that "the congregation knows" ie. already been sung in the parish for some time. Presumably, this is to avoid complaints from members of the congregation that they are unable to sing along. It might be unacceptable to some for me to say this - but we really don't have to get everyone to sing everything at Mass. "Active Participation" is primarily interior - we come to Mass to pray and unite ourselves with God's sacrifice, by virtue of our baptism.

We can't go wrong by singing Psalms. A setting of Psalms like By Flowing Waters can be used. Simple tones already available for Responsorial Psalms can be used too. These are simple enough for many choirs to manage. In places where the congregation still want to sing hymns, those found in the Liturgy of the Hours could also be used, as they are metrical and can be set against existing hymn melodies (eg. books like "Everyday Prayer"). Using existing hymnals with imprimatur, carefully scrutinized to screen out the dodgy hymns, is also possible. Finally, we can only pray for the Singapore collection of hymns to be ready.

Although the Antiphons are the least important part of the Mass, I have devoted an entire blog post to it. What is at stake here is the beliefs of the faithful. We pray about what we believe in, and vice versa. Singing the wrong kind of text has disastrous consequences for the faithful, especially those whose only contact with the Church is the Sunday Mass. If only it could be a simple manner for us to open the book, and sing what the Church tells us to.


Daniel said...

What about songs like Amazing Grace, The Old Rugged Cross, God of Mercy and Compassion? Or even songs like Prayer of St. Francis and Canticle of the Sun?

Norman said...

Hmm, maybe to steer the discussion a bit. Let me phrase the question that I posed in the article (in bold) in a different way.

At Mass, can we, or should we, sing more Psalms + Scripture verses, especially the Antiphons specifically prescribed in the Missal for each Sunday, and in the process reduce the practice of arbitrarily choosing hymns?

So its not so much "what songs are suitable/unsuitable" as "can we start using the Antiphons in the Missal?"

Anonymous said...

I have learnt through my experiences in the US that one of the geniuses of the Roman rite is that the people DON'T need books for liturgical services. The readings and orations are meant to be listened and actively followed. Antiphonal singing of the psalms allow the assembly to join in meditating the psalm without the need for books; and since the antiphons are often drawn from Scripture, it allows a line of Scripture to be etched in the minds of the faithful. I too recommend a rediscovery of the rich tradition of using psalms and the antiphons at Mass: hymns at Mass, which no doubt have become very popular in our culture, are really a Protestant inculturation.

And besides, who sings hymns during processions like the communion procession? Carry a hymn book and receive the Lord at the same time seems rather messy unless one receives on the tongue. Looking at the projection screen that has mysteriously cropped up in not a few parishes is even worse... it increases the risk of tripping and hardly makes the Communion procession a reverent liturgical act. I was blessed to be in a parish in the US that had an enlightend music director: we switched to singing antiphoned hymns (usually hymns based on a psalm that had an antiphon-like refrain, short but memorable) when I was there. Singing during Communion by the assembly picked up tremandously, and the procession became more reverent: we could meditate on the words of the song and join in at the common refrain as we move forward to receive the Lord.