A joyful noise?

With the full implementation of the new missal now about a month away — can you believe it? — writer Jeffrey Tucker is putting it into context, and raising some concerns, particularly when it comes to music:

The “elephant in the living room” of non-liturgical texts at Mass comes through music at Mass. The problem is not the Gloria, Sanctus, or Agnus, since those are prescribed texts and carefully regulated as such (though there is no active regulation over the style in which they are sung). The real problem comes with the songs that the musicians on their own choose to sing at the entrance, the offertory, the communion, and the recessional.

In larger parishes, these additional pieces can be fully six long songs sung at Mass, with as many as 4 or 6 or more verses. There are suggestions in the rubrics that these should be appropriate and speak to the season but ultimately the choice of what to sing is left to the discretion of the musicians themselves. Pastors are not inclined to watch over these selections carefully, even if they had the time to do so. It means that most of the main music has Mass can have absolutely nothing to do with the season or venue.

If musicians are given discretion and lack anything like a serious formation in the Roman Rite, they end up looking for some kind of affirmation of what they do. Being musicians, they look to the audience and begin to regard themselves as performers. They seek praise. They seek evidence that people are emotionally affected by what they do. That means choosing music that connects with the secular and not liturgical sense of what music should do to people, which is not permit prayer but entertain. This trajectory is entirely understandable but deeply regrettable.

Nothing in this new release of the Missal itself will provide a curb this habitual practice or the restrain the publishers who encourage it. That’s because the main musical contribution of the Missal affects the ordinary and dialogue chants of the Mass. It provides no required music for the propers of the Mass: entrance, Psalm, alleluia or tract, offertory, and communion.

To be sure, there is enough in the introductory matter of the Missal to figure out that the propers of the Mass itself should be sung. Paul VI affirms that the music for the Mass is found in the Graduale and the General Instruction clearly states the most preferred options. But the sliver of a loophole to make choices about texts means that there will be no change in the prevailing practice, mainly because most musicians and priests are unaware that there is anything fundamentally wrong about it. They might not like the style of the chosen music, but they don’t feel themselves on firm ground to address that issue. So they end up deferring to the status quo.

Someday you should try an experiment. Count up all the words sung in these non-liturgical songs from the beginning to the completion of Mass. You will find that they are roughly similar to the total words used in the readings of Mass or the homily at Mass. And yet consider that there is no guarantee at all these texts have anything to do with the Mass or the season. Most likely, these songs just offer general spiritual encouragement, which is fine, but this has nothing to do with the liturgy as such, even if the publisher of the music assures us otherwise.

Put all this together and you really draw a disturbing picture. The Missal itself covers half or less, even as little as one third, of the message that people gain from the hour plus time in the week that they spend within the Catholic milieu. They come to Mass and a large part of what they get is something else. When you consider the decades of work that went into this new translation, and the incredible hours of effort and expertise spent on it, it is rather shocking to consider that the net results might not be able to penetrate through the fog of non-liturgical texts that have crept into the Mass over the years.

There’s much more.  Read on.


  1. Deacon Norb says:

    Some of my pet peeves here:

    –Number one is too many verses being sung for the allocated time. When I preside at free-standing Communion Services (usually twice a month or so), I do have my congregation sing both during the procession (two verses) and recession (one). One of the priest/pastors I worked with in “days-of-yore” insisted that all the verses printed in the song book be used!

    –I also agree with the idea that hymns need to be part of the theme of that liturgy. OK: use “For All the Saints” when when you have a generic feast day but what about using “Pange Lingua” (in Latin) on the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas who wrote it. That means someone has to take the time to check the Ordo before hand.

    –Finally, my real CRANK is a cantor who cannot enunciate. We have a solid pool of cantors/soloists in our parish but a few of them let the music of their voices overpower the words. I am getting to the age where my inability to hear words articulately at higher frequencies is getting annoying. The musical talent is clearly there but the pastoral dimension is totally lacking.

  2. God bless Mr. Tucker and his chant cafe blog.

  3. I will concede that in many parishes they use way too many verses to the hymns; we usually use only 2, unless it’s for offertory which takes a little longer.
    I’m getting kind of a vibe from this piece that the author thinks most musicians are pretty ignorant. I beg to differ. We make every effort to be well-informed and plan music which is liturgically appropriate. As far as playing to the audience and seeking praise; that is simply insulting. Yes, we like to know what people like to sing (hint: if you hear dead silence out in the pews, it’s not going over too well). Musicians in most parishes work closely with the pastor; we’re not in an adverserial relationship.

  4. #3 is mine, for some reason it posted as anonymous.

  5. Oh heck! all of this is to hard, let’s just sing “Gather us in”, “Leaping the Mountains” or “On Eagle Wings” as have for the past twenty five years.

  6. The point made by Deacon Norb and Melody illustrates the problem with using hymns to accompany processions: most hymns continue from verse to verse, such that the entire hymn tells a complete story. Singing only some of the verses leaves significant parts of the story untold.

  7. Singing only some of the verses leaves significant parts of the story untold.

    True — and particularly the problem when the hymn has a Trinitarian structure. Also, singing itself is an act of worship, so I’m not sure what it means for our worship of God to go on too long. I’m for singing all of the verses, at least most of the time, and if you judge a hymn too long for your purposes, then simply sing a shorter hymn.

    Of course, psalms — from which most of the propers are drawn — also tell a story, or at least express a continuing train of thought. So I’m not sure the propers necessarily solve the problem.

  8. “But know this. If when the new Missal comes to your parish, and you leave Mass with a sense that not much has changed at all, there is no reason to blame the Missal itself. It represents the best-possible effort to take on the core of the problem in Catholic liturgy today. Sadly, however, it is not the end but just the beginning of a much longer process of reform.”

    The core problem in the Catholic liturgy today has nothing, absolutely nothing to do with translation and language. It has everything to do with the broader crisis of faith. Since St. Paul used the analogy of the Church being the Bride of Christ, let’s stick with that spousal analogy.

    Newlyweds are a very wordy bunch. They tend to say a great deal, of necessity. They are always seeking affirmation in myriad ways. While the love is genuine, it is young and largely untested by all that life will eventually throw at it. It is a genuine, though not fully matured love.

    Older couples, married a long time and who have matured in their love for one another, who have experienced the affirmation that comes with having experienced the presence and love of the other during life’s bitter sorrows and not just its joys, don’t need so many words.

    The experience of fidelity says it all, and simple presence becomes a profound level of communication. Such couples don’t question the use of words and don’t agonize over their choices as they did in young love. The selection of words becomes intuitive over time, driven by the nature of the couple’s shared love and experiences.

    That so many are so hung up, liturgically, on words– counting them, measuring the translations, fretting endlessly over which single word might lead others into erroneous understanding–suggests a lack of spousal depth. I think most spiritually mature Catholics are well past this or that translation, and are centered on the Real Presence in the Gospel and in the Eucharist.

    Having been born in 1960, my entire life’s experience of the liturgy has been as a witness to the endless changes: major, minor, approved and unapproved, orthodox and anarchic. I’ve seen more experimentation on the Mass than I’ve seen in research laboratories, with no two ever being the same.

    That’s young love: genuine, but not at all mature.

    As a scientist, I know well that progress in understanding means manipulating one variable at a time and holding all others constant. I think if we stopped the inappropriate focus on endless translations and adaptations of the Mass, we would be in a better position to focus on the mysteries themselves, the mysteries of the spousal love between the Bridegroom and His bride, the Church. We’re so caught up in the endless arguments over the best way to express the relationship, that we don’t spend our time and energies on plumbing the depths of that relationship.

  9. I think I am better off not reading articles like this. I know that the language will be better in the new Missal, but I was really hoping that the music would be cleaned up a bit.

    This means we’re going to be stuck with the same failed-opera-singer cantor and theatrical piano player. Argh.

  10. With permission from our bishop, we are already singing a new Mass setting. There are dozens of new Mass settings, and there is a lot of difference among the music. When I think of chants, I think of the monks singing beautiful music. The Mass setting we are using now is a chant but is not so good.

    There are other web sites that do not care for “contemporary hymns” or anything except Gregorian chant. Some web sites want only the Tridentine Latin Mass. I think back to the Last Supper, or the earliest Masses (not done in Latin), and think that most comments on the subject indicate only personal preference.

  11. This is an amazing and revealing piece. My wife and I ask this all of the time, usually always on our way home from Mass: ‘Who chooses the hymns?’ I assumed–assumed!–that it was the presiding priest! As a convert from a confessional Lutheran church, I grew up in a liturgical setting where the Lutheran pastor chose the hymns. That would *never* be a decision left to someone not ordained. Yes, apples and oranges. Lutheran seminarians (at least in my synod) also took seminars on liturgy and hymnody. And Lutherans have a stock of theologically rich chorales corresponding to the liturgical calendar, going back six hundred years (and longer).

    So yes, it’s different. But, since I naively assumed that something like this happened in the Catholic setting too (since there’s so much singing now), I often leave Mass scratching my head. My wife and I are always asking, ‘Why the heck did we sing those particular hymns at those particular times?’

    I’m…amazed. Amazed. It’s amazing to me how much theologically relevant decision-making power is given to the lay musicians. This isn’t to complain about the lay musicians, hard working folks that they are. But…

    Suffice it to say, this explains a lot. I’ll leave it at that.

  12. It’s the main reason I tend to prefer the non-singing Masses: before 9 am, and after 5 pm.

  13. naturgesetz says:

    John V #6 makes an excellent point. There are so many hymns where the latter verses are important, perhaps even more so than the earlier ones.
    For example, “And when I think that God his son not sparing,
    Sent him to die – I scarce can take it in,
    That on the cross my burden gladly bearing,
    He bled and died to take away my sin:Refrain

    When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation
    And take me home- what joy shall fill my heart!
    Then I shall bow in humble adoration
    And there proclaim, my God, how great thou art!” is more important than the beauty-of-nature in the first two verses.

    Or consider “For All the Saints.”
    I’ll concede that there are too many verses to sing all on a single occasion, and most hymnals omit the ones about particular categories of saints, but it would really expand our appreciation of the communion of saints if — as the hymn intends — we also sang sometimes about our own struggle and of the final gathering of all saints in the heavenly kingdom, instead of limiting ourselves to just the first two verses.

    I’d be sorry to see some of the hymns that have appeared in our worship over the past 40 years disappear altogether, but I wish we could get more of the riches their texts offer. Why must the singing stop as soon as the priest is at the chair? Why can’t we get on a roll and sing four (or more) verses of a hymn at the offertory? Why must priests bolt for the door after one verse of the recessional?

  14. “Why must priests bolt for the door after one verse of the recessional?”

    Because if he doesn’t, he’s following the 3/4 of the parishioners who are already on their way out. :-(

  15. Deacon Greg Kandra says:

    “Why must priests bolt for the door after one verse of the recessional?”

    At my parish, we stay in the sanctuary for the first verse, and then move to kiss the altar and recess out after that. We almost always get in two verses of the final hymn, sometimes three.

    And yeah: as Gerard noted, we’re often fighting our way the aisle with the exiting hordes.

  16. The people will enjoy mass a lot more once we get rid of all the people who like bad music. Oh sorry, the silent majority yearning for chant, etc, will finally be heard. Whatever. The groundwork is already being set to shift the blame for the new translation’s coming failure to bring in the masses. Rather than not caring for the new changes, a different reason must be contrived for the failure or otherwise the idiots who pushed for changing “one in being” to “consubstancial” might be found not to hold the pulse of the silent majority. Some people might even conclude that the whole thing was driven by a minority of zealots pushing an ideological agenda.

  17. “…we’re often fighting our way the aisle with the exiting hordes.”

    This sort of disrepect and rudeness so common in Catholic churches has always bothered me. My wife, who is Baptist, was appalled when she first saw this sort of thing and I must admit that you would never see it in one of her churches.

    At one parish I previously attended, a fairly recently ordained priest made it a point to return to the lectern following the creed and pointedly told the congregation that it is extremely disrespectful to exit before the celebrant leaves the altar. At that Mass at least, no one did.

  18. Our parish used to be staffed by Fransiscan priests, so I don’t know if our custom is from them, or not. After the 2nd verse of the exit hymn is finished, the congregation kneels and says, “O sacrament most holy, o sacrament divine, all praise and all thanksgiving be every moment Thine, (repeated 3 times), then, “praised be Jesus Christ now and forever, Amen” Most people wouldn’t dream of leaving until that is finished; by that time the priest and deacon have processed out.
    Even if it’s for Lenten devotions or something, not Mass, someone will always start that, and we leave afterwards.

  19. In the Roman Liturgy, hymns were traditionally encountered in the Divine Office. They were part of the rite, they were sung in their entirety. At Mass, there were antiphons provided for the introit, offertory and communion.

    Archbishop Rembert Weakland, who is a classically trained liturgical musician (his doctorate is in Ambrosian chant), has an interesting vignette in his memoirs. Following the Second Vatican Council the bishops of our country were discussing the introduction of vernacular hymns, and he suggested a ring-binder format so they could experiment and see what worked before publishing a standard hymnal, as the Episcopalians, Lutherans and others had.

    Cardnal Dearden, first President of the bishops’ conference, dismissed the idea of an official hymnal, saying he thought it better and more American to trust to the “free market,” and let the publishers compete. As Archbp. Weakland commented, this let mediocrity rise, and reign. We got Omer Westendorf and Ray Repp, the American Church’s answer to Alvin and the Chipmunks.

    A hymn is an act of worship. I would hope that no one would suggest just singing the first two sentences of the Our Father, to “save time.” Yet how often I have marveled on Trinity Sunday, when the hymn stops as I hit the Chair… and as the first verse praises the Father, the second the Son, the third the Holy Spirit, we start TRINITY SUNDAY MASS (!!) by praising exactly two-thirds of the Trinity. I’m always tempted to start, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son.” “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Love of God.” And so on… but I’m afraid nobody would get the point.

    Or a hymn like the Lenten, “Lord Who throughout these Forty Days.” Bright, lively, not long. But too long for Catholic attention spans, so that the final verse, “an Easter of unending joy we may attain at last,” never quite gets heard as we are too mired in Lenten gloom and the desire to Get On With It.

    Nothing is more depressing than a curmudgeonly relative who wants to “get it over with” at a holiday dinner. Yet we approach the Eucharist that way. How can we expect to be nourished by our worship if we’re just thinking about the next errand?

  20. “Sadly, however, it is not the end but just the beginning of a much longer process of reform.”

    Wishful thinking.

    The liturgy has been in reform for at least the past fifty years. Mr Tucker seems to think that now he and his proper chants are on the scene, we can settle into real business. I don’t tire of disabusing him of the notion that reform was going on before he arrived, and will continue long after he and I are dead.

    I don’t think much of the given texts of the propers. A good music director can improve on this unreformed aspect of liturgy. We have a three-year cycle for a Sunday Lectionary. Why not full psalms for entrance and communion instead of little Bible snippets?

    I don’t have much sympathy for one or two verses of music. Maybe those parishes need a good dose of Psalm 119.

  21. Katie Angel says:

    #8 Gerald – I too was born in 1960 and have watched all the changes and “fixes” to the Eternal Bride of Christ and I wholeheartedly agree with your analogy. My beloved and I were married for 23 years before he was taken home to God and your description of marriage is extremely accurate.

    Thank you for articulating so well what I have struggled to say. As a theologian (undergrad from Candler School of Theology at Emory) and accountant (graduate school at Georgia State), I am gladdened to see someone else approach our faith with both mysticism and practicality.

  22. Deacon Steve says:

    The key thing with the music in the Liturgy is that it is supposed to be an integral part of the liturgy, not songs placed at strategic times to entertain those in the pews. One pet peave I have with music choices is that the hymns chosen are too complicated vocally for the people in the pews (and the musically challeneged deacon) to sing along with. The role of the choir and the cantor are to encourage and accompany the faithful in their singing. It is not a time for a concert by the choir to the exclusion on helping the people participate. We were taught in formation that you should sing all the verses of the chosen song, and that the musicians should select songs of a length that they do not cause undo delay in the flow of the mass. As to the recessional, reading the new translation there is no call for a recessional hymn at all. It is not required, nor is it forbidden. I think all of this calls for the parishes to look at their liturgy committees and what they are doing. All the liturgical ministers need to work together to help ensure that our liturgies are dignified, properly celebratory and encourage the participation of all the faithful fully when they are present.

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