Should we have hymns at Mass at all? Some liturgists argue that the propers are all that are necessary. The introit verses, offertory and communion antiphons should be sung, and some argue that they should be sung in Latin and with Gregorian chant. There’s certainly a case to be made for this, but we also have to consider where most Catholic congregations are and how to meet them where they are and move them closer to the ideal.
My own thoughts on this are guided by St Paul’s words, “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord.” (Eph 5:19) and Colossians 3:16, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.” If this is the apostolic instruction on the matter, then how might it be applied in our churches in the liturgy?
I would say that we therefore have three categories of sacred music. The first is ‘psalms’. This would include not only the psalter, but all other liturgical texts taken from Scripture that are set to music. It would also include the liturgical texts like the Gloria and the Agnus Dei, the Great Amen and the Acclamation. In other words ‘psalms’ might mean all the liturgical texts which are set to music. ‘Hymns’ could apply therefore to the singing of other established songs of praise which complement the liturgy and are used in appropriate places and are chosen by appropriate criteria. Spiritual songs are the the more ephemeral, subjective, devotional kind of music that also has its place within our whole worship experience.
My own opinion is that within the liturgy ‘psalms’ have priority, hymns are permissible and preferable and spiritual songs should be used mostly outside the liturgy in praise and worship services, adoration, more informal mission settings and devotional settings. However, some suitable spiritual songs may well be sung if they are done well and do not distract, during the administration of communion.
I hasten to add that this is my opinion, weighing up the pastoral needs of the people on one hand, and the demands of a liturgical ideal. However, my opinions are supported by the teachings of the church which stipulate that sacred music must not include secular styles or secular instruments, that the organ is to be given pride of place and that Gregorian chant is to the foundational music for all the music at Mass.
The music at Mass must complement and accent the action of the Mass and the devotion of the people. Any music which distracts and draws attention to itself is to be avoided. I would therefore say that some great operatic classical music Mass may be (for some congregations) just as distracting and off putting as the awful praise and worship music we so often hear.
Of course this is not to equate Mozart with Marty Hagen, but it is to make the point that both may actually be obtrusive, and the right choice of music will not only be fine, orthodox, inspiring, singable and beautiful, but it will also be appropriate for the congregation, the church and the circumstances of the Mass. This is one of the beauties of Gregorian chant and traditional hymns. If they are done well and simply, they never draw attention to themselves and always point us beyond themselves to the action of the Mass.
The setting and circumstances of the liturgy therefore matter. A small humble and down to earth parish should not attempt a cathedral standard organist and choir, but Gregorian chant based music will be suitable for both, one being adorned with finer aspects of classical music, while the other may be adorned with more simple music.
All things should be done decently and in order and according to their proper status. Music at Mass should reflect the character and circumstances of the parish while at the same time aiming for the highest and holiest standards of beauty in worship.