Mar 15, 2006

Retrieving "A Treasure of Inestimable Value"

Online Edition – March 2006, Vol. XII, No. 1

Retrieving "A Treasure of Inestimable Value" — The Bishops’ Subcommittee on Music & the Directory of Music for use in Liturgy

by Susan Benofy

It has been five years since Liturgiam authenticam appeared. The document, which focused on correct translation of liturgical texts, was issued on March 28, 2001, and is only the fifth Instruction on correct implementation of Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. It included specific directives concerning sung texts and liturgical hymns. These songs and hymns “no less than the prayers, the readings and the homily, express in an authentic way the message of the Liturgy while fostering a sense of common faith and communion in charity”, the Instruction said.

If [songs and hymns] are used widely by the faithful, they should remain relatively fixed so that confusion among the people may be avoided. Within five years from the publication of this Instruction, the Conferences of Bishops, necessarily in collaboration with the national and diocesan Commissions and with other experts, shall provide for the publication of a directory or repertory of texts intended for liturgical singing. This document shall be transmitted for the necessary recognitio to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. (Liturgiam authenticam 108)

The Instruction’s directive that the national bishops’ conferences produce a directory for sacred music echoed calls for securing and promoting the Church’s “precious heritage” of sacred music — beginning with the Second Vatican Council. This was also emphasized in 2003 by Pope John Paul II’s Chirograph on Sacred Music, issued on the hundredth anniversary of Pope Pius X’s statement on the restoration of Gregorian Chant and “actual participation” of the people in the Mass.

The deadline for producing such a “directory or repertory of texts for liturgical singing” is now upon us. What progress has been made? No such document was considered by the US bishops at their November 2005 plenary meeting, and so far there is no indication that such a document is nearing completion. There has been very little news about efforts to fulfill this requirement.

The Subcommittee on Music

At the June 2001 USCCB meeting it was announced that a Music and Liturgy Subcommittee had been appointed by then-chairman of the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy (BCL), Archbishop Oscar Lipscomb of Mobile. Bishop Allen Vigneron (Oakland) was appointed chairman, but the members were not listed, nor was there any listing of the “experts” to be consulted on such a project.

“The bishop members of the Subcommittee informally convened in the course of the November 2001 plenary meeting of the USCCB”, according to the “Information Items” at that meeting. (p. 91)

There was no further news of the Subcommittee until the November 2003 meeting: “The Subcommittee has completed initial research and is beginning a first draft of a Directory of Music for Use in the Liturgy in accord with the instruction Liturgiam authenticam, no. 108”. (Information Items 2003 p. 91)

When Bishop Donald Trautman (Erie) was elected Chairman of the BCL in November 2004, a new Liturgy Committee was appointed. He named Bishop Edward Grosz (aux. Buffalo) Chairman of the Music and Liturgy Subcommittee.

Recently a report on the work of the Subcommittee appeared on the official BCL web page, which gives some details on this project. The Subcommittee members are listed. In addition to Bishop Grosz, the members are Bishop Patrick Cooney (Gaylord); Archbishop John Vlazny (Portland, Oregon) and Bishop Arthur Serratelli (Paterson).

Advisors to the subcommittee are:

Robert Batastini, vice-president and senior editor for GIA Publications in Chicago. Batastini was editor for several of GIA’s hymnals, including Ritual Song, three editions of Worship and three editions of Gather.

Father Anthony Ruff, OSB, a monk of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville — home of the Liturgical Press — where he teaches theology and liturgical music at St. John’s University. Father Ruff’s settings of the daily Mass responsorial psalms in English chant will soon be published by Liturgical Press.

Dr. Leo Nestor, Justine Bayard Ward Professor of Music and Director, Institute of Sacred Music at Catholic University of America, Benjamin T. Rome School of Music, Washington, DC, former music director of the National Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, a choral director and composer.

Father John Foley, SJ, director of the Center for Liturgy at St. Louis University, best known as a composer and member of the “St. Louis Jesuits”, a music group organized in the 1960s.

Dr. J. Michael McMahon, President of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians, the largest organization of Catholic liturgical musicians in the US, and publishers of the influential magazine Pastoral Music.

The Report

The Subcommittee’s report on the BCL web site is in the form of a Power Point presentation — a series of slides outlining the main points. Though incomplete, it indicates the ideas the Subcommittee is pursuing and suggests prospects for reform of sung texts.

The report proposes questions on the theological appropriateness of a hymn text. Some examples from the report:

• Is it Trinitarian in structure?
• Does it appear to avoid the title “Father” for the First Person of the Trinity, or use language which obscures the teaching on the Trinity?
• Does it place sufficient emphasis on the divinity of Christ and His centrality in salvation? Does it present Catholic teachings clearly?
• Is there sufficient emphasis on God’s initiative rather than an overemphasis on human action?
• Does it manifest a recognition of the transforming effects of grace?

The report says that the Subcommittee applied these theological criteria to a group of twenty “popular liturgical songs” (unnamed). The results from this tiny sampling of songs revealed that God was referred to as “Father” only 10% of the time, and that none of the songs referred to the persons of the Trinity or used a Trinitarian structure. Only 35% referred to Christ. While 55% emphasized the individual believer, 35% emphasized the concerns of the whole Church; and 10% were concerned solely with the praise of God.

Other comments in the report concerned the language of hymns. One of these dealt with “inclusive” language, and noted how such alterations can obscure the theological meaning of a text. For example, in “Sing Praise to Our Creator” the original text said baptized into His grace, but the language was changed to be “vertically inclusive”, resulting in baptized in living grace. The Subcommittee asks: “What does this mean?”

Even modernizing “archaic” language can cause problems, the Subcommittee points out. In “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” the original text says, Christ our God to earth descendeth and As the Light of light descendeth — present tenses. When the text was modernized the verbs were changed to “descended” — past tense. This results, the Subcommittee says, in “the loss of the critically important notion of Christ’s continuous coming among us, especially in the Holy Eucharist”.

The Subcommittee considered the meaning of the terms “repertory” and “directory”, and decided that a directory “seems to allow for more global descriptions of principles and criteria.…” Thus the proposed directory would include an Introduction and Conclusion, some comments on liturgical songs, a discussion of “challenges”, a section on Liturgiam authenticam and a discussion of three criteria for liturgical songs: 1) they must be doctrinally correct, 2) chiefly based on Scripture and liturgy and 3) “relatively fixed in number”.

The last phrase seems to allude to LA §108, which says that widely used sung texts should “remain relatively fixed” (though the fact that LA calls for an approved repertory of texts intended for liturgical singing implies that the number of such texts would be limited). It is clear that the Instruction’s primary concern is with the words of sung texts. LA’s object seems to be to call a halt to the continual alteration of texts (e.g., Psalms), according to fashion or the composer’s whim. As the Subcommittee noted, such tinkering often affects the meaning of the text being set to music.

The second criterion above, that texts be “based on” Scripture and liturgy, is similar to what Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Constitution on Sacred Liturgy, said about texts to be set to music; but again, it has a different emphasis. Sacrosanctum Concilium says:

Composers, filled with the Christian spirit, should feel that their vocation is to cultivate sacred music and increase its store of treasures.… The texts intended to be sung must always be in conformity with Catholic doctrine; indeed they should be drawn chiefly from Holy Scripture and from liturgical sources. (SC 121 – emphasis added)

“Drawn chiefly from” is not the same as “chiefly based on”. “Drawn from” suggests that the texts be direct quotes from Scripture or liturgy, while “based on” suggests paraphrases. As the Subcommittee’s discussion of theological criteria and language questions showed, paraphrases can seriously weaken the theological content of a text. This does not necessarily mean that the texts become unorthodox, but that clarity or theological implications can be lost in a paraphrase. Most of the settings of scriptural words that are sung in many parishes at Mass are not approved translations, but composers’ paraphrases, such as “On Eagle’s Wings” (“based on” Psalm 91) or “Shepherd Me O God” (“based on” Psalm 23).

There are two serious consequences of substituting actual texts with paraphrases. First, Catholics cannot become familiar with the real words of the Scriptures; and second, following from this, they are unable to recognize the numerous Scriptural references throughout the liturgy.

Although the report of the Subcommittee’s theological discussion suggests that it recognizes problems caused by changing the language, the vagueness of the three criteria may leave us without much real change.

Subcommittee Draft Norms

In addition to the Directory, the Subcommittee has proposed the following Draft Norms:

1. The approval of liturgical songs is reserved to the Diocesan Bishop in whose diocese an individual song is published. He is supported in his work by this directory and by the USCCB Secretariat for the Liturgy.

2. The Diocesan Bishop is assisted in his review of individual texts through the formation of a Committee for the Review of liturgical songs consisting of eminent theologians, liturgists, and musicians. This Committee shall assure that each text is doctrinally correct and scripturally or liturgically based.

3. Within two years, the Committee on the Liturgy shall formulate a Common Repertoire of Liturgical Songs for use in all places where the Roman Liturgy is celebrated in the Dioceses of the United States of America. This Common Repertoire will be included in all worship aides used in the dioceses of the United States of America.

The first Norm, assigning full responsibility for approving “liturgical songs” to “the Diocesan Bishop in whose diocese the individual song is published”, is evidently drawn from Canon law governing publication of worship materials, and would have a striking — though perhaps unintended — consequence.

It would mean, in effect, that only two bishops would approve most of the liturgical music used by all the dioceses of the United States. Oregon Catholic Press, of Portland, and GIA and World Library Publications, both in Chicago, publish the vast majority of the music used in the Catholic Church in the United States. Should these two bishops be saddled with approving virtually everything sung at Mass throughout the US? Apart from the excessive burden this would place on the affected bishops, it does not seem to accord with the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) concerning the responsibility of the national conferences of bishops.

Concerning texts to be sung in place of the proper chants of the Mass (Introit, Offertory and Communion) the original Latin version of the GIRM says that such substitute texts are to be approved by the conference of bishops (see §§48, 74, 86). The American adaptations to the GIRM allow for alternate texts to be approved by the conference or by the diocesan bishop. However, as “the place of publication” is not mentioned here, it seems reasonable to assume that the bishop, as chief liturgist of the diocese in which the texts are to be used, has the authority to approve them.

Norm 2 above says that “a committee” of experts is to assist the diocesan bishop in approving sacred music. But this, too, is unclear. Is this a committee of the national conference? Would it include bishops as members of the music approval committee? Or is it to be a panel of local “experts” the bishop appoints for his own diocese? If the latter, there would be more than 200 “music approval committees” in the United States. Is this the intention?

Liturgiam authenticam strongly emphasizes each individual bishop’s solemn responsibility for approving liturgical texts, while stressing that these texts must not be the work of an individual or small group:

As regards the examination and approbation of the texts, each individual Bishop must regard this duty as a direct, solemn and personal fiduciary responsibility. (LA §70)

The Bishops, in fulfilling their mission of preparing translations of liturgical texts, are carefully to ensure that the translations be the fruit of a truly common effort rather than of any single person or of a small group of persons. (LA §72)

Though these two paragraphs are concerned with translations of liturgical texts, LA also says that “sung texts and liturgical hymns … no less than the prayers, the readings and the homily, express in an authentic way the message of the Liturgy”. Thus they, too, seem to call for the careful consideration of each bishop, and not relegation to a composer or a committee of experts on music.

The status of the Common Repertoire proposed in Norm 3 is not clear. Nor are we given any clue as to its contents. If it includes musical settings as well as texts, it goes beyond the requirements of LA §108, which speaks only “of texts intended for liturgical singing”. However, such a Common Repertoire could well serve as a model of what should be sung at a typical Mass. Simple settings of those parts of the Mass that the GIRM, following Musicam Sacram, says are the most important things to be sung would be especially useful, as in the following:

34. Since the celebration of Mass by its nature has a “communitarian” character, both the dialogues between the priest and the faithful gathered together and the acclamations are of great significance; in fact, they are not simply outward signs of communal celebration but foster and bring about communion between priest and people.

35. The acclamations and the responses of the faithful to the priest’s greetings and prayers constitute that level of active participation that the gathered faithful are to contribute in every form of the Mass, so that the action of the entire community may be clearly expressed and fostered.

36. Other parts, very useful for expressing and fostering the faithful’s active participation, that are assigned to the whole assembly that is called together include especially the Act of Penitence, the Profession of Faith, the Prayer of the Faithful, and the Lord’s Prayer.

40. … In the choosing of the parts actually to be sung, however, preference should be given to those that are of greater importance and especially to those to be sung by the priest or the deacon or the lector, with the people responding, or by the priest and people together.

It is obvious that these parts “of greater importance” are in practice rarely sung. They are almost always spoken, even in a Mass where there is a choir and instrumentalists and other songs and hymns are used. Yet what the official liturgical books say is important to sing can be done to very simple settings without accompaniment and even without a cantor if the people are familiar with them. A Common Repertoire that includes simple musical settings of these key texts could encourage actual practice to conform more closely to the norms of the Church.

Another desire of the Council, so far neglected in practice, could also be encouraged.

41. All other things being equal, Gregorian chant holds pride of place because it is proper to the Roman Liturgy. Other types of sacred music, in particular polyphony, are in no way excluded, provided that they correspond to the spirit of the liturgical action and that they foster the participation of all the faithful.

Since faithful from different countries come together ever more frequently, it is fitting that they know how to sing together at least some parts of the Ordinary of the Mass in Latin, especially the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, set to the simpler melodies.

Jubilate Deo, the neglected collection of simple chants for Mass assembled by Pope Paul VI and sent to all the bishops in 1974, should surely be included in any Common Repertoire. Jubilate Deo was accompanied by the pope’s request to bishops:

Would you therefore, in collaboration with the competent diocesan and national agencies for the liturgy, sacred music and catechetics, decide on the best ways of teaching the faithful the Latin chants of Jubilate Deo and of having them sing them, and also of promoting the preservation and execution of Gregorian chant in the communities mentioned above. You will thus be performing a new service for the Church in the domain of liturgical renewal. (Pope Paul VI, Voluntati Obsequens, April 14, 1974)

The Holy Father’s request was honored in the breach. Including the Jubilate Deo chants in the proposed Common Repertoire would be a beginning of this “new service” that Pope Paul VI requested more than 30 years ago.

If the Subcommittee merely produces a list of “favorite” hymns and songs or Psalm paraphrases — especially if the texts are deformed by inclusive language or theological vagueness — it could hardly achieve the vision of the Council as made concrete in the norms of the General Instruction. On the other hand a Directory and Repertoire that encourages congregations to chant the Mass, and authorizes texts that are orthodox and also singable, could encourage real liturgical reform at the parish level.

Liturgiam authenticam seeks “to prepare for a new era of liturgical renewal”. (LA §7) A well done Directory of texts intended for liturgical singing could lay the foundation for a new era in liturgical music as well.


Susan Benofy is research editor for Adoremus.



Susan Benofy

Susan Benofy received her doctorate in physics from Saint Louis University. She was formerly Research Editor of Adoremus Bulletin.