Feb 15, 2007

Wandering in the Desert

Online Edition – February 2007

Vol. XII, No. 10

Wandering in the Desert

After forty years, we still seek the musical Promised Land


“The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as sacred song united to the words, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy.… Therefore sacred music is to be considered the more holy in proportion as it is more closely connected with the liturgical action, whether it adds delight to prayer, fosters unity of minds, or confers greater solemnity upon the sacred rites.” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 112)

In the days before Vatican II, the average parish music program was fairly simple. The volunteer choir, always lacking in tenors it seems, knew a few accompanied masses and some motets from the St. Gregory Hymnal or from a handful of similar sources.

Parishes with sophisticated pastors had organists who could play with both feet and trained choir directors who attempted the occasional Palestrina or Victoria piece, or compositions from contemporary composers like Montani, Perosi, Yon and Ravanello. A short list of Latin and vernacular hymns supplied music for low Mass and devotions. The motu proprios of several popes along with the Caecilian Movement had reined in the excesses of the Baroque and Classical styles and urged choir directors to rediscover the Church’s musical patrimony of chant and polyphony, which were raised up as models for new compositions. The liturgical renewal of the first half of the 20th century saw progressive parishes adopt congregational chant masses, typically the “Mass of the Angels”, and dialogue masses. Music in the Roman Rite was on a steady course.

Then along came Vatican II and the direction changed. While continuing to cite chant and polyphony as the ideal, the Council encouraged congregational singing (SC 30) and permitted the use of the vernacular (SC 36.2,3), thus allowing a much broader repertoire. The prospects were exhilarating. Of course there were some who, like the mythological Cassandra, sounded warnings that were not taken seriously, who saw in the new freedom the fulfillment of the maxim: “Every innovation occasions more harm and derangement of order by its novelty, than benefit by its abstract utility”. But the excitement of a new vision for liturgical music swept all naysayers away.

In the vast majority of parishes the vision remained a dream, however. Pastors who could hardly afford the organist-choir director at the one Sunday Mass with music were now faced with the need for an organist and cantor for the plethora of weekend Masses. Guitars and amateur songsters became a cheap alternative. Hymnals, never a low-cost commodity, would have to be bought. Instead, the urgent need for musical resources was filled with text-only song sheets and woefully inadequate “Mass books” consisting mostly of warmed-over Protestant hymns and campfire songs.

Because “active participation” was the cry of the day, the act of singing was emphasized over what was being sung. With congregational participation a priority, choirs were left to languish and expire. In line with the anti-authoritarian spirit of the times, the opinions and contributions of the amateur were valued more than the expertise and experience of the professional musician, who symbolized the supposedly patriarchal and oppressive pre-Vatican II Church. Those musicians who had spent many years in the service of the Church at substandard wages (if they were paid at all) became increasingly unhappy at having to dish up the pabulum required by musically uninformed pastors and obdurate liturgy committees, who were either unfamiliar with the Council’s documents or hoodwinked by the purveyors of the “new music”.

After forty years of wandering in the desert, we still have not found the musical Promised Land. In too many places we now have well-intentioned but ill-prepared “music ministers” who have no knowledge of liturgical music before 1965 and therefore no appreciation for the vast musical heritage of the Western Church. Their repertoire is determined largely by music publishers whose musical selections, like the “missalettes” that propagate them, are totally disposable, frustrating any hope of a consistent Catholic repertoire. The texts are often influenced more by popular social theory than by Scripture and theology. Except for the contribution of a small handful of classically trained liturgical composers, after a half century the most this generation has been able to add to the Church’s musical treasury has been some lightweight music that can be performed by amateur musicians and ad-hoc singers.

There are some parishes that sponsor music programs of liturgical, musical and pastoral excellence, but they are the exception. Some fall victim to shrinking parish budgets. Some simply wither because there is not enough qualified and interested talent to lead them. Others are constrained by parish liturgy committees.

Increasingly, parish music programs are governed by ideologies and assumptions rather than by the documents and authentic spirit of Vatican II. Some of the misconceptions about what constitutes legitimate practice have become codified into a kind of “liturgical correctness” that dare not be questioned. It’s time to dispel some of these misconceptions

Common Misconceptions

1. There is no need for a choir in today’s parish. If you have one, its only function is to support congregational singing.

But the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) says: “Among the faithful, the schola cantorum or choir exercises its own liturgical function, ensuring that the parts proper to it, in keeping with the different types of chants, are properly carried out and fostering the active participation of the faithful through the singing”. (103)

It is clear that the Council (SC 114, 116, 121) intended the choir to have a specific and substantial role with a proper repertoire, not simply sing along with the congregation. Is there any wonder that choirs have dwindled when what they are asked to sing is so simplistic and uninteresting and produces such little effect? Parish choirs grow when they are challenged to sing good music by enthusiastic and capable choir directors. As someone once said, the difference between the choir and the congregation is that the choir rehearses. Just as the celebrant must excel at presiding, the lector at reading, and the homilist at preaching, so the choir must excel at singing.

2. The liturgy requires a leader of song.

Regarding the “leader of song”, the GIRM says: “It is fitting that there be a cantor or a choir director to lead and sustain the people’s singing. When in fact there is no choir, it is up to the cantor to lead the different chants, with the people taking part.” (104)

This sounds good on paper but frequently sounds bad in church. Is there anything more detrimental to congregational singing than an ill-prepared cantor crooning into a microphone and waving his or her arms as if sending semaphore messages to the faithful? Yet parish after parish has been convinced that a “leader of song”, no matter how inept, is the surefire way to improve the singing.

Note that the GIRM specifies that it is up to the cantor to lead the singing when there is no choir. I served at a parish for many years that had no “leader of song;” instead the congregational singing, which was unusually robust for a Catholic church, was led by a trained choir and an accomplished organist who knew how to simultaneously guide and support the congregation.

If a “leader of song” is required, then he or she should be a trained professional whose voice does not need amplification except in the largest of churches.

3. Mass must open with a congregational gathering song.

The GIRM says: “The singing at this time (at the Entrance) is done either alternately by the choir and the people or in a similar way by the cantor and the people, or entirely by the people, or by the choir alone. In the dioceses of the United States of America there are four options for the Entrance Chant: (1) the antiphon from the Roman Missal or the Psalm from the Roman Gradual as set to music there or in another musical setting; (2) the seasonal antiphon and Psalm of the Simple Gradual; (3) a song from another collection of psalms and antiphons, approved by the Conference of Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop, including psalms arranged in responsorial or metrical forms; (4) a suitable liturgical song similarly approved by the Conference of Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop.” (48)

A congregational hymn or song as the Entrance chant has become de rigueur, yet it is not required by the GIRM. The American version of the GIRM permits it but only as the last of four options. The original expectation was that the Introit (part of a psalm with its antiphon sung while the celebrant and ministers enter the church and approach the altar) from the Roman Gradual or the Simple Gradual would be used. Since these melodies are beyond the capability of most congregations, they are rightly the purview of the choir.

There are occasions when singing the proper Introit would seem especially appropriate. The Introits for the first Mass of Christmas, Epiphany, Ash Wednesday, Holy Thursday, Easter, Pentecost and the Requiem are unequalled in their insightful encapsulation of the theme of the liturgical celebration. These Introits add greatly to the solemnity of these days.

In those places where a chanted Latin Introit is not pastorally advisable, the Introit from the English version of the Simple Gradual or as set to one of the traditional psalm tones can be used.

The GIRM also says “After the people have gathered, the Entrance chant begins as the priest enters with the deacon and ministers. The purpose of this chant is to open the celebration, foster the unity of those who have been gathered, introduce their thoughts to the mystery of the liturgical season or festivity, and accompany the procession of the priest and ministers.” (47)

Notice that the proper name for the song at the entrance is the “Entrance chant,” not “Gathering Song.” “Gathering” is only one purpose of this chant.

4. The nine-fold Kyrie, required in the pre-Vatican II Mass, is obsolete.

But the GIRM says: “As a rule, each acclamation (of the Kyrie) is sung or said twice, though it may be repeated several times, by reason of the character of the various languages, as well as of the artistry of the music or of other circumstances.” (52)

There are many good settings of the Kyrie that should not be cast aside simply because they are nine-fold. One way of performing a nine-fold Kyrie is to have a cantor or part of the choir sing the 1st, 4th, and 7th invocations, the congregation respond with the 2nd, 5th and 8th, and the choir sing the 3rd, 6th and 9th polyphonically.

5. The Gloria is strictly a congregational part.

Yet the GIRM states: “The Gloria is intoned by the priest or, if appropriate, by a cantor or by the choir; but it is sung either by everyone together, or by the people alternately with the choir or by the choir alone.” (53)

The popular adaptation of the Gloria in which a soloist or the choir sings parts of the Gloria while the congregation repeats a refrain (typically “Glory to God in the highest” or some variation thereof) as if it were a responsorial psalm violates the structure of the hymn. The Gloria should be sung straight through. As the GIRM indicates, the form in which sections of the Gloria are sung alternatim between congregation and choir (which may render its portions polyphonically) is perfectly acceptable; this form is frequently used at the Vatican.

6. When the psalm between the readings is sung, it must be sung responsorially.

Regarding the psalm, the GIRM says: “The responsorial Psalm should correspond to each reading and should, as a rule, be taken from the Lectionary.


It is preferable that the responsorial Psalm be sung, at least as far as the people’s response is concerned. Hence, the psalmist, or the cantor of the Psalm, sings the verses of the Psalm from the ambo or another suitable place. The entire congregation remains seated and listens but, as a rule, takes part by singing the response, except when the Psalm is sung straight through without a response. In order, however, that the people may be able to sing the Psalm response more readily, texts of some responses and Psalms have been chosen for the various seasons of the year or for the various categories of Saints. These may be used in place of the text corresponding to the reading whenever the Psalm is sung.

In the dioceses of the United States of America, the following may also be sung in place of the Psalm assigned in the Lectionary for Mass: either the proper or seasonal antiphon and Psalm from the Lectionary, as found either in the Roman Gradual or Simple Gradual or in another musical setting; or an antiphon and Psalm from another collection of the psalms and antiphons, including psalms arranged in metrical form, providing that they have been approved by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop. Songs or hymns may not be used in place of the responsorial Psalm. (61)

Of all the changes affecting music, the restoration of the responsorial psalm has been, in my opinion, the least successful. There are many parishes that do not have a trained cantor at their disposal and as a result, the congregation is often made to suffer through what seems an interminable test of faith as a well-intentioned but miscast soloist sings the psalm verses. The responsorial approach, meant to permit instant congregational participation, unrealistically assumes that the congregation can sing the antiphon (response refrain) confidently after hearing it only once. Add to that the penchant of contemporary composers for writing syncopated and tonally ambiguous antiphons, and one has a foolproof recipe for disaster.

If the psalm is to be sung responsorially, a simple seasonal antiphon with the proper psalm verses sung to one of the traditional psalm tones may be a better choice. It is not necessary that the antiphon or the verses be accompanied. In fact there is great power in hearing a congregation singing in unison without supporting instruments.

There are other options however. The GIRM recommends congregational participation but does not require it. The proper gradual, either from the Roman or Simple Gradual, can be chanted in Latin or English by the choir, or it can be sung in parts (falso bordone).

The psalm may be sung straight through without an antiphon. A method that I have used quite effectively is to have the psalm sung antiphonally between choir and congregation. The choir sings the first half of each psalm verse; the congregation, the second. This method requires that the congregation has a pointed version of the psalm to indicate phrasing, but with modern computer capabilities, this does not require much effort. The approved texts of the psalms are available on the Internet at www.usccb.org/nab.

7. The readings, Creed, and general intercessions should not be sung.

Concerning the general intercessions, the GIRM says: “The intentions are announced from the ambo or from another suitable place, by the deacon or by a cantor, a lector, or one of the lay faithful.” (71)

Singing the readings and general intercessions can add great solemnity to the Eucharistic celebration. Tones for the general intercessions are given in Appendix III of the present Sacramentary, along with tones for the celebrant’s prayers and blessings. The tones for the readings are not included, but they can be found in the Graduale Romanum. Of course if there are not sufficient musical resources to have these parts sung competently, it is better to speak them, for the singing is not merely for singing’s sake but for the more effective proclamation of the text.

Regarding the Creed, the GIRM says “If it is sung, it is begun by the priest or, if this is appropriate, by a cantor or by the choir. It is sung, however, either by all together or by the people alternating with the choir.” (68)

Some have argued that the length of the Creed prohibits it from being sung congregationally. Balderdash! My parish sings the Creed once a month when a chant Ordinary is sung. Teenagers have no problem memorizing hundreds of songs, and adults can do the same. It is a question of will and not ability. We sing and never recite the National Anthem; should we not sing the Creed, which is the Church’s “national anthem”, on Sundays and other festive celebrations?

8. The Lamb of God is a litany that properly includes tropes.

There is simply no provision in the liturgical rules for any changes or insertions to the text of the Lamb of God, except for the option to repeat the petition as often as needed to cover the fraction rite. If the GIRM as clarified by Redemptionis Sacramentum is followed, the triple invocation of the Lamb of God will provide ample time to fill ciboria, the chalices having been filled previously at the Offertory.

9. The congregation must sing during Communion.

In describing the Communion chant, the GIRM says: “This is sung either by the choir alone or by the choir or cantor with the people.” (87)

Despite the protestations of modernist liturgists, there is no requirement that there be congregational singing during Communion. This insistence on congregational singing stems from an over-emphasis on the communal nature of the Eucharist, which many modernist liturgists define as an act of sharing and of table fellowship at the expense of its eschatological and sacrificial aspects, along with the total elimination of any notion of Eucharistic adoration during Mass.

The proper Communion chant along with an appropriate choral motet is the most practical method of providing music during Communion.

There is usually plenty of time after Communion for a hymn if congregational singing is desired during the Communion rite.

10. The time before Mass and the time after Communion are ideal opportunities for the choir to sing by itself.

I like to call this “throwing a bone to the choir”. The choir has its own proper liturgical role. It does not exist to “fill in the gaps”.

The GIRM points out that “When the distribution of Communion is finished, as circumstances suggest, the priest and faithful spend some time praying privately. If desired, a psalm or other canticle of praise or a hymn may also be sung by the entire congregation.” (88)

It is clear that the song after Communion is to be sung by the congregation, not by the choir. It is not a time for a “performance” by the choir. Nor is it necessarily a time of meditation (one frequently hears mention of “the Meditation Song”), since a “psalm or other canticle of praise or a hymn” may be sung.

11. The most important congregational parts of the Mass are the hymns and songs.

But the GIRM says: “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.” (35)


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. (40)

The largely overlooked instruction Musicam Sacram specifies the order in which congregational singing is to be introduced into the Mass. It divides the sung parts into three degrees (See Musicam Sacram 28-31).

The first degree includes those parts that always are to be sung and consists of the priest’s greetings, the opening prayer, the Gospel acclamation, the prayer over the gifts, the preface with its dialogue and the Sanctus, the Lord’s Prayer with the invitation and embolism, the Pax Domini, the prayer after the Communion, and the final dismissal.

The second degree is comprised of the Kyrie, Gloria, Agnus Dei, Creed and the Prayer of the Faithful.

The third degree consists of the Entrance, Offertory and Communion songs, the psalm between the readings, the Gospel Alleluia, and the Scripture readings, “unless it seems more suitable to proclaim them without singing”.

The second and third degrees may be used wholly or partially, but never without the first. Notice how in usual practice the order is just the opposite!

So we see that there is no basis for any of these “rules”. The greatest antidote for our current musical ills is familiarity with the official instructions of the Church as found in her authoritative documents. Yet there are bishops who do not uphold them, pastors who ignore them, and liturgists who contradict them.

As a result, we are destined to wander in the desert a bit longer. Unacquainted with and uninterested in our past, yet unwilling to embrace a truly modern idiom, we recycle the same mediocre and unsatisfying fare. There are bright spots here and there, in parishes willing to dedicate the time and resources to maintain first-rate music programs, but they hardly represent a trend.

Ah, where is the Moses who will lead us to the land of musical milk and honey?


Anthony Corvaia, Jr. lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he has been actively involved in liturgy for more than 20 years. During this time he has filled various roles, including parish liturgist, music coordinator and hymnographer. He was commissioned to write a hymn text for the dedication of the new dome mosaic at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. His earlier contributions to the Adoremus Bulletin include “Signs and Wonders” (March 2005) and “In the Year of the Eucharist (September 2005).


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