Nov 15, 2007

We Cannot Say That One Song Is As Good As Another

Online Edition: November 2007
Vol. XIII, No. 8

Singing the Mass

We Cannot Say That One Song Is As Good As Another

by Susan Benofy

“In the course of her two-thousand-year history, the Church has created, and still creates, music and songs which represent a rich patrimony of faith and love. This heritage must not be lost. Certainly as far as the liturgy is concerned, we cannot say that one song is as good as another.”

— Pope Benedict XVI Sacramentum caritatis 42

The music at Mass has long been a topic of conversation among Catholics, and many articles have appeared in various publications either praising or deploring the current state of liturgical music. Recently the debate has intensified as a result of the US bishops’ discussion and vote on a Directory on Music and the Liturgy at the November 2006 meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB).

The music directory was a response to the requirement of Liturgiam authenticam 108 that bishops’ conferences compile “a directory or repertory of texts intended for liturgical singing” and submit it for approval (recognitio) of the Holy See. The directory approved by the US bishops awaits recognitio.

Their debate and vote appears to be the first time in almost forty years that the US bishops’ conference has had a detailed discussion of music for the liturgy in its plenary session. (Documents like “Music in Catholic Worship” and “Liturgical Music Today”, usually said to be mandated by the bishops, were actually issued by the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy only and were never considered by the full conference.) Thus, most of the liturgical music practices following the Second Vatican Council were initiated and developed with little or no direction from the bishops — this despite the fact that official documents give the conference of bishops authority over this aspect of the liturgy. In particular, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) gives conferences authority to approve texts of hymns to be sung at the liturgy. For example 48 (as adapted in 2002 by the USCCB) says:

…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.

If there is no singing at the entrance, the antiphon in the Missal is recited either by the faithful, or by some of them, or by a lector.…

Similar options are given for singing at the Offertory and Communion. In practice, it is the fourth option — “a suitable liturgical song” — that is almost always employed. Note that this song must have official approval. In the Latin text of GIRM 48 it is clear that it is the text that must be approved, and that the approval is to come from the full conference of bishops. The option for approval by the diocesan bishop was added as an adaptation for the US. However, there is no real procedure or set policy for reviewing the texts of songs used in the liturgy.

With no mechanism for episcopal review in place, composers produced a constant stream of new music — and publishers strenuously promoted it through their publications and workshops. For many reasons, this “contemporary” music for use in the liturgy virtually supplanted any other kind, in the decades following the Council. As a result of this musical “rupture”, the “rich patrimony of faith” of the Church’s musical heritage was all but lost.

In order to begin to regain this heritage the bishops’ current discussion and decisions about the approval of songs and hymn texts for use in the Sacred Liturgy must recognize two fundamental facts: first, that these recent songs and hymns are, in fact, substitutes for the texts and melodies given in official liturgical books; and second, that these neglected official texts remain the preferred choice for what is to be sung at Mass. At present, the practice of singing contemporary songs at Mass has become so prevalent that few people are even aware that these specified texts and melodies exist, and even fewer know where they are to be found. And despite some positive signs of revival of authentic liturgical music, too often the discussions of the selection for music at Mass concentrate exclusively on selecting “suitable liturgical songs”.

The Voice of the Church

Abandoning the traditional music and texts of the Mass was clearly not the intention of the Council, whose Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium (1963), decreed that “the treasury of sacred music is to be preserved and fostered with great care” (SC 114). This principle was further clarified in 1969 by the Consilium (the group of bishops and experts set up by Pope Paul VI to implement the Constitution on the Liturgy), who responded to an inquiry on whether the permission for singing vernacular hymns at a low Mass — given in the instruction De musica sacra et sacra liturgia of September 3, 1958 — was still in effect. (Before the Council the hymns sung at low Mass did not replace the prescribed Mass texts, but were an addition to them, and were considered only an “indirect” form of participation.)

The Consilium’s response was very clear :

That rule [permitting vernacular hymns] has been superseded. What must be sung is the Mass, its Ordinary and Proper, not “something”, no matter how consistent, that is imposed on the Mass. Because the liturgical service is one, it has only one countenance, one motif, one voice, the voice of the Church. To continue to replace the texts of the Mass being celebrated with motets that are reverent and devout, yet out of keeping with the Mass of the day amounts to continuing an unacceptable ambiguity: it is to cheat the people. Liturgical song involves not mere melody, but words, text, thought and the sentiments that the poetry and music contain. Thus texts must be those of the Mass, not others, and singing means singing the Mass not just singing during Mass.

(Original emphasis. The response was published in Italian in the Consilium’s official journal Notitiae 5 [1969] p. 406. An English translation appeared in the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy’s BCL Newsletter, August-September 1993.)

The Proper of the Mass was to be sung. This ruling was utterly ignored, however. Almost forty years later the average Catholic at Sunday Mass will join in singing “something” at the Entrance, at Communion and perhaps the Offertory. Almost never will the actual texts prescribed for these processions be heard.

The Propers and the Roman Gradual

These liturgical texts that are specific (or “proper”) to a particular day or feast are called the Proper of the Mass. The texts of the Propers are mainly direct quotes from Scripture, and many have been associated with the same feast or solemnity for centuries. Their traditional musical settings are collected into an official liturgical book, the Graduale Romanum (Roman Gradual).

Before the Missal of 1970, the specific texts of the Proper were required to be read or sung at each Mass. There was freedom to employ other musical settings than those in the Graduale, but the text itself was not to be altered.

As part of the reform of the Mass initiated by the Second Vatican Council, several things happened to affect the use of the Propers. Two of them were direct responses to the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium. SC 117 said:

The editio typica [official edition] of the books of Gregorian chant is to be completed; and a more critical edition is to be prepared of those books already published since the restoration by Saint Pius X.

It is desirable also that an edition be prepared containing simpler melodies, for use in small churches.

In response to the first provision a new edition of the Graduale Romanum was published. However, since the new edition had to be revised to accommodate the reform of the liturgical calendar as well, the complete revision was not published for more than ten years (it was published in 1974).

In response to the second provision — to provide “simpler melodies for use in small churches” — an official set of alternate texts and musical settings was published. The collection, known as the Graduale Simplex (Simple Gradual), was published in 1967. The intended purpose of this simpler edition was to enable smaller churches to have the Proper of the Mass sung according to Gregorian melodies. The committee charged with compiling this simpler edition produced a collection that had a few sets of chants — in the form of a short refrain alternated with Psalm verses — for each liturgical season, rather than a different set for each Sunday and feast

So there are two sets of official (Latin) texts for singing during the processions at Mass: a complete set for every Sunday and feast of the liturgical calendar (and for some weekdays) in the Graduale Romanum, and a set of simpler seasonal musical settings in the Graduale Simplex.

Although few Catholics have seen a copy of either Graduale, most have noticed that there are texts of an Entrance Antiphon and a Communion Antiphon in the disposable Missals used in parishes — and these are the same antiphons that appear in the current Sacramentary (1973/74 edition). But they are not the same as the antiphons in the either official Graduale. So where did these texts come from?

A Third Collection of Propers…

The antiphons in the “missalettes” and the Sacramentary are, in fact, a third set of texts for parts of the Proper — intended specifically for Masses in which the proper texts are not sung. They are designated for spoken Masses only. Some may incorrectly assume that these additional antiphons are intended to be sung and/or that they are taken from the Graduale Romanum. The antiphons for the Introits in the Missal often do correspond to the Graduale Romanum, but none of them includes the psalm verse that is part of the full Introit.

The texts in this third collection of Propers were chosen specifically for recitation at Masses in which there was no singing. (More details on this can be found in the article “Graduale or Missale: The Confusion Resolved” by Christopher Tietze in the Winter 2006 issue of Sacred Music, the quarterly publication of the Church Music Association of America; online at:

The Apostolic Constitution Missale Romanum, by which the “Roman Missal revised by decree of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council” was promulgated, made special mention of the revised antiphons and their intended use:

The text of the Graduale Romanum has not been changed as far as the music is concerned. In the interest of their being more readily understood, however … the entrance and communion antiphons have been revised for use in Masses that are not sung.

Despite having three sets of official texts for the processionals for Mass, the Propers were virtually lost in the implementation of the reform. Why?

Losing Our Heritage

As usual, to understand why the Council’s liturgical reform got off track requires a look into the past to see how it was accomplished.

The implementation of the post-conciliar reform of the Mass was done in stages. The first reforms were introduced on November 29, 1964, less than a year after Sacrosanctum Concilium had been promulgated. The revised Mass rite and rubrics had not yet been formulated, but a few parts of the Mass were altered and several parts, including the Proper, could be said or sung in English. Many liturgists wanted the maximum possible use of the vernacular and also as much vocal participation by the people as possible. So hymns were promoted.

For example, in 1964 the Liturgical Conference published a “Parish Worship Program” — a series of books and other material to instruct pastors, musicians and others how to implement the liturgical reform. This organization was very influential in the “liturgical movement” of the time, and its instructional material was apparently prepared before any official instructions on implementing the Constitution on the Liturgy were published.

One of the main books in this program, Priest’s Guide to Parish Worship, gives detailed instructions of what should be done at Mass. The program is described as “ideal in terms of the Church’s present understanding of the meaning and function of liturgy”, and pastors are advised that it will not require any serious modification within the foreseeable future. (pp. 59-60)

The Priest’s Guide puts great stress on singing by the entire congregation, and the details of the proposed program make it clear that this “ideal” form of participation is within a “low Mass”. The writers’ opinion on singing the actual liturgical texts is decidedly negative.

Another book in this program, Manual for Church Musicians, recommends that the priest should not sing any of the greetings or prayers. Thus all Masses would be “low Masses”, and hymns in English could be substituted for the Propers.

The “Parish Worship Program” was published before any of the official alternatives to the Proper — e.g. the Simple Gradual — had appeared. However, when these alternative texts for the Proper were authorized, the opinion that prevailed was that the very existence of an official alternative effectively made any alternative legitimate.

Monsignor Frederick McManus, for example, whose influence on such decisions was unparalleled (and who wrote the preface to Priest’s Guide to Parish Worship), advanced this view. Speaking at a symposium sponsored by the Liturgical Conference, Monsignor McManus evaluated the significance of the Simple Gradual — even before it was published:

the first alternative to the proper chants of the Roman gradual is officially provided, and the door thus opened to greater diversity and adaptation. (Crisis in Church Music?, Washington, DC: The Liturgical Conference, 1967, p. 20)

Monsignor McManus had been president of the Liturgical Conference for several years, and later was Director of the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy Secretariat. He was also professor of canon law at Catholic University of America. Again, in 1969, the new General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) allowed hymns as one alternative to the Propers. Monsignor McManus, writing in American Ecclesiastical Review, proclaimed this an “open door” to free choice of Mass texts.

The reference in the revised order to “other song” opens the door as wide as may be and creates the first of many instances where priests, consulting with others, are responsible for sound choices of texts suited for Mass. (American Ecclesiastical Review vol. 161, p. 196)

Note that Monsignor McManus does not even mention the Church’s official preference for the prescribed Proper, or the need for the texts used for Mass to have the approval of the bishops’ conference.

Later in the same commentary, Monsignor McManus explains why he thinks such alternatives are important. The “present rigidity of the Roman liturgy”, he says, must be overcome:

The real official inflexibility lies in the texts themselves, in the official language, in the demand that, with few exceptions like the prayer of the faithful, an appointed text be adhered to. (p. 400)

Given the overwhelming influence of liturgical experts who believed that they were to be “shapers” of a new liturgy, it is hardly surprising, that now — four decades later — most people believe, incorrectly, that singing vernacular hymns at Mass was a “reform” expressly intended by the Council.

Though a hymn can be legitimately used, parish liturgy committees almost never take the official text into consideration when making their choices. In fact, any planning committee who wanted to relate their selection to the Proper would likely have trouble finding the proper (that is, correct) text. As noted above, only the Entrance and Communion antiphons, as revised for spoken Masses, appear in the altar Missal and in available “worship aids”.

The fact that only one of the three sets of official texts for the Propers is easily available has led to genuine confusion about the purpose of the antiphons in the Missal.

Unfortunately confusion on this point is evident even in the 2002 GIRM as adapted by the US bishops’ conference. (See Tietze pp.7-8). For example,

GIRM 48. The singing at this time 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.

The first option in GIRM 48 (quoted above) speaks of “the antiphon from the Roman Missal or the Psalm from the Roman Gradual”. This seems to assume that the antiphon in the Missal is intended for singing and has a musical setting in the Missal. But neither assumption is correct. This paragraph could also be understood as saying that only the Psalm from the Roman Gradual, not the antiphon found there, is to be sung at Mass in the US Church.

Selecting Hymns

Given the combination of genuine confusion and bad advice, it is not surprising that publications that advise parish committees on the selection of hymns include only the texts intended to be spoken.

Today’s Liturgy, a quarterly planning guide published by Oregon Catholic Press (OCP), for example, lists the Entrance and Communion antiphon from the Missal. It would make more sense to give the texts from the Graduale Romanum intended for singing. The texts for the Propers at a spoken Mass often do not correspond to the Graduale texts. Even when the Introit antiphon corresponds, the Missal text lacks the Psalm verse always included in the sung Introit. And there is no text for the Offertory in the Missal. Since there is no directive that the Offertory be spoken, there are no Offertory texts provided for spoken Masses — but there are texts for singing the Offertory in the Graduale.

Confusion may be understandable. But even the antiphons in the Missal have little apparent influence on the texts of hymns that are suggested by music publishers. (Recall that the Introit is supposed to introduce our “thoughts to the mystery of the liturgical season or festivity” GIRM 47.)

The most recent edition of Today’s Liturgy, for Fall Ordinary Time, covers the Sundays from the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time through the Feast of Christ the King, as well as All Saints and Thanksgiving Day. Let us consider some of their choices to replace the Introit on Sundays when the texts for spoken and sung antiphons are identical.

Today’s Liturgy usually lists 4 to 6 suggested hymns for each of several parts of the Mass, and there is a code to indicate when a selection corresponds to a prescribed antiphon or reading. There is only one Sunday (the 24th in Ordinary Time) when any of the suggestions for the Entrance correspond (in the compiler’s opinion) to the Introit antiphon. On that day the antiphon is from the Book of Sirach:

Give peace, Lord, to those who wait for you and your prophets will proclaim you as you deserve. Hear the prayers of your servant and of your people Israel.

The hymns that are alleged to correspond to the antiphon are “Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven”, whose text is based on Psalm 103; and “Rejoice the Lord is King”, which is based on the Christus Vincit. Neither has any real connection with the antiphon from Sirach.

In some cases the suggested hymns are very far removed from the substance and spirit of the prescribed text. Consider, for example, the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time. The prescribed antiphon from the Missal (and Gradual) is: “If you, O Lord, laid bare our guilt, who could endure it? But you are forgiving, God of Israel.”

This is a verse from Psalm 130 (129) whose first verse, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord”, is the prescribed psalm verse for the Introit. This is the text the Church proposes to congregations to “introduce their thoughts to the mystery of the liturgical season”.

What does Today’s Liturgy suggest for the Entrance hymn on this Sunday? First on the list is “Sing a New Song” by Dan Schutte, said to be “based on” Psalm 98. The refrain has us “singing alleluia”, and in the first verse we “dance for joy” and play “glad tambourines”.

Such lyrics, along with the rather bouncy melody, turn our thoughts in a very different direction from the solemn words of the prescribed antiphon. On what basis is “Sing a New Song” thought to be an appropriate substitute? The OCP guide does not enlighten us.

“Pastoral” Judgment

Hymns and songs, whether connected with the prescribed antiphon or not, are usually justified on the grounds that they enhance the people’s participation. Using the Latin text and elaborate music of the Roman Gradual, it is said, would deprive the people of their “right” to sing the liturgy. Songs or psalm paraphrases with antiphons are thought to make it easier for people to sing — thus to participate in the liturgy. This equates participation with external action, of course. The Constitution on the Liturgy, on the other hand, says that all must participate “in the Liturgy both internally and externally” (see SC 19) and this includes “reverent silence” (SC 30).

In his 1986 book on the liturgy, Feast of Faith (Ignatius Press), Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) stresses the need for internal participation:

For community to exist, there must be some common expression; but, lest this expression be merely external, there must be also a common movement of internalization, a shared path inward (and upward).… It becomes genuinely possible for people to share in a common expression once this interiorization has taken place under the guidance of the common prayers of the Church and the experience of the Body of Christ which they contain.… Only in this way can community come about. (pp. 69-70, original emphasis)

Note his emphasis: true participation must be guided by the common prayers of the Church. Among these common prayers are the texts of the Proper.

Yet many liturgists and composers actually believe that the official texts are inappropriate. Among them is Sister Delores Dufner, OSB, who wrote “Sing a New Church Into Being”. In the August-September 2007 issue of Pastoral Music, published by the National Association of Pastoral Musicians (NPM), Sister Delores says:

[P]astoral experience leads me to doubt that the average churchgoer is readily led into prayer by the language and imagery of the psalms, which reflect a biblical culture far removed from the culture of our times. (p. 20)

She believes that the use of psalms excludes “those who have not formally studied Scripture and theology”. (p. 20) Furthermore, she anticipates problems due to the introduction of the new translation of the Mass with its more elevated language.

From a pastoral perspective, we will then have an even greater need for liturgical hymns and songs to interpret the prayers and readings of the liturgy in good contemporary English… (p. 20, emphasis added)

Catholic people, in other words, are incapable of understanding either Scripture or the prayers of the Mass, without song writers to interpret it for them. (How musicians and liturgy planners who usually have no more formal training in theology or Scripture than the average person in the congregation can decide what is a good interpretation is not explained.)

Sister Delores also objects to the form of the prescribed processionals in the Gradual, which she finds too “hierarchical”. The rubrics specify that the people sing the antiphon, alternating with the choir, who sings the verses. Thus she prefers a more egalitarian selection: a hymn.

The NPM staff seems to share this preference. In their online survey of the words of hymns rated as favorites, they mention particularly a song by Marty Haugen called “All Are Welcome”, which speaks repeatedly of a house that we build. They say it gives “a wonderful vision of the Church”. Considering the treatment of the Church in general in the favorite hymns, they admit:

There is very little, in these hymns and songs, of the hierarchical Church or of the apostolic tradition preserved through history, but in many ways the fallible human side of the Church appears with all of its failures, weaknesses, struggles, and hopes. (p. 30)

Some liturgists find support for their preference in the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy document Music in Catholic Worship (MCW). Composer David Haas, in his monthly column in Ministry and Liturgy for September 2007, says of MCW:

I believe it to be a most profound document, proclaiming a vision of music and worship that we still have yet to tap and experience fully. (p. 34)

He mentions its threefold scheme for judging liturgical music: musical, liturgical and pastoral. But he believes the pastoral must overrule both musical quality and liturgical rubrics.

[A]ll of this pales in comparison and bows to whether or not the music chosen, prepared, and proclaimed in the liturgy truly becomes a vehicle by which people are freed to express their faith, celebrate this faith, and be transformed by their faith story. (p. 34)

But the “faith story” of any one person — or even of a single congregation — is not the faith of the Church. Any song text that focuses on the faith of some people now — no matter how vigorously it is sung — is woefully inadequate.

This kind of singing is not, and cannot be, participating in the Church’s liturgy as effectively as thoughtful interior reflection on the text of the prescribed Introit sung by a choir. When people have no access to the authentic texts of the Church, and must sing substitute songs at Mass, they are prevented from interiorizing the prayers of the Church. This inhibits their true participation in the liturgy.

Authentic Liturgy and True Freedom

To increase genuine participation in the liturgy, then, we must regain our lost musical heritage, the “rich patrimony of faith” contained in the Graduale Romanum. This cannot be accomplished overnight, but a beginning can be made. Hymns whose texts are at the very least related to the Proper texts should be chosen. Choirs can begin to learn some musical settings from the Gradual, and the translation could be provided so that people can interiorize it as the choir sings. The Latin texts might be combined with the vernacular, so that the additional psalm verses and the repeated refrain could be sung in English, for example. And appropriate new musical settings of these texts (in Latin or approved translation) could add to our “musical treasury”, and strengthen our connection to our Catholic heritage.

Using “pastoral judgment” to justify complete departure from the Church’s official texts is, in fact, unpastoral. If worshippers are deprived of the full expression of their faith — the faith of the Church, in the texts the Church herself gives us — they will not be “freed”, but constrained. In Feast of Faith — Approaches to a Theology of the Liturgy, written nearly twenty years ago, Pope Benedict (then Cardinal Ratzinger) said of the obligatory form of the liturgy:

It is a guarantee, testifying to the fact that something greater is taking place here than can be brought about by any individual community or group of people. It expresses the gift of joy, the gift of participation in the cosmic drama of Christ’s Resurrection, by which liturgy stands or falls. Moreover the obligatory character of the essential parts of the liturgy also guarantees the true freedom of the faithful: it makes sure that they are not victims of something fabricated by an individual or a group, that they are sharing in the same liturgy that binds the priest, the bishop and the pope. In the liturgy, we are all given the freedom to appropriate, in our own personal way, the mystery which addresses us. (Feast of Faith, p. 67)

We may hope for the recovery of this freedom!


Susan Benofy is research editor of the Adoremus Bulletin and writes frequently on liturgical music.



Susan Benofy

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