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Active Participation in Chant

Online Edition

– Vol. VI, No. 8: November 2000

"Active Participation" in Chant

by the Rt. Rev. Martin B. Hellriegel

Monsignor Martin B. Hellriegel (1890-1981), an Apostolic Protonotary, was one of the giants of the 20th century Liturgical Movement that Pope Pius X inspired. A native of Heppenheim, Germany, his most productive years were spent in America, where he was chaplain to the Most Precious Blood Sisters in O’Fallon, Missouri, then pastor of Holy Cross parish in St. Louis.

Considered an innovator before the Second Vatican Council, Monsignor Hellrigel was influential in promoting liturgical reforms that Pope Pius XII had urged in

Mediator Dei

, his 1947 encyclical on the liturgy — in particular the restoration of the Easter Vigil and the participation of the congregation in the chants of the Mass.

Very soon after the Council, his views came to be considered passé in liturgical circles. Nevertheless, he achieved in his own parish Church, Holy Cross, most of the objectives of the Council’s

Constitution on the Liturgy

. In the article reprinted here, he gives advice on encouraging active (actual) participation by the congregation in liturgical chant.

This essay originally appeared in the January-February 1956 issue of


, a now-defunct journal devoted to sacred music.


Indeed it is very necessary that the faithful attend the sacred ceremonies. Not as if they were outsiders or mute onlookers, but let them fully appreciate the beauty of the liturgy and take part in the sacred ceremonies, alternating their voices with the priest and choir, according to the prescribed norms."–

Mediator Dei

, §192


Permit me to recount how we commenced with the music.



I collected the best texts and music that I was able to find, had the texts (only) mimeographed on sheets, in order to first try them out, and eventually select the best suited. I have always been convinced that one must not begin with Latin but with English.


burden at a time is enough. These hymns were to be used




holy Mass and for


services. I practiced them first with the children; then with the people and children, usually after evening services, but also at the meetings of our various societies. Now the parish sings over 200 hymns, printed on durable cards


, and


the color of, the various seasons (Advent, Christmas, etc., seven different cards). Before services the numbers of the hymns are posted on the two hymn-boards.



. With the sung Mass responses I followed the same method, in school, in church, at meetings. Incidentally, singing has brought new life to the oft dead (and deadening) society meetings.



With the exception of the Requiem our people had practically done no chant, which, in a way, was a blessing. It is easier to start from scratch than to re-build. I bought the Solesmes chant records and was determined to sing, at least with the children and choir, the

Lux et Origo

Mass for my first Easter at Holy Cross (1941). I told the children: "The Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays of Lent are the


Lenten days when the people of old fasted more strictly. Now, you don’t have to fast as yet, but how would it be, if on these days during Lent we would assemble in church from 11:15 till 11:45 to learn the Easter Mass"?

They were quite enthusiastic. We supplied them with


. During the


week of Lent they merely listened to the monks, following the music in their booklets. During the


week I permitted them to hum along, but very quietly. During the


they hummed again, but with more rhythm. During the


they sang, but lightly. During the


they sang with more expression, and during the


they did it "without the monks". Easter morning they sang the "

Lux et Origo

" Mass



The people were so impressed by the children’s joyous singing that many of them came and said: "We also want to learn that beautiful Mass". Again I followed the same method, and by Pentecost many of the grown-ups were able to sing this beautiful paschal Mass together with the Children.

Today, the


sing: Masses 1, 4, 9, 11, 17 and 18; the


sing: 1, 2, 4, 8, 9, 10, 11, 17, 18, and selections from the

ad libitum

. Since 1943, it has been the privilege of the first graders to sing alone the




after the preface of the blessing of the palms quite an experience for them and their parents, and the congregation.

We have two surpliced choirs, one of men, one of children, both singing in the choir-stalls between altar and people. I am afraid that the "loft", "born out of due season", is not too conductive either to the spiritual life of singers or to the promotion of congregational singing. The choir should have its place


altar and congregation, to bring the two together: not


in the loft, nor


the altar where the singers can see nothing of the sacred functions "in which the divine Founder is present".

The children also chant from the same stalls at the Sunday 9:15 sung Mass as well as at the weekday sung Masses. Like the adult choir, the children render the proper from the


, and alternate the ordinary with the 400 children and adults.

Here are a few suggestions:

1) It is important to impress on choir members and congregation that there can be no such thing in church as "music for music’s sake", or "music for gratification sake". The music in the house of God must be for the glory of God and the edification of the faithful. The music must be worship of


, not of



2) Services must be well prepared. Our adult choir members on


, and our children choristers

every day

, assemble 20 minutes before service to go through their music, mark their books, etc. There must be no haste, neither at the altar, nor in the choir. People must have their texts, and the respective numbers of the Mass,


and hymns must be posted on the hymn-board. Order is not as yet perfection, but there is no perfection without order. The best we can give to our God is not good enough.

Sancta sancte

! Holy things must be done in a holy way!

3) I am convinced that we need a reasonable reduction of "black" Masses, lest we experience a spiritual black-out. No organist can, for any length of time, play a daily


(or two or three on the same day) and remain spiritually fresh: neither can priest and people especially children. If these endless


were "according to the mind of the Church", why did the Church not supply us with some five or six different musical settings? We have eighteen chant Masses for feasts, but only one for the

Requiem. Est modus in rebus!

Which might be colloquially translated as: "Let’s not overdo it". It certainly is not difficult to teach people to have sung Masses offered instead of


From a pastoral viewpoint the


problem" is serious matter which must be given earnest consideration.

[Ed. Note:

The Requiem Masses almost completely disappeared. The "Requiem problem" today is almost the opposite as in 1956.]

4) One of the priests attends the choir rehearsals, not because the organist is unable to keep proper discipline, but to give prestige to the work, a work so sacred and important that no other activities must stand in the way. Let us not become guilty of an inversion of values! First things first!

5) The choirmaster’s position in the light of the divine mysteries is, indeed, an exalted one. Needless to say, he must lead an exemplary life. The Vespers hymn of a confessor well expresses the program of his life. "Saintly and prudent, modest in behavior, peaceful and sober, chaste is he and humble, while this life’s vigor, coursing through his members, quickens his being". He must show patience and cheerfulness. Let him begin and close his rehearsals with prayer, be prepared to translate the Latin texts (especially of the Propers), and interpret the spirit of the chant. He is entitled to the respect of the priest and people of the parish and also to a decent salary.

6) The choir members, too, must be exemplary Christians, the cream of the parish. Only chaste and noble souls can fittingly sing the chaste and noble songs of the Church. I suggest that in the music room a chart be hung up with the words




superimposed horizontally and vertically in the shape of a Greek cross, as if to say: "What the heart contains the voice expresses".

7) Organist and choir must cheerfully collaborate in the restoration of the ordinary (








, and


) to the people to whom it rightfully belongs.



music, take what is


and do it well. It is better to let Palesterina rest in peace than compel him to turn over in his grave. Of great importance it is, moreover, to work towards proper diction, not only with children but also with adults.

In sum: "Let the full harmonious singing of our people rise to heaven like the bursting of a thunderous sea and let them testify by the melody of their song to the unity of their hearts and minds, as becomes brothers and the children of the same Father" (

Mediator Dei

, §194).


The Editors