Online Edition – Vol. III, No. 6: September 1997
Him, Not Hymn
Hymn-singing during Communion blocks reception of what Christ may have to say to us
by William Bentley Ball
While the comment of a lay person on the liturgy is not always welcomed by professional liturgists, if the lay person is also a lawyer, the comment is likely to be rejected even before it is heard. Surely the lawyer’s comment will be nit-picking, the vain posturing of the know-it-all, some slippery business to beware of and anyhow, why, for heaven’s sake, should a lawyer be opining on the liturgy?
With all the humility characteristic of my profession, I will accept this bad-mouthing and suspicion should it greet me and will not be deterred from the one comment on liturgy which I shall make, not in legalistic terms, indeed not as a lawyer, but simply as a fellow in the pews who loves the Faith and its Mass.
A couple of more disclaimers, and then I will get on with my one point. I’m not a crusader for returning the Mass to its pre-Vatican II form. The "new" Mass, said properly and reverently, is as good a Mass experience as I would wish for. Nor do I remotely share the view of Thomas Day, in his otherwise brilliant Why Catholics Can’t Sing, that songs such as "Be Not Afraid" and "On Eagles Wings" are kitsch. Here’s my single point:
The requirement that the congregation sing during the reception of Communion should be modified in order that Christ may be properly received. The "requirement" as found in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, March 27, 1975:
"During the priest’s and the faithful’s reception of the sacrament the communion hymn is sung. Its function is to express outwardly the communicants’ union in spirit by means of the unity of their voices, to give evidence of joy of heart, and to make the procession to receive Christ’s body more fully an act of community. The song begins when the priest takes Communion and continues as long as seems appropriate while the faithful receive Christ’s body." (emphasis added)
"As long as seems appropriate" appears to most pastors to mean: until the last person in the Communion line has received. The requirement raises the question: should the communicant pray during reception? It is rarely asked, but when I have asked it, the answers I have been given are two. First, that "He who sings once, prays twice"; second, that the Communion songs are prayers. If prayer is the lifting up of the mind and hear to God, to adore him, thank him, repent to him or petition him, then the two answers aren’t adequate. The "he who sings" answer begs the question: he who sings what? The second similarly asks: Is the song really a prayer?
As we look over the songs most usually sung, we find that many of them (there are exceptions) are not prayers, but simply expressions of holy, or at least wholesome, ideas. As Jesus comes upon our tongues, we are, too often, bade to advise him that "Where charity and love prevail, There God is ever found", that he should "Taste and see the goodness of the Lord", that he should "Come before the table of the Lord". We are to tell him "Let all mortal flesh keep silence", or that "Peace is flowing like a river", even that "Whatever you do to the least of my little ones, this you do unto me".
This is all pious stuff, good sentiments, but none of it prayers to him. He who sings such things once isn’t praying at all unless he’s tuning out the sound all about him and desperately wedging in his greeting to the Lord. Those noble and sometimes inspiring songs are certainly appropriate to most Protestant church services where the person of Christ is not deemed actually present in the species.
Finally, he who sings may be doing just that only that vocalizing, heedless of whatever words may be in the hymn. But as King Claudius says in Hamlet, "Words without thoughts never to heaven go." It’s odd to think that, at this most precious moment of the miracle of Jesus Christ’s coming to me, I may be ordered to address him in words not to him or from my own mind and heart, but from the pen of Bob Dufford, Sy Miller, David Haas, or Suzanne Toolan.
But there is another aspect of reception: listening. We do need silence, not only from enforced singing but for our own yapping minds, even though they try to be engaged in prayer. John Paul II recently stressed this very point. The hymn-singing obviously blocks the profounder reception of hearing what Christ may have to say to us. "Sorry, dear Jesus, no chance to hear you. I’m told to spend these critically precious moments telling you, doing all the talking, not hearing you."
Suppose this: I get word from my dear old friend, Harry, that he is going to come to my house to visit me. The doorbell rings. Here’s Harry, smiling, his hand extended, I greet him by singing: "Oh, say can you see, By the dawn’s early light", and go on and on to complete the national anthem. It’s beautiful and inspiring, and I enjoy rendering it full throat. But good-natured Harry is puzzled and says: "Bill, what’s all this? What’s wrong with you? I’m your old friend, Harry! Aren’t you glad to see me? Can’t we just talk? I’ve been storing up things to tell you, and I thought you’d have things to tell me. Why are you singing at me?"
Either we are faced, at the Mass, with the reality of the actual Person of Christ coming to us in Communion, or we are faced with a gathering, an assembly, a prayer meeting. Now, the General Instruction does tell us that singing during reception is "an act of community." Surely it is desirable for Catholics to do all they can to restore the Church to the sense of community it once had and to reverse the trend to a "diverse" (cafeteria) Catholicism.
Group-singing may help that, but when it pre-empts prayer and obliterates reception, it attacks the essence of the Eucharist the Real Presence. To be a community heedless of that, simply in order to be in some sense, a "community" is not only pointless but destructive of the Faith.
Cardinal Oddi, a decade ago, took note that, while the Communion lines were lengthening, the confessional lines were shortening. Bishop William K. Weigand, of Salt Lake City, in a forceful pastoral letter in 1992, sounded a strong alarm to what he observed was a growing decline in belief, among Catholics, in the Real Presence. Now, in 1997, we have uncontrovertible statistical studies confirming this extreme misfortune. While there are undoubtedly several reasons for this, one is surely the new dominance of musical distraction at the time when the concentration of congregations should be most intensely riveted on the great reality of Christ, alive, and graciously offered to us.
I can’t do better in my argument here today than to bring to my side a lawyer far better qualified than I to speak of this. Saint Thomas More, while a prisoner in the Tower in 1534, wrote "A Treatise to Receive the Blessed Body". In the midst of all our singing at reception (and, in part, due to what is being sung), lost is the sense of the gravity of the moment of reception as well as its sublimity. More’s "Treatise" brings us powerfully to that sense as this brief passage from it shows:
Now when we have received our Lord and have Him in our body, let us not then let Him alone and get us forth about other things and look no more unto Him (for little good could he that so would serve any guest), but let all our business talk to Him, by devout meditation talk with Him. Let us say with the prophet: Audium quid loquator in me Dominus. (I will hear what our Lord will speak within me.)
It is in More’s sense, I plead: "Him, not hymn!"