Dec 15, 2008

The Clerical Challenge in "Sing to the Lord"

Online Edition:
December 2008 – January 2009
Vol. XIV, No. 9

The Clerical Challenge in "Sing to the Lord"

by W. Patrick Cunningham

The high school liturgy director was sharing frustrations with congregational participation with one of the local clergy at a workshop on liturgy. “How is it”, she asked, “that we can rehearse for hours and hours with our choir, reprint upbeat music to sing, but end up singing all by ourselves as the students and faculty stand in stony silence; but then you clergy stand up and simply sing a monotone ‘The Lord be with you’, and they all sing the response?” That question, if properly studied and responded to throughout the schools and parishes of the US, could be the beginning of a true reform and revival of sacred music across the country.

For this to happen, however, there is one clear challenge to be met, and it was actually first articulated more than forty years ago, in the important Vatican document Musicam Sacram:

[I]n selecting the parts which are to be sung, one should start with those that are by their nature of greater importance, and especially those which are to be sung by the priest or by the ministers, with the people replying, or those which are to be sung by the priest and people together. The other parts may be gradually added according as they are proper to the people alone or to the choir alone. (§7. Emphasis added)

This direction is repeated in “Sing to the Lord” (STL), the US bishops’ 2007 guidelines for music:

The importance of the priest’s participation in the Liturgy, especially by singing, cannot be overemphasized. The priest sings the presidential prayers and dialogues of the Liturgy according to his capabilities, and he encourages sung participation in the Liturgy by his own example, joining in the congregational song. (§19)

The most important sung parts of the Mass, it is clear from both documents, are the parts in which the priest sings a dialogue with the people. Those entrusted with leadership in sacred music, especially bishops and priests, need to understand the theological underpinnings of that conviction, and then implement the direction after suitable catechesis.

The Spirit and the Bride Say “Come”

Christian worship is nothing if it is not Trinitarian. The existence of creation is the visible outcome of the overflowing, infinite love of the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit. (CCC 253-260) The creation of the human “trinity”, the family —father, mother, child — is the work of the whole Divine Trinity: “Let us make man in our image and likeness” (Gen 1). And the redemption of humans through the passion, death and resurrection of the prophet-priest-king Jesus, Son of God, is the work of the whole Trinity.

There is what we might consider a divine-human “trinity” in our worship as Church, and we can see it most vividly in the vision of John recorded in Revelation. The new Holy City, Jerusalem (the universal Church of all ages) comes down from heaven “prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev 21:3). This is the bride of the Lamb (Rev 21:9).

But the revelation of the Church as the Bride of Christ is not only in the “sweet bye and bye”. Human beings, by the grace of God, can “wash their robes so as to have the right to the tree of life and [entrance to] the city through its gates” (Rev 22:14) in our day and time. And in the worship of this Church, this Bride, this City, “the Spirit and the bride say ‘Come.’” This prayer, this song, is echoed by the believer, who says “come” to the Bridegroom, Christ, and who receives the “gift of life-giving water” (Rev 22:17).

The New Testament then positions the worship of the Church, particularly the sacraments of initiation, and above all the Eucharist, as the wedding feast of the Church and the Bridegroom, with the Holy Spirit enabling weak humanity to offer the infinite sacrifice of praise. “The Spirit and the Bride say ‘Come.’” In STL, the Spirit and the Bride sing “come”.

Imaging the Bridegroom

So where is the Bridegroom in the sacraments, particularly the Mass? The Catechism teaches (CCC 1548) that the priest, “by virtue of the sacrament of Holy Orders, acts in persona Christi Capitis [in the person of Christ, the Head].” The Catechism goes on to quote Pius XII, who in Mediator Dei (1947) taught that “Christ is the source of all priesthood: the priest of the old law was a figure of Christ, and the priest of the new law acts in the person of Christ.” Paul VI, in Mysterium Fidei, quotes Saint John Chrysostom:

“It is not man who makes what is put before him the Body and Blood of Christ, but Christ Himself who was crucified for us. The priest standing there in the place of Christ says these words, but their power and grace are from God. This is my Body, he says, and these words transform what lies before him” (§ 49).

So the priest re-presents, memorializes, Christ the Bridegroom, and not only at the words of consecration.

STL makes this point musically in two ways. First, it directs that the priest sing the dialogue parts of the Mass. The only situation in which the priest is excused from singing is when the parts are too difficult. Then he can “render without singing one or more of the more difficult parts which concern him” (§ 19).

The second way in which the bishops clarify the Christ-imaging role of the priest is to state when he is not to sing along with the congregation: “The priest joins with the congregation in singing the acclamations, chants, hymns, and songs of the Liturgy.… In order to promote the corporate voice of the assembly when it sings, the priest’s own voice should not be heard above the congregation, nor should he sing the congregational response of the dialogues”. (STL 21. Emphasis added.) (The rubric in the Missal says “the people respond” at the conclusion of the Eucharistic prayer; and this is confirmed by the General Instruction of the Roman Missal [GIRM § 79.h], which says: “Final doxology: By which the glorification of God is expressed and is confirmed and concluded by the people’s acclamation, Amen”. This is reflected in STL § 21.)

Why doesn’t the priest join the people in singing these parts? The theological reason must have to do with the priest’s unique role as alter Christus. In the first of the dialogues, he completes the Eucharistic narrative by proclaiming “mysterium fidei [the mystery of faith]”. (The current English translation says “let us proclaim the mystery of faith”, but that is an alteration of the original Latin, which traditionally belongs to the Institution Narrative.) So the priest is standing as Christ, with the Body and Blood of Christ on the altar. He speaks as the Bridegroom, and the people and other ministers respond as the Bride: Mortem tuam annuntiamus, Domine, et tuam resurrectionem confitemur, donec venias. [We proclaim Your death, O Lord, and we confess Your resurrection until You come.]

At the “Great Amen”, the priest, or concelebrants, sing the Great Doxology per ipsum et cum ipso et in ipso…. This Trinitarian proclamation and praise is spoken by the priest acting as the Divine Bridegroom and is responded to by the “Amen” of everyone else. If the priest responded to the Doxology himself, this would not be in accord with the dialogic symbolism of Bride-Bridegroom.

The Most Important Song-Prayer

STL makes it clear that the most important sung prayers in the Mass are these dialogues between the priest, acting in the person of the Bridegroom, and the Church, the Bride. The principle of “progressive solemnity”, which underlies this statement, states: “Progressive solemnity means that ‘between the solemn, fuller form of liturgical celebration, in which everything that demands singing is in fact sung, and the simplest form, in which singing is not used, there can be various degrees according to the greater or lesser place allotted to singing.’” Moreover, “not every part that can be sung should necessarily be sung at every celebration; rather ‘preference should be given to those [parts] that are of greater importance.’” (§ 115) [The phrase “Progressive solemnity” comes from “Liturgical Music Today”, a 1982 statement of the US Bishops’ Committee on Liturgy, replaced by STL. — Editor.]

No doubt is left about the parts that are of greater importance: “those to be sung by the priest or the deacon or the lector, with the people responding, or by the priest and people together.” In the Mass, this means “The Lord be with you…” and the like. STL affirms the reason for these prayers being important enough to sing on most occasions: because they “are not simply outward signs of communal celebration but foster and bring about communion between priest and people.” (§ 115a) This brings into contemporary usage the important language of Musicam Sacram: “in selecting the parts which are to be sung, one should start with those that are by their nature of greater importance, and especially those which are to be sung by the priest or by the ministers, with the people replying, or those which are to be sung by the priest and people together. The other parts may be gradually added according as they are proper to the people alone or to the choir alone.” (§ 7)

On a deep level, of course, it is the Church that is participating in the divine love song. On the more mundane level, however, the response is easy and short, the music is easy and short, and — most importantly — there is no intermediary to take the place of the congregational response. If the congregation doesn’t respond, the blessing Dominus vobiscum isn’t complete. Not to respond would be an act of rudeness. In my experience, it is the dialogue responses that at Mass evoke the most consistent and widespread congregational participation, along with a chant setting of the Lord’s Prayer.

For both theological and practical reasons, the place to start with liturgical song is the dialogue between the presiding priest, bishop or deacon, and the congregation. In practice, however, this may create a large or small difficulty, when the cleric has little or no experience singing alone.

Now, the cleric is never really singing alone, since the Trinity is acting with and in him, and the congregation is listening supportively more than critically. But if public speaking is the second-most feared event of life, public solo singing is feared even more. So many priests and even bishops have gotten out of the habit — or have never acquired the habit — of singing the dialogues and orations. Some believe that they cannot sing, even though choral directors and voice coaches know that if one can speak with the vocal cords, one can sing with the vocal cords. The bishops agree: “Even the priest with very limited singing ability is capable of chanting The Lord be with you on a single pitch.” (§ 115a)

The diocesan, parish or school music director should, then, make it a priority to meet with the clerics of the institution, collectively or individually, and share the critical insights and directions of STL. The clerics should be enabled through reading, workshops, and discussions to see the importance of their singing role in the liturgy. I have crafted and given such a workshop in four to five hours, to good effect. Such an educational experience should be based on the relevant documents, demonstrate the beauty of the chant and other beautiful and useful prayer-songs, and give an opportunity in a non-threatening atmosphere for the deacons and priests to learn and practice their proper chants. If the workshop is too long, it can be structured in a modular fashion, so that it can be completed in two or three sessions of an hour or two each.

Attendees with experience and musical zeal will pick up the melodies and roles quickly. Those who are ill-trained or reluctant should be encouraged to work with a vocal/liturgical coach, alone or in a group of ministers as they desire. Then they should work up to the large congregation by first leading celebrations in small groups. This is easy enough in seminary situations or diaconate formation classes, since the study cohort can also be a celebration community. Those who are already ordained should find continuing education classes to be available locally, or should engage an individual coach to work with him. If the diocesan bishop really wants improvement in the musical participation of clergy and people at Mass, he will want to make such opportunities available soon, and often.

Once the priests and deacons are leading in song, congregations all over the diocese will respond, and the hope that Catholic people will “sing to the Lord” will begin to become a reality.

As with any change, it is critical that the leaders be prepared to lead. Saint Paul had it right: “For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?” (I Cor 14:8 Douay-Rheims)

For many years priests and other clergy have largely given uncertain sounds, or no sounds at all, and the congregation has responded in kind.

Whatever methods are chosen to facilitate change, it is important for all in musical leadership to be sensitive to the educational needs of the clerics, many of whom were ordained into a “church-of-four-hymns” and have never had to act in the beautiful and mystical dialogue role that re-presents the love-song between Christ and the Church.

In return for this sensitivity (and the needed preparation), clerics will assume their leadership roles in the music for Mass, learn to love them, and find them enriching for their own personal spiritual growth — and for the nourishment of the whole Church.


W. Patrick Cunningham is a deacon and a high-school teacher who lives in San Antonio. His article “Teens and Chants in the Mass” appeared in AB October 2007.



W. Patrick Cunningham