Cleansing Fire

Defending Truth and Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church


On the Cusp of a Liturgical Revolution

June 21st, 2011, Promulgated by Gen

Since the often-sloppy implementation of the Second Vatican Council’s decrees regarding sacred liturgy, the English-speaking world has been subjected to a Mass devoid of any depth of language and vocabulary. Many nations and peoples adopted vernacular Masses, but did so with proper attention to the original language of the Roman Missal, and wrote their own orders of worship using appropriate language. Indeed, when considering all the languages in which the Mass is offered, it is baffling to see that English stands out as being the most poorly-translated of all of them. There is no possible way that “et cum spiritu tuo” can be translated as “and also with you.” Whenever I say that response, all I can imagine is some slovenly wretch with a chili-dog in his hand saying “and wit’ you too, fadda.”

However, thanks be to God, the USCCB has decided that we may embrace the new translation of the Roman Missal two months earlier than originally thought. The following comes from their website:

BELLEVUE, Washington—Archbishop Gregory Aymond of New Orleans, chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Committee on Divine Worship, announced that diocesan bishops may permit the gradual introduction of the musical settings of the people’s parts of the Mass from the new Roman Missal in September. Primarily this affects the  the Gloria, the Holy, Holy, Holy and the Memorial Acclamations.

This variation to the implementation of the Roman Missal, Third Edition, set to take place all at once on November 27, was authorized by USCCB president, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, and adopted by the committee to allow parish communities to learn the various parts of the new translation “in a timely fashion and an even pace.”

The Committee on Divine Worship made the decision in response to requests from several bishops, echoed by the National Advisory Council. Some suggested that the various acclamations could be more effectively introduced throughout the fall, so that when the full Missal is implemented on the First Sunday of Advent, the congregation will have already become familiar with the prayers that are sung.
“I ask you to encourage this as a means of preparing our people and helping them embrace the new translation,” Archbishop Gregory told the bishops. The announcement took place June 16, during the U.S. bishops Spring Assembly near Seattle.

This is a very wise decision. One reason is that the Gloria, one of the “ordinaries” of the Mass (along with the Kyrie, Sanctus, Credo, and Agnus Dei) will now be experienced before Advent’s arrival and the dropping of the Gloria until Christmas. By granting permission to implement the new translation this early, the United States joins several other areas in the English-speaking world that have already begun to use it. England and Wales have also decided on the September start date, as opposed to the Advent one.

Something that will be seen in the new Roman Missal is increased attention paid to the “propers” of the Mass. “Propers” are scriptural extracts that are proper (thus the name) to the specific weekend or feast on which they ought to be recited. There are several different places where propers are to be used:

  • Introit – basically an entrance song, chanted or sung as the priest and other ministers enter the sanctuary
  • Gradual – this was the predecessor of the Responsorial Psalm. The option exists to chant this in lieu of the Responsorial Psalm, something wholly advisable given the fact that many psalm settings are abusive to the ear and the soul.
  • Alleluia – if using the propers, as found in the Graduale Romanum, you will note that every Sunday has its own setting of the Alleluia.
  • Offertorio – oddly enough, sung during the Offertory of the Mass when the gifts are prepared.
  • Communio – sung during the distribution of Communion. Baffling naming system, isn’t it?

The use of propers is encouraged by the Holy Father and the documents of Vatican II. Unfortunately, most parishes opted for communally-sung hymns instead of the specified propers of the Mass, seeing as how Gregorian Chant is seldom something that one can pick up with ease. Also, the use of hymns was allowed in order to draw the faithful into a more active and conscious participation at Mass. But ask yourself the following questions: 1. At your church, does the entire congregation actually sing the hymns? 2. Do your hymns actually reflect the total message of the Mass on any particular weekend? 3. What do you take away from singing a “hymn sandwich,” with a processional, an offertory hymn, a communion hymn, and a recessional? 4. While singing these hymns (doubtless they’ve been picked by your parish’s liturgy committee), do you actually feel edified and prayerful, or does it strike you as liturgical busy-work?

The use of propers answers all of these questions, seeing as how for the vast majority of the Church’s 2,000 year history, the propers were sung at Mass instead of hymns. They have their roots, not in some Medieval or Renaissance council or synod, but in the songs sung in the Temple in Jerusalem, songs sung by Our Lord Himself. The richness of these propers is really quite stunning, and I firmly believe that if they are reintroduced into our Masses, we will find ourselves tremendously more engaged in the Sacred Mysteries. After all, no matter how well you sing “All Creatures of Our God and King,” it’s still just a hymn that may or may not have a similar theme to the readings of the day. I am not denying that hymns can mirror and magnify the prayerfulness of Mass through interpreting the readings, but they will always be the option less-preferred in the eyes of the Church. Indeed, Vatican II asked for a revival of Gregorian Chant (see here).

But, alas, the propers are probably too daunting for any parish to just pick up and start singing this Sunday. After all, they’re in Latin, and have all these dots and squiggles and zigzags that don’t seem to make much sense. If only there was a simpler option, one that would couple nicely and naturally with the new translation of the Roman Missal . . .

Oh, that’s right. There is!

The Church Music Association of America has just published a book called “Simple English Propers,” which contains the propers of the entire year in English. The Catholic Phoenix reports on this publication:

A parish music director in Phoenix has recently completed a major project in the renewal of sacred music, one that could have a revolutionary impact upon the celebration of the Ordinary form of the Mass all over the English-speaking world, as the latter prepares for the renewal of sacred language on its way this winter, courtesy of the new translation of the OF Roman Missal.

Adam Bartlett, director of music at St. Joan of Arc parish, is the composer and compiler of the Simple English Propers, an anthology of music for the Mass that is unlike anything else available in English today.  The book, a 500-page hardback, has just been published by the Church Music Association of America (CMAA); in keeping with the radical and principled open-source, creative-commons intellectual-property-libertarianism of the CMAA and its tutelary genius Jeffrey Tucker, the entire “Simple English Propers” corpus is also available for free download.

In order for readers to understand why the Simple English Propers are so important, a brief introduction to some technical aspects of music in the Catholic Mass is in order.

The experience of most  Sunday massgoers in America has for decades been one of music as something added to the Mass but not integral or essential to it—so while the words of the liturgy itself are prescribed by the Missal, and the psalms and readings for every day of the three-year cycle are dictated by the Lectionary, one generally gets the sense that when it comes to music, the Catholic Mass is a blank canvas, an empty decorative space to be filled up by the wits and talents of the parish music ministry.

With four such hymn “slots” to be filled each Sunday—from the entrance and offertory, through the communion to the recessional—American Catholics’ experience is that songs at Mass are something freely chosen by the music director.  From choir-and-organ arrangements of “Soul of My Savior” to rockin’ Matt Maher tunes to “Gather Us In” to “God Bless America” or other special numbers on holidays, what we get week in and week out can be, like radio programming, interesting, varied, eclectic, coherent, or not.  This programming model of music as a freely chosen, extraneous addition to worship is nearly universal, and, from what authorities like Thomas Day, author of Why Catholics Can’t Sing, tell us, it is deeply rooted in pre-Vatican II American Catholicism.  We might have a lot more choices now than we did in 1959, but the model is the same—picking tunes off the nickel jukebox, downloading the playlist.

If American Catholics have had any Sunday experience of Gregorian chant, outside of chanted “ordinary” texts like the Sanctus or Agnus Dei, that experience has likely been within the same model of freely chosen music inserted into the liturgy, as one option selected from among others: perhaps one special week out of twenty, the choir chants an unaccompanied Regina coeli for the “meditation” piece after communion; or, if it’s Pentecost, maybe Veni Sancte Spiritus in the same slot.  But not too much chant: back to “Faith of Our Fathers” or something else rousing for the recessional.

While the music-as-choice model is ubiquitous, and technically “allowed” according to the General Instruction for the Roman Missal, a different and much older model of Catholic sacred music is the ideal, described and advocated in all Roman magisterial documents on liturgy in the 20th century, including Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium. The model is simple: just sing the integral proper chants of the Mass, the prescribed Latin texts and ancient Gregorian melodies contained in the official music book of the Catholic Church, the Graduale Romanum, or “Roman Gradual.”  No choices needed:  4 different Gregorian chants for every single Mass of the entire year, with words and music compiled in a normative Roman liturgical book.

Most lay Catholics, not to mention parish musicians and clergy, are not even aware of the existence of the Roman Gradual—but even if there were two dozen copies of it in every choir loft (or “musicians’ space” at the front of more progressive churches), learning to sing these ancient Latin texts and intricate, exotic melodies would be an extremely daunting task for even the most healthy of parish music programs.  There is simply no living tradition of Gregorian chant to be found anywhere near all but a handful of our parish churches.  Without it, the Roman ideal remains a dream for some and simply inconceivable for most.  Wishing it were otherwise—that there was a culture of Latin chant in our parishes just as vibrant as you’d find in a French Benedictine monastery—isn’t enough to conjure it up.  What, then, is to be done?

This is where the Simple English Propers come in.  This revolutionary anthology, the first of its kind, contains English-language translations of all the ancient Latin liturgical chants of the Roman Gradual, set to simplified melodies adapted from the originals; unlike the daunting, technically complex lines of the Gregorian chants, a week’s worth of these adapted melodies can be easily mastered by a parish choir of average competence in a week’s time, and new ones sung with confidence and clarity in the assembly Sunday after Sunday.

What is most revolutionary about the Simple English Propers anthology is that it offers a way to a different model of sacred music, one in which there are no “songs”, no extraneous, independent musical compositions stuck into the silent slots in the liturgy, no need for a music director to program the week’s playlist according to his wits or whims.  Instead of our own choices and preferences, the SEP gives us a way to sing the Roman Church’s ancient songs, texts that have been fully integrated into the Roman Mass for centuries–unlike, say, “Amazing Grace,” “Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus,” or “America the Beautiful.”

As one liturgist recently put it: truly sacred music means not singing “at” Mass, but singing the Mass itself. The Simple English Propers present a comprehensible and technically feasible way for the average American parish to move off the beaches, where previously there had existed only the sheer cliffs of the Graduale Romanum. Thanks to Adam Bartlett and the CMAA for making this possible.

Tags: , , , , ,


7 Responses to “On the Cusp of a Liturgical Revolution”

  1. avatar annonymouse says:

    Nice work, Gen. I would note that Sacrosanctum Concilium appears to make no mention of propers, so you must be thinking of some other Vatican II document (although I don’t know which if not SC, although perhaps I missed the reference in SC).

    Two other nits – we are all “slovenly wretches,” are we not? Oughtn’t we all be like the man in back of the Church saying “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner”? And with respect to the music you (and so many others) despise, as opposed to Gregorian Chant (which SC prefers, “all other things being equal”), recall that the goal is full, active participation in the liturgy – so in the selection of sacred music, that should be the focus – what can we ALL sing together?

  2. avatar Gen says:

    SC does, in fact, mention the propers. You just need to have an understanding for the liturgical books of the Church in addition to that document. SC states, “117. The typical 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 St. Pius X. It is desirable also that an edition be prepared containing simpler melodies, for use in small churches.” The “typical edition” mentioned by SC is the Roman Gradual, which contains all the propers of the entire Church year, in addition to the antiphons and psalmody of the Divine Office.

    As to whether or not we’re all slovenly wretches, that’s between you and your confessor. In my case, I should like to think I’m a wretch, sans the whole “slovenly” bit. My fingernails are not stained with mustard, my shirt is tucked in, and my belt matches my shoes, so, alas, “slovenly” is not a universal modifier of “wretch.”

    Yes, the Church desires full, active, conscious participation in the liturgy. You can participate by singing just as much as you can by kneeling and offering a silent prayer. You don’t have to be actually “doing something” to be participating in the Mass. And when is the last time more than 20 people actually sang the hymns listed on the hymn board? Since we’re discussing SC, which you’ve obviously read, you’ll note that Vatican II answered your question as to what the average folks in the pews should sing. SC says, “steps should be taken so that the faithful may also be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them.”

    So, essentially, the “easy stuff” that we can all understand and sing we should, in fact, sing. The ordinaries are simple for that reason. The propers, on the otherhand, are often sung by those who have the skill to sing them in an edifying way. So you’ve got the best of both worlds – active participation by singing the ordinary and active participation by praying the propers. And now that we’ve got the propers in simple chant notation and in English, we might as well sing those, too!

  3. avatar Susan of Corning says:

    Thanks for the education, Gen. I would love it if our parish used Simple English Propers, but I think it’s a long shot. No idea where they get some of the current songs from (I don’t consider them hymns ;-), but many are out of range for most people, so very few sing.

  4. avatar annonymouse says:

    To say that the use of propers in Mass is found in SC117 is a stretch; I maintain that you oversold your original point that the use of propers is “encouraged by Vatican II.”

    Point well taken on the “slovenly” part. But I think you’re probably alone in seeing the slovenly guy when we say “and also with you.” I infer from “and with your spirit” an almost heretical denial that our bodies are also part of who we are (as Blessed John Paul II labors to teach us in his Theology of the Body). We are not just souls, or spirits. We will have glorified bodies in the hereafter (God willing).

    Participation most definitely does mean “doing something.” We are no longer to be spectators, silently praying. You (and many others) are attempting to deny the vigorous liturgical renewal called for in their documents by the Fathers of Vatican II (the magisterium, in council, to which we are required to give our assent).

    I don’t know where you worship, but where I worship, most of the people sing, and sing prayerfully and with spirit. And if they don’t, then catechesis about “full, active, conscious participation” is required!

  5. avatar Rosemary says:

    annonymouse@10:33 -You say “Participation most definitely does mean ‘doing something.’ We are no longer to be spectators, silently praying.” End quote.

    I don’t know about you, but when I’m “silently praying” I’m not a “spectator”, I’m “doing something”. Unless, of course, one subscribes to the false idea that there is no efficacy in prayer. And most people in our very large (4000-plus parishioners) church DO NOT SING. when presented with some of the fluff and stuff that passes itself off as “hymns”. I did not become a Catholic to sing questionable new-age lyrics set to bad Protestant 1970’s style tunes.

  6. avatar Gen says:

    Anonymouse – No, you’re dead wrong. The “typical edition” of Gregorian Chant does not mean just the ordinaries of the Mass, or a few congregational hymns in Gregorian notation. That would produce a book of around 20 pages. And I ask you, would a massive and historic Church Council expressly demand the creation of a 20 page pamphlet? No, it would not. The propers of the Mass have always been preferred to hymns, and they will always be preferred to hymns. If we’re going to play this game of “SC says,” I would humbly ask that you point out to me where your claims can be substantiated, i.e. the propers are not preferred. It can’t be done. And why? Because you have fallen into the same trap that so many other post-Conciliar Catholics have fallen into. This is the snare of politicized personal interpretation. There’s a difference between reading the documents and accepting them in all humility, and reading the documents with an eye for justification of the status quo.

    Bl. Pope John Paul II said the following regarding active participation:
    “Active participation certainly means that, in gesture, word, song and service, all the members of the community take part in an act of worship, which is anything but inert or passive. Yet active participation does not preclude the active passivity of silence, stillness and listening: indeed, it demands it. Worshippers are not passive, for instance, when listening to the readings or the homily, or following the prayers of the celebrant, and the chants and music of the liturgy. These are experiences of silence and stillness, but they are in their own way profoundly active. In a culture which neither favors nor fosters meditative quiet, the art of interior listening is learned only with difficulty. Here we see how the liturgy, though it must always be properly inculturated, must also be counter-cultural.”

  7. avatar Rosemary says:

    Gen @ 11:27 – BRAVO! That is the truth, succinctly and correctly stated.

Leave a Reply

Log in | Register

You must be logged in to post a comment.

-Return to main page-