Singing neglected parts of Mass can enrich our prayer

Categories: Guest Views

Adding Scripture-based chant to the liturgy isn’t an attempt to ‘turn back the clock,’ but rather an effort to enjoy the richness of a valuable form of art

Dec. 6, 2013, edition
By Kyle Eller

In November, the Scottish Catholic composer James MacMillan an- nounced that he intends to stop writ- ing congregational music for the Cath-olic Church. There is, he wrote for a British newspaper, “too much music being created, at the same time as the vast repository of tradition is ignored and wilfully forgotten.”

He will continue to write for choirs, but not for congregations. He praised the Church Music Association of America’s efforts with the “Simple English Propers” and similar works as a path forward for sacred music in keeping with the Second Vatican Council.

“. . . [T]he Americans seem to be ahead of the game and are producing new publications which enable the singing, in the vernacular, of those neglected Proper texts for Introits, Offertories and Communion,” he wrote.

“The creators of this music are curators of tradition more than ‘composers,’ with all the issues of individuality, style and aesthetics attendant on the word. But what these curators are doing is remarkable.”

MacMillan is not just any composer. A year ago last October, Pope Benedict XVI chose him for a ceremony as a stand-in representing all the artists of the world as the Year of Faith got under way. When the pope visited the U.K. in 2010, the Bishops of England and Wales and the Bishops of Scotland commissioned MacMillan to write a Mass for the visit.

Chant not obsolete

His announcement dovetails with my own recent experience. In October, the men’s schola I founded in 2008 sang for Mass at the annual Duluth Diocesan Assembly. We sang those “neglected Proper texts,” two of them in Gregorian chant and one using the Simple English Propers, in addition to other chant, ancient and new.

The next day, I left for the Twin Cities to attend a national conference on the renewal of sacred music, which was held in St. Paul and sponsored by the CMAA, an organization which gives a ton of its great work away for free online.

We know now that some things said and done in the name of the Second Vatican Council had little to do with what the council actually said. That is as true in liturgical music too.

But we can say this much. Whatever else the council permits regarding liturgical music, the council indisputably sought to foster and expand the role of traditional sacred music, and Gregorian chant in particular, in the liturgy. It not only calls Gregorian chant “specially suited” to the liturgy and asks that it be given “pride of place” (or “principal place”) there, it calls for simplified versions of the chants for use in smaller parishes and asks that all Catholics be taught to say and sing their parts of the liturgy in Latin.

Many still imagine those favoring chant want to repeal the council or “turn back the clock.” Such people would have been amazed at the conference, at how Vatican II-positive it was and how optimistic and forward-thinking it was.

The positive approach

Too often this conversation devolves into unedifying griping and complaining. I don’t want to add a syllable to that here. It’s far better to build something beautiful, on a solid foundation, and offer something positive.

That’s what motivated the founding of the schola. And we’re just one small example of something that is happening across the diocese, across the country, across the English-speaking world and perhaps beyond.

A good place to start is the propers MacMillan mentioned. At the sacred music conference, I was struck by a comment one of the speakers made about how compelling the argument for singing them is.

Let me summarize that argument briefly. Those propers are liturgical texts, much like the Scripture readings or the priest’s opening prayer, meant to be sung for our meditation during the Mass’s opening procession, during the offering and during the Communion procession.

In many places, they are almost universally replaced by hymns, but there is a liturgical text, usually taken from the Scripture, chosen specifically to fit each day’s readings, feast day or liturgical season. Sometimes these texts are part of a tradition going back hundreds of years, bringing an inestimable theological richness.

Substituting hymns is definitely allowed, and it can foster congregational singing, another priority of Vatican II. It has a place.

But it’s equally clear how important these proper texts are to our worship. As my own pastor once said when introducing these texts in our parish, it is the difference between singing at Mass and singing the Mass.

Now many new options like the Simple English Propers are making it relatively easy to include them.

Artistic treasure

Vatican II praised the patrimony of the church’s sacred music as “a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art,” and I see increasing openness and even a hunger to discover how this treasure can enrich us, in our diocese and beyond. Progress is still slow and often tentative, but it is unmistakably there.

I greet this assessment with joy, but I know others have a different reaction.

I hope that whichever reaction we initially experience, we can all approach these things with sensitivity, patience and open hearts.

Most of us have experienced liturgical music we find difficult to embrace; perhaps after the “liturgy wars” we can learn to use this as an excuse not for acrimony but for patience and sympathy.

If the whole concept of worshiping this way is new to you, and you wonder how to “actively participate” in it, I have a suggestion. We all — I hope! — actively participate in the Scripture readings at Mass. Most of us do so by active and prayerful listening, pondering their meaning in our hearts as we see Mother Mary do in Scripture.

We pray the propers in the same way. Try this different way of praying the Mass, and you may discover a peaceful, rich encounter with God.

Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross, newspaper of the Diocese of Duluth. Reach him at