Matters Liturgical: April 2009 Archives


This morning, to the accompaniment of birdsong at Vigils, a splendid text of Saint Maximus of Turin. Some of you may recognize this altar from visits to the The Cloisters Museum in New York City.

Rightly then, because Christ is present on the altar, it is fitting to place the martyrs beneath the altar; because the Body of Christ is offered on the altar, it is fitting that the souls of the just should repose beneath the altar. And it is not without reason that the vindication of blood is claimed for the just in that very place where the Blood of Christ is poured out, even for sinners. It was then perfectly right, in virtue of their common destiny, to decide that the martyrs should be buried where the death of Christ is celebrated each day, as He Himself says: So often as you do this, you shall announce My death, even until I come. Yes, it is fitting that those who died for the death of Christ should repose in the mystery of the sacrament of His death.

In aeternum cantabo

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Ex Oriente Lux

I had the privilege, this past Holy Week, of preaching three times in Tulsa's Maronite Catholic Church of Saint Thérèse. The Good Friday liturgy of the Burial of the Lord, with its procession and veneration of the enshrouded image of the Body of Christ, was profoundly moving. It was a first-hand opportunity to witness the richness of an uninterrupted and continuous tradition of liturgical chant. Unlike Latin Rite Catholics, the Maronites have never suffered a rupture in their musical traditions; they sing today the very same chants sung by their fathers and mothers in the faith a thousand years ago. They know them by heart. The people sing as they have always sung, and the chants proper to their splendid tradition continue to be passed on, in their original language, from one generation to the next.

The experience at Saint Thérèse Church compelled me to reflect on the contrasting situation in Catholic churches of the Latin Rite. In the vast majority of parishes, the rupture of organic continuity with the past continues to have dire consequences. An unending and tiresome reinvention of the liturgy, inspired more often than not by principles other than those set forth in the Church's official documents, dismantles and re-assembles the liturgy over and over again, in a futile attempt to get it right.

An Example

One egregious example: the omission of that precious jewel of the Roman Rite that is the solemn intonation of the Great Paschal Alleluia. Note that the Great Paschal Alleluia is prescribed (not merely suggested!) in Article 352 of the Ceremonial of Bishops. In how many churches across the United States (and elsewhere) was another arbitrarily chosen musical setting of the Alleluia used at the Paschal Vigil?

The First and Indispensable Source of the Christian Spirit

In 1903, in terms that would be taken up and amplified by the Second Vatican Council, Pope Saint Pius X called "active participation in the most sacred mysteries and in the public and solemn prayer of the Church . . . the first and indispensable source of the Christian spirit." Hearing the Pope affirm that active participation in the public and solemn prayer of the Church is the first and indispensable source of the Christian spirit caused the pioneers of the last century's classic Liturgical Movement to jubilate.

Sing Alternately With the Clergy or the Choir

In 1928, twenty-five years after the Moto Proprio of Pope Saint Pius X, his successor Pius XI enjoined the Catholic faithful "once more to sing the Gregorian Chant, so far as it belongs to them to take part in it. ... Filled with a deep sense of the beauty of the liturgy," he said, "they should sing alternately with the clergy or the choir, as it is prescribed."

A number of interesting, and still quite relevant, points emerge from Pius XI's Apostolic Constitution, Divini Cultus:

All those who aspire to the priesthood, whether in Seminaries or in religious houses, from their earliest years are to be taught Gregorian Chant and sacred music. At that age they are able more easily to learn to sing, and to modify, if not entirely to overcome, any defects in their voices, which in later years would be quite incurable. Instruction in music and singing must be begun in the elementary, and continued in the higher classes. In this way, those who are about to receive sacred orders, having become gradually experienced in chant, will be able during their theological course quite easily to undertake the higher and "aesthetic" study of plainsong and sacred music, of polyphony and the organ, concerning which the clergy certainly ought to have a thorough knowledge.
In seminaries, and in other houses of study for the formation of the clergy both secular and regular there should be a frequent and almost daily lecture or practice - however short - in Gregorian Chant and sacred music. If this is carried out in the spirit of the liturgy, the students will find it a relief rather than a burden to their minds, after the study of the more exacting subjects. Thus a more complete education of both branches of the clergy in liturgical music will result in the restoration to its former dignity and splendor of the choral Office, a most important part of divine worship; moreover, the scholae and choirs will be invested again with their ancient glory.
Those who are responsible for, and engaged in divine worship in basilicas and cathedrals, in collegiate and conventual churches of religious, should use all their endeavors to see that the choral Office is carried out duly - i.e. in accordance with the prescriptions of the Church. And this, not only as regards the precept of reciting the divine Office "worthily, attentive and devoutly," but also as regards the chant. In singing the psalms attention should be paid to the right tone, with its appropriate mediation and termination, and a suitable pause at the asterisk; so that every verse of the psalms and every strophe of the hymns may be sung by all in perfect time together. If this were rightly observed, then all who worthily sing the psalms would signify their unity of intention in worshipping God and, as one side of the choir sings in answer to the other, would seem to emulate the everlasting praise of the Seraphim who cried one to the other "Holy, Holy, Holy."
Lest anyone in future should invent easy excuses for exempting himself from obedience to the laws of the Church, let every chapter and religious community deal with these matters at meetings held for the purpose; and just as formerly there used to be a "Cantor" or director of the choir, so in future let one be chosen from each chapter or choir of religious, whose duty it will be to see that the rules of the liturgy and of choral chant are observed and, both individually and generally, to correct the faults of the choir. In this connection it should be observed that, according to the ancient discipline of the Church and the constitutions of chapters still in force, all those at least who are bound to office in choir, are obliged to be familiar with Gregorian Chant. And the Gregorian Chant which is to be used in every church of whatever order, is the text which, revised according to the ancient manuscripts, has been authentically published by the Church from the Vatican Press.

Musicam Sacram

Pius XI reaffirmed that Gregorian Chant is to hold the first place in the Catholic liturgy, not just theoretically, but practically. This, of course, was reiterated by the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council. He also assumed that the clergy should be prepared and wiling to sing. One cannot object that Pius XI's vision of a singing clergy was not affirmed by the Second Vatican Council; Musicam Sacram (1967) places the first level of singing at Mass squarely on the shoulders -- not of the choir director, cantor, or organist -- but of the priest and other ministers!

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. (Musicam Sacram, art. 7)

Actual Participation: Both Listening and Singing

The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, promulgated on 4 December 1963, identified "full and active participation by all the people" as the "aim to be considered above all else in the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy." It is clear that chant fosters "full, conscious, and actual participation" in the liturgy by engaging the assembly in both listening and singing. Abraham Joshua Heschel offers a reflection that is as refreshing as it is realistic: "People may not be able to pray; they are all able to chant. And chant leads to prayer."

The Catholic and Orthodox attribution of various forms of liturgical chant to the priest, deacon, psalmist or cantor, schola, and assembly is neither arbitrary nor optional; it pertains to the essential nature of the liturgy as a corporate action of the whole worshiping Church. Hymn singing, borrowed rather uncritically from Protestant traditions of worship, effectively minimizes, or entirely eliminates, the dialogical and responsorial forms of chant that, in the Catholic tradition, impress and express the hierarchical nature of every liturgical action.

Hymn Singing

I am astonished at the number of clergy and professional musicians in the service of Catholic churches who are ignorant of the proper place of hymnody in the Catholic liturgy. With the exception of the Gloria and the Sanctus (hymns in the very broad sense of the term), and of the Sequences sung for Easter, Pentecost, Corpus Christi, and Our Lady of Sorrows, hymns, as such, are entirely foreign to the celebration of Holy Mass. In the Divine Office, however, there is a metrical hymn at every Hour. Hymns, then, properly belong to the Liturgy of the Hours, while sung dialogues, antiphons, psalmody, and acclamations belong to the Mass.

The standard hymn singing that characterizes Protestant (or protestantized) worship is performed in a relatively uniform and congregational manner. The liturgical chant of our Catholic tradition, on the other hand, privileges the responsorial, dialogical, antiphonal and acclamatory modes of performance. These, being among the most effective forms of actual sung participation, manifest more adequately the mystery of the Church as a Eucharistic organism of different members, characterized by "the order of symphony, an order in liberty and in love." The way we sing at Mass effectively shapes one's understanding -- or misunderstanding -- of the Church, of the priesthood, and of the hierarchical ordering of the liturgical assembly. A protestantized approach to music at Mass will inevitably engender a protestantized ecclesiology.

Sing the Liturgy Itself

A composition that does not belong to the liturgy and lead more deeply into the mystery celebrated, even though it be sung with full-voiced enthusiasm by all, cannot be qualified a true expression of conscious and active participation in the liturgical action. Active participation implies that the assembly is singing the liturgy itself, beginning with the dialogical chants, acclamations and refrains.

The Fully Sung Liturgy Is Normative

Musìcam Sacram presents the sung celebration as normative. Contrary to a widely-held misconception, the fully sung celebration is not a solemnization of the spoken form of the liturgy; on the contrary, the spoken form is derived from the fully sung celebration which is normative.

Chants for the People

The chants of the assembly require a cantilena that springs from the liturgical texts themselves and expresses their natural verbal inflections by means of simple musical formulae adapted to the specific liturgical function of each piece. Examples from the Roman liturgy abound: the various dialogues and acclamations, the simple tone of the Te Deum, the brief responsories of Lauds and Vespers, Gloria XV, Credo I, and Sanctus XVIII.

Where Do We Begin

1. Priests, learn to sing your parts: the dialogical elements, salutations, Preface Dialogue, Preface, Words of Consecration, etc. The official melodies are laid out in the Sacramentary. It may be laborious in the beginning, but repeat it until it becomes "secod nature." Do not reserve your sung parts for so-called special occasions or solemnities. They belong to the very first level of singing at Mass. If you sing your parts, the people will sing theirs.

2. Sing the Ordinary (i.e., unchanging parts) of the Mass. The repertory can be built up by learning one Ordinary at a time. Privilege the Ordinaries of the Roman Kyriale or simple Plainchant Ordinaries in English, such as those available from Musica Sacra.

3. Sing the Propers. The "law" governing the Propers is laid out in the GIRM, art. 48. Let's look at it carefully. Comments in italics are my own.

48. The singing at this time is done either alternately by the choir and the people or in a similar way by the cantor and the people, or entirely by the people, or by the choir alone.

Note the four ways of executing the Entrance Chant. On solemn diocesan and parochial occasions I recommend having the people sing a metrical version of the day's Introit in English during the procession, followed by the Chant version of the same Introit from the Graduale during the incensation of the altar.

In the dioceses of the United States of America there are four options for the Entrance Chant: (1) the antiphon from the Roman Missal or the Psalm from the Roman Gradual as set to music there or in another musical setting; (2) the seasonal antiphon and Psalm of the Simple Gradual; (3) a song from another collection of psalms and antiphons, approved by the Conference of Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop, including psalms arranged in responsorial or metrical forms; (4) a suitable liturgical song similarly approved by the Conference of Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop.

The choices are given in order of preference! The first choices (not found in the Editio Typica 2002 of the Roman Missal) are the antiphon from the Roman Missal -- the American "adaptors" are assuming that these texts have been put to music -- then the antiphon and psalm in the Roman Gradual, either in the chant setting or in another musical setting.

The second choice is the Simple Gradual, rendered in English under the title By Flowing Waters by Dr. Paul Ford.

The third choice, a collection of psalms and antiphons approved by the Conference of Bishops or by the Diocesan Bishop, does not, to my knowledge, exist anywhere in the U.S.

The fourth choice -- clearly the last resort -- is a suitable liturgical song (here, there is a departure from the psalms and antiphons found in choices 1 through 4) similarly approved by the Conference of Bishops or by the Diocesan Bishop. Nowhere is there a blanket authorization to replace the chants of the Proper with "a hymn" making abstraction of all other liturgical criteria.

48. If there is no singing at the entrance, the antiphon in the Missal is recited either by the faithful, or by some of them, or by a lector; otherwise, it is recited by the priest himself, who may even adapt it as an introductory explanation (cf. above, no. 31).

The Entrance Antiphon is, in many places, routinely omitted even at "spoken" Masses.

It's interesting that this American "adaptation" differs from what is found in the GIRM of the Editio Typica Tertia (2002) of the Roman Missal. Compare:

48. Peragitur autem a schola et populo alternatim, vel simili modo a cantore et populo, vel totus a populo vel a schola sola. Adhiberi potest sive antiphona cum suo psalmo in Graduali Romano vel in Graduali simplici exstans, sive alius cantus, actioni sacrae, diei vel temporis indoli congruus [55], cuius textus a Conferentia Episcoporum sit approbatus.

The Graduale Romanum and the Graduale Simplex are given as the primary references. The American accomodation of the text gives the antiphon from the Roman Missal as the first reference; this is very odd, as those antiphons were composed to be recited, not to be sung.

The infamous "alius cantus" (other chant) is very carefully circumscribed. It must be, (1) suited to the action, (2) to the day or season being celebrated, and (3) its text must be approved by the Conference of Bishops.

Si ad introitum non habetur cantus, antiphona in Missali proposita recitatur sive a fidelibus, sive ab aliquibus ex ipsis, sive a lectore, sin aliter ab ipso sacerdote, qui potest etiam in modum monitionis initialis (cf. n. 31) eam aptare.

I don't have time to pursue this entry today, but wanted to offer some modest contribution to the ongoing discussion.


The stained-glass window depicts King Athelstan the Glorious.

Acts 4: 23-31

"And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God and said,

God Is Addressed
Sovereign Lord, who didst make the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, who by the mouth of our father David, thy servant, didst say by the Holy Spirit,
The Psalm Quoted: Meditatio
`Why did the Gentiles rage,and the peoples imagine vain things? The kings of the earth set themselves in array, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against his Anointed' --
Historical Fulfillment of David's Prophecy
for truly in this city there were gathered together against thy holy servant Jesus, whom thou didst anoint, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever thy hand and thy plan had predestined to take place.
The Petition: Oratio
And now, Lord, look upon their threats, and grant to thy servants to speak thy word with all boldness, while thou stretchest out thy hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of thy holy servant Jesus.
God's Response: An Outpouring of the Holy Spirit
And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness."

Praying Out of a Psalm

Today's First Reading at Holy Mass gave us the earliest example of an Oration or Collect based on a psalm. Already in the first centuries of the Church, authorized by the teaching of Our Lord Himself in Luke 24:44-45, the faithful began to recognize Christ and His Mysteries in the psalms they were accustomed to chant. A Trinitarian doxology (Gloria Patri) came to be appended to each psalm, and before long the psalms were enriched with refrains or framed with antiphons.

Collects on the Psalms

In both East and West, it was not uncommon to rise, or kneel, or prostrate, and pray in silence at the end of a psalm. The priest officiating would then gather up (colligere) the silent supplications of the faithful, and express them in an Oration or Collect recited in the name of all. Egeria, writing in about 415 A.D., Cassian, writing in about 420 A.D., and the 6th century Rule of the Master, all attest to the existence of this custom both in urban churches and in monastic assemblies.

The custom of inserting Collects into the psalmody of the Divine Office did not survive the test of time. It seems to have disappeared quite early in the East, and Saint Benedict, so careful to note the details of monastic psalmody in the West, makes no mention of Collects on the psalms.

Even while Collects on the psalms fell out of public liturgical use, they continued to be popular through the Middle Ages in personal devotions. Thus, one finds them in various Psalters for personal use and Books of Hours.

The Orations at the Paschal Vigil

The only place where Collects on the psalms survive in the actual liturgical practice of the Roman Rite is in the orations that, at the Paschal Vigil, conclude each of the Tracts or Responsorial Psalms that follow the readings. The Collect, of course, follows the repetition of the antiphon (or refrain) and never comes between the psalm and the repetition of the antiphon.

A Stupid Editorial Mistake

Some forty years ago the editors of the American edition of the Liturgia Horarum included Collects on the psalms in their books. The editors in question appear to have had no experience whatsoever of the choral celebration of the Divine Office. Consequently, with a total disregard for the musical and theological function of the antiphon -- to indicate the mode of the psalmody, and to serve as a Christological and ecclesiological key to it -- they wrongly inserted the "Psalm Prayers" between the doxology and the repetition of the antiphon. Musically, this is a disaster.

Doing It Right

I would argue that the last thing one needs in liturgical prayer is more wordiness, and the "Psalm Prayers" often give the impression of adding words for the sake of pious bulk. If, however, one judges the inclusion of Collects on the psalms of some pastoral benefit in the public celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours, one should model the practice after what is done at the Paschal Vigil:

1) After the final repetition of the antiphon, all rise.
2) The celebrant sings, "Let us pray."
3) After a pause, he sings the Collect, taking care to conclude it using the shorter ending: "Through Christ our Lord," or "Who live and reign forever and ever."
4) The people respond "Amen."

Here is the psalm Collect given for the same Psalm 2 in the prayerbook of Athelstan, King of England from 924 to 939:

O Lord, we beseech Thee,
break the chains of our sins;
so that, bound to the yoke of Thy service,
we may be able to serve Thee in fear and reverence.
Through Christ our Lord.

And here is a Collect I composed to conclude today's General Intercessions:

Almighty and ever-living God
who on Sion your holy mountain
established your Christ as King,
mercifully grant that we may spurn
the insurrection of sinful passions,
so as to stand with humble confidence on the last day
before the Judge of all,
the Lord of clemency,
the Prince of Peace,
who is Lord forever and ever.

About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

Donations for Silverstream Priory