Per ipsum, et cum ipso, et in ipso, est tibi Deo Patri omnipotenti, in unitate Spiritus Sancti, omnis honor et gloria, per omnia saecula saeculorum. Amen.
Through him, and with him, and in him, O God, almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is yours, for ever and ever. Amen.
Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC) 31. The revision of the liturgical books must carefully attend to the provision of rubrics also for the people's parts.
Let us remember together, then, Who and what the Liturgy is about. Let us use, for example, the Per Ipsum as a model or guide for our reflection.
Notice the phrase does not say “at” Him”, around Him or above Him.
Singing “to” God, not “at” Him.
Catholic liturgy, i.e., Holy Mass, is praying through Christ, with Christ and in Christ to the Father. Christ is, we are told, the principal actor in the theodrama we call Mass. If that be the case, a case clearly articulated in the “Per Ipsum” prayer chanted by the priest, then it is strange that we should permit songs which tend to speak at God or parrot His Word instead of promoting chants that offer praise and thanksgiving “to” Him.
Singing at God is silly. So many of the songs forced upon us compel us to sing in God's voice: e.g., "Be not afraid... I (!) go before you always... ." God does not need a refresher course in Scripture, as if He somehow forgot what He has revealed to us. The lyric which is not oriented to God as adoration, contrition, thanksgiving and supplication runs the risk of leading us back to ourselves. Idolatry! That's why, of all the texts of the Mass Propers, those which have us singing words which come from the "lips" of God, can be counted on one hand. Songs which have us parroting God, rather than facilitating the actuosa participatio envisioned by Sacrosanctum Concilium, for example, cause us to become static, folded back on ourselves.
Mass is a continuous dialogue with God with and through Christ in the Holy Spirit. God speaks; we listen.
a). It is not only unnecessarily awkward but antithetical to the very nature of the Liturgy itself to punctuate (interrupt!) the Mass with announcements. I’m usually amused, and occasionally annoyed, when commentators announce prior to the start of Mass that people should “silence cellphones and other electronic devices lest they make an unkind noise...”. The amusement (or annoyance) comes a few minutes into Mass when a well intentioned music minister contradicts that sensible directive by abruptly interrupting the Liturgy with a protracted invitation to sing, for example, some flat, jejune refrain.
“Oh, but people need to know the page number of the Responsorial Psalm so they can participate more fully”, pleads the pastorally minded “leader of song”. Really? Really?! Given that most psalm antiphons are usually short and anyone with a gnat’s-length memory span can internalize the few words after a single repetition, a note, then, to cantors: simply sing the refrain clearly and on pitch and the congregation will get it soon enough.
Recall that at the Easter Vigil on Saturday of the Sacred Triduum, the new fire is lit and the Light of Christ is passed from candle to candle. Now, if people can manage to spread a flame among themselves, they certainly can manage to spread a simple melody among themselves.
b). Furthermore, it can hardly count as a worthy use of one’s (cantorial) role in the Liturgy to badger people into a singalong. Our primary action is receptivity to Christ's action. That receptivity reaches a climax at Holy Communion when we actually receive the Body and Blood of Christ.
The oft cited texts (SC II:14,19,21,27,30,etc.) concerning active participation (participatio actuosa) are predicated upon the refinement of the interior disposition of the heart which, configured to Christ, expresses authentic praise, adoration and thanksgiving. As Msgr. Richard Schuler points out in his article in Sacred Music, Winter 1987:
This participation must primarily be interior (i.e., union with Christ the Priest; offering with and through Him).
The difference between participation in the liturgy that can be called activa and participation that can be labelled actuosa rests in the presence in the soul of the baptismal character, the seal that grants one the right to participate. Without the baptismal mark, all the actions of singing, walking, kneeling or anything else can be termed "active," but they do not constitute participatio actuosa. Only the baptismal character can make any actions truly participatory.
a). Orientation: facing the Lord.
The appropriate orientation of the believer is toward the Risen Christ who will, according to tradition concerning the Second Coming, return in glory from the East. Of course, Catholics believe Christ returns at/in every Mass. He becomes truly present, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, at the hands of the priest. Priest and people have long prayed in the same direction - i.e., toward Christ. Ad orientem worship - worship toward the liturgical east - is as much a constituent part of Catholic worship and Catholic identity as the Sign of the Cross we make on our bodies during Mass. That change in orientation, some have said, notably the EF societies and religious institutes, has led to a loss of perspective, a change which has led to a loss of Catholic identity. Arguably, one of the liturgical innovations most damaging to the faith and identity of Catholics has been the loss of the primordial orientation. For the sake of souls, we must recover our sense of direction. The linear progression of Catholic worship is clearly seen in the Extraordinary Form of the Mass.b). Orientation: sing the actual text of the Mass.
In other words (... pun intended), it is our duty to sing the prescribed text of the Liturgy. The guidelines which permit "opting out" require a measure of revision. (One could argue that rubrics which function as mere guidelines or suggestions, an idea that is practically ubiquitous in contemporary times, are not rubrics at all.) The prescribed texts, that is, the Proper chants, e.g., Introit, Alleluia verse, Offertory and Communion chants, are essential to the character of each Mass. So often, the content of the substitute songs disagrees with the flavour of a particular Mass. The harmony and dynamism of the Mass is undermined or lost. I suppose that, if your taste-buds are so dumbed down by junk food, it’s difficult to appreciate cuisine.
The Mass is cuisine, if you’ll pardon the comparison for a moment. Or, to use another analogy: imagine Shakespeare's Hamlet with key monologues excised from its presentation. It would be offensive to cut up Hamlet and it should be even more offensive to slice off parts of Holy Mass.
The use of generic texts that are most often not even approved for Liturgy has contributed to an impoverishment of the Mass. Better to simply read the prescribed texts than to sing in their place syrupy devotional songs.
a). We enter into the heavenly court to be with Christ. The heavenly Liturgy descends to earth. The Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy Lord God of hosts) is stating the obvious: heaven and earth are full of the glory of the Lord. Our eastern brethren rightly refer to the Mass as the Divine Liturgy.
b). Sacred music of the Catholic tradition has been able to embody a sense of the eternal. There is a symmetry or harmony between sacred music, theology and architecture. Devotional music and “praise and worship” music, because the very nature of authentic sacred music subordinates rhythm and pitch to text, are simply incapable of being an appropriate vehicle for the liturgical action. Praise and worship music (P&W) is not liturgical music. It cannot bear the subtlety of rhythm and theological nuance of the text. P&W music is all icing and no cake. Compare the theological richness of chant melodies to the blunt gestures of so many modern composers. The earthly Bride deserves to wear white satin and Chantilly lace to the wedding feast of the Divine Lamb. Sadly, we’ve had to endure being clothed in beige polyester for the past 40 years or so.
c). So, what is that satin and lace just mentioned? It’s chant, the music which has pride of place in the Liturgy (SC 116). It is also sacred polyphony. Sacred music supports the text. Chant, properly understood, is prolonged speech rather than singing. Chant conforms to the rhythm of speech. That is why chant is most natural to do. Chant moves to the rhythm of the text which is, of course, Holy Writ,... and poetry so close to the glory of Scripture that it deserves the title "sacred". The poetry of Saint Thomas Aquinas comes to mind. The theological precision of Palestrina, his ability to paint the text, is an art largely ignored by popular composers. A word or two more on sacred polyphony. The very structure (harmony, counterpoint) of sacred polyphony, the geometry so-to-speak of sacred polyphony, is theological. Cadential structures and intervals in a given melodic gesture paint theological principles in sound. Sacred music invites the listener into a relationship. It points us heavenward by virtue of the relationships embodied by the music. So much more could be said.
d). By comparison, “beige polyester” corresponds to adult contemporary "music" that presents the text dominated by shoddy counterpoint and ill conceived rhythm. The text in pop music is dominated by the beat. One only has to call to mind some of the highly unsuccessful new settings of the revised Gloria to understand the problems which result from forcing the text to conform to the rhythm of a melody inimical to the rhythm of the text. The results are tragic: a profound text so contorted by artificial or alien melodies it’s difficult not to fumble the words. Remove the guitar or piano accompaniment from most of these melodies and all that remains is a disjointed line that exposes a shabby compositional technique. All too frequently, contemporary liturgical music is not singable because composers annihilate the connection between the text and the natural breath. The respiration of the text is strangled by a driving rhythm.
SC 30. To promote active participation, the people should be encouraged to take part by means of acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons, and songs, as well as by actions, gestures, and bodily attitudes. And at the proper times all should observe a reverent silence.And that is where this reflection will conclude - silence. More can and will be said. But for now, that is enough food for thought.