Monday, July 11, 2011

Singing the Propers: Let's Get Real

What a weekend on the liturgical blogs! I am sure that you have seen the debate raging around the translation of the General Instruction on the Roman Missal that appears in the new translation of The Roman Missal, especially regarding the music to be sung at the entrance and at communion.

I had all of what I had read over the weekend in mind when I went to Mass yesterday morning. As I looked around at the people of Saint James, I realized that for most of them (perhaps for every one of them), the issues being bandied about have absolutely no relevance to their lives. For some reason, we have people who are coming back for another taste, or another try, at practicing their Catholic faith. Maybe our evangelization efforts are beginning to have some effect. We have people who are struggling with the reality that their loved ones are very, very sick. Some of the people at Saint James wouldn't have anything to eat if it weren't for our food pantry. When I watch people walk in procession to receive communion, I see joy, pain, heartache, despair, wonder, humility, fear, happiness: all kinds of emotions. I honestly believe that the people at my parish are just plain thankful. Thankful for a parish that offers a rich sacramental life; thankful for a place that greets them warmly and says "I missed you" when you miss a Sunday; thankful for the fact that we had another building on our property in which we could worship after our beautiful church building was closed; thankful for music that inspires; thankful for musicians that help lift our hearts to heaven; thankful for a pastor and a staff that work hard to inspire us to be better Catholics; thankful for the weekly assurance that there is at least one place in this huge city that will recognize us and love us; for some, thankful to have survived to see another Sunday.
It is into this motley crowd that a new translation of The Roman Missal will be implemented. I think it will all go fine in my parish, because we have a pretty good plan for catechesis. But, to be honest, I just don't think this whole argument about the singing of the propers will ever amount to a hill of beans to these parish people. The people have grown accustomed to singing hymns and songs at the entrance and at communion from a wide variety of traditions at Saint James. When we sing Soon and Very Soon as the opening song in Advent, you would swear that we were "goin' to see the king" right then and there. When we sing "Sweet, Sweet Spirit," you take the deepest breaths you have ever taken, 'cause without a doubt you know that you are being revived. Whether we like it or not, these hymns and songs have become a living part of the Mass for the majority of Catholics. To suggest that these be phased out over the next few years, to be replaced by the chanted propers (or even the propers set to other musical styles) is just not realistic.
The followers of this blog know that I love the liturgy and I deeply love the people with whom I celebrate Mass each week. I just think we are putting too much energy into something that just isn't going to fly for the vast majority of Catholic parishes.
As always, I welcome your comments, and there probably will be a few.
Gotta sing. Gotta pray.


Anonymous said...

Not to be cynical, but if the music in parishes became more focused on the sung propers, wouldn't that put a bit of a crimp in publishers' and composers' revenue? Are you sure you are not a bit conflicted here?

Anonymous said...

My feelings exactly, Jerry.

David Bonofiglio said...

The same could be said for the propers which in most parishes in the US were phased out long ago. Yes, pop-style songs such as "Soon and Very Soon" have entered the common repertoire. Because the current generation of Catholics expects this repertoire doesn't mean that the Gradual must be relegated to academic study. There must be a way to use the propers of Mass (which are Scriptural - we like the Scriptures, don't we?) in a way that draws people into the celebration.

Like President Obama just said, each side must sacrifice ideological purity in order to move liturgical development forward.

Chironomo said...


While I agree with the basic sentiment of what you are saying, and I would also agree that there is an awful lot of energy being put into the debate of something that will probably be widely disregarded (not that it is unimportant...but just that it will be disregarded), we have to be careful not to take the attitude that such things aren't important because of all of the other things going on in peoples lives. If that were true, we would have to conclude that we can't do anything, ever, because there will always be the poor and suffering. Jesus said as much I believe, and also admonished Judas on that very point. While it may not be important to everyone, it is certainly an important thing for those whose duty it is to see to such things.

Some people serve others through the institutions of the church.

Others serve the institutions of the church so that they will be available for those who need them.

While this may not be of any significance to those of the former calling, it is certainly significant to those of the latter calling.

jdonliturgy said...

AMEN! Alleluia!

Great post - I saw the arguments over at Chant Cafe and beyond... Those who spend a great amount of time splitting liturgical hairs need to remember that they are in a minority of American parishes. What you describe is, like it or not, the mainstream - and you nail the reality pretty well Thanks for saying this out loud.

Sam said...

I would think singing the propers would be a good thing to consider, if they were more related to the readings of day. Do I understand correctly there is only one set for the entire three year cycle? Some of them have absolutely no connection to the readings of that day. I think the 1998 Sacramentary actually had a full set of three year antiphons? In any case, an appopriate hymn works just as well for many.

Gregg said...

@ FJH 3rd: Acutally, you need to do a little more research before posting. WLP prints a very fine collection of Hymn Introits for the Church Year, which are used in many parishes and cathedrals. So, there is no conflict. Sounds like you're the one with the conflict. And no, I don't work for WLP.

Jerry Galipeau, D. Min. said...

Feeling the need to comment here. I realy wasn't thinking at all about "songs" as a publisher when I posted this morning; it was much more about my experience at Saint James. I have already spoken with several of our composers about the possibility of working more closely with the propers; not much biting on that yet. We'll see.

Charles G said...

I'm of two minds on the hymns v. propers debate. As a Protestant convert, I certainly appreciate the fact that a number of good old English language hymns from the Protestant repertoire are now quite common at Catholic masses. I am less thrilled about the more "contemporary" tunes that are the staple of most parishes around here, however, although I probably could tolerate the odd "Bread of Life" once or twice a year. I do feel that there is such a rich musical liturgical tradition, both Catholic (in terms of chant and polyphony) and Protestant (in terms of tradiitonal English metrical hymns), that has simply been tossed out as rubbish in the past 40 years in Catholic parishes. As for the propers, I think it scandalous that the vast majority of Catholics in this country do not even know they exist and are the normative music for the mass. That is certainly not in accord with Vatican II, or even the GIRM, regardless as to how the word "liturgical chant" is constued. Vatican II said that Gregorian chant should have pride of place and spoke highly of the treasures of polyphony. I am not a propers-only person, but I do think they should be done more widely and more often so that the faithful are exposed to them. I rejoice in the greater availability of versions of chant propers in English like the new Simple English Propers, etc., as I realize all Latin propers may not work everywhere (although I would hope some places would have such). Perhaps with English propers, the faithful can get to know the meaning of the various introit, offertory and communion antiphons that have been part of the mass for almost one and a half millenium.

Anonymous said...

Let's keep in mind, we can have both/and, and be done with either/or. If the music moves people closer in their relationship to others, to God, then Alleluia Sing!

Jeffrey A. Tucker said...

Thank you for this Jerry. I always appreciate your forthright commentary, and truly you are right that the music at Mass must connect with people both personally and sacramentally. I've been very impressed at the pastoral benefits of chanted propers, but there is never a point to somehow jamming anything down people's throat. It must fit with a sense of the faith or else, you are right, it won't fly. It's a good reminder going forward that we must never repeat the mistakes of the past.

Jerry Galipeau, D. Min. said...

Jeffrey Tucker, my brother, thank you for your comment. Perhaps someday you, those who comment on this blog, on Pray Tell, and on Chant Cafe can celebrate the liturgy together at the Abbey Church at St. John's Collegeville, or perhaps in my parish's place of exile, our Catholic school auditorium, to drink in the word of the Lord, then taste and see the Lord's goodness in the Eucharist. Perhaps too dangerously close a foretaste of the heavenly banquet of reconciliation? Perhaps not.

Charles Culbreth said...

Your dream of a gathering foretaste of a "heavenly banquet" somehow triggered that bizarre observation in one of your face sports, "I went to the fights and a hockey game broke out!"
It would be something to see if we, the disparate and desparate, could turn a food fight into a Michelin 5* feast of Haute cuisine.
I'll bring the Ch√Ęteau Montelena!

Sheri Proulx said...

Finally a 'pew perspective'. Thank you, Jerry.

Anonymous said...

Chanting the propers doesn't provide the emotional connection many people need to make liturgy meaningful to them. When I plan each week's music I look for hymns that are settings, adaptations, or based on the propers and almost never can find one. If composers could give me songs and hymns with those words, that are easy to sing, and carry the emotional content that people desire, I'd use them. Where are they? Why can't we have verses of "Soon and Very Soon," for example, that reflect the propers?

Charles Culbreth said...

Anonymous @ 8:16-
That's an often longed for sentiment akin to Luther's legendary quip, "Why should the devil have all the good tunes?' (Don't worry, I'm not going there with my reflection.)
Normally we sing the Rice Introit and Communio at our "solemn Mass," but we also alternate with the Communio from the Gregorian Missal. Virtually every time, repeat every time!, we use that chant (or even Bruce Ford or Adam Bartlett English chants) it never fails that people remark to us how profoundly touched, repeat-touched, they were by the beauty of the chant.
We use a "stuffed" method that couples the use of the proper processional that seemlessly transitions to a congregational hymn or song. And I haven't found any resistance to the discreet use of this combination. If, as has been advanced by many, that the options in the GIRM may be intentionally open ended, I don't see the "stuffed Mass" option as injurious or an imprudent "solution" to the worry that Jerry raises. YMMV.

Diezba said...


Don't the motley crew at your parish have a right, as the People of God, to the liturgy of the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church?

Wouldn't it be great if they could at least hear the whole text of the Mass at which they're processing up to communion?

Music has an ability to connect people through an emotional high, but is that what liturgy has become: an emotional high?

Grace comes whether I "feel" it or not.

And the People of God, as the Second Vatican Council so aptly put it, have a right to "full, conscious, and [actuosa] participation" in the WHOLE liturgy of the Church: and when people leave out the Introit, Offertory, and Communio (or the Entrance Antiphon and the Communion Antiphon) (disregarding whether one sings something else, like "Soon And Very Soon"), then the People of God are being denied the liturgy -- which is supposed to be the work of the people.

And guess who's doing it? Educated elites who know that these texts exist, but, because their own tastes don't find them relevant, deny them to the People of God.

It's completely contrary to the letter and spirit of the Second Vatican Council.

Anonymous said...

I feel the same way when a guest priest prays a Eucharistic prayer of his own making. People seem more engaged when he comes and it doesn't really hurt them that it's not an official approved prayer.

Besides, I think God is indifferent to the particulars of how we worship and cares more that we can bring our hopes and dreams to the liturgy... It is, after all, "the work for the people." It's not like the texts of the liturgical propers actually come from a source that people find relevant.

Ken Macek said...

@anonymous: since all Introit verses and many of their Antiphons are directly from the Psalms, it would be difficult indeed to conceive of a more relevant source . As regards vernacular settings of Propers that can still connect to and involve the assembly, Paul Tate and I have made the old college try at doing just that for seasonal Introits. I won't go so far as to put the link here, but Google 'introits', 'Macek ', and 'Tate' and see where it takes you. Do give a listen and judge for yourself. I thoroughly believe that one can remain 'vernacular' in both text and music and provide yet another alternative means of removing faithful go GIRM 48.

Ken Macek said...

And lest someone pounce on my 'suggestion' that"remove GIRM 48 ", that last sentence should end in "remaining faithful to GIRM 48". Boy, do I hate auto-'correction'!

Ken Macek said...

And, "anonymous": I answered your "questions" seriously, even though you are pretty obviously baiting this thread with silly statements. You overdo; better refine your own art a bit...

marlon said...

I always smile when I see something about "jamming music down people's throats." When I go to a Mass and hear "Soon and Very Soon," well--I hate it. It's being jammed down MY throat. As long as we are talking about what appeals to the people in the pews we will be off-base. The Mass is not about us--it's about proper worship of God. We--all of us, and that includes me--need to set aside personal feelings and preferences and acknowledge the transcendental presence of God. Holy Mother Church, in Her wisdom, has deemed that singing the propers of the Mass is the best way. Every musician should begin a slow, gentle movement away from hymns and back to the propers. Having experienced it--and I did not like it at first--I am amazed at the power of the Mass when it is sung.

ralphbednarz said...

By including chants in each liturgy we have found new sense of holiness not only through the text, but in the melodies themselves, and we have learned that not all musical styles are appropriate for Mass. Here’s why:
“It’s not what you say, but how you say it.”
What is the attitude expressed in a mariachi style communion hymn, or a tango? Would it be appropriate to sing “Tantum Ergo” to “Mac the Knife?” Is it enough to have an appropriate text and ignore the musical form?
The Church sets the correct “tone of voice” in the prescribed chant forms and “proper texts.” Pope John Paul II stated "The more closely a composition for church approaches... the Gregorian melodic form, the more sacred and liturgical it becomes…” Fr. Buginini’s Consilium (Secretary of the Consilium for the Implementation of the Constitution on the Liturgy ) said the the propers (the chants) must always take priority otherwise the people are being cheated out of their Mass, - sing the Mass, not just anything.
We have found His voice in the chants and we cherish it. Only one scheduled weekend Mass is chanted and at this Mass we continue singing our favorite hymns too.