Deacon Rohrbacher

Singing the parts of the Mass

The Southeast Alaska Catholic
July 22, 2011

By Deacon Charles Rohrbacher, Director, Office of Ministries

Five decades ago, when I was a second grader, my sisters and I went to religious education classes (at that time bearing the acronym CCD which stood for the Confraternity for Christian Doctrine) on Saturday mornings. We studied the questions and answers of the catechism and prepared for First Confession and First Communion. But what made the biggest impression on me at the time was that the catechists taught us to sing the parts of the Mass (and the psalms of the Grail Psalter using the Gelineau psalm tones). At a very young age we learned how to sing the Kyrie, the Gloria, the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei.

But we also learned to sing (actually, to chant) the psalms. Not in Latin but in English, which was odd, because this was before Vatican II and the texts of all of the liturgical rites (including the psalms), were in Latin and not in the vernacular (which for me was and remains English.)

It turns out that in the decades prior to the Second Vatican Council, Joseph Gelineau SJ and his collaborators (in what was then called the “Liturgical Movement”) were already looking ahead to a yet to be reformed and renewed liturgy. They didn’t know exactly what this future Mass might look like but they expected it to continue to be filled with psalmody. You see, in the pre-Vatican II Roman Rite, a psalm or canticle from sacred scripture, along with a proper antiphon (proper for the season or feast) was sung (by the choir) in Latin, was designated to be sung at three points in the Mass: at the beginning (the Introit or the Entrance); at the Offertory and during Communion.

These chants were called graduals because in the ancient Church the cantor or deacons sang them standing on the step (gradus) of the ambo or lectern. Over time these chants (Gregorian and entirely in Latin) were collected in liturgical books called the Graduale Simplex (Simple Gradual) and the Graduale Romanum (Roman Gradual).

The psalms or canticles and their antiphons (the short, repeated verses sung between each stanza of the psalm) were an integral and unvarying part of the Mass. Christmas, Easter, Pentecost and everything in-between had its own proper or ordinary psalms and antiphons.

However, after the conciliar liturgical reforms of the 1960’s, psalmody (with the exception of the responsorial psalm after the first reading) never really came into its own, even though the Constitution on Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium), the Instruction on Music in the Liturgy (Musica Sacra) and the General Instruction on the Roman Missal gave the chants from the Gradual pride of place, in recognition that the longstanding musical tradition in the Roman rite for over a millennium and a half has been psalmody with proper antiphons.

So what happened to the psalms in the Roman rite? To begin with, it’s important to understand that prior to Vatican II, in many countries the local Church had special permission to replace the proper antiphons and psalmody with a Latin or vernacular hymn. Or the priest would simply recite the antiphon.

But even if pastors and musicians had desired to sing the proper or ordinary antiphons and psalms, they weren’t available in the vernacular. Nor were they arranged in a way that facilitated the ‘full, conscious and active participation’ of the assembly. Although the Roman missal and the lectionary were (relatively) quickly translated into the vernacular, only in the last few years have the music and texts of the Gradual Simplex become available in English.

So, not surprisingly, over the past 40 years hymns have taken the place of the proper antiphons and psalms at the beginning of Mass, at the offertory and at communion.

Yet here’s what the current General Instruction on the Roman Missal says about the Entrance, Offertory and Communion chants at respectively, nos.48, 74 and 87.

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. In the dioceses of the United States of America there are four options for the Entrance (or Offertory or Communion)Chant:

The antiphon from the Roman Missal or the Psalm from the Roman Gradual as set to music;

The seasonal antiphon and Psalm of the Simple Gradual;

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;

A suitable liturgical song similarly approved by the Conference of Bishops or the diocesan Bishop.

On the face of it, it seems to me, the Church (at least in its official directives) envisions a celebration of Sunday Mass that has more psalmody than is currently the practice.

It’s usually at this point in any discussion of the liturgy the question gets raised – does this mean that what we are doing is wrong? I don’t think so. Note that option number four allows a liturgical song, suited to the season, feast or occasion in place of the psalm or antiphon and psalm. But I want to better understand why our tradition (in theory if not in practice at this time) proposes these proper antiphons and psalms to us in the Mass.

We believe that all of the prayers of the Mass, which are the fruit of generations of Christians pondering the mystery of Christ, and which express the sure faith of the Church, deepen and enrich our own individual and collective faith and discipleship. Aren’t the texts and actions of the Mass privileged and holy ways in which the Lord speaks, acts, shapes and forms us?

I wonder, after all these years, if the Church, acting through my catechists, who worked so hard to teach me those beautiful song texts in my own language, were onto something important. Perhaps, as the proper antiphons of the Mass and its psalmody become available to us in English, and as we become more familiar with their themes and theology, they might be an increasingly rich source of spiritual nourishment and renewal for our Church.

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