Many musical styles, only one “source and summit”.

In our previous recent posts, we emphasized the importance of the official liturgical books like the Graduale Romanum. Yet, at mass in 2022 in North America, we hear many musical styles. Hymns are especially common. Archbishop Sample, in his 2019 pastoral letter, explains:

Hymns are a musical form pertaining more properly to the Liturgy of the Hours, rather than the Mass. Hymn-singing at Mass originated in the custom of the people singing vernacular devotional hymns at Low Mass during the celebrant’s silent recitation of the Latin prayers. […]

Singing hymns in place of the Proper chants is permissible for pastoral reasons. The liturgical norms put the highest priority on singing the rite itself. We may never substitute other texts for the Ordinary parts of the Mass as described above. However, if it is not possible or practical to sing the Proper parts, we are referred to a secondary option*: substituting music from a source other than the Missal, such as hymns from a hymnal.

“Sing to the LORD a New Song” Pastoral Letter of the Archbishop of Portland, OR, the Most Rev. Alexander K. Sample. (* this secondary option is not available for a sung mass following the 1962 missal, called “Traditional Latin Mass”. A hymn may only be sung after the proper has been sung).

Archbishop Sample thus sums up: “Our celebrations should faithfully carry out the Church’s plan as far as we are able, according to the resources and talents of the community, formed by knowledge of the norms and Catholic worship tradition.”.

So let us distinguish two situations when we may not be singing the Mass from the Graduale Romanum:

  • a community with resources and talents who can not only sing from the Graduale Romanum, but improve on it. An obvious example are the solemn masses at St Peter in Rome where the expert choir often sings elaborate polyphony building on the texts and melodies of the “Catholic worship tradition”.
  • a community not yet able to sing from the Graduale Romanum. For those, the mission statement from the publisher “Source and Summit” , summed up below, offers a useful guideline.

To begin, we see the image of a mountain. The liturgy is celebrated at the summit, at the mountain peak. Here we climb, week after week and day after day, with Moses and Elijah, and with Peter, James, and John, to seek the face of God. (…)

We also see that the liturgy, situated at the mountain summit, is also a font. The waters from this font flow out of the right side of the temple that is set upon the mountain peak, and pour constantly down the mountainside. These waters are you and me — those who participate in the liturgy, who are made into the image of Christ, and are poured forth on mission to proclaim the gospel to the world. (…)

The journey from source to summit passes through four general realms of the Church’s life. These realms can be seen as a series of four concentric circles:

1- The largest circle is the realm of culture at large. Catholic musicians in this realm need not hide from the world, but engage with it, cultivate their craft as excellently as they can, and work to take center stage in the world, forming the culture with the beauty that comes from God.
2- Within this we find the realm of evangelization. Music that is aimed toward the purpose of evangelization, as a result, tends both to be based in the music of the culture in some way, and also seeks somehow to present a powerful encounter with Christ and the gospel through it.
3- And then the realm of discipleship and devotion. Music has been an effective tool for formation and instruction since the early centuries of the Church. St. Ambrose wrote hymns in the fourth century specifically to help impart sound doctrine to Christians, and catechetical hymns and songs like this have been sung in every age to hand on the faith and to present it beautifully and attractively to the next generation.
4- And finally, at the very center, we find liturgy and worship. The music of the liturgy is set apart from the music used in the other realms of the Catholic journey because it sets the words of the liturgy itself to music.

I hope this clarifies why we hear so many musical styles in worship. When properly ordered, every style of music can accompany a specific part of the journey, from font to the culture at large, back to the summit.

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