Four-Hymn sandwich

At many Masses, contemporary Catholics will encounter a musical model described as the “Four-Hymn Sandwich”. It consists in replacing the singing of the Proper Antiphons of a specific Mass by hymns, as in the table below.


What are the liturgical consequences?

  • The texts of the Proper are biblical and specific to the liturgy of each Mass. The text of hymns are more general, devotional in nature. The words of the song’s lyricist replace the Word.
  • The first degree of participation in the liturgy are the dialogues and responses. These are chanted (monophonic, unaccompanied) because the priest leads the dialogue in chant. In liturgies with the “4-hymn sandwich”, dialogues are typically spoken, both for historical(see below) and musical reasons. The degrees of participation recommended by Church documents are thus turned around.

The “Four Hymn Sandwich” was actually invented before the implementation of Vatican II, in the mid-1960s, as a “back door” to introduce some vernacular in the Latin Mass. Per the rubrics of Latin Mass, this could be done only in a “Low Mass”, not in a “Sung Mass” or “High Mass” (see rules of the Tridentine Low Mass here: Music-for-low-mass). Priests reluctant to sing the Mass could then say (not chant) the Mass, and still satisfy the congregation with “some music”.

It then became the “new normal” as parish priests were looking to foster “active participation” while not having to chant themselves. The limited list of hymns in the vernacular soon grew by many new compositions in the following decades, an opportunity for musicians to collect income composing, teaching, playing and publishing new hymns under copyright. This is a business opportunity that tradition does not offer: tradition is typically in the public domain. No copyright. This financial focus is still #1 in the strategic priorities of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians, the lobbying group for professional church musicians. How can we then be surprised that Gregorian Chant is completely absent from their Cantor certification programs? The result of not following Church documents on Active Participation, giving pride of place to Gregorian Chant, is that we sub-contract our participation to a well-organized group of professional Church musicians. We are invited to participate with our wallets, not our voices.

Advocates of the Four-Hymn Sandwich would explain that its growth was inspired by the “Spirit of Vatican II”, typically called upon to explain what Church documents cannot. Now with over 50 years of hindsight, can we still trust in the “Spirit of Vatican II”? It may have helped some parishes where you’d still hear hearty hymn-singing from a high proportion of the assembly. But overall, attendance at Mass among Catholics has dropped dramatically in the US since the Vatican II council. And in most parishes I visited, those who go to Mass don’t sing.

Now would be a good time to actually read the liturgy documents of Vatican II and start implementing them. Maybe the Church actually “knew what she was doing”, and following her instructions could work. Worth a try?

Return to “Active Participation”

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