Stage Two

What the commission really needs to take on is the issue of the Mass texts themselves. Can we freely dispense with them and replace them with texts of our own composition and choosing? Or must we defer to the liturgy as we have received it and ennoble that liturgy with music appropriate to the task? This is the real question. To put the matter plainly, the Vatican needs to rewrite its own legislation as regards music. It must make the propers of the Mass the mandatory sung text. Mandatory. No exceptions. It must absolutely forbid them to be replaced by something else. This change in the legislation alone would do far more than yet another cautious statement about the lasting value of the Church’s treasury of sacred music.

To review the history here, the idea that the propers of the Mass can be displaced has absolutely no precedent in the history of our faith. I can hear the critic now attempting to correct me on the point: “before the Second Vatican Council, we never sang the propers; at Mass, we sang various hymns at the entrance, offertory, and communion, and it is no different today.”

That’s true enough but here is the major difference. When the people were singing hymns in preconciliar times, the celebrant was saying the propers of the Mass. He said the entrance antiphon, the communion proper, and so on. They were not neglected completely; they were part of the Mass but at low Mass, they were restricted to the priest alone.

There can be no question that a major ambition of the liturgical reform was to do something about the problem that the low Mass had become the primary form of the Mass that nearly all Catholics experienced week to week. The goal - and this comes through in the writings of the liturgical movement dating back to the early part of the 20th century - was to raise the bar and make every Mass a sung Mass. The Mass was no longer to be the private preserve of the celebrant but rather those prayers and those propers were to be publicly shared and made part of the audible experience of the Mass for everyone..

For this reason, it really was a catastrophic concession that the propers of the Mass can be replaced by the other songs that we alone decide are appropriate substitutes. The concession was made as an afterthought, the option four that was thrown in to deal with the unusual contingency, but it proved to be a moral hazard of the worst sort. It quickly became the norm, and suddenly we found ourselves in an even worse position than we were before the Council convened. Not only were the propers not sung, they were not said either. They completely dropped out of the picture.

Many people have pointed out that the new edition of the flagship hymnal of the GIA, called Worship, contains for the first time an index item that draws attention to the entrance antiphon for Mass. People have sent this to me and said it represents progress. I suppose it does. But consider the irony. A mainstream book of some 1000 pages that purports to offer music for the Mass has a few inches in the way back that actually addresses the sung proper of the Mass - and this is cause for celebration? It’s incredible to think that this is what it has come down to.

If you want to see a vision of the future, take a look at Jeffrey Ostrowski’s Vatican II Hymnal. Here we have one book that is all about music and all about the liturgy, a book in which the two are not separate but a united whole. The propers of the Mass are there in English and Latin, along with the readings and plenty of music for the whole of Mass. It also provides some traditional hymnody but clearly as supplemental material designed to enhance our experience at a Catholic people and give us additional music with which to praise God. The balance is correct here. The title itself sums up the point: this is much closer to what the Council fathers envisioned.

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