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Marian Hymns

by Gary D. Penkala

Q. Dear CNP:

Please advise regarding the use of Marian hymns during Mass. Liturgically correct or incorrect? If correct: when within the celebration and/or on which particular feasts or within which seasons?

A. Dear Parish Musician:

Certainly, Marian hymns have a place during Mass. Their use can be absolutely liturgically correct. In fact, I can think of no argument against either of these two statements, even if I were to stretch and look at the situation from a rather "anti-Marian" perspective. The only valid question to consider is: when to use Marian hymns for Mass.

Unfortunately, Church documents are little help in determining specifically what's appropriate or not. Rubrics tend not to deal with these details (like when to play loud or soft organ music, or whether flowers should be in front of the altar or beside the altar, or whether the Lectionary book should be covered or not).

The hymns at Mass (and the Opening Hymn, in particular) are meant to put the congregation in the right frame of mind for the specific Mass they're about to celebrate. The "right frame of mind" is a function of many things: the liturgical season, the feast, the readings, the prayers, the time of day, the size of the congregation, etc. The first three (probably in decreasing order of importance) are the elements that should most determine choice of hymns. Thus, Advent hymns are obviously appropriate during Advent, Easter hymns during Easter, and so on.

Beyond the four liturgical seasons (and Ordinary Time) the Church celebrates many feast days throughout the year, some of which punctuate the four seasons, some of which are delightful surprises during Ordinary Time. Any time the Church celebrates a remembrance of Our Lady (be it a solemnity, feast, memorial or optional memorial), Marian hymns are most certainly appropriate. They fulfill the function of a hymn: to focus the congregation on the feast or mystery being celebrated.

In the United States, three of these celebrations of Mary are solemnities and holydays of obligation: January 1 (Mary, Mother of God), August 15 (Assumption) and December 8 (Immaculate Conception). These are usually the only Marian days celebrated by the general parish -- others occur on weekdays and the Sunday Mass would supersede them even if they were to fall on a Sunday. On any Saturday during Ordinary Time (when no other obligatory celebration occurs), a Mass of the Blessed Virgin may be celebrated. Marian hymns should definitely be sung at all these liturgies, anywhere during the liturgy, but especially as the Opening Hymn. I assume, however, that the focus of your question is on Sunday and holyday liturgies.

As mentioned above, the three Marian holydays of obligation demand Marian music. There are other times when Marian hymns are quite appropriate, like the Fourth Sunday of Advent when the readings speak of the imminent birth of Jesus, or when the Gospel of the Wedding at Cana is read, or the Feast of the Holy Family. While not an official liturgical rubric, there is a tradition of dedicating the month of May to Mary, and the Rosary of the Blessed Virgin is often recalled during October. Marian hymns may point out these traditions at Mass, but care should be taken lest the liturgy be altered to a purely "Marian" theme. Hence, during May I would search for Marian hymns that relate to the Easter mystery: "Regina coeli" or "Be Joyful, Mary" are fine examples. During October, I would use Marian hymns only as a Closing Song, since neither Mary nor the Rosary should be the primary focus of the Sunday's liturgy.

During the remainder of the year, Marian hymns at Sunday Mass are hard to justify. A stronger case might be made for singing "Come, Holy Ghost" every week, since at the Epiclesis of the Eucharistic Prayer, the Holy Spirit is invoked to come and sanctify the Church's offering. Trying to justify Marian hymns at normal Sunday Masses on the basis of being "favorites," or "parish traditions," or "common usage" leaves the door open to many abuses, not the least of which might be questionable music at weddings, on the grounds of tradition.

The Church presents ample opportunity for devotion (and consequent hymn-singing) in honor of the Blessed Virgin: the Rosary (prayed daily in many parishes), Marian devotions or Novenas, weekday Marian feasts, Saturdays of Our Lady, the Marian antiphons at the conclusion of every day's Night Prayer. The Church does, however, hold Sunday to be the Lord's Day, and is very selfish about allowing other feasts to pre-empt that. Only solemnities of Mary (Mother of God, Assumption) or of saints (Birth of John the Baptist, Peter and Paul, All Saints) and All Souls Day may replace a Sunday in Ordinary Time, although any solemnity or even feast of Our Lord may do so (Baptism, Presentation, Trinity, Corpus Christi, Transfiguration, Triumph of the Cross, Dedication of the Lateran Basilica of Our Savior, Christ the King, Christmas, Holy Family).

In summary, perhaps the best approach to Marian hymns is to sing many of them, at every proper opportunity the liturgical year gives us. Sing only Marian hymns (skip the general hymns) on festive days of Our Lady, so as to sing as many as possible in the congregation's repertoire. Sing Marian hymns at other times when they can be liturgically justified. Avoid "indiscriminate" Marian hymns, programmed solely on sentimental grounds.

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