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Musical Musings: CNP Feedback

CNP Feedback - Communion Music

by Gary D. Penkala

The "Feedback Box" on the CanticaNOVA Publications website has proven quite effective in promoting communications on a variety of subjects, and expressing concerns of liturgists and musicians. From time to time, we'll compile a few of these questions or comments and put them in public view, with the hope that others with similar concerns may benefit from their content.

Q. Dear CNP:

Our church has had a long tradition of the choir singing a meditation anthem or motet after communion. In place of a communion hymn our organist generally will perform an improvisation. After having read your piece on Liturgical Surprises I realized that this may be a unique format. I am not sure for how long this has been a tradition, but I have grown to prefer it. I have often felt awkward trying to sing during communion and in the typical Catholic church, the congregation doesn't sing much anyway. This format gives my choir time to receive communion and an opportunity to sing as well. Is this a tradition in other churches as well, or do all others adhere to the communion hymn directly followed by the closing prayer?

-- Curious Musician

A. Dear Curious Musician:

Thanks for your comments on the format of the Communion Rite of the Mass at your church. Catholic church musicians have wrestled with this part of the liturgy for many, many years. Let's look first at the ideal, and then at a few ways that churches deal with practicalities.

Ideally (and theoretically), the proper Communion Antiphon is sung, with psalm verses between. This should cover the time of the "communion procession" as an expression of unity, joy and community. Proper options include:
  • the antiphon from the Graduale Romanum (with or without psalm)
  • the antiphon and psalm from The Simple Gradual
  • another song approved by the conference of bishops *
* This last option generally means a "Communion Hymn" from the missalette.
The ideal can be approximated using a responsorial-style piece during Communion, like CNP's Communion Psalms for the Liturgical Seasons.

While this is ideal, it often doesn't work. People are lax to sing as they walk to Communion, and certainly won't be carrying a hymnal or even missalette. Hence, many parishes, including those with which I'm familiar, use other music at the beginning of communion (usually organ, vocal or choral). Then a hymn follows, when enough of the congregation has returned to their seats to sing. This has the disadvantage of not really being processional music, as the rite envisions.

Having organ music (improvisatory or composed) at the beginning of communion, followed by a choir motet seems musically and practically perfect! However, doing so on a regular basis deprives the congregation of expressing that "unity" of which the documents speak. Personally, I do think this is the best option (again, from a musical perspective). I really wish the Sacramentary didn't ask the people to sing here at all, but it does.

A possible solution is offered: a "Hymn after Communion." This, I think, is awkward, too. After having music all during the communion procession, why insert more music in the form of a hymn that accompanies nothing? I don't think the rubrics envision a hymn for its own sake here. Such an item occurs seldom in the liturgy (just the Gloria, the Easter & Pentecost sequences and the Hymn at the beginning of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer). Otherwise, singing is either a reflection on what has happened (like the Responsorial Psalm), or accompanies some action (like the Opening Song and Agnus Dei). So, everything crashing to a halt (so near the end of Mass) while the congregation sings a hymn seems awkward to me.

A compromise might be to follow your format (organ music, then choral music), followed by a brief version of the Communion Psalm, with congregation singing the communion antiphon from the Sunday's Mass (or something similar), and choir or cantor offering a few psalm verses in between.

Whatever is decided, realize that you are not alone in your consternation over this problem. The final solution (or compromise) will likely be different in each parish. We should always work, however, toward straying as little as possible from the official rubrics in the Sacramentary.

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