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CNP Feedback - Voice of God in the Liturgy?

Q. Dear CNP:

I would like a clarification, please. In several of your articles, you mention that some contemporary music is questionable because of its use of a "voice of God" format. Yet there are antiphons in the Roman Missal that appear to do the same thing (ex. the 2nd Communion Antiphon from the 31st Sunday Year A: "As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood will live because of me." John 6:58 — copied from your Liturgical Planning page). This not only appears to use the "voice of God," but could technically be construed by the uninformed to say that if someone ate the singer's flesh they would be saved!

Are there guidelines that the average small-town liturgist with limited theological training can use to judge when a hymn has gone from accurately quoting a Bible verse to using "voice of God"? Is it a matter of degree? My parish has a tradition of using music both old and new from a variety of sources.

The Divine Miss(a)M

A. Dear Divine:

Thank you for your timely question.

Indeed, there are many in the Catholic music world these days who are questioning the appropriateness of the congregation's singing what might be labeled "voice of God" hymns. CNP would be included among those musicians — we feel that the liturgy represents a dialogue between God and man, and that we humans should not be asked to take God's part in the dialogue (i.e. speaking God's words to one another). Of course, in the scripture readings, the intended method for us to "hear" God's words is to have them proclaimed by a lector, deacon or priest. This proclamation is the natural and rubrically correct way for God to speak directly to us at liturgy.

Our purpose, as a congregation, is to offer God praise — in our spiritual worship and in the sacrifice offered in the Eucharist. We also pray for one another and for the needs of the world. It is not the congregation's role to speak God's words to one another — and the liturgy is texted that way. We are not asked to speak or sing, except to praise God or petition him [see the Gloria, General Intercessions, Sanctus, Lord's Prayer, etc.].

Occasionally, the Church reminds us of the Father's words or Christ's words, particularly in the Gospel Acclamation verses or in the Communion Propers. In these instances (where we or the cantor are asked to sing God's words), the phrase "...says the Lord..." is present, to clearly indicate who is speaking.

For example, the Gospel Verse for the 6th Sunday in Easter (B) is, "Whoever loves me will keep my words, says the Lord, and my Father will love him and we will come to him." The Communion Antiphon for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (2nd option) is, "I am the Good Shepherd, says the Lord; I know my sheep, and mine know me."

But what about the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time that you mentioned? The Sacramentary clearly gives the second option for the Communion Antiphon as: "As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood will live because of me." This is a quote of Jesus from Saint John's Gospel, with no attribution line: "says the Lord." What's up?

This had me baffled, although one could make an argument that this is a RARE instance (one Sunday out of many, and an optional antiphon). I searched, however, for a stronger argument. That led me to the Missale Romanum 2002. The Latin text of the 2nd Communion Antiphon for the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time ends with [you guessed it!]: dixit Dominus ("says the Lord"). So our problem is not inconsistency within the Church's liturgy, but an improper or out-dated translation of the text. One hopes the new translations that are being debated now among the US bishops will have corrected this error.

In terms of what music to use in your parish — the best advice is to stick as closely as possible to what the Church has given to us. When taken to a logical extreme and implemented fully, this would mean singing the Proper Antiphons (Introit, Offertory, Communion) in the appropriate places, perhaps with psalm verses to extend their length. Realizing how drastic (and perhaps traumatic) this might be in the average parish, you certainly could use an option in the GIRM that allows hymns to replace some of the Propers. In this case, you should be careful about the choice of hymn tunes and texts. Tunes should have a proven enduring quality — there's no sense asking a congregation to learn and sing something that will be hackneyed or out-dated in a few years. Great hymns of the faith, perhaps even those of Protestant origin, have that "lasting" quality. The latest "hit release" from a trendy publisher may not have the qualities you're looking for. Lyrics should be given the same scrutiny. Texts that speak in the "voice of God" or that have the congregation singing to itself or about itself ("How great we are because we're all gathered here...") really have no legitimate place in Roman Rite liturgy, which should focus on God. This all does not preclude using new music and new hymns. There are plenty of good liturgical pieces being written today that have both good music and quality texts. Go for these, and avoid the dated, worn, secular styles of the late 20th century.

The best places to learn about "what the Church really wants" in terms of music are the official documents:

See CNP links

and also the writings of Pope Benedict on the subject of liturgy and music:

A New Song for the Lord 
The Spirit of the Liturgy

I hope this is helpful in your discerning music to use at liturgy.

Gary Penkala
CanticaNOVA Publications

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