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CNP Feedback - Communion Hymns

Q. Dear CNP:

I have been using your website regularly and find it very helpful, but I do have a question regarding music during Communion. The proper Communion Antiphon is listed, but there are not many suggestions for music which is easily sung by the whole community.

Our diocese is promulgating a new "General Norms" for Mass and clearly stated is this:

The Communion hymn is to begin while the principal celebrant receives Holy Communion. The purpose of the hymn is to demonstrate a communion of spirit among the communicants through a unity of voices, to show joy of the heart, and to highlight more clearly the communitarian nature of the communion procession. Singing is to continue as long as Holy Communion is being administered.

I am looking for appropriate music to be sung by all and would appreciate any suggestions. I do see "Gift of Finest Wheat" listed in the suggestions here, but do not see other singable hymns.

Thank you for your time and help.

Singing in the Aisle

A. Dear Singing:

Thank you for your kind comments about the CanticaNOVA Publications website and for your question about Communion hymns.

There are many ways to facilitate sung music during the Communion procession, most easily if the congregation sings something short, rather than verse after verse of a standard hymn. The proper Communion antiphon can be set to music for the congregation, with a choir or cantor singing psalm verses between repetitions of the antiphon. See Mass Propers for Advent (or for Christmastide, Lent or Eastertide).

You could also sing an invariable antiphon or refrain (for a month or a season), using different psalms each week for the verses. This format is followed here, in Communion Psalms for the Liturgical Seasons

This last format is also very easy to construct on your own. A familiar refrain can be sung between psalm verses. The refrain can be the beginning of a hymn (like the first two phrases of "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" or "Tantum ergo sacramentum" or "Praise to the Lord"). The psalm verses can be from any responsorial psalm with similar key and mood to the refrain, or can be sung to a Gregorian psalm tone or to one of the tones from the collections above.

You can also use refrains that are already familiar to the congregation, like "My Soul Rejoices" by Owen Alstott, or "Ubi caritas" by Bob Hurd. While these can be sung with the verses already written for them, they could also be used with psalm verses chanted in the same key as the refrain.

It should be noted that the Communion music sung by the congregation does not need to speak of "eucharist" or "communion" or "bread and wine" or "Body and Blood of Christ," although it can. A quick look at the texts of the Proper Communion Antiphons themselves will show this to be the case:

  • 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
    • Like a deer that longs for running streams, my soul longs for you, my God. My soul is thirsting for the living God. Psalm 42:2-3 
    • -- or --
    • I am the light of the world, says the Lord; the man who follows me will have the light of life. John 8:12
  • 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
    • O God, how much we value your mercy! All mankind can gather under your protection. Psalm 36:8
    • -- or --
    • The cup that we bless is a communion with the blood of Christ; and the bread that we break is a communion with the body of the Lord. See I Cor 10:16
  • 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time
    • You have laid down your precepts to be faithfully kept. May my footsteps be firm in keeping your commands. Psalm 119:4-5
    • -- or --
    • I am the Good Shepherd, says the Lord; I know my sheep, and mine know me. John 10:14
  • 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
    • O Lord, remember the words you spoke to me, your servant, which made me live in hope and consoled me when I was downcast. Psalm 119:49-50
    • -- or --
    • This is how we know what love is: Christ gave up his life for us; and we too must give up our lives for our brothers. I John 3:16

It should also be pointed out [and this may surprise you] that the Communion singing need not always involve the congregation. The document that you mentioned paraphrases section #86 from the new GIRM:

86. While the priest is receiving the Sacrament, the Communion chant is begun. Its purpose is to express the communicants' union in spirit by means of the unity of their voices, to show joy of heart, and to highlight more clearly the "communitarian" nature of the procession to receive Communion. The singing is continued for as long as the Sacrament is being administered to the faithful.

However, the next paragraph seems to have been ignored:

87. In the dioceses of the United States of America there are four options for the Communion chant: (1) the antiphon from the Roman Missal or the Psalm from the Roman Gradual as set to music there or in another musical setting; (2) the seasonal antiphon and Psalm of the Simple Gradual; (3) a song from another collection of psalms and antiphons, approved by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop, including psalms arranged in responsorial or metrical forms; (4) a suitable liturgical song chosen in accordance with no. 86 above. This is sung either by the choir alone or by the choir or cantor with the people.

This section makes several clear points. From the order of listed one can assume a preference in the Roman Rite for music at communion — in first place is the antiphon from the Graduale Romanum, which is Gregorian chant, sung in Latin, by a choir. Option two is a similar, albeit easier chant, from the Graduale Simplex, also sung in Latin by a choir. Option three is a psalm/antiphon from a collection approved by the USCCB or a diocesan bishop. Only Option four is a "hymn." The next statement could not be clearer: This (i.e. the Communion chant) is sung either by the choir alone or by the choir or cantor with the people.

Thus, the GIRM (the introduction to the Roman Missal itself), says some surprising things about the Communion music. This document, authorized by Pope John Paul II in 2001, translated into English, and promulgated by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments in 2003, holds considerable weight and status among liturgical norms. It certainly outranks what a national bishops' conference might suggest, what a diocesan bishop's office might develop, or what a parish or pastor might put together. One would hope that all of these documents would be in concordance; if not, however, the document from Rome has the ultimate authority.

I don't by any means want to propose that the choir always sing the Communion chant. I just hope to point out that it is possible, and allowable, for the choir to do so. Several prominent American Catholic musicians have trumpeted the benefit of having a chant choir (or schola) sing during the Communion, while the congregation participates by listening (a valid form of participatio actuoso). This can have a supreme "other-worldly" effect, especially if Latin Gregorian chant is used. The book Communio compiled by Richard Rice, contains all the Communion Antiphons found in the Graduale Romanum and links them to a set of psalm verses, written out with music, to be sung between repetition of the antiphon by the choir.

The reasoning and logic outlined above indicates why CNP doesn't often recommend "Communion" hymns in our Hymn Suggestion lists. They usually don't work, since people won't be carrying a hymnal with them to Communion. In my present parish, we find that the antiphon/psalm format seems to work ideally well during Communion.

Gary Penkala
CanticaNOVA Publications

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