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CNP Feedback - Musical Cuts

Q. Dear CNP:

Our new pastor has given clear direction to our church's musicians that he wants the Mass to be over in under one hour. Citing too much musical performance during Mass, he's asked the musicians to keep songs and instrumentals brief. As a choir director, I've complied with his wishes despite some occasional awkwardness of abruptly stopping music. What I'm mostly concerned about, though, is that he's targeting the responsorial psalm as another area to cut time (and music) by asking the cantor to only sing two verses of it and stop, even if there are more verses to the psalm.

Is this the best way to curb musical performance during Mass and is it liturgically correct to omit verses of the psalm just to save time?

Snip N. Cut

A. Dear Snip:

That's a very familiar situation. What choir director hasn't run into the priest who wants quick Masses with limited music? Let's look at two sides of the issue, from both viewpoints: yours and your pastor's.

Point 1 — Pastor: "Mass should not be unduly prolonged."
Point 2 — Pastor: "There's too much music."

Point 3 — Choir Director: "I want to obey the pastor."
Point 4 — Choir Director: "I think musical pieces should be presented in their entirety."

There is merit in each of these points. Let's look at them one at a time.

1. Mass should not be unduly prolonged.

The liturgy must have a comfortable flow. No section should be so long that it garners undue attention. If the Prayer of the Faithful is too long, people get weary and what should be "prayer" becomes tedium. If there are a plethora of announcements, especially if they're already in the weekly bulletin, we risk boring the congregation with unnecessary verbiage. If the homily is too long, the Sacrament of the Eucharist seems secondary to the preaching. If the music is too long, Mass becomes a concert.

All the parts must be balanced. It takes supreme objectivity to see the appropriate balance sometimes. A choir director may not notice how much singing the choir actually does during Mass. Why not time all their music and look at the percentages? A priest may not realize how long he preaches. Why not time the homily and look at the percentages?

If Mass is to be about one hour long (and that's not an unreasonable goal), then the first half (Introductory Rites and Liturgy of the Word) should be about 30 minutes. The second half (Liturgy of the Eucharist and Concluding Rites) should be about the same, 30 minutes.

2. There's too much music.

There's probably not too much music — in essence, the entire Mass (except the homily) could be sung. I've been to these Masses, they're beautiful and they're not much longer than recited Masses, if sung properly. The problem may not be that there's too much music, but that the music sung is delaying other actions in the liturgy, and that may be a valid complaint. More on this later.

3. I want to obey the pastor.

This is admirable — and very proper. We have an obligation to obey our superiors (in employment) and our pastors (in the Church). So .. try to accommodate your pastor's wishes. Except ... notice the emphasis ... when he's wrong. And yes, even pastors and bishops can sometimes be wrong. If a pastor makes up a Eucharistic Prayer ... he's wrong! If he never preaches on Sundays ... he's wrong! If he reads from Mother Goose Rhymes instead of the Gospel ... he's wrong! I don't think anyone would disagree with these.

All of these are changing the proper way of celebrating the Eucharistic Liturgy, whose formats and texts are given to us by the Church, not invented by the parish. It's also wrong for a priest to change texts of the Mass. It's equally wrong for him to eliminate texts, apart from those places where allowances are given. For example, we omit the Creed on Easter Sunday because its sentiments are already included in the Renewal of Baptismal Promises. A priest may not ask a musician to have the congregation sing only half the Gloria because, "It's too long." Likewise, he may never shorten the Responsorial Psalm by eliminating verses. That's simply not within his power to do. In fact, the mere suggestion of such a ludicrously arrogant ploy speaks of a blatant disdain for rubrics and a disturbingly warped sense of liturgy on his part. He should never have asked you to do that, and you should never do so. Be careful here, though. I'm assuming that you are using a setting of the correct Responsorial Psalm with text from the Lectionary. If you're using a "paraphrase" of a psalm, like "Shepherd Me, O God" instead of Psalm 23, then you're not following correct rubrics and you have no leg to stand on in asking the pastor to do that. Assuming, though, that you're doing everything correctly, politely refuse to shorten the psalm — it's one of the readings in the Lectionary and you simply don't have the authority to alter the Church's wishes. If the pastor insists, write to the bishop about your pastor's inappropriate request — barring any undisclosed difficulties with the texts or settings of the psalms in use, he's simply wrong.

4. I think musical pieces should be presented in their entirety.

In general, I agree. When we sing a hymn, we should respect the format of the poetry and sing all the verses — or at least all the verses presented to the congregation in the hymnal or worship aid. It's extremely bad sign to put three or four verses in front of people and ask them to sing only one or two. It tells them that what they're doing is not at all important — it's just "filler." Likewise, choir anthems and motets should be sung as written, or at least in sections that make sense.

But here's the rub. Music directors and choir directors need to be careful about how long the music is that they plan. An Entrance Hymn of five verses every week is certainly going to appear to "prolong" the liturgy, since the procession has reached the altar and the celebrant is singing a lot of verses (or impatiently waiting) at his chair. A five minute Offertory motet may be more time than is needed to cover the action at the altar (which is the purpose of the music). Directors must work to suit the music to the time needed. This is vital; this is a skill that can be learned and practiced well.

My suggestion in this regard may sound radical, but it's also the mind of the Church. Hymns are foreign to the Roman Rite. I wouldn't mind (much) if they were eliminated altogether. Try using an Introit at the beginning of Mass [see Mass Propers for Advent, etc]. The congregation can repeat an easy antiphon after the cantor, a few verses can be sung between further repetitions, and the whole piece can end soon after the procession has reached the altar. This is how the Roman Rite is supposed to work.

There are also proper texts for Offertory and Communion. I might still like to see a motet at Offertory time, since the choir should have a place to present its music. If the motet is too long for the few minutes that the Offertory takes, move the piece to Communion. It is not necessary for the congregation to sing at Communion time every week, as a look at the rubrics will show.

Whatever you do, be patient and understanding. Your pastor is saying what he is for some reason. It might be his own naiveté in matters liturgical ... it might be his way of asking you for something different. He might be right ... he might be wrong. Approach him with respect and kindness and try to work together toward a better and more correct sense of liturgy in the parish. Hopefully, that's the goal of both of you.

Gary Penkala
CanticaNOVA Publications

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