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CNP Feedback - What Do We Sing
at Communion Time?

Q. Dear CNP:

I recently asked our local bishop why the contemporary hymn books have dropped the old Eucharistic hymns that are focused on the Catholic understanding of the Real Presence. He explained that the GIRM, paragraph 86 requires that singing at the Communion Procession be more "communitarian" in focus, and that hymns of a specific adoration emphasis do not seem appropriate at this juncture of the Mass. Could you comment on this? Thank you.

A.T. Devote

A. Dear A.T.

First, we should all realize that by far the most appropriate text to sing at Communion time is the actual Communion antiphon (either from the Graduale Romanum in Latin, from the Graduale Simplex in Latin, from the Roman Missal in English, or from some other approved source). The days of choosing "anything at all" as a Communion hymn, could eventually be coming to an end, radical as that may seem.

When we look at the text of the Communion antiphon, we see that a great majority of them do not even have a Eucharistic theme — for example, the one for the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time is: "O Lord, how great is the depth of the kindness which you have shown to those who love you" [Psalm 31:20].

If, as most parishes still do, one is choosing a "Communion song," then it should follow the pattern of the proper Communion antiphon — thus it need not even speak of the Eucharist, but should offer praise to God (just as all the Mass does).

The new translation of the 2000 GIRM says:

86. While the Priest is receiving the Sacrament, the Communion Chant is begun, its purpose being to express the spiritual union of the communicants by means of the unity of their voices, to show gladness of heart, and to bring out more clearly the "communitarian" character of the procession to receive the Eucharist. The singing is prolonged for as long as the Sacrament is being administered to the faithful.

The "spiritual union," "unity" and "communitarian character" mentioned in the document derive from everyone singing something together — not from a text that promotes communal themes. "Let's All Gather 'Round the Table" is not the model for Communion music, as can be seen from the actual Church-given texts.

Certainly, if one uses hymns at Communion, though, there is nothing wrong with texts about the Eucharist. We should keep in mind that the texts should center on God, Jesus Christ, the Eucharistic Species, not on us — liturgy is never about us. In this case, it is Our Lord Jesus Christ who is present on the altar and in Communion. We surely can adore Him and receive Him at the same time, as can be seen in the bow of reverence that is required prior to reception of Communion. Why can't we consider some of the older hymns, even the "adoration" hymns, musicals "bows"?

Debate among bishops, priests and musicians will continue indefinitely until the point when we all admit that it is better to sing the Mass than to sing at Mass. The Mass texts are given, yet we so often ignore them and sing our own songs while we're at Mass. Consider, in humble and eye-opening awareness, that the Church herself has already selected the Communion hymn for every Sunday celebration — it's called the Communion antiphon, and it can be sung by cantor, choir, congregation, and even be extended with appropriate verses from the Psalms. How "presumptuous" of us musicians to say "we know better." What power we have usurped to control the sacred liturgy in our own parish settings! Our own personal theology, whether that be totally orthodox or haphazardly heretical, can be foisted upon a congregation. Should we be exercising such awesome responsibilities, especially in the face of the Church's obvious preference for her own texts?

I realize that this response has gone in directions you might never have anticipated. I realize that sticking solely to what the Church has given us is a radical concept that many can hardly fathom.

I would encourage you, in your work at the parish, with the diocese, with colleagues — and with the bishop — to at least begin to explore the Propers of the Mass. There are resources available, some very simple and accessible, with which one can sing the Entrance, Offertory and/or Communion antiphons. Set a goal this year to use these on occasion. In my parish, every other week the cantor and congregation sing the proper Entrance antiphon in English using a simple Meinrad-style tone. As many psalm verses and a concluding doxology are sung by the cantor as are needed for the procession. On alternate weeks we sing an Introit Hymn from the WLP collection by Christoph Tietze, which paraphrase the actual Entrance antiphon and sets it to familiar hymn tunes, with psalm verses and a doxology as well.

CanticaNOVA Publications also has resources for singing Propers easily:

Our Communion Psalms for the Liturgical Seasons offer a similar format, although the antiphon remains consistent throughout the season and the psalm verses change each Sunday.

I hope you may be inspired to start singing Proper music at Communion time!

Gary Penkala
CanticaNOVA Publications

CanticaNOVA Publications / PO Box 1388 / Charles Town, WV 25414-7388
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