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CNP Feedback -
Saintly Funeral Music

Q. Dear CNP:

Our parish priest will not allow any song at a funeral that was not written by a saint. This excludes so many beautiful, meaningful songs and hymns. Do we have any options to overturn this Rule?

Justin St. Nomdeplume

A. Dear Mr. St. Nomdeplume:

I'm all for good music at funerals, but I've never heard a regulation like that. Before we discuss this specifically, perhaps we might ponder what's prompting the pastor to make his Rule.

I don't know your parish, your pastor or your music program. I can say, however, that the music at many (perhaps most) Catholic funerals is deplorable. For over forty years, we've bought into a repertoire of less-than-worthy music that most people call "traditional Catholic songs," which really aren't. If funerals in your parish have heavy doses of songs like, "Be Not Afraid," "On Eagles' Wings," "Amazing Grace," and "I Am the Bread of Life," then I understand what might be prompting your pastor's regulation (The Rule). In an effort to bring the music more in line with good liturgical practice, he may be hoping to improve the fare. Asking that all the texts be taken from the writing of saints will go far to eliminate songs with questionable theology — and certainly checking the "saintliness" of an author is an easy, clear-cut way to promote this orthodoxy.

It might be a tad too simplistic, though. For example, the Rule would allow "Make Me A Channel of Your Peace," because the text is written by Saint Francis of Assisi. However, the popular setting by Sebastian Temple is perhaps not the best choice of music. On the other hand, the standard hymn, "O God, Our Help in Ages Past," is by Isaac Watts, an 18th century British Protestant minister who is not canonized. I would quickly use the latter over the former, if I had a choice.

Given the assessment that the pastor's Rule may be overly simplistic, how might that be changed to bring about the most good regarding funeral music in a Catholic parish? Perhaps a better Rule might be

Try to use the texts and music that the Church has already given us for funerals, or at least come as close as possible to this music.

So what is this "chosen" music? We musicians need to pull our heads out of the sand and realize that for every Mass in the entire Liturgical Year, including Funeral Masses, Wedding Masses, Confirmation Masses, First Communion Masses, there are texts that are already prescribed for use. These are called the Propers, and in general include the Entrance Antiphon (also called the Introit), the Offertory Antiphon, and the Communion Antiphon. For a funeral there are other prescribed texts, for use during the Final Commendation. Composers should be writing music for these texts, parishes should be buying this music, missalette companies and hymnals should be offering this in their books, and we should be singing this music at funerals. We need to move beyond, "On Eagles' Wings" as the ultimate funeral song.

Here is some funeral music that respects the texts the Church has given us:

  • Grant Them Eternal Rest, O Lord (Owen Alstott) OCP.
  • Requiem æternam (G.B. Martini, arr. G. Penkala), a three-part setting of the Introit with verses of Psalm 130 in Latin and in English.
  • Requiem æternam (chant Introit): sheet music, a video and score in modern notation.
  • The Lord Is My Shepherd (G. Puccini, arr. Stephen DeCesare) is a very common psalm text for funerals.
  • Iustorum animæ (Colin Brumby), an a cappella SATB setting of text from one of the most popular readings at the Funeral Mass, "The souls of the just are in the hands of God..." [Wisdom 3:1-3].
  • I Know That My Redeemer Lives (Gary Penkala), takes its text directly from the Order of Christian Funerals, the Catholic ritual book for funerals. Verses of Psalm 116 can be sung between this refrain, which itself is based on the melody for the chant In paradisum.
  • I Know That My Redeemer Lives (Howard Hughes, SM) GIA.
  • Saints of God (Steven Janco or Richard Proulx) GIA.
  • May the Angels Lead You into Paradise (Richard Proulx) WLP.
  • In paradisum (Michael Cox), an SATB version of the final antiphon of the Commendation Rite, with organ accompaniment.
  • In paradisum, the beautiful and supremely appropriate chant: sheet music, a video, and score in modern notation.

Here are the official texts from the Order of Christian Funerals for the Funeral Mass outside Eastertide and the Funeral Mass during Eastertide.

Your goal, in working with the pastor, might be to suggest that the parish move toward using some of the texts within the rite itself, whether these are written by saints or not. That would certainly be within even the most stringent liturgical parameters. No one could argue with the texts "from the book."

Gary Penkala
CanticaNOVA Publications
18 June 2012

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