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Musical Musings: Liturgy

What Have We Done?

by Gary D. Penkala

Dr. Gordon E. Truitt wrote in the Fall 2005 issue of AIM (World Library Publications) about official liturgical texts. The Church gives us approved texts and many options for various "Proper" moments during Mass (Entrance, Responsorial Psalm, Gospel Acclamation, Offertory, Communion). Six options for the Entrance Chant are available, from various sources:

  1. Entrance Antiphon
  2. Entrance Antiphon & Psalm Verse
    • Latin: found in the Graduale Romanum (with Gregorian notation)
    • Latin: found in the Gregorian Missal (with Gregorian notation)
    • English: No official English translation exists

  3. Another setting of the Graduale text
    • No collection is available; individual texts might be found set to music

  4. Seasonal Entrance Antiphon & Psalm Verses
    • Latin: (text and music) found in the Graduale simplex (with Gregorian notation)
    • English: (unofficial text with music) By Flowing Waters (with modern notation)

  5. Psalm & Antiphon from another collection approved by the conference of bishops
    • No such collection has ever existed in the U.S. since Vatican II

  6. Suitable liturgical song approved by the conference of bishops
    • No such collection has ever existed in the U.S. since Vatican II

The Offertory Chant follows the same outline as above, except that it was never translated into English, so it does not appear in English in the Roman Missal or Sacramentary (#1).

For the Communion Chant, the same options apply, except that for #6, no approval from the bishops' conference is necessary for the liturgical song.

My point in mentioning all this (and the reason for the boldface type in the above list) is that we in the English-speaking world have fallen far short of having the necessary tools to implement the liturgy as Vatican II envisoned it. Who is responsible for this major gaffe which sidelined proper Catholic church music in the U.S. and brought about several generations of music which was nothing short of embarrassing? Three groups are to blame: bishops/conferences, publishers/composers, and musicians/liturgists.

1. Bishops & Bishops' Conferences

From the very beginnings of the Novus Ordo Sacramentary in the late 1960s, bishops' conferences were charged with implementing liturgical reform within their jurisdictions. This included allowing the use of the vernacular - which they jumped to "enforce," but a concurrent responsibility was always there to maintain decent standards concerning music to be used at liturgy, particularly if it would be replacing approved, traditional texts. The bishops' conferences were called on to approve collections of Psalms & Antiphons for use at the Entrance, Offertory and Communion. In addition, the conferences were responsible for other collections of psalms, including psalms in responsorial form and in metrical form. Collections of other songs (not psalm-based) were to be approved for use in these processional moments. It was clear, albeit ignored, that music not meeting one of the criteria in options 1-6 above (and some argue that they are indeed in preference order!), should not be used at Mass.

The conference of U.S. bishops has dropped the ball quite disastrously. They have never approved any such collections of psalms or other songs for use at liturgy - consequently, how could they, or their committees or staff take any action against "abuses" when they had left every loophole gaping by not offering concrete guidance. While it may have eased the "collective conscience" of the bishops, their Liturgy Committee's two guideline documents, Music in Catholic Worship (1972) and Liturgical Music Today (1982) did little more than offer the suggestion that the pastor and/or musician should decide what music could be used, based on vague "judgments." No examples were given (of good or bad music) and the vacuum of leadership in this area directly prompted the musically debauched decades of the 1970s, 80s and 90s.

2. Publishers & Composers

Composers, rather than looking to set the Latin or new English texts of the Propers to music, jumped through the loophole that allowed "other" music, and wrote every kind of doggerel to quickly produce a vernacular repertoire. With a few good exceptions, the greater part of this early music was simply ... garbage, especially when compared to the legitimate forms: chant and polyphony.

Mainstream Catholic publishers, with an eye toward profits (or at least keeping the "not-for-profit" coffers filled), cranked up the presses to high speed in order to saturate the market with "anything" in English. Capitalism took over, supply-and-demand became the only criterion for assessing the propriety of liturgical music, and "popularity" was the halo by which music's sanctity was judged.

Some publishing firms (like CanticaNOVA) have always stood for quality music as the Church envisions it, and lately (Deo gratias!) even the large U.S. Catholic publishers are seeing the light... note that the big three are now offering legitimate Gregorian chant products, including official books of chant.

3. Musicians & Liturgists

Even if the bishops offered no guidance, even if most of the publishers produced flimsy music of questionable quality, it is still ultimately our fault (as musicians and liturgists) for the dreadful condition of most U.S. music programs. None of the musical materials that we were using in 1964 were banned by the Council - why did we so suddenly stop using them? Were our musical sensibilities altered so much in the mid 1960s as to allow (and promote and sing and accompany) songs like "Sing from the Highest Mountain," "Kumbaya" and "Alle, Alle"? Were we really just a bunch of poorly-trained musicians who instead of picking bad Latin music were now picking worse English music?

There may be some truth in all of this. While it was extremely difficult back then (in the 1970s), it has gotten easier (particularly lately) to find and use good music upholding the tradition of the Roman Rite. In fact, that is exactly what CNP was founded to do ... and you've obviously found us!

Our Online Catalog is filled with noble music, worthy of use at the Sacred Liturgy.
Our Liturgical Planning Pages offer help in choosing good music (from CNP and other publishers).
Our Musical Musings articles, like this one, aim to educate musicians and liturgists on propriety in worship.

Look at CanticaNOVA Publications products; look also at some of the products from other Catholic publishing firms. Find the good music that will work in your parish. It must lead your parishioners from the cheap music of the last few decades to the sublime music that could be theirs with a closer adherence to the leadership of Vatican Council II, of the Holy See and of your own informed conscience. In ten years when we again ask the question, "What have we done?" may the answer be, "We have reformed the reform, renewed the renewal, and brought Catholic music back to the Catholic Church."

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