Gary D. Penkala
We hear a parable in Matthew 22:2-14 about a wedding feast that the king offers for his son.
Some guests refuse the invitation, so the king's servants bring in anyone from the highways.
One man is improperly dressed, lacking the required wedding attire.
He is thrown out into the darkness, where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth.
The parable is replete with deep theological significance:
Who's the king?
Why the wedding feast?
What does it mean to refuse the invitation?
And what about that poor (brazen?) man dressed improperly?
Personally, for well over thirty years, I was that man.
Ever since the Mass was translated into the vernacular in 1970 we had appropriate music and texts given to us for Liturgy.
The Propers existed with English texts — ready to be set to music and sung at Entrance, Offertory and Communion.
I ignored them, like all the rest of my colleagues.
They were those funny words on the inside cover of the Missalette that did no more than separate the cover art from the table of contents.
I came to the Mass, the Wedding Banquet of the Lamb, dressed in hymns, and songs, and ditties — not in the "Proper" attire for a mystical Marriage Feast.
Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa (with chest beating).
I admit it.
I was wrong.
Hymns were so enticing.
Songs were so fun to sing.
I spent (wasted?) hours of my planning time for thirty-some years finding just the right "Gathering" Song for every Mass in the upcoming year.
And I did it year after year after year.
Isn't there another biblical parable about acting like a fool?
Finally, about ten years ago, I got a "Proper" dose of reality.
It's all right there.
I don't need to pull out my hair (which has gotten more sparse) searching for the perfect match.
The Church has given us all we need.
Yes, yes, yes!
The best liturgical planning guide is right there in the Roman Missal — and it's the same every year.
I can relax.
And now, as a musician, I can claim my rightful job, which is finding the appropriate music to carry the Proper texts.
The texts are out of my hands; and that's as it should be.
We don't give the lector the authority to read from C.S. Lewis during Mass.
A priest can't use an Opening Prayer put together by the junior youth group.
Even the bishop doesn't have the authority to change the Eucharistic Prayer to something he makes up.
Yet — and realize the profound significance here — we musicians have claimed the power to change the Church's texts to anything, literally anything we want at those hallowed "hymn spots."
We can put into our congregation's mouths words that were made up by anybody, with no theological training required, and certainly with no ecclesiastical approval requested or obtained.
That's just brazen!
Fortunately, I saw the light.
For the last ten years, I've been gradually introducing the congregation to Proper singing.
Now I know that ideally we'd all be listening to a talented schola singing the great Gregorian chants of the Graduale Romanum.
That's not likely to happen in most parishes.
That is not an excuse to continue the faulty habit of ignoring these texts of the Mass altogether.
There are many resources now available in English to allow congregations and choirs to embrace the Mass Propers.
The musicians and liturgists at CMAA are promoting two valuable books, the Simple English Propers by Adam Bartlett, and the Simple Choral Gradual by Richard Rice.
These offer chant (SEP) and homophonic SATB (SCG) settings in English for Entrance, Offertory and Communion.
There are even simpler resources, and I might suggest starting here if your congregation has never experienced singing Proper texts:
- CNP Mass Propers for Advent
- CNP Mass Propers for Christmastide
- CNP Mass Propers for Lent
- CNP Mass Propers for Eastertide
These set the antiphon texts to easy, Meinrad-style psalm tones, with verses of psalms to be sung by cantor or choir between congregational antiphons.
It's a downright simple way to sing the right words.
With just a little creativity, you can come up with a vehicle of your own to carry these words.
Look at one of the standard hymns, like "At the Lamb's High Feast."
Adapt the words of the antiphon to fit a section of the hymn tune and use this for a refrain.
Sing verses of any appropriate psalm (Psalm 66, Psalm 118, Psalm 34) to a compatible Meinrad tone or Gregorian psalm tone.
You have a ready-made Entrance or Communion Processional.
Crawl out of the four-hymn rut that has trapped so many Catholic parishes in the U.S.
Make a resolution at the beginning of this New (choir) Year to do something with the Propers.
Don't be the guest at the wedding feast who's still wearing the wrong thing — be Properly dressed!