Wanted: A Priest/Parish to "Sing the Mass"

I recently attended a Hindu-Catholic conversation on chanting. Hindus, of course, have maintained a very ancient form of chant that forms an integral part of their prayer and spirituality. The Catholic who presented on our behalf, a priest, brought along the Liber Usualis (you can download a complete copy here) and beautifully and expertly led us in some of the great variety of chants from this resource. And yet, when I asked him afterwards, he said that he does not believe that the chant can or should be revived. “It’s time is past”, he said.

Is it?

Fr Nick Pearce writes about a new book called “Gut Check” by Tarek Saab. He quotes from Saab’s book as follows:

I attended mass at my local parish like I had every Sunday, but I failed to connect with the promise of mystery in my Catholic belief. Absorbing the mind numbing sappy, guitar hymns, or the fiftieth iteration of the “God loves you” sermon from a happy-go-lucky preacher, was a gut-wrenching experience for any man with an ounce of testosterone.” (p124)

…In my local church, like many other, the treasured master pieces of Catholic art were replaced in favour of sandal clad caricatures with all the realism of a Hanna-Babera cartoon. It could have been tolerable if I had sensed any level of reverence from the community, but apathy had found a new home in the cargo shorts and unkempt appearance of communicants, while others claimed to be “on fire” with a form of trendy, secular Christianity.”(p125)

This is such an accurate description of the experience many have of modern Catholic liturgy. Some time ago, Jeffrey Tucker wrote a book called “Sing like a Catholic”. I disagreed with Tucker about his attitude to hymnody (which I think can have a positive place alongside the use of the chant in mass) but entirely agreed with him that we need to reclaim our treasured heritage of chant if we wish to reclaim the authentic spirit of the Roman Rite. (Just try to imagine for the moment a liturgy in the Byzantine or Syriac Rite spoken, if you want to understand what I mean.)

I have my own theory about why chant has been completely lost from the Roman rite, and partly it is because when it was done it was only ever done by the Schola rather than the congregation, and partly because the dominant form of liturgy in parishes before the Council was Low Mass, in which no chant (no music!) was used at all. Others argue that the chant has to be in Latin and cannot be in English. But from my experience of the traditional Lutheran liturgy I KNOW that the chant can be in English and that the ordo of the mass can be sung by a congregation (with the propers done by a Schola).

The fact that the new English missal will have the chants for both the celebrant AND the congregation seems a clear enough indication that the Church actually WANTS us to sing the mass (the whole issue of the singing of the propers in English is another thing altogether – see this interesting project by Adam Bartlett and Jeffrey Tucker here). The question is, what are we going to do about it? Where is the Parish or the Priest that will take the bull by the horns and actually schedule a regular weekly mass that puts this vision into action?

There are two papers that I can point to that should encourage this attempt. The first is “Towards the Future – Singing the Mass”, a keynote-address to the Southeastern Liturgical Music Symposium by Msgr Andrew R Wadsworth, Executive Director of The ICEL Secretariat given in Atlanta, Georgia on August 21 this year. The second is a comment on this by Adam Bartlett called “An Experiment in Sacred Music Resource Production: Let’s Lay an Egg!”. Again, my question is: is there anyone who can put this into practice? It would take either a parish or at least a priest with the vision to give this a go. Let me say at once that if any such parish or priest is willing to take up the challenge, I would be more than happy to be a part of the team helping to bring it to reality.

It’s not just the chant, of course, but the whole shebang: ad orientam celebration, kneeling for reception of communion, good challenging Catholic preaching, good solid (musically, lyrically and doctrinally etc.) hymnody, faithfulness to GIRM and the rubrics etc. But if we are going to start somewhere we need at least a priest to be the celebrant, and a parish willing to host such an oddity which can be a model for the whole archdiocese.

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23 Responses to Wanted: A Priest/Parish to "Sing the Mass"

  1. Father John Fleming says:

    As a Priest I chant the Mass on nearly every occasion when I off the Holy Sacrifice. That includes the Eucharistic Prayer. Of course, I will have to do some relearning when the new Missal comes into force.

    As an Anglican priest I was used to the Sung Mass as normal, and in the English Hymnal many of the fine Gregorian chants have been applied to English words. I can tell you that this part of the Anglican Patrimony is a joy. One thing about Cranmer’s words is that their cadences and rhythms were very simpatico with the Latin chants.

    What is not understood outside of the Anglican Patrimony is the contribution that John Merbecke made in providing all of the chant music necessary for the Book of Common Prayer at, I believe, the instruction of Master Cranmer himself. The only thing Cranmer insisted upon was that each syllable had one note! The Merbecke music is till used in Traditional Anglican Masses around the world. And the introit, gradual, alleluia, offertory and post communion from the English Missal appeared in the English Hymnal. Traditional chants were and are still being used.

    • Schütz says:

      Do you have any suggestions – beyond the Anglican Ordinariates – of how we can bring our (admittedly extra-Catholic) experience and “patrimony” into our Catholic parishes? How can we (and here I mean as much we as laity as you as a priest) do something about this? If I were a parish priest, I would have a real opportunity to do something. Not being a such, and not even being very influential in my own parish, I feel a bit helpless. I see the vision, but I am frustrated in not knowing how to reach it.

      • Father John Fleming says:

        The responsibility rests with bishops in the first place, and then the priests. The bishops should insist that Seminaries do their job properly in terms of preparing young men for the priesthood where the celebration of the Divine Liturgy is concerned. They can also insist Parishes have a sung Mass and provide the workshops necessary to bring priests up to speed and to train laity who can, in turn, set up scholas and also teach the laity the basic chants.

        I know some priests will say “I can’t sing”, but in nearly all such cases this simply isn’t true. We can all learn to sing and the bishops need to want to put the resources in place to ensure the Sacred Liturgy is celebrated to the highest possible attainable standards.

        • Schütz says:

          But you have just added to my frustration, Fr John. I am a layman, not a priest. I have no opportunity to put the “sing the mass” movement into action without the support of a priest. Priests have some opportunity to put the “sing the mass” movement into practice. But they can’t do much unless they have the support of their bishop. So that’s where it ends. We yearn, we wait, we hope… But does it have to end there. What can WE do, both laypeople and priests, to bring about the necessary developments ourselves?

          (Nb. I just sat through mass this morning that had two songs using “yahweh” in them. I had informed the music leader before that these songs are contrary to the instruction of the church, but unless the parish priest, or in fact, someone even higher up the ecclesial food chain, acts to put an end to such songs, they will be with us for some time to come, I think.)

      • jules says:

        I sometimes teach in a private catholic school. There is a fabulous music teacher there . The choral singing by the children could equal any choir if given half the chance. Obviously chanting , and Latin are least on the minds of the Dominicans that run the school. I’m usually disappointed with their liturgies due to lack of solid preaching, reverent worship and additions – not appropriate to Mass.

        • Schütz says:

          Yes, the schools could be the very place to begin this “revolution”, Jules. It is well known too, that the parish priest usually leaves the choice of the music and style of music at school masses up to the school teachers, or the teacher in charge of the liturgy. Perhaps I should have a different post saying “Wanted: A School/Teacher willing to “Sing the Mass”.

          • jules says:

            That is true, and the priests that are ‘burnt-out’ have been ‘ground-down’ into submitting to the teachers’ choices, and ‘additions’ to the Mass.
            While we know that participation is important at Mass deflection and distractions from the sacrifice, the Eucharist , the Gospel and worship is not a good thing. Here is a video I posted on Cath Pews not too long ago. I think it may be relevant to this topic.

            Schools are a good place to start the ‘revolution’ as you say David. I also think it would be really nice if the Latin Mass choirs could visit schools to give ‘mini concerts’ to encourage a love for sacred music and chant.

            The choir at The Maternal Heart of Mary, http://maternalheart.org/sacredmusic.html sings beautifully and I often wonder if they were approached to do school visits how they would feel about that?

  2. Joshua says:

    Bravo, David!

    Frankly, this unhappy chasm between the ideal and the sad reality goes quite some way to explaining why many, including myself, prefer the Latin (sung) Mass. Of course, there are distinct reasons why I prefer the EF to the OF, but if I had available the sort of liturgical life you conjure up, I don’t think I’d be quite so cut up about there being no Missa cantata available.

    But frankly, given the choice between putting up with bad OF liturgy and attending good EF liturgy, it’s obvious that I choose the latter whenever possible: why should I have to be a victim, when I can actually enjoy going to a sung Mass in the old rite without having to grimace at sundry oddities?

    This reminds me of the English Oratorians, whose Oratory liturgies are in the OF, but done with all the desiderata you list; it reminds me also of an observation of the Supreme Pontiff formerly known as Cardinal Ratzinger, who noted that the difference between the EF and the OF, when both are sung, celebrated ad orientem, etc., is not so great as that between the “ideal” OF and its usual banal parish manifestation.

    The curse of liturgical minimalism is, unfortunately, quite a difficult problem to overcome; en route to the Christus Rex pilgrimage, I visited a young priest whom I’ve known for years, and heard from him all about his struggles to do something about the ugly church he’s inherited, and to try and improve the liturgy there, while being criticised for bringing back pews, insisting people kneel not sit, sing more, etc. It’s an uphill battle to try and worship “in the beauty of holiness” – too many loud voices (I don’t mean the majority) will oppose any and all attempts to resacralize the Mass, without ever pausing to think that perhaps the relentless dumbing down of the sacred has perhaps made church unattractive and boring in the first place.

    • Schütz says:

      It’s an uphill battle

      Granted. Even for a priest who wishes to do what I suggest, the opposition of his parish will make it almost impossible. For us isolated laypeople, it IS impossible.

      So, what can be done? It seems to me that no-one is going to want anything done along the lines I suggest unless they are first able to see it and experience it. That’s why I am suggesting that maybe a priest and a parish somewhere in our Archdiocese might be willing to do just one mass a week – not necessarily a Sunday morning mass, perhaps a vigil mass on Saturday night or a Sunday night mass – to which we could come without abandoning our parish communities. I know the Glorificamus Society has done some work in the past on doing a OF mass with full chant all in Latin, and that in itself has been a great witness – but that isn’t what I have in mind, but it isn’t really a model of what could be done in ANY parish.

      As for the EF, I attended a “low” EF in Adelaide recently (not a Missa Cantata) and my only thought is: “this is how it used to be every Sunday for most Catholics; NOW I understand.”

      I realise that the form of liturgy I am suggesting (or rather, which the Church seems to be suggesting in actually publishing English chants for the mass in the new missal) is something that the Church has NEVER had. It would be an entire novelty in a real sense. It is a true case of the parable about the householder who brings from his house treasures both new and old. It is claiming the chant for the vernacular and for the congregation. There isn’t a hunger for this, generally speaking, I know – but I think that is partly because it has never been experienced. Those of us who have experienced something akin to this in other traditions (eg. Lutheran or Anglican) truly believe that it would enrich the worship of our own dearly beloved Church in which the chant has its origins.

  3. Matthias says:

    As you know I am a Baptist ,and considered becomming aCatholic via the east door-to quote Fr Lawrence Cross. I found the Byzantine Rite to be most beautiful the time i attended a Eastern catholic mass and experienced the richness of the Liturgy there that is lacking in my own church.Saab’s comments about unkemptness and secular trendy Christianity are ever present in my own church. You never know Schutz perhaps I might be going through that East door someday

  4. Joshua says:

    What can be read on http://www.chantcafe.com/ is most relevant to all this…

  5. Dear David,

    It may be of interest to your readers that the Dominican friars are offering a summer retreat for 18-30yos on sacred chant in Camberwell from 27-30 January 2011. Full details here: http://chantretreat.blogspot.com/

    We’d be happy to make the details of the Masses offered on the retreat available more broadly to enable others to assist.

    All good things to you,
    Paul op.

  6. Peregrinus says:

    No offence, David, and I’m all in favour of chant, but it strikes me that your list . . .

    – chanting in the vernacular by the congregation
    ad orientam posture
    – kneeling to receive communion
    – good preaching
    – good hymnody
    – fidelity to GIRM

    . . . is pretty eclectic. It combines things that you can find readily if you look, things used to be commonplace but that have been all but abandoned, and things that have until now not been found at all in the Latin tradition. (Plus, there is the minor quibble that wholehearted fidelity to the GIRM would favour standing for communion, not kneeling.) If there’s a unifying theme to this list it’s – please don’t take this wrongly – David Schütz’s aesthetic sensibility. It’s a very fine aesthetic sensibility, no doubt, but it’s not normative and it will be a remarkable coincidence if you find a parish, a pastor and a musical director who happen to share it in quite such detail.

    Your best bet, it seems to me, might be an ordinariate parish (when we have them); the Anglicans do have an authentic tradition of vernacular congregational chant, which is more than you could ever say for the Romans, and kneeling for communion is still de rigeur. Good luck with the ad orientam thing, though. It’s not wholly unknown among High Church Anglo-Catholics but even in those circles it is rather a minority taste.

    • Schütz says:

      You could well be right in your analysis, Perry, but I do think that what I have outlined is at least a little more faithful to what the Second Vatican Council called for than what we have at the moment. Does GIRM mandate standing to receive communion? GIRM Australia has:

      In Australia standing is the most common posture for receiving Holy Communion. The customary manner of reception is recommended to be followed by all, so that Communion may truly be a sign of unity among those who share in the same table of the Lord. When approaching to receive Holy Communion, the faithful bow in reverence of the Mystery that they are to receive.

      It would be possible to read this as saying that while standing is the most “common posture”, nevertheless whatever is “customary” in the place mass is celebrated should be followed by all present. That could be kneeling.

      • Peregrinus says:

        No it doesn’t mandate standing, but it fairly plainly commends it. And a “how far can you go?” approach to the GIRM doesn’t really exemplify whole-hearted fidelity.

        I think the “customary manner of reception” is a fairly clear reference to the immediately preceding sentence, which describes “the most common posture” in Australia.

        You are reading in the words “in the place mass is celebrated”, which are not actually found in the GIRM.

        And isn’t there a theological point here? The “communion” that we experience in recieving the Eucharist is not primarily communion with other people who happen to be receiving at the same time and place, is it? The “sign of unity” is with “those who share in the same table of the Lord”, i.e. with the universal church, not with the crowd who goes to the 10:30 mass at this particular parish.

        The whole thrust of the GIRM (and of much conservative criticism of contemporary liturgical practice) is to achieve commonality and uniformity not within a specific parish or congregation but between parishes and congregations, across the church as a whole. In that context, reading in the words you suggest is quite anomalous.

        • Schütz says:

          Mayhap. But then we know, from previous CDW rulings, that the Church does not wish to suggest that standing is mandatory, nor that kneeling is forbidden. If in a given a place and at a given time all decide to show their “unity” by kneeling together, is that a problem? The sense in which all standing or all kneeling at a given time sufficiently maintains the “sign”. Moreover, the Holy Father by his own demonstration sees no problem with some kneeling to receive communion (those who receive communion from him) and others standing. Even when the Pope was in Australia for WYD those receiving communion from him knelt while others stood. So if the Pope himself interprets GIRM in this way, that’s good enough for me. Kneeling is allowed, even by GIRM, and even if everyone else stands. I can hardly see that it breaks the sign of unity if everyone chooses to kneel. Standing for communion, as you agree, is NOT mandated, though it is described as the common way in which communion is received. The concern for maintaining some unity of posture among communicants is served as well by everyone kneeling as by everyone standing.

          • Peregrinus says:

            Look, I wouldn’t want to get hung up on this, because (a) it’s only tangentially relevant to the main point of this thread, and (b) I personally am quite relaxed about individuals kneeling for communion. I don’t see it as problematic at all. And, by extension, I don’t have any problem with congregations or communities where it is the norm.

            But I do think there’s a tension between urging “fidelity to the GIRM” on the one hand and kneeling for communion on the other. The GIRM can certainly accommodate kneeling, but it has a distinct preference for standing, and I think true fidelity requires more than not actually infringing the GIRM.

            And I think attempts to read the GIRM as you do are, um, not good. Read in the light of authentic Eucharistic theology and ecclesiology, it’s absurd to suggest that the primary concern of the GIRM is to secure uniformity in a particular bunch of people who happen to be present in a particular place on a particular occasion. The whole point of the eucharist is that it completely transcends the particular; the whole point of communion is that it is communion with the universal church. Not only is this an unsound reading of the GIRM, therefore, but encouraging this reading must tend to hinder a proper appreciation of eucharistic teaching and signification.

            I would be much more comfortable with an approach which admits that, yes, kneeling to receive the eucharist is not what the GIRM commends, but it is something that the GIRM can accommodate. Fidelity to the GIRM is a value, but it’s not an absolute value, and it’s one that I am prepared to compromise in order to serve another principle which I believe to be valuable and worthwhile.

  7. Christine says:

    As for the EF, I attended a “low” EF in Adelaide recently (not a Missa Cantata) and my only thought is: “this is how it used to be every Sunday for most Catholics; NOW I understand.”

    Yup. Sometimes in twenty minutes or less :)

    I can sympathize with Taab. Which further underscores the absurdity of Catholics being asked to sing evangelical praise songs, with their “decision theology” at Mass. That’s like asking a Pentecostal congregation to sing sacred polyphony.

    I think that’s what makes the current situation in the Catholic Church so burdensome. Quite frankly, I’d rather have a spoken low Mass with no music than the hybrid liturgy we have in some parishes today, which for all practical purposes IS a low Mass with some awful Oregon Catholic Press music thrown in (at least here in the U.S.) I was feeling particularly evil at Mass this past weekend. The entrance song was an OCP ditty that I particularly detest so I made sure I sat right up front where the celebrant was sure to see that I wasn’t singing. Yes, yes, I know, it isn’t all about me and my tastes but looking around most of the rest of the people weren’t singing either.

    Amazing, though, when the bishop made a visit to the parish a couple of years ago how all of a sudden all sorts of old Latin hymns and other traditional goodies were trotted out. Can’t speak for anyone else’s parish, but at mine whenever the parishioners get a dose of “Holy God We Praise Thy Name” all of a sudden the people seem to find their voices.

    If I want to hear chant, I mean really beautiful chant, I need to pop in to the Russian Orthodox parish down the street. They have a very keen aesthetic sense.

    Oh, and as for ad orientem, you’ll find it quite often in certain Lutheran parishes. What the Catholic Church throws away other traditions preserve.

    • Schütz says:

      I think that’s what makes the current situation in the Catholic Church so burdensome. Quite frankly, I’d rather have a spoken low Mass with no music than the hybrid liturgy we have in some parishes today, which for all practical purposes IS a low Mass with some awful Oregon Catholic Press music thrown in (at least here in the U.S.)

      I am undecided about this. I can’t say that my experience of the low mass in EF was much happier than my experience at a normal Catholic parish mass. I guess the one thing I was sure of was that the mass at the EF celebration was at least faithful to the rubrics. But I do value congregational participation in song as an intensification of prayer, and so did find the low mass a little lacking. The ubiquity of the Low Mass seems to me largely to have been an historical development rather than something desired by the Church. I think that was what the Second Vatican Council was trying to say about the necessary changes to the way the liturgy was celebrated. they had no argument with the rite of the mass itself, just the way in which it was customarily celebrated.

  8. Christine says:

    I guess the one thing I was sure of was that the mass at the EF celebration was at least faithful to the rubrics.

    Of that I have no doubt and I am grateful that at my parish the priests are also faithful to the rubrics. They also give some pretty dang good homilies so the music issue is really the only one I have at this parish.

    But I do value congregational participation in song as an intensification of prayer, and so did find the low mass a little lacking.

    Quite understandable in the context of our Lutheran backgrounds, David and I agree completely. I, too, welcome congregational singing. Lutherans and Anglicans were always blessed with hymns that were not only aesthetically beautiful but theologically strong as well. The closest I’ve come to hearing that is in the use of the Adoremus Hymnal (and happy are those parishes that use it :)

    I have no illusions that that will become the norm in most Catholic parishes, but surely we can do better than the 70’s campfire songs that are still making the rounds in some of them. Perhaps, in time. Many Catholics didn’t have the experience of congregational singing back in the day.

  9. Anthony says:

    Two comments. When attending a Byzantine Rite Catholic celebration I have always been impressed with the unity expressed through the priest and people chanting the Divine Liturgy (something which does not happen in most Orthodox Churches of Byzantine rite). I do wish there were moer sung masses in the Roman Rite, even one in each parish each Sunday, as it is not to the tastes and theological outlook of all.

    My other comment is that I find Benedict XVI ‘s(whose theology I have come to appreciate) insistence on kneeling for communion, even in countries like Australia, where it is not the norm offensive because it puts him above GIRM. He is a bishop, visiting another diocese and should not impose his personal tatstes on the local church, particularly when the local church has determined otherwise. If I were a local bishop I would take him to task on this. There is precedent; Catherine of Sienna was not backwar in coming forward to bring Bishops of Rome into line and neither was St Paul with St Peter.

    If ever I had an opportunity to be ministered communion by Ben XVI, I would make a point of standing and wonder how he feel about an interloper imposing on local tradition.

    • Schütz says:

      Ah, Deacon Anthony, a person after the heart of the Queen of Spain! Seriously, it might come as a bit of a shock to you, but I think you will find that the Holy Father IS “above GIRM”, at least the Australian version of it. He is, after all, the one who ultimately approves these things. And it is precisely because he is the one who ultimately has approved GIRM Australia, that I cannot interpret said GIRM in the way you and Perry have done, ie. as a discouragement of the practice of kneeling.

  10. Christine says:

    Then there was this unhappy incident in California. I wasn’t there to see it firsthand, of course, but if this is at all accurate shame on the bishop for his hardhat tactics.


    At the Cathedral Masses I sometimes attend during the work week an announcement is always made that it is the custom to ask people to stand after receiving Holy Communion. Most do but some still kneel. I have also seen people genuflecting instead of bowing when receiving and they have never been refused Communion.

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