Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Reform is Being Reformed

My book Sing Like a Catholic (here or here) has several passages that are critical of some writings of Elaine Rendler-McQueeney, who writes the liturgy notes for OCP's quarterly Today's Liturgy. In the latest issue Ordinary Time 1 2009), I've noticed some shift towards the reform of the reform in, and her comments signal and important change that could really help parish music programs right now.

I don't want her comments to get lost in the shuffle so I would like to highlight them.

Writing on the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time, she addresses the issue of the entrance hymn. She provides a good corrective to the common practice of singing all the verses of some randomly chosen hymn.

She states plainly: "It is not the custom of the Roman Church to sing all the verses of our hymns. Our music is the handmaid of the rite."

This is a very important point. Let's leave aside the issue of how many verses to sing (some of these are through composed, after all). One thing you notice when you attend non-Catholic services where people sing with gusto, where people love their hymns, and the hymns truly do reflect an organic preference of the people: all the verses are sung because the hymn is the only thing going on. The hymn has a separate reason for existence. Its purpose is to unite the people in song. All other action stops and the hymn becomes the central point.

That is not the case in the Catholic Mass. The music serves to uplift, beautify, and ennoble some other action taking place, and that action itself holds primacy over the music itself. Another way to put it is that the reason for the music is not the music as such but rather what the music embodies, which is a prayer or an action that itself is the primary liturgical prayer or action. The music is neither an end it itself nor merely an accompaniment; it is the sung version of the main action.

She gives the example of the entrance, and bless her for these words: "Consider the entrance antiphon of the Mass." Yes, let us please consider it. Consider it carefully and long. This is the liturgical text that is to serve as the text of the entrance. It is not to be forever superseded by some hymn of our own choosing. We ought to be singing the entrance antiphon itself.

She notes that "it is brief and gives us a glimpse of the lessons of the day."

That's precisely it. By the way, they are not always brief, but they are probably always more brief than a typical hymn. They can be extended with Psalms and with the Gloria Patri, but in general her point is right on: "the function of the opening hymn is to accompany the entrance procession."

We might add that the purpose is not to gather the community, unite them in song to get everyone in some mood of some sort, to recreate the exuberance of a fairground revival tent, or to remind everyone of just how fun and wonderful and peppy coming to Mass truly is.

She asks with some hesitation: "Should not the hymn last only until everyone in the procession is comfortably in place for the sign of the cross?"

I general I would say yes, provided the full antiphon is sung. There can also be incensing that takes place, and the antiphon should be extended to cover that too.

By the way, she makes the same point about communion, noting that we should speak of the Communion processional not the communion hymn and not the communion anthem.

Moving onward to the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, she offers some very good advice for cantors. The issue concerns posture during the Eucharistic Prayer. Does one kneel following the Sanctus, stand for the Memorial Acclamation, kneel again, and then stand again for the Amen? Rendler-McQueeney raises "the matter of distraction." "It is a distraction if the cantor leaves the lectern to kneel down somewhere; and then returns back…"

Then she raises the great taboo subject that has been crying out to be raised for decades: the hard fact that the cantors often serve no purpose and instead actually do damage. "Consider whether or not the assembly needs a cantor at the microphone during those acclamations."

She strongly suggests that the answer is no.

What a merciful relief for millions it would be if her words were taken seriously.

Finally, for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, she raises another taboo topic: that of the repeated acclamation following the consecration. Thanks to Mary Haugen, millions of Catholics believe that it is essential that everyone sing "Christ Has Died, Christ Is Risen…" two times. Think of it: this part of the Mass didn't even exist before 1970 but now we are supposed to yell it out not once but twice, the second time louder than the first?

It way too much. In fact, it is ridiculous. It is bad enough to be interrupted with loud crashing music one time but twice?

Anyway, she says what needs to be said. She tells how she was leading a late-night campus assembly meeting and because she was tired, she only sang it one time. She simply forgot. She sat down and then it occurred to her: "something felt right about singing the acclamation just once. It seemed to fit into the Eucharistic prayer more in proportion to the rest of the prayer."

She then tries her hand at conjectural history. Maybe it was repeated in the early days following the new Mass because people needed to learn the English and didn't want to practice before Mass? I doubt this is right--I would guess that bad Broadway influence led to this nonsense--but it is an interesting theory.

In any case, she suggests that this practice needs to end. "Do you really think singing…twice intensifies the prayer of the liturgy?"

So let me offer this congratulations to her for saying what needs to be said in a venue that hasn't been entirely welcoming to such thoughts.

She has some missteps too in this issue, of course. She says that for the Psalm "syllabic, rather than melismatic, settings would seem to be more in keeping with this point in the Liturgy of the Word." One might argue that the English alone would suggest that, but we do well to recall that the Latin Gradual of ancient origin is actually the most melismatic chant of the entire Mass – and the purpose is to inspire extended reflection and preparation. So, no, it is not correct that syllabic chants are more appropriate, and we know that simply by virtue of the long tradition of Psalm singing at Mass.

And truly, she might in fact be referring to the tendency in some quarters to turn the Psalm into a big show tune for the praise band. If that is what she is condemning, good for her.

Many of her newest reflections are prompted by the USCCB document "Sing to the Lord." I'm reminded that while it is far from perfect, and should be criticized on a number of grounds, it is a great replacement for its predecessor "Music in Catholic Worship," which had a catastrophic effect on Catholic liturgical practice. The new document, for example, promotes chant and singing by the celebrant.

The Reform of the Reform is happening, slowly and with little fanfare. These are small steps but they are important ones. If we find them here, we will soon find them everywhere.