Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Proper Place of Propers

Please forgive yet another post on this same topic. I tend to post my Wanderer columns here, or drafts in any case, or, if I write a column based on something here, I don't always repost, if only to spare readers more of the same (I know some people believe that all my writing is more of the same) But in this case, there is enough new here that I figured there would be no harm in posting some duplicate content again.

The Proper Place of Mass Propers

I sometimes wish that I could be released from my continuing focus on the question of what went wrong with Catholic music in the 1960s and 1970s. Somehow, however, I can't get past the suspicion that in these years we might find the answer to why it is that the average Catholic parish offers a liturgical experience that no Catholic in the history of the faith would recognize as aesthetically familiar. And if we can focus in a very precise way on what it is that happened, we will have a clearer idea of where to go in the future.

Investigations in the area of music keep leading me back to a central idea: hymns have replaced proper texts of the Mass. Think of it. The Sunday Mass has five proper texts: Introit, Gradual, Alleuia or Tract, Offertory, and Communion. The Gradual and Alleluia of old are licitly replaced by this new idea called the Responsorial Psalm and a dramatically shrunken Alleuia while the "Gospel Acclamation" has displaced the glorious Tracts of old. That much I understand.

But what about the Introit, Offertory, and Communion? The Offertory chant text doesn't appear in the Missale, for reasons that are lost on me. It's almost as if someone made a typesetting error. As a result, the priest and people sit following the "Prayers of the Faithful" and it feels like little more than intermission that permits the parish to collect money from people and for the choir to sing what the Protestants call their "special music" of the day. That sense of ritual and liturgy comes to a screeching halt and we take a breather in anticipation of the start of the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

It's not that the Offertory proper has been stricken from the Mass. It appears there in the Graduale Romanum for all to see. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal refers to the "chants at the…offertory" (37b), says that "the procession bringing the gifts is accompanied by the Offertory chant" (74), and notes that "when the Prayer of the Faithful is completed, all sit, and the Offertory chant begins" (139). To underscore the point, the GIRM sums up: "The norms laid down in their proper places are to be observed for the choice of chant…at the offertory" (367).

I'm unclear as to whether celebrants today even know that there is such a thing as the Offertory chant. In fact, they wouldn't know unless they happen to be browsing through the Graduale Romanum or the Gregorian Missal, books that most Catholic choirs and music directors in the United States are yet unaware even exist. How can the rubrics be followed if people can't don't even know that central parts exist? They can't, which is why this part of the Mass seems like an accounted for break of some sort.

The entrance and communion chants are nearly always displaced by some other form of music besides chant—hymns, hymns, hymns, world without end—and the texts are taken from anywhere and everywhere but the proper chant of the day. Indeed, hymns have invaded Mass after Mass and the propers of the day have been tossed out, and this has gone on without correction since the new Missal was first promulgated in 1969 and 1970.

Now, it seems clear that this was never the intention of Vatican II. The Constitution on Sacred Liturgy went to great lengths to lift up chant and actual Mass to the highest possible level. Chant deserves primacy of place, the document said. The people should be actively involved in singing the parts that belong to them. As for new compositions—and this is a critical passage—"the texts intended to be sung must always be in conformity with Catholic doctrine; indeed they should be drawn chiefly from holy scripture and from liturgical sources." Chiefly! The liturgical source of course are the propers, and these are drawn from scripture.

Now, six years passed between the promulgation of this Constitution and the new Mass which is now called the ordinary form of the Roman Rite. Was it the case the actual Mass to emerge in 1969/70 departed substantially from what Vatican II envisioned? I think it has been demonstrated to have done so; Cardinal Ratzinger himself said this many times. This was largely the work of Annibale Bugnini, the major architect. His Consilium gave us a product that departed too far from tradition, and the problem was made worse by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, which gave us English translations only loosely based on the Latin.

And yet the problem is not so simple and clear as regards the role of the propers. I was astounded this past week to read in a footnote to an Oxford dissertation by Fr. Mark Kirby that Bugnini's Consilium itself had been asked a very clear question on the role of propers. The Consilium answered in a way that I find completely startling. Far from having newly permitted vernacular hymnody to replace the propers, the consilium claimed that the old permission for vernacular hymns to replace propers was no longer operative. Instead, the consilium said, the propers must always take priority. Otherwise the people are being cheated out of their Mass!

Here is the full text, translated from the original that appeared in the Italian journal Notitiae 5, 1969, on page 406. Read this full text carefully. You might be as astonished as I was:

That rule [permitting vernacular hymns] has been superseded. What must be sung is the Mass, its Ordinary and Proper, not "something", no matter how consistent, that is imposed on the Mass. Because the liturgical service is one, it has only one countenance, one motif, one voice, the voice of the Church. To continue to replace the texts of the Mass being celebrated with motets that are reverent and devout, yet out of keeping with the Mass of the day amounts to continuing an unacceptable ambiguity: it is to cheat the people. Liturgical song involves not mere melody, but words, text, thought and the sentiments that the poetry and music contain. Thus texts must be those of the Mass, not others, and singing means singing the Mass not just singing during Mass.


Hence, according to Bugini himself, hymns may not licitly replace propers in the new Mass. The propers have a heightened role in the new Mass as versus the old Mass. Vernacular hymnody in place of propers cheats people because it means that the Mass itself is not being sung. When hymns replace propers, a part of the Mass has been arbitrarily removed. A new thing has been put it its place. This seriously disturbs the structure of the liturgy. It interrupts the one voice of the Church.

Incredible, isn't it? This confirms my growing suspicion that I've developed over the years of studying this issue that at least one strain of opinion alive at the Council and following was seeking to reduce the role of vernacular hymns and heighten the role of the propers, whether in English or Latin. This provides further evidence. The distance between this goal and the reality is so wide as to be unspeakably obvious to anyone looking at the status quo with objective eyes.

What does this say about our future? The battle in parishes today may only appear to be a battle between rock and folk and traditional hymns. This long-running battle might in fact be avoiding the truly central issue, which is all about whether we are singing the Mass or singing something else, no matter what it is. This of course is not to say that hymns must be abolished, only that they must take a second-tier role relative to proper chants. It is ironic that the way forward on Catholic music might, in the end, be best lighted by the very Consilium led by Bugnini himself.