Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Celebrating the Liturgy “Worthily, Attentively and Devoutly”: Interview with Fr. Samuel F. Weber, O.S.B.

NLM is pleased to announce the publication of a new book for the celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours, namely, the Hymnal for the Hours, produced by Fr. Samuel F. Weber, O.S.B., Director of the Benedict XVI Institute for Sacred Music and Divine Worship, Archdiocese of San Francisco. This book is a comprehensive collection of English plainchant hymns for all the hours of the office in the modern Roman Rite (Lauds, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Compline, and the Office of Readings), for both the temporal and sanctoral cycles. The book includes a letter by Archbishop Cordileone and a substantial foreword by Cardinal Burke.

For the launching of this book, I asked Fr. Weber if he would answer some questions about the project, the Institute, forthcoming publications, and how these all tie in with larger issues of liturgical theology. He graciously consented, so read on!

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PK: As a Church musician who loves Lauds and Vespers, I’m extremely excited to see the publication of your Hymnal for the Hours. For the benefit of those who aren’t familiar with your project, can you explain what it is and how it will be useful?

Fr. Weber: This book gives suggested translations of the real, correct hymns of the Liturgy of the Hours in English, preserving, so far as possible, the authentic Gregorian hymn melodies that accord with seasons and feasts (this is not always possible—more elaborate melodies do not always work with English words). It is my hope that those who want the richness of the patristic/liturgical tradition and desire to pray the authentic texts of the liturgy will be delighted with this volume.

PK: Why would using plainchant settings of the hymns be better than just falling back on metrical strophic hymns? After all, many editions of the Liturgy of the Hours simply substitute such hymns for the original office hymns.

Fr. Weber: First, the words. Use the real words of the liturgy itself. Just like we prefer "singing the Mass" to "singing at Mass," I believe it is important that we should prefer singing the hymn that corresponds to the Latin editio typica of the Liturgy of the Hours. The present English versions of the 1970 LH contain almost none of the authentic texts (there are a few exceptions). This new Hymnal for the Hours rectifies that long-standing problem.

Regarding music, this will then be a matter of necessity and taste. When I am conducting a Vespers service with a parish group that has never sung Vespers before, I usually use the metrical “O Salutaris” melody, so that everyone can sing easily without too much practice. In seminaries, religious communities, and some parishes, on the other hand, I am gradually teaching the chant tradition and moving toward the correct seasonal and festal chants. In general, it is praiseworthy to aim at singing in the plainchant style, which is the ecclesiastical manner of singing par excellence, as Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict explains in many places. This would be the right goal for the sung celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours, and this new Hymnal can supply an important piece of it.

In short, sing as you can, not as you can’t—but at least use the right words, the words of the liturgy!

PK: Can you tell us about the translations used?

Fr. Weber: There are many fine poets responsible for the translations—just to list a few, Thomas Buffer, Edward Caswall, John David Chambers, William Copeland, Percy Dearmer, Mark Higdon, Placidus Kempf, Thomas Ken, John Mason Neale, Dylan Schrader, as well as translations taken from the Monastic Diurnal, Saint Cecilia's Abbey, and Stanbrook Abbey. I have used the most elegant and accurate translations available at the present time; some of the texts rhyme, others do not, but all are in what could be called "the classic style," which suits the nobility of the chant melodies. There are 481 hymns in toto, with a supplement of additional texts.

As time goes on, it is my hope that this collection will inspire gifted poets to improve on the translations included in this volume, and so enrich the prayer life of the Church for those who choose to use the English language.

The book also includes the Gospel Canticles—the Benedictus, the Magnificat, and the Nunc Dimittis—with all their ferial antiphons, and each in all 8 modes. For a celebration of Lauds, Vespers, or Compline in English, this will all come in handy.

I should add that it has been my goal all along to make these chants available either for free or at the lowest possible cost of publication. A condition for the use of many of the hymn texts was that the Hymnal generate no profits but be simply a service to the People of God. That is the reason we can make the book available for only $17.10 (paperback) or $25.50 (hardcover).

PK: For priests and religious who wish to fulfill their obligation to pray the office, does this book come with official ecclesiastical approval?

Fr. Weber: As this book is being published as a hymnal, it requires the approbation of the local ordinary. The Archbishop of San Francisco has given his approbation for the book to be published and used for the Liturgy of the Hours as a source for hymns for the Church throughout the world. I am also grateful to Cardinal Burke for contributing a splendid Foreword that is really a mini-treatise on the history and theology of hymns.

PK: Out of curiosity, how long did it take to produce this 730-page book?

Fr. Weber: I have been collecting hymn texts and melodies and fitting English hymns to the Gregorian models for decades, so it would be no exaggeration to say that this book, which collects all of these chants in one place in a systematic way, is the result of more than four decades of work. Over these years many have made special requests for these hymns. For the most part, the hymnal now presented is the result of fulfilling those requests, brought together in one volume.

PK: Why is the sung celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours (or Divine Office) something we should be striving for? And is it even attainable for most communities?

Fr. Weber: For me it would depend on the group. Some weeks ago I was with a corporate retreat group of lay people who work in chancery offices. At 6:00 a.m., 60 of them gathered for Lauds. I had prepared a booklet for chanting. We practiced for about 90 seconds. They had never prayed the Office before. A bishop was present, and he was so kind as to be the celebrant. I was the cantor and alternated with all, thus “lining-out” the chant tones. All present imitated and repeated the tones. They did an excellent job. They even imitated the pauses at the *. It was quite an uplifting experience. After Lauds, we celebrated a sung Mass singing the Propers and using Latin for the Sanctus, Pater noster and Agnus Dei. No problem. It went off without a hitch! It was quite impressive.

Later, I was in a rectory with three other priests. Before supper in the evening, we gathered in the common room of the rectory with our Breviaries. They were not singers. We just quietly read the sacred texts, with pauses for silence after the psalms and readings (the silence is as important as the sound in our prayer!), about twenty seconds of silence. This approach worked fine with this small group.

Singing is a wonderful thing and should be encouraged much more than it is, but it's not as if we must always sing everything; there are times for quiet recitation. Still, as Vatican II reminded us, singing the text of the liturgy elevates it to a more solemn level, makes it altogether more "impressive" in the fullest sense of the word, and that is very important, whether it happens daily or weekly or whenever practicable.

PK: There is a resurgence today around the United States (and even abroad) of singing chant at Mass, whether in Latin or in the vernacular. Could you comment on this movement—why is it important, what are its prospects for the future, and what steps can be taken at the local parish?

Fr. Weber: Again, first, it is all about the Word of God. The sacred texts are of primary importance. (I've written more about this in "Taking Up the Psalter: A Letter to Some Friends.") It's especially clear in the Liturgy of the Hours, which is almost entirely made up of Scripture, but it is no less true of the Mass.

Once the decision is made to “sing the Mass, rather than sing unrelated words at the Mass,” then correct, well-arranged music is needed, music that will work well with the congregation assembled for worship. This works best a cappella. A solid, confident cantor is needed to lead. All follow.

Again and again—in seminaries, in convents, in parishes—I hear the words "reverent, devout, holy" in reference to the music needed for divine worship. Indeed, for all the sacred signs, and for the atmosphere that best serves those who gather to adore the One God as it behooves His true servants to do. The Mass is about God, it’s not about me...  in the first place. The sacred liturgy shapes me; I don’t shape the sacred liturgy.

Cardinal Arinze once said: "Let’s not confuse what we do in the parish hall at coffee and donuts with what we do in Church." Recently an Archbishop gave a talk to his seminarians about the crisis of “narcissism” that has taken over today in the Latin Church. This pretty well sums it all up. In contrast, a recent article in the New York Times, about vocations to the priesthood and religious life in rural Michigan, can tell us volumes just from the accompanying photo. Look at the parish church. This is not an accident. Sacred signs that are treasured by the whole community bring blessings to the people. Our Catholic culture lived to the full produces holy men and women, families filled with blessings.

My Irish grandmother frequently used to say: "There are only two things worth doing in life: to know the truth and to be in love." We sing the appointed psalms of David because we want the truth, and we want to know love in our lives. These are the words God wants on our lips, and God wants them planted in our hearts. In virtue of Baptism, we are all “custodians of the sacred formulas” that God wants planted in our hearts. These are the sacred formulas that nourish us and bring about growth in the spiritual life. These are the holy words that bring blessings to family life, inspire the spouses, and delight the children.

PK: But isn't it true that the hymns in your book are not the Word of God? Couldn't someone say: "We have always sung poems written by Christians; aren't we doing the same thing today when we pick out contemporary hymns?"

Fr. Weber: Yes, it is true: over the centuries God inspires other poets, like St. Ambrose, St. Gregory the Great, and St. Thomas Aquinas, to create sacred texts: orations, sequences, the hymns of the Divine Office. With the approval of the Church, they too can serve as spiritual nourishment. They paraphrase and meditate on the Word of God. They lead us back to the sacred Scriptures as the Church reads these holy writings in her sacred Liturgy. But never, in the history of the Church, have the clergy or laity replaced the appointed texts of the sacred liturgy with words of their own choosing simply because it “pleases” them to do so.

I was once celebrating Mass in a parish. The appointed Communion Antiphon was NOT being sung during Holy Communion. Instead, these words: "Let us break bread together on our knees. Let us drink wine together on our knees." The “on our knees” part was okay—I can support that! I appreciate that. But what about the message? After Holy Communion, I asked the congregation to be seated. I used the opportunity to explain to them that we are “not drinking wine” during Holy Communion. Nothing of "what it is to BE wine" remains; only its appearance remains, but "what it IS" is Christ the Lord. I spoke—by way of reminder, I hope—of the meaning of the Sacrifice of the Mass, of propitiation for our sins, of our growth in grace. I shared with them the antiphon of St. Thomas Aquinas, “O sacrum convivium” and explained it to them phrase by phrase, hoping to undo the harm done by singing over and over again false words that directly contradict the most essential truths of our Faith.

PK: The Propers of the Mass, in particular, are receiving much attention. What if someone objects they are too hard to sing?

Fr. Weber: To such an objection I would say: this issue is not the real issue. The real issue is: Are we prepared to do what the Church is asking us to do? Once we say yes, the rest flows—and with surprising ease.

The responsorial method of involving the congregation works well. In the seminaries, religious communities, and parishes, retreat centers and at meetings of the faithful, I have used simple settings that require no practice ahead of time for the congregation. The most important thing (sorry to repeat myself) is that we sing the Word of God given to us in the liturgy, so I am most concerned to cultivate the habit of chanting the Propers. Later, one can work on learning more beautiful melodies or even moving to the Graduale Romanum. We never, not once, practiced these Propers with the congregation. They worked perfectly each time. In the past 40 years I have been in many parishes and religious communities for Mass and Divine Office. Never once has there been anything but the most positive outcome when we sing the Propers in ways that are accessible to the congregation.

I am just putting the finishing touches on a new book, ‘Proper’ of the Mass, which contains four levels of settings for the Entrance, Offertory, and Communion antiphons, from elaborate (neumatic chant) to simple (psalm tone). My hope is that there is something there for everyone.

Also, one should be creative with solutions in this time of transition. At the beginning of Holy Mass, for example, the congregation may sing an opening hymn related to the mystery of the day. The text of this hymn, of course, must be theologically correct. The music needs to be worthy, religious music. As the celebrant enters the sanctuary and begins the incensation of the altar, the choir or a cantor may sing the Entrance Antiphon. The congregation may experience full and active participation through a “holy and quiet listening of the heart” as our Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI was wont to say.

Another approach: the Entrance Antiphon could be sung as a “call to worship” before the Holy Mass begins, a kind of “quiet meditation” to help foster a prayerful, religious atmosphere. This could then be followed by a congregational hymn with a big organ sound as the Priest enters and Mass begins. There are many possibilities. Where there is a will there is a way.

PK: You were recently appointed the director of the Benedict XVI Institute in San Francisco. Can you tell us some more about this Institute, what has already been done, and what are its future plans?

Fr. Weber: The Benedict XVI Institute exists to aid us in doing “what the Church is asking us to do” in regard to sacred music and liturgical ministries. Workshops, classes, audio/visual resources—whatever helps, whatever works, is available. A particular emphasis is placed on the sacred liturgy itself: that it be celebrated “worthily, attentively and devoutly” according to the mind of the Church.

Forthcoming resources include:

THE IGNATIUS PEW MISSAL — a beautiful annual resource for the parish, with simple psalm-tone antiphons, Mass settings (English chants and a choral Mass by Healey Willan), and a generous selection of Catholic hymns. This Missal includes the Latin chants that the Church has asked all Catholics to know and use frequently.

'PROPER’ OF THE MASS FOR SUNDAYS AND SOLEMNITIES — ca. 1200 pp. The Entrance, Offertory, and Communion antiphons of the Mass in four levels of settings, from ultra-simple English psalm tone, to Latin psalms tones (where the English text allows), to a simple through-composed setting, and finally an elaborate through-composed setting. The traditional chant patterns that come to us from the Hebrew of the temple and synagogue, through Aramaic, Greek and Latin, are tailored to adorn the English text of the excellent new translation of the Roman Missal that we are now enjoying. In short, something for every need and situation. The publisher, Ignatius Press, will make recordings, organ accompaniments (in low, medium and high keys), and a cantor book available as well.

If you want to sing the Mass in English, please take a look at these resources!

PK: The Pew Missal and the Proper of the Mass do sound like fantastic resources. When will they be available?

Fr. Weber: These two books are in their final stages of preparation by Ignatius Press and are planned to be available early this Fall.

PK: Do you have any last thoughts to share with NLM readers?

Fr. Weber: “Let’s do what we do with the greatest reverence, devotion and correctness” has been my driving force. Or maybe it could be said even better in the words of the old prayer before the Divine Office—we ask that we may “worthily, attentively, and devoutly” sing our prayers and praises. Having devoted the past 50 years of my life working for the sacred Liturgy in English, I can see that finally the tide is beginning to turn, and there are more and more people who are hungry for the liturgy as the Church gives it to us. I hope and pray that this movement will continue strong and will take advantage of the many resources becoming available.

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To purchase the Hymnal for the Hours:

Paperback edition ($17.10) click here
Hardcover edition ($25.50) click here

The photos below give a sense of the content of the Hymnal and how it is presented.

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