In what is today officially termed the “extraordinary form” of the Roman Rite, a sharp distinction is made between low Mass (Missa lecta) and sung or high Mass (Missa cantata). At low Mass, the audible ordinary and proper texts (antiphons, collects, readings, Preface, etc.) are recited, never sung, whereas at high Mass they are all sung. It is an all-or-nothing affair. The “ordinary form,” on the other hand, makes no distinction between low and high Mass; indeed these terms are not used in the revised liturgical books. The 1967 Instruction Musicam Sacram, published by the Sacred Congregation of Rites less than two years after the close of the Second Vatican Council and three years prior to the publication of the Missal of Paul VI, introduced the principle of “progressive solemnity,” providing a degree of flexibility in choosing parts of the Mass to be sung while maintaining official distinctions (at that time) between high and low Mass. This document is quoted or cited in the 3rd typical edition of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (2002) and the U.S. Catholic bishops’ music guidelines, Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship (2007), but it remains largely unheeded, for good or for ill. What is sung and what is recited at any given Mass depends on the decision of the celebrant and perhaps the cantor and/or choir. Seldom, if ever, does one hear the Credo sung (in Latin or the vernacular) at novus ordo Sunday Masses. I have concelebrated or otherwise participated in ordinary form Masses which were styled “solemn” (e.g. “Solemn Mass of Installation,” “Solemn Parish Centennial Mass”) but which, in traditional terms, were more approximate to low Mass than high or solemn: choral and congregational singing of hymns and perhaps the Gloria and Sanctus, but no sung collects, Gospel, Preface, etc.; that is to say, the celebrant and deacon sang none of the parts that are properly theirs.
With this in mind, I call your attention to an interesting collection of essays I recently came across online: Musicam Sacram Revisited, published in commemoration of the fortieth anniversary of the 1967 Vatican instruction on music. I would like to pose a question for informed debate, namely: Which is the better approach, pastorally and liturgically (the two go hand-in-hand): maintaining a rigid distinction between low and high Mass, or articulating orders of precedence as set up by Musicam Sacram or some other scheme? (By “informed” I mean that you will have read the aforementioned essays with an open mind.) It seems to me that each has its advantages and disadvantages. Let one example suffice. The all-or-nothing norm allows the faithful (and not-so-faithful) to know in advance exactly what to expect, in terms of external solemnity, when they come to a particular Mass, assuming the parish schedule indicate which Masses are sung/high and which are said/low. Those who attend Mass merely to get their spiritual ticket punched are thereby without reason to complain about “too much singing” (unless they happen to find even the old four-hymn sandwich too much to stomach!), while the more liturgically attuned needn’t worry about lackluster liturgy (preaching being a separate matter). Visiting priests, moreover, needn’t be “briefed” before Mass as to how things are done at St. So-and-so’s (“We recite the Gloria but sing the Sanctus...”); they need only know whether Mass will be sung or not. On the other hand, “progressive solemnity” as elaborated in Musicam Sacram requires that at least some parts of every Mass be sung (as distinct from singing hymns at Mass), even if one disputes that document’s hierarchy of importance. This requirement safeguards the irreplaceable contribution of music to the sacred liturgy; rather than accommodating liturgical minimalism, it orients every eucharistic celebration towards the (entirely) sung Mass as the norm of Roman Catholic worship.
Perhaps my use of the adjective “liturgically attuned” suggests the right answer (if a right answer there be). What say you? (I am, of course, particularly interested in what NLM’s own Jeffrey Tucker, Jennifer Donelson, and Charles Cole might have to say.)