Friday, February 13, 2009

Working Our Way to the High Mass

Many of the new extraordinary form Masses that have been started since Summorum have been low Masses. In fact, I might estimate that this is true three quarters of the time. There are a number of reasons for this.

Many of the prayers in the low Mass are said in a low voice, and the celebrants who are just getting started on this prefer it that way for obvious reasons. They don't want to be bombarded by Latin scholars or aggressive traditionalists telling them of their mispronunciations. It is hard enough to learn the rubrics attached to the Mass. It can be humiliating with lay people come up to complain about your competence in Latin.

Also, in parishes where the EF begins, there are not developed scholas available to sing the propers or sing large Mass settings. It takes years for scholas to get going and to develop the ability to sing the propers, and it also takes time for the people in the pews to get to the point that they can contribute to the singing of the ordinary.

So the low Mass is a solution. Even if the celebrant considers a sung Mass to be the ideal, it is not usually possible at the outset. He must settle for the low Mass. I don't see a reason to delay the implementation until the perfect aesthetic arrives. That can serve as an excuse for inaction.

This near inevitability cuts both ways. For some people, the low Mass is a wonderful relief. They like the absence of racket, the prayerful atmosphere, and the ominous silence that is present throughout large swaths of the time for Mass. It is touching. Many people in preconcilar days actually preferred low Mass to sung Mass for a reason. Quit frankly, the bad experience of recent years (and before) has burned out many Catholics from music in general! Understandably so.

On the other hand, for many people, the low Mass embodies the very caricature of the preconcilar Mass, in which the people did nothing, said nothing, sung nothing, and were largely "excluded" from "active participation." Not that I agree with these criticisms (silence can be terribly demanding!), but I simply note this as a sociological fact. Also, people can feel lost, and have no clue as to what is going on.

I've known people who showed up to low Mass for the first time and went away thinking: no wonder they change the rite! To me this is a tragedy.

What is the solution here? I'm not sure I have one other than to consider that Summorum, in some way, is making an impossible demand. The Mass is not something that can suddenly appear in a culture in its most complete form. In fact, there is a sense in which no Mass lives in isolation either from eternity or from temporality. It always exists within a culture that it shapes and is also shaped by it. This culture cannot be instantly manufactured in one place. It must grow over time.

There is so much to reconstruct here. People need patience to see it through. Our society is unhappy with this approach. We want all songs to be instantly singable, all food to be delivered through a window less than a minute after we pay for it, and all information to come to us via a few clicks of the mouse. We are the least patience people in human history (and I'm the worst offender too!).

The Mass, however, is the most aesthetically robust, intellectually challenging, theologically thick, and musically rich experience there is on earth. It takes time to reemerge. We are not to sit in judgment over it but rather let ourselves be conformed to it.

The High Mass will come but it takes work. The celebrant must become comfortable with it and be trained to sing the Mass. (Here is an upcoming conference that does that). Scholas must appear and march through the levels of repertory a bit at a time, from Psalm tones through full propers. The people need to learn the ordinary chants in order to sing with the schola. This needs to go on weekly for a period of years.

What about those who will miss the low Mass? Many parishes that have developed a full program offer by low and high, and this is a good thing. But let us not discount the teaching that the sung Mass is, after all, the normative form and the ideal. Music has been central to the whole of salvation history. When Christ was born, the angels did not sing in a low voice, and when Christ was crucified he did not read the Psalm in a low voice; he cried out.

Singing ennobles the liturgy. In addition, we miss so much information when the music is not there. The meaning of the introit text and the communion chant are enhanced by their musical shape. Also, these tunes are as much part of our own Catholic history as the text, and the music alone serves to unite us mystically with all those who came before. If we exclude the music, we exclude this aspect of unity too.

Part of the advantage of the liberalization of the EF is precisely that the EF is a beautiful home for the whole treasury sacred music that has been so neglected in the postconciliar years. It would be a tragedy for the EF to return in full force but in only half voice.

So let us do what we can but never forget to work toward doing what we must.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: