Friday, January 15, 2010

Doubts About the Three-Year Cycle

Every week I help in preparing a program for liturgy, so that all translations from Latin to English are provided, the Psalm is available for everyone to sing, and the musical selections line up with the readings. This means that I must keep up with the three-year cycle of readings and Psalms instituted with the new Missal.

So far as I know, this structure has no precedent in the Roman Missal. The case for it in the late 1960s was to provide more of Holy Scripture for people to read. This also allows a greater use of chant propers to go with the readings, and there is something to say for this. And this is why not only the readings and the Psalms but also the Mass propers rotate on this three-year cycle. They are noted by A, B, and C, and then they start over again.

For years, musicians and priests have complained about this structure, mostly in whispering tones because no one likes to come out against such an important and substantial change in the liturgy - especially not one that had widespread ecumenical application. Nor does anyone want to be seen as opposing more scripture being heard at Sunday Mass.

Nonetheless, there is something terribly unwieldy and awkward about the three-year cycle, and I would like to join those who say that it probably ought to be scraped.

My fundamental reason is not only that I keep forgetting which year it is. But it is a fact that I do. When you have been putting programs together for ten years, it is easy to suddenly blank out: this is year A, no no, this is year B, no wait, it is after Advent so it must be year C, no wait that was last year, so now it must be year A again, or is it? And so on. This happens to me more often than I care to admit.

There's another problem for the music of the Mass too. The Psalm setting you rehearsed last year for the second Sunday in ordinary time can't be used again this year. It could be two more years before it is used again, by which time the choir has forgotten it, and it is like starting all over again. In this sense, it becomes very difficult for the choir to build up musical capital over time. It seems like we are just living week to week - which is precisely what one should not experience in the liturgy.

The problem is far more intense as regards the propers of the Mass. The communion chant for this weekend is Dicit Dominus. It tells the story of the wedding feast at Cana. It is a marvelous piece of music, and extremely long. It navigates two modes, back and forth. It has several voices. It has a passage of wild exuberance when it is discovered that the wine is better than it is expected to be. The textual painting is stunning from first to last. Even an experienced schola will need to spend a great deal of time learning this piece. The schola can eventually make it sound melodically and textually fluid but that is a big expense of rehearsal time.

As we look to next year, one would like to hope that it can be sung again, and then the choir will remember it. Instead, next year's chant for communion is Laetabimur, also wonderful but something completely different. The following year is Dicit Andreas, which is also fantastic, but also completely new. Only in the next year is Dicit Dominus sung again.

How is this possible for a choir? It is not really. Personnel changes, people forget, and, in the end, it is just demoralizing to spend all that time learning a piece that won't be sung but once every three years.

In other words, the structure itself makes it more difficult to do what the Second Vatican Council said that we should do, which is to give chant first place at the Mass.

There are still more questions that do not touch on music. If the readings change every three years, it is true that we are getting more scripture but how much are we really learning and remembering and benefiting from? Catholics of all people understand the value of repetition in prayer and ritual. If things are constantly changing and only cycle around every three years, there is an overall impression of instability and we aren't really getting enough repetition to mean something to us.

I think too of people in their college years, when people pack much more learning into a short space of hyper-learning. If as a freshman, you don't experience the same readings again until you are a senior, what are you really gaining? Are you really getting a sense of liturgy or a sense of lots and lots of text? Text is great for pedagogical exercises but liturgy is supposed to teach us in a way that is different from the classroom.

Also, the lack of annual repetition means the absence of phrases that become part of our Catholic vocabulary. We might look forward to a passage and then be disappointed that we don't hear it. No one's mind is really capable of thinking: oh, I forget that this is only for year A and this is year B, so I must wait yet another year and finally I will hear this passage again. Our minds just do not function like this.

And while it is indeed important that people experience more scripture, it is not really necessary that all Christian experiences take place within the Mass. There is also the Divine Office. There is also private study and group study. The whole of experience with theological understanding just cannot be force fit into the Mass, and you end up destabilizing the liturgy if you attempt that.

At some point, everyone knows that there are many aspects of the current Ordinary form Roman Rite that will have to be changed. I don't think there is much doubt about that. The calendar needs to be fixed to eliminate the impression that most of the year is just "ordinary time." Many days and even whole seasons (Pentecost) need to be restored. The spoken propers need to be aligned with the sung propers. Rubrics need to be tightened or spelled out even for the first time. All of this might happen after we are all dead but I don't think there is any question that it is inevitable.

When that time comes, my own personal hope is that the Roman Rite restore the annual calendar of readings and dispense with this failed experiment with stretching the calendar of readings out over three years. It will help the musicians. It will help priests. It's my own view that this will help everyone. We need a structure that fits together: readings, music, propers, and calendar. After all, we have a model readily at hand. It is the structure that prevailed before 1970. Even if you are not drawn to the extraordinary form, there is much to learn here about how the liturgy can again become the essential rhythmic pulse of Catholic life.

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