Monday, August 03, 2020

Progressive Solemnity: Traditional Interpretations and Methods

Solemn Mass: the ancient norm and exemplar of the Roman Rite
In the world of the reformed liturgy, one encounters a concept of “progressive solemnity” that has little to do with the Latin liturgical tradition. Basically, the idea is this: start with a spoken Mass as your baseline, and then add things on to it ad libitum: for an ordinary day, sing the “presidential” parts; on a feast, add the propers; on a very special day, bring on the incense and chant the Introit, etc.

In practice, at least in my experience, it ends up being a random series of steps: on weekdays we sing the Alleluia but nothing else; on feasts, we sing the Gloria and the Alleluia; on Sundays we do the four-hymn sandwich and the celebrant sings his parts. Since there is much confusion about what rubrics, if any, govern these sorts of decisions, just about any mix-n-match combination can happen. [1]

With the traditional Roman rite, this confusion is simply not possible: a Mass is either a Low Mass or a Missa cantata or a Missa solemnis, etc., and each has strict requirements about what is to be sung (or not sung). As a result, followers of the traditional rite tend to use the forms of Mass as a way of distinguishing calendrical solemnity: ferias or low-ranking feasts will be Low Masses; high-ranking feasts are Missae Cantatae; Sundays and Holy Days are Solemn High Masses; and, on the most special occasions, a bishop may be invited in for a Pontifical High Mass.

While this is understandable for practical reasons (bishops are not commonly available to pontificate, and even a deacon and subdeacon can be hard to come by), we should recognize that it is not the primary way in which the liturgical tradition of the Church distinguishes degrees of solemnity. In a church sufficiently well equipped with ministers, such as a monastic community or a cathedral with canons, the liturgy will be sung every day; it could be solemn every day. The normative — in the sense of fundamental and exemplary — form of liturgy will always be the chanted rite in the presence of the bishop or abbot, or the nearest thing to it, the Missa solemnis.

On one of my visits to the Benedictine monastery of Norcia, I remember how beautiful it was to attend several solemn Masses in a week. It showed me that this can indeed be a norm rather than an exception. Moreover, since they were so skilled in the liturgy and the chant, and there was no homily, solemn Mass took less than an hour. Each day nevertheless had a distinctive feel to it because of the intelligent use of a plethora of other marks for distinguishing levels of feasts that Catholic tradition has developed over the centuries. In other words, taking the solemn form as normative does not mean placing everything at the same level of solemnity. The solemnity is distinguished rather by the accidents, the manner or mode in which the elements of the liturgy are configured.

Gradations in Gregorian Chant

While every liturgy should ideally be chanted, there are notable distinctions within the repertoire of chant itself. Fr. Dominique Delalande, O.P., observes:
It is too obvious to be denied that a celebration sung in the Gregorian manner is more solemn than a celebration which is merely recited; but this statement is especially true in the modern perspective of a celebration which is habitually recited. The ancients had provided melodies for the most modest celebrations of the liturgical year, and these melodies were no less carefully worked out than those of the great feasts. For them the chant was, before all else, a means of giving to liturgical prayer a fullness of religious and contemplative value, whatever might be the solemnity of the day. Such should also be our sole preoccupation in singing. As long as people look upon the Gregorian chant solely as a means of solemnising the celebration, there will be the danger of making it deviate from its true path, which is more interior. [2]
Put differently, Fr. Delalande is saying that the chant is integral to the expression of the liturgy, not a mere ornament tacked on, like a bow on a Christmas present, and that we do well to utilize the different spheres of chant rather than merely toggling back and forth between recited and sung.

Ordinary. For example, the Mass Ordinary given in the Liber Usualis for ferias is short and simple, while the Ordinaries suggested for Solemn Feasts (Mass II, Kyrie fons bonitatis, or Mass III, Kyrie Deus sempiterne) are melodically elaborate and grand in scope. Five Ordinaries (III–VIII), of varying complexity and length, are suggested for Doubles. Simpler feasts of the Blessed Virgin Mary, e.g., the Holy Name on September 12, might use Ordinary X, while loftier feasts such as the Immaculate Conception or the Assumption could use the great Mass IX, Cum jubilo.

Creed. Similarly, the Liber makes available six settings of the Creed (and still others are in circulation), which vary considerably in their ornateness or “tonality.” Once again, the choice of a Creed melody can reflect something of the nature of the feast or occasion.

Preface. The missal offers three tones for the Prefaces: simple, solemn, and more solemn (solemnior). For a ferial Mass, a Requiem, or a lesser feast, the simple tone should be used; for a higher-ranking feast, such as that of an apostle or doctor, the solemn tone could be used; for the highest feasts, such as Christmas, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, Corpus Christi, the Sacred Heart, the Immaculate Conception, or the Assumption, the more solemn tone would be highly appropriate. (In some versions of the anecdote, Mozart is said to have claimed that he would gladly exchange all his music for the fame of having composed the Preface tone. If he said this, he would doubtless have been thinking of the more solemn tone, which is indeed of rare beauty.)

Propers. The Proper chants should be sung in full in any case, but for a special occasion with incense and more ceremonial, a verse from the Offertoriale Triplex might be used, and at Communion time, verses and a doxology to go with the antiphon.

Beyond the chant, there are other obvious and subtle ways to elevate or lower the solemnity of a particular day on the calendar, so that ferias do not seem the equal of feasts of saints, and feasts of saints the equal of feasts of Our Lady, and these, in turn, those of Our Lord. It is true that many of the following presuppose a well-stocked sacristy the contents of which have been assembled over a period of time by people with good taste who understand that there is a symbolic value in having more than one kind of any given item.

In the Realm of Sight 

Since, as Aristotle says, the sense of sight is the one that gives us the most information about things, it is not surprising that the largest number of modes for signaling solemnity pertain to the visual domain.

(Photo courtesy of Liturgical Arts Journal)
1. Copes, chasubles, dalmatics, tunicles. It is obvious that plainer vestments should be used for ferias, more decorative ones for feasts, and over-the-top ones for solemnities. There are churches that have special sets used only at Christmas and/or Easter, or for a patronal feastday, etc.

2. Other vestments. For a feria, the alb can be plain; for a feast, it can be patterned; for a solemnity, with lacework. When worn with a Roman chasuble, the design of the alb becomes an important aesthetic element in itself. Similarly, the surplices of acolytes can be plain white or with worked bordered; the cassocks can be black throughout the year but red for Christmastide and Paschaltide.

3. Chalice, paten, and other vessels. It is obvious that these can be of simple or ornate design; in gold or silver or a combination thereof; with or without stones; taller or more squat, Romanesque, Gothic, or Baroque; engraved or plain; etc. This is one detail that is particularly noticed by the faithful, because of the custom of gazing upon the chalice as it is elevated and praying: “My Lord and my God!”

4. The Processional Cross. This can be of silver or of gold; a simple design or an ornate design; smaller or larger.

5. Candles and candlesticks. There are many ways in which to use candles to distinguish solemnity. The most obvious are: to use gold or gold-and-marble candlesticks for Sundays and feasts; to light “the big six” above the altar for such occasions, versus lighting two smaller candlesticks on weekdays; to have a special elaborate set for the highest occasions; to use silver or wooden candlesticks with unbleached candles for Requiems and Good Friday.

6. Reliquaries. Most churches will display reliquaries throughout the year except during Eucharistic Adoration. However, a church with enough reliquaries can vary the relics placed out. Obviously when a saint’s feast arises, his or her relics should be present. But a nobler occasion can call for the most ornate reliquaries to be displayed. This is another small way of lifting minds and hearts to God, who is glorious in His saints. The same observation can be made of monstrances: a simpler one might be used for First Fridays, a more elaborate one for Corpus Christi or other feasts of the Lord.

7. Flowers. One of the glories of a traditional high altar is the perfect accommodation it makes for floral arrangements on the gradine or ledge above the mensa. Anyone who has seen a well-decorated high altar knows that flowers add the finishing touch of natural beauty to a supernatural environment.

7. Altar cards. Instead of having only one set of prefabricated altar cards, obtain multiple sets of different designs in different kinds of frames, with the larger and more elaborate for feasts and the simpler for weekdays. If possible, commission a set of altar cards that will be unique to your church.

8. Missal stand. The “workhorse” of the altar, the missal stand is seldom considered an artistic object, but all it takes is some exploring to see how many different designs are available: with lattice-work or with solid surfaces, in silver or in gold, with or without semi-precious stones. A wooden stand is appropriate for Requiems or penitential occasions. Before there were missal stands, there were cushions, and these ought to be rescued from their oblivion. Done in liturgically colored fabrics, they complement well the rest of the ensemble.

9. Wall hangings. To mention this idea is to risk rolled eyes in American readers, who might have nightmares of banners produced in the CCD first communion class: “a darkness so thick it could be felt,” as Exodus says (10:21). But here I am referring to the elegant red banners lowered from the ceiling to add a bright note for festal occasions. In central Europe I have seen ribbons of white and gold extending over the sanctuary during Paschaltide; I’m sure there are similar customs in many Catholic cultures. If done tastefully (and that proviso applies to every item in my list), these things give prominence to the day or the season, which in turn helps us to be aware of its message, without the need for tedious verbiage.

In the Realm of Sound

1. Chant variations. I have already discussed the considerable diversity within the realm of Gregorian chant. Beyond that, one should take into account the use of isons or drones, organum, and alternatim with men and women (or monophony and polyphony) — always bearing in mind that, as with spices, too much of a good thing is distasteful.

2. Ad libitum chants present other ways of marking levels of solemnity. For a ferial solemn Mass, one might simply allow the silence after the Offertory and Communion antiphons. (I never tire of reminding musicians that the belief that every moment must be filled with music is a form of psychological insecurity called kenophobia.) For a feastday, one could choose a votive chant from the Liber or another Solesmes book.

3. Polyphony. For greater occasions, equal voice or mixed choir motets would be most appropriate, as polyphony already stands out from chant as more splendid or majestic, although certainly no more perfect qua liturgical music. When the choral forces are equal to the challenge, music scored for double choir or for small and large ensemble, or choral music with instruments, can make a feast unforgettably grand.

4. Pipe organ. It goes without saying that the pipe organ has much to contribute in regard to levels of solemnity. In a church with a fine organ, its very silence already says that we are at a lower level. When, on the other hand, all stops are pulled for a processional or a postlude, we feel in our bones that we are present for the coming or the departure of the King.

5. Bells. Among the rarest “fine touches” is that of having one set of sanctuary bells for weekdays and another for Sundays or other solemn occasions. The effect is instant: the very difference in the sound of the tinkling bells transmits an immediate message about the occasion. Churches with bell towers may ring these large bells during the consecration. This, again, can be an excellent distinction between ferias and feasts: ringing or not ringing the big bells. (When I lived in Austria, however, they rang the tower bells every day at consecration; nor am I not suggesting that this would be inappropriate!)

In the Realm of Smell

As I discussed in “Benedictine Monks on Incense: Sourcing It and Making It,” there’s a wide variety of types of incense, so we can vary the type used according to the liturgical calendar. Most sacristies settle into a routine along these lines, but it is worth some thought. We know how powerful the sense of smell is for memory associations. Think of what it would be like if families attending the same church for decades always smelled a certain Ethiopian incense at Christmas, and a certain Somalian one at Easter, etc. Their noses would instantly draw them into the feast, even before their minds had had a chance to process the words being sung. In the Incarnation, the Word assumed our senses, not just our mental faculties.

In the Realms of Taste and Touch

This, admittedly, is a more difficult area to speak about, because the liturgy as such communicates mostly through man’s noblest and most rational senses, sight and hearing, with smell coming in third; with taste and touch there is not much more to discuss than furniture and the type of altar bread used.

Nevertheless, even here there is room for a judicious variety. At least for the priest, different large hosts could be used for different seasons, as some of them are plain while others have imprints of the crucifixion or a lamb, and different wines might be assigned, such as a drier wine for Lent and a sweeter wine for Paschaltide. The accidents, after all, are meant to point to the reality commemorated, and since sensibles are mutually exclusive (I mean, the same wine cannot be dry and sweet at the same time and in the same respect), the accident of taste is not excluded from symbolism. Certainly there is a notable difference in taste between a pure white host and a more wheaten host.

As for the lowliest sense in Aristotle’s hierarchy of sensation, touch: if the altar servers are accustomed to use portable kneeling pads, or if the people have a detachable kneeling pad along the communion rail, such pads could be removed during penitential seasons. The knees, at least, would register the difference right quick. A layman could also choose to kneel straight on the floor for Mass rather than using the retractable kneeler.


The point of the foregoing list is not to suggest that all of these different things should be done all at once, much less to imply that they are all equally important, but merely to give lots of ideas of how the Catholic tradition, especially through the fine arts, has offered us a plethora of ways to differentiate levels of solemnity [3] — even if every Mass offered were to be a solemn High Mass.

All these things pertain to the execution of liturgy, but the laity for their part could mark the difference in days with how formally they dress, which rosary they bring to Mass, which daily missal they use. It happens rather often, for example, that women have different veils, some simple, some more elaborate, for different occasions; some will use a white chapel veil during Christmas- and Eastertide and black the rest of the year, or will have veils in darker shades of the liturgical colors.

I am the first to admit that none of these things is “essential,” but that is also somewhat beside the point. What is essential in the liturgy, at least in a canonical mindset, is relatively minimal. The fullness of liturgical life should go well beyond the minimum to embrace all the ways in which human beings, as creatures of flesh and blood, can communicate about invisible mysteries through sensible means.


[1] See Fr. David Friel’s sound critique of the notion of “progressive solemnity.”

[2] ‘Le chant grégorien,’ in Initiation théologique, v. 1: Les sources de la théologie (Paris: Editions du Cerf, 1950), 255–56. Cited in Marc-Daniel Kirby, “Sung Theology: The Liturgical Chant of the Church,” in Beyond the Prosaic: Renewing the Liturgical Movement, ed. Stratford Caldecott (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1998), p. 148, n. 62.

[3] See “Keeping Feasts with Greater Festivity,” Liturgical Arts Journal, July 5, 2019.

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