August 22, 2021
Have you wondered why we sing so much in Mass? One very important guidebook for everything a priest does, and everything people do, in the Mass is the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. The Roman Missal is that large maroon book I use at my presider’s chair and at the altar. There is a whole document placed at the beginning of that huge liturgical book. Part of that General Instruction explains the importance of singing in the Mass. Here are a couple key paragraphs about singing (39-40), and I think they are very straightforward in their language:
- The Christian faithful who come together as one in expectation of the Lord’s coming are instructed by the Apostle Paul to sing together Psalms, hymns, and spiritual canticles (cf. Col 3:16). Singing is the sign of the heart’s joy (cf. Acts 2:46). Thus St. Augustine says rightly, “Singing is for one who loves,” and there is also an ancient proverb: “Whoever sings well prays twice over.”
- 40. Great importance should therefore be attached to the use of singing in the celebration of the Mass, with due consideration for the culture of peoples and abilities of each liturgical assembly. Although it is not always necessary (e.g., in weekday Masses) to sing all the texts that are in principle meant to be sung, every care should be taken that singing by the ministers and the people not be absent in celebrations that occur on Sundays and on Holydays of Obligation.
However, in the choosing of the parts actually to be sung, preference is to be given to those that are of greater importance and especially to those which are to be sung by the Priest or the Deacon or a reader, with the people replying, or by the Priest and people together..
[By the way, why do I sometimes quote a document like this for you? I want you to feel connected to the Church and Her instructions. I hope by this you can know there is actually some official guidance for music in the Mass. And I believe that the average Saint Wendelin parishioner can “get” this stuff. It is not at all exclusively written for the priest.]
So, why sing? Paragraph 39 above explains: 1) the Apostle Paul instructs it for gatherings. 2) Singing manifests the joy of the heart. 3) Singing characterizes people who love. 4) Singing is like praying twice. Put all of this together, in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and you and I have every reason to sing in the Mass. How beautiful then is the singing congregation at Mass!
Could you imagine the response of the drill sergeant, leading marching troops in boot camp; and while they are all chanting a march cadence, he sees one of his soldiers marching silently? He asks, “What’s wrong soldier? Why are you not singing?” The soldier responds, “I don’t like to sing, Sir.” Can you imagine the drill sergeant’s response? It might be something like, “I’m going to help you learn to love singing morning, noon and night... and in the middle of the night!!!”
You and I are part of the Church Militant, i.e., the Church struggling on earth to accomplish the Lord’s will and save all souls. And at the center of our life’s duty is the obligation to worship the Lord to the best of our ability. There are times then, such as the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, when we ought to get out of ourselves and sing God’s worship. It is not a matter of personal preference. If you think you do not have a good voice, remember the encouragement I’ve heard given since I was a child: “God gave you that voice… So give it back to Him!”
Here is another way of explaining the importance of singing the Mass. The Mass is a space and time unlike any other on earth. Heaven and earth coincide in the Mass. Heaven opens up to us, and we open up to heaven. What is happening in heaven? A myriad of saints and angels are singing “The Song of God and the Lamb” (Revelation 15). heaven? Singing is the medium of worship in heaven; and so it is also in the Mass. We join the worshipful singing of heaven. Our communication in the Mass (even between priest and people) ought to feel “otherworldly”. It should not feel like the everyday communication we are used to. It is no the same context as greeting each other on the sidewalk. So we chant even the dialogues, and then the prayers, and then the antiphons of the Mass at the beginning, the Offertory and Communion. And we even include some hymns above and beyond the prayers and antiphons already given to us by the Church at each Mass.
Given all of this, paragraph 40 above concludes: Great importance should be attached to singing. And the first parts to sing are the dialogues where the priest and people respond to each other, or those parts they sing together. We can be proud that we are actually singing on Sundays most of the “dialogues” of the Mass (i.e., “The Lord be with you… And with your spirit”). And I might add that I think all of you are doing a spectacular job chanting these dialogues with me!
Are you one of those people who believes that singing at Mass is all about your own personal preference? What I have just reviewed with you should help you realize that singing is actually given to us as a duty in the Mass. We do it because we ought to do it, rather than some of us opting out, because we do not prefer singing in church; and others singing in Mass, because we happen to like singing. Worship of the Lord has been sung all the way back into Old Testament times. That's where we got the idea!
The next paragraph of the Instruction noted above even begins to explain what type of music ought to take precedence in the Mass. The type of music used at Mass is also not merely a matter of personal preference, just as singing or not singing our respective parts is not a matter of mere preference. I will write about that in some future letters.
Have a blessed week!
In cordibus Iesu et Mariae,