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A Cry from Deep Within: Singing in the Sacred Liturgy - Part III

In last week’s article, we read that when we come into the presence of the Lord, especially in the Holy Mass, speech is not enough—parts of our being break into song. Our personal experiences and emotions overflow into a communal song which the community lifts up as we sing the song of the Lamb with the angels and saints in heaven. Musicam Sacram (Instruction on Music in the Liturgy from 1967), says:

Liturgical worship is given a more noble form when it is celebrated in song, with the ministers of each degree fulfilling their ministry and the people participating in it. Indeed, through this form, prayer is expressed in a more attractive way, the mystery of the liturgy, with its hierarchical and community nature, is more openly shown, the unity of hearts is more profoundly achieved by the union of voices, minds are more easily raised to heavenly things by the beauty of the sacred rites, and the whole celebration more clearly prefigures that heavenly liturgy which is enacted in the holy city of Jerusalem. (no. 5)

So if Holy Mass is the highest and most sacred form of prayer in the life of a Catholic—and it is—; and, if music elevates prayer to a higher realm—and it does—, when the Christian community gathers together, should we not attempt to celebrate the Liturgy in the fullest form of song possible? To see how this is realized, we need a historical look at the Mass, specifically going back to the Tridentine Mass, also known as the Traditional Latin Mass or Extraordinary Form.

In the Tridentine Mass, there were three ways the Mass could be said: Missa Solemnis, Missa Lecta, or Missa Cantata. The fullest form of the Mass was the Missa Solemnis which is known as a “solemn Mass” or “high Mass.” A solemn Mass required three sacred ministers (priest, deacon, and subdeacon), the use of incense, and everything was sung. The solemn Mass was only to be celebrated once per day in each church and so it could be seen as the culmination of Christian worship, it was usually the last Mass of the day. In a Missa Lecta (known as a “Low Mass”)everything is spoken. Splitting the difference between the two is a Missa Cantata (known as a “Sung Mass”) in which at least the Ordinary (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei) is sung. However up until the early twentieth century in the forms where there was singing, the congregation sang very little, if anything at all. Vernacular hymns were permitted during the entrance and exit processions, but once Mass began with the prayers at the foot of the altar, the clergy and choir sang all of the readings, prayers, and responses in Latin. The liturgical reforms which started in the early 1900s under Saint Pius X sought to have more externally active participation by the faithful, especially by means of singing the chants of the Mass.

In the Ordinary Form of the Mass which we celebrate, the designations of “solemn,” “high,” or “low” Mass have been removed.  However, if one were to look through the Roman Missal (the book that the priest uses to pray the various texts of the Mass), all the texts are set to musical notation. In the back of the Roman Missal, there are also chant tones for proclaiming the readings from Scripture. Thus it is envisioned that singing the entire Mass is still the fullest and highest form of worship the Christian community can offer. Musicam Sacram says in no. 27: “Especially on Sundays and feast days, a form of sung Mass is to be preferred as much as possible, even several times on the same day.” Similarly, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal says in no. 40:

Great importance should therefore be attached to the use of singing in the celebration of the Mass. 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.

Although the ideal is for everything in the Mass to be sung, it is not always feasible or necessary as the above documents note. So what do we sing and how is that determined? That determination is made by what is called the principle of progressive solemnity. We will explore that next week!


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