An Authentic Update

Music and the New Translation

Sometimes in order to know where we are going, we need to know where we have been.  In our Church Liturgy, it is good to pause and remember that the Saints, in great majority, prayed the Mass in Greek and Latin.  The New Translation of the Roman Missal, because of its careful linguistic changes, will allow us to pray the Mass in a new way.  It will also allow us to better connect with the way our ancestors prayed.  The Second Vatican Council encouraged this continuity, especially by upholding the esteemed treasury of Sacred Music.

Today we see the renaissance of the Sacred, not only with the reminder of the importance of the Extraordinary Form, but with a heartfelt desire to reconnect with ancient tradition as a whole.  The Holy Father, for example, often prays the Preface and Canon of the Mass in Latin, as we saw a few weeks ago in his Papal Visit to the United Kingdom.  This is a beautiful sign of unity, allowing for greater participation amidst a very diverse world.  As Americans however, despite our ever more diverse culture, we sometimes fail to see the need for this unification, partly because we have witnessed a time detached from ancient tradition.

Music is the most tangible sign of this rupture with the past.  In our own country we have endured the wildest musical creativity within our Churches.  However, this was not the intention of the 2ndVatican Council or our pontiffs.  Pope Paul VI personally witnessed this break, and took steps in an attempt to remedy the loss of the Sacred.  Subsequently in 1976, he issued a minimum repertoire of Sacred music in a small pamphlet entitled “Jubilate Deo.”  Virtually unknown today, it is uncertain why this clear directive was not utilized to any great degree.  Perhaps it was lost in the desire for novelty.

However, with the 3rd Edition of the Roman Missal and its New English Translation upon us, we are once again called to conform to the directives of the Church.  Let us listen again to the words of Pope Paul VI:  “[Music] has nourished men’s faith and has fostered their piety, while in the process achieving an artistic perfection which the Church rightly considers a patrimony of inestimable value and which the Council recognized as ‘the chant especially suited to the Roman liturgy.’”

The Council itself used the words “inestimable value” about the ancient chants and choral music of the Church, calling the congregation to sing the parts of the Mass in Latin that pertain to them.  Perhaps some believe this is outdated in our time?  Venerable Pope John Paul the Great and indeed our present Holy Father have clarified this for our personal sanctification and edification.

In 2003, during his centenary message of Pope St. Pius X’s document on Sacred Music, Pope John Paul II stated: “The Christian community must make an examination of conscience so that the beauty of music and song will return increasingly to the liturgy.”

Pope Benedict XVI is famed for saying: “An authentic updating of sacred music can take place only in the lineage of the great tradition of the past, of Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony.”

This “lineage” reminds us that Sacred music is integral to the Mass, not secondary or inserted by opinion.  On the same hand, it does not infer that everything must be sung in Latin.  Aside from language, often seen as the barrier, the text and the style of the music must also be given full attention, in respect of the Holy Sacrifice on the Altar.

Why does it matter, isn’t music just filler?  The quality and content of the music have full bearing on all aspects of the Catholic faith, including catechesis, interior and exterior participation, evangelization, theology, and the very formation of our souls.

Very simply, Catholic Sacred music should be suitable for the temple, not taken from outside of it.  Chant and chant-like music, as well as Sacred choir pieces or “polyphony” are “endowed with a certain holy sincerity of form.”  As instructed, we need to give it the “pride of place” in our Liturgies.

In future articles, we will look at the musical changes in the New Translation, as well as how we can better praise God, as Sacred Scripture says: “in psalms, and hymns, and spiritual canticles, singing and making melody in your hearts to the Lord.”

I will go unto the Altar of God

The most noticeable change arising from the implementation of the new translation of the Roman Missal—especially from the standpoint of the faithful in the pews—will be the new music we will learn, hear, and pray.  In this article, we will look at the use of Hymnody, and its proper role within Catholic Sacred music.

The new translation of the Roman Missal, speaking about the beginning of Holy Mass, states:  “When the people are gathered, the Priest approaches the altar with the ministers while the Entrance Chant is sung.” 

What is an Entrance Chant?

The entrance antiphon or Introit is the Sacred text and its music which accompanies the procession from the Sacristy to the Altar.  Since this is the first proclaimed prayer of the Mass, each Mass takes its name from the Introit: e.g. “Requiem Mass, Laetare Sunday, etc.”  In the U.S. there are four approved options (GIRM 48):

  • the prescribed antiphon or psalm found in the Missal or Gradual,
  • a simpler seasonal version,
  • a psalm or antiphon from another collection,
  • and finally a suitable hymn.

As we have seen, the last option of the hymn has become the norm.  Holy Mother Church has been clear that we should no longer neglect these Sacred texts in the Roman Missal.  The celebrant, as servant of the Liturgy cannot replace the prayers of the Mass at whim, neither should the musicians.  Latin or English, these prayers are meant to be proclaimed, whether by the congregation, choir alone, or simply by a cantor.

Sacred Text

“In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  In this opening passage of St. John’s Gospel, among many things, we are reminded of the importance of the Sacred text.  This Sacred text has been passed down to us from the very Divinity of the Incarnate Word.  The Church has safeguarded these holy texts, and marked them out as Divinely inspired, and asks us to sing or say them at each and every Holy Mass.  If we substitute this Truth with secular text and music from outside the temple, we “water-down” our Faith.

Giving the best to our Lord

Hymns are often associated with the beautiful wealth of Protestant hymnody.  Much of what we find in our modern hymnals is in fact non-Catholic in origin.  We should remember that our credo as Catholics is truly different in Theology and practice, thus we need to be mindful of the texts we are proclaiming.

Are we giving the best to our Lord?  As Catholics we are blessed with thousands of years of musical tradition.  As Sacrosanctum Concilium from Vatican II states:  “the treasury of sacred music is to be preserved and cultivated with great care” (¶114).

Hymns find their origin in ancient prayers such as the Gloria, the Te Deum, and earlier Jewish and Eastern roots.  Just as we are directed to use the proper text of the Gloria, we are also directed to use the sacred texts for the Entrance, Psalm, Alleluia, Offertory, and Communion.  In choosing four hymns each Sunday, we are missing out on the beautiful heritage of prayer and song which has been passed down through the ages!

The Entrance Antiphon is more than a Gathering Hymn—especially since the people have already gathered.  Like that of the Introit, similar rubrics apply to the Offertory and Communion chants.  Catholics have not ever had a tradition of congregational hymnody.  Hymns are certainly beautiful and have their liturgical role when used in their proper place, not as a permanent replacement for Mass prayers.  Let us embrace our heritage by not just singing at Mass, which sometimes distracts us from the liturgical action; but through the profound Missal texts for each celebration, let us sing the Mass!

Moving forward (and not turning back the clock!)

As we look to the implementation of the new translation, it is helpful to recall a few musical considerations.  First, the music for Mass is already “chosen” by the Missal itself, primarily in the form of Biblical antiphons and psalmody.  Well-intentioned musicians spend countless hours and parish resources “choosing” music with “liturgy planners”.  This is unnecessary.  Think if this time was spent learning one or two antiphons per month.  All the music can be found in the Roman Gradual, the choir’s equivalent of the Missal.  If these chants are too difficult at first, there are countless resources of simpler melodies and English translations, the vast majority of which are free.  (find a brief list below).

In conclusion, is the music principally giving praise, adoration, and thanksgiving to God?  Or are we instead singing about ourselves, such as the famed “Gather Us In”, which mentions ourselves 32 times and God zero?  Is the text and its style sanctifying and teaching the people of God, or more interested in catchy beats, instrumentation, and feelings?  Does the text have Theologically-problematic phrases, often referring to the Most Holy Eucharist as “here in bread and wine”, or the Altar of our Lord as a dinner table?

The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, our glimpse of Heaven on Earth, deserves all that we can give, following the directives of the Pope and the Church documents.

English Chant Books