Discussions of liturgical music in many Catholic parishes have become needlessly polemical. The one thing we all agree upon is the poor state of liturgical music in most Catholic parishes. Like silly children taking up their parents’ quarrels, however, it’s not uncommon to see thirty-year-old adults arguing polemically about the “Spirit” of Vatican II and “hidebound” Latin traditions. While this irony may escape some, 2015 marks forty-five years since the Vernacular “Novus Ordo” Mass was introduced. The liturgical revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries are dying out. Priests ordained before the Council are few, and folk groups are quite literally aging out.

The sad state of liturgical music in many Catholic parishes today is not the result of Vatican II. It results from poor planning and lack of proper training.

The proximate goal at Mass may be the Eucharist, but liturgy on the whole is a sacred curriculum, and most participants are amateurs. Pastors in most parishes are amateurs also, at least as concerns music. This should come as no surprise; it is a healthy basis for tradition and humility. It is certainly not a criticism. We raise our hearts and minds to God using great prayers, great thoughts, great music received from our forebears.

As most Catholics are aware, the textbooks of our sacred curriculum are the Missal and Lectionary. The scope and sequence is the liturgical year, with the three-year cycle of readings. The sacred curriculum also includes an equally authoritative textbook of sacred music: The Roman Gradual. It is entirely in Latin and contains only Gregorian chant. It was published after the Second Vatican Council in 1974, and carries the same authority as the Lectionary or Missal. For those who, like the author, know little Latin, the Gregorian Missal is a trustworthy substitute, containing the same music, but with translations. Ignatius Press also released The Proper of the Mass for Sundays and Feastdays by Fr. Samuel Weber, OSB, which is identical to the Roman Gradual only it is entirely in English, not Latin.

Now, quiet your fears! Nobody with common sense is suggesting a complete return to Gregorian chant in all parishes. Even people during the Renaissance were ready for something fresh, and this is where we got polyphony. When high polyphony got boring, we moved into Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and eventually Modern music. The process is healthy and symbolizes ongoing creativity. The Roman Gradual, however, is a complete map of the Church’s thoughts on music, refined over the course of fifteen centuries. It’s the official curriculum, and any responsible pastor or church musician ought to consult it regularly. How exactly is this Roman Gradual organized, and what can we learn from it, especially if we don’t particularly like chant? It is quite simple.

The Roman Gradual is a book comprised of Ordinaries and Propers. Ordinaries are the parts of the Mass which remain constant. There are five: Kyrie or “Lord have mercy;” Gloria or “Glory to God in the Highest;” Sanctus or “Holy, Holy, Holy;” Agnus Dei or “Lamb of God.” This music ought to be sung by all present for the Mass if possible. While seasonal changes in the ordinaries are interesting, the priority ought to be participation by the entire assembly, not variety sung by soloists—at least for the ordinaries. Good liturgy is 95 percent the same and 5 percent different each week; ordinaries are part of the 95 percent. Good habits are praiseworthy and essential, and the ordinaries ought to be a habit. Parishioners should be able to sing without looking at a book. In this sense, it is okay and even preferable that the ordinaries are singable and workaday, and not deeply beautiful or emotional. Leave the sweet stuff for dessert.

Then there are Propers, the 5 percent. These are the parts of the Mass specific or “proper” to the Sunday or feast day. In addition to the readings and prayers, there are five Minor Propers: Introit or Entrance Antiphon, Gradual (often replaced by a Responsorial Psalm from the Lectionary), Alleluia, Offertory, and Communion Antiphon. If you are tired of hearing “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” or “Hear I am, Lord” every third Sunday, take hope! Our Catholic tradition is on your side. The propers are uniquely related to the Sunday or feast day. For example, on Corpus Christi Sunday, the propers quote scriptures from the Psalms and other Old Testament books which relate to the Eucharist. The Roman Gradual is the official sourcebook of authentic and rich Catholic Music.

Before you run off to start a Gregorian chant schola, it would be worthwhile to pause and discuss how a book of Gregorian Chant, authoritative as it might be, would be valuable for those of us who may not be in love with the Middle Ages. After all, a few things have changed and developed since that time!

The first consideration is the structure of the liturgy itself. Most modern Catholic parishes have fallen prey to the “four-hymn syndrome,” which was ultimately borrowed from our Methodist brethren: Opening Hymn, Offertory Hymn, Communion Hymn, and Closing Hymn. In today’s liturgy, an Opening Hymn or “Processional” based on the same theological themes may replace the Introit antiphon. A Responsorial Psalm from the Lectionary may replace the Gradual or Tract chant. An Offertory Hymn or choir motet may replace the Offertory Chant from the Roman Gradual. A Communion hymn (preferably one with a refrain, so people can receive communion without bringing a book with them) may replace the Communion antiphon and verses.

But for Catholics, there is no such thing as a closing hymn. It does not exist in the Catholic liturgy. When the priest says go, we go. There is no room in our tradition for the cantor to ask us to stay and sing a recessional hymn after the priest-presider told us to go. Most of us would much rather have an organ postlude or simply hurry to the parking lot and head to the diner for breakfast with friends (that’s an authentic, appropriate, and centuries-old tradition, so don’t feel guilty for leaving). The Protestant-style closing hymn never worked for us Catholics anyhow.

The second consideration is the understanding of Ordinary and Proper. Ordinaries ought to be sung by all. As a teacher working with amateurs, your parish music director ought to gauge his or her success by the confidence of the average person in the pews. Are people singing the ordinaries? Is the pitch in a comfortable range? It’s not your solo; it’s their prayer.

Propers, on the other hand, have always been sung by trained singers, at least in part. A good example is the Responsorial Psalm. A trained singer may be necessary for the verses, but everyone is invited to sing the refrain. Even in the loftiest Gregorian chant of the church year, a certain part is marked out for everyone by the asterisks. Young monks or cantors would sing the difficult parts, and the rest of us would slog our way through the easier remainder. The average parishioner participates by listening and meditating on the text, singing occasionally along the way. Is your parish providing music which relates to the Sunday, and which teaches something? If possible, is your parish singing a song which uses the same text as the Gregorian chant, or at least a text that relates directly? The important idea is that choirs and music directors ought to focus on encouraging people to sing the all of the ordinaries, and at least part of the propers.

The last and most obvious consideration is the book itself. Many church music directors pay little attention to the larger curriculum. Music is selected three or four weeks in advance, as far in advance as the parish secretary writes the bulletin. The Roman Gradual is a published book. It is permanent and works every year. Most parishes fly by the seat of their pants, using missalettes and throw-away liturgical planners, with no master plan. Who knows how many times “I am the bread of life” was scheduled for communion? Some plan further ahead for the convenience of multiple cantors or staff musicians, but the real focus ought to be upon the curriculum as it relates to the average person in the pews. So I encourage music directors and pastors: plan ahead! Think of the long-term curriculum. Start always with the Roman Gradual (or Gregorian Missal, if you don’t read Latin). While it may be permissible to substitute the Gregorian Sicut Cervus Chant from Easter Vigil for Sicut Cervus by Giovanni Palestrina, Like as the Hart by Herbert Howells, or even As the Deer by Marty Nystrom, the best plan is a plan. Think as an educator. The liturgy is a curriculum, and the Holy Spirit can inspire months in advance. Plan ahead, and teach people to sing something which raises their hearts and minds to God, but stick with the curriculum! This is the essence of Catholic prayer, isn’t it?

Time has come for a special note to pastors. While sacred music may not be difficult, it does require some training and skill. Reserve a meaningful part of the parish budget to provide quality music for Mass. Think of your music director as a qualified educator, not a soloist or entertainer, and pay appropriately. What qualifications would you expect for someone who teaches your entire parish every weekend? Undergraduate degree? Masters degree? Doctoral Degree? How much time should he or she take to prepare? One hour? Five hours? Twenty hours? Forty hours? The goal isn’t a good solo; it’s the sung prayer of the assembly. For every hour of Mass, at least four or five hours should be spent in preparation. Are people in the pews participating and singing their prayer? Is the parish choir or music ensemble healthy and growing?

Lastly, as we look to the coming century of Catholicism in the West, let’s bury those old arguments about the “spirit” of Vatican II and our “hidebound” Latin Tradition. These quarrels belong to our parents’ generation, not to our future. Good music takes time, planning, and skill. Let’s avoid polemics and teach a new generation how to sing their prayers, using authentic Catholic music from our own tradition as our first source. The third Roman Missal and the Roman Gradual (or Gregorian Missal) ought to be the starting point. Of course chant and sacred polyphony are our richest resource, but we are not museum keepers. Maybe if we become more practical about music in our parishes, we can build something of value. Nonetheless, at forty-five years since the first Novus Ordo Mass, authentic liturgical planning, professional skill, and leadership are the only reasonable basis for discussion of the unsatisfactory state of music in our parishes.

Joel Morehouse is Director of Music at Saint Mary’s Church in Auburn, NY.

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