måndag 7 december 2015

No hymns at Mass, please

Why do we sing hymns at Mass? The practice has become almost universal during the past 50 years, following the introduction of the vernacular in the liturgy.

There is, in reality, no place of them in a Catholic Mass, since the parts that are meant for the people to sing are the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei, which together make up what is known as the Ordinary of the Mass. In English speaking countries, there were at first no musical settings for the text of the Ordinary, which was recited in a normal speech tone. In order to provide some music, hymns were inserted as replacements for the Introit, Offertory and Communion antiphons (that part of the Mass known as the Proper), plus a Recessional hymn. Thus evolved the notorious "Hymn Sandwich".

Here in Sweden the situation was considerably better as there was a long tradition of Gregorian Chant in the vernacular. It was a natural and obvious choice to adopt this music and build on the tradition when the vernacular was introduced in the Catholic liturgy. Thus the standard of music in the contemporary Catholic church in Sweden is exceptionally high and retains a continuity with the ancient Latin tradition.

However, the liturgy unfortunately also suffers unnecessarily from the insertion of hymns. There is no need for them. The Entrance, Alleluia, and Communion verses are given in Cecilia, pages 1157 to 1244 (the second group of pages edged in grey) and mostly lend themselves to setting to Gregorian psalm tones. So why are these texts, which form part of the reading and should not be omitted, normally replaced by hymns?

This gives rise to two practical problems. The first is that there are over 500 hymns in Cecilia. Most people only know a few of them, so they tend not to sing. The second is that non-participation in singing is promoted because people are sitting - which never makes for good singing, and because at the Offertory they are looking for their change to put in the collection, whilst at Communion, they are waiting to receive communion and do not have their books with them. If the communion hymn is sung afterwards, it prolongs the Mass unduly and disturbs people's meditation.

The use of  hymns from the Protestant tradition gives rise to further issues of an artistic and theological nature. The overall sound of the Ordinary in Sweden is traditionally Catholic, irrespective of whether it is sung in Latin or the vernacular. The music is melismatic, modal, and non-metrical, with precedence being given to the text. The hymns, on the other hand, are syllabic, metrical, and in a major or minor key. Thus there are two distinct musical genres in use. They do not sit well together. The result is like putting together food on a plate in a bad combination.

The theological ramifications are using Protestant music are subtle and disturbing. Composers such as Cruger, Luther, and Neander wrote fine music, but it is polemically anti-Catholic. Their music carries within it the very spirit of German Lutheranism - so much so that if one enters a Catholic Mass when this music is being sung, it is barely recognisable as Catholic. The same applies to music from other Protestant traditions, for example English Anglicanism and Methodism. It is good music and we like to sing it, but it is out of place in a Catholic Mass.

  • We ought to wean ourselves off the use of hymns at the Entrance, Offertory and Communion,, and the recessional should be restricted to one of the seasonal Latin or vernacular Marian hymns.
  • We need to get to work on producing Gregorian settings for the translated texts for the Entrance, Offertory and Communion verses.
  • We should think about introducing some kind of service on the lines of "Songs of Praise" where we can continue to enjoy singing the hymns which we like, but which do not belong in a Catholic Mass. Such a service might be held on a weekday or Saturday and be billed as an ecumenical event. Why not?

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