Who Can Decide the Language Question?

Assuming that the objective of many readers is transitioning to singing the propers at Mass, can we decide on one approach when it comes to the words we actually sing? Of course there will be a different solution for every parish and every situation. As many solutions as there are pastors, music directors, and congregations, really.

I sometimes wonder if antiquated English, like that found in the Communio Jeffrey posted on yesterday, presents more of an obstacle than meets the eye. If preserving a tradition is the goal, is using older language that is not native to the Gregorian melodies always the best choice?


1. The English in this case is understandable, whereas the Latin might not be.

2. The Gregorian melody is preserved (give or take tiny things)

3. The language is dignified and worthy of use in the liturgy


1. The English is understandable, but far removed from the English we use today. Most parishes are used to modern translations (not making a qualitative judgment about either here – yet). In using an old translation (there is a lot of “ye”, a LOT of “ye,” in the Plainchant Gradual version of the Petite), are we drawing more attention language use itself than we should be? Put another way: the music should illuminate the Word, but are we really getting to the core of things if the translation is so different from what we normally use that we take special note of the language’s pedigree?

2. If we want to preserve the Gregorian chant and are not doing the Latin, shouldn’t we be finding a way to make the Gregorian melodies as accessible as possible? In other words, as few obstacles as possible. Gregorian melodies in combination with antiquated English might be complicating things unnecessarily.

3. Is old English more dignified than modern English? We have associations with it in our culture – the King James, Shakespeare, etc. It signals permanence, quality, and dignity. No one will argue with this. But just because it is older does that make it better? Isn’t part of the beauty of language its flexibility and adaptability? Modern English can be beautiful, too. It’s all in how you put things together. Is one English better than another if neither is native to the musical tradition in question?

30 Replies to “Who Can Decide the Language Question?”

  1. I think the older English as used in the Plainchant Gradual isn't *so* different from modern English: to me it's just like poetry versus prose — takes a little more attention to what's being said, and I think that's a worthy characteristic for liturgical language to have. At the same time, I'd say it's not essential. But personally, I prefer the older English over Latin (gasp!) which, even though I know a lot of Latin vocabulary, pretty much washes over me (and there's value to that, too) unless I'm reading a translation. An advantage of texts like those in the Plainchant Gradual, or of course modern-English texts, is that it's hard to just let the propers wash over one…the meaning is tapping at the door of our minds even if we're distracted.

    So if I had my druthers (I haven't), I'd go with Plainchant Gradual (traditional English) or American Gradual (contemporary English) for the chanted propers. I think they both use good English that's been adapted well to the chant with far fewer "thuds" than, say, the Grail (sorry) or NAB psalms.

  2. This subject fascinates me because the language thrills me personally – and precisely because it is so different from conversational English. It serves as a signal: something very different, higher, more profound than regular life, is taking place. I'm very drawn to it and I've never understood how anyone could be bothered by it. I was very disappointed that the new ICEL translation didn't use thees and thous. That said, I'm not ruling out that someone could find this use archaic and silly; I just can't tap into the rationale, once we grant that this is liturgy and not conversation.

  3. Another consideration is the use of a translation of Scripture in keeping with good scholarship and approved by the appropriate authorities. Otherwise, we're just talking about a paraphrase with high-fallutin' language. While appreciative of the authentic art of Shakespeare, Dickens, and others, it is still possible to use a modern English vocabulary to produce a work of art. That ICEL/Vox Clara/CDWDS can't accomplish this is more indicative of a lack of artistic talent or even laziness. Second person plural is just like bedazzling a shopping bag.

    Agreed that archaic English plus plainsong in neume notation is a triple threat.

    As always, the telling factor for real liturgy is participation. Do the people get the psalm verses, the antiphon, or both? Whatever they sing should be about the issue of best worship, and less about how the message is packaged.

  4. The problem with this "telling factor" that Todd brings up is that there is essentially no mention of it in the whole history of sacred music writing or legislation. The crazed focus on audible participation and comprehensibility (in a cognitive sense) is a wild postconciliar distortion that has done grave damage. I mean, if it is the sole determinative consideration, we have no argument against limericks and folk songs as the foundation of liturgical expression.

  5. Indeed, the Roman Liturgy since time immemorial has always used a higher form of Latin, so using a higher form of English would be according to a tradition.
    As for which higher English to use when it comes to singing the propers, I wonder if there are not some regulative issues from the USCCB as to the translations that may be used.
    The problem with the psalms of course is a whole different issue as there have been a few revisions of the Latin over the centuries. Also, the later Gregorian does take liberties with the Scriptural text.
    If one does have freedom here, I would prefer as a guide the Catholic Douay-Confraternity (as opposed to the Protestant KJV) as revised by Bishop Challoner which I find is a beautiful yet accurate translation of the older Vulgate. Many people do not realise that the original Catholic Douay-Rheims is older than the KJV. And there are some important differences between the two, such as the one everyone knows by now, the "justum" in Rorate caeli from Isaias. Again, lex orandi: lex credendi.

  6. I agree that the "telling factor" need not be audible participation, or even comprehensibility.

    But short of the Latin, I don't think it is fair to hold one English up over another, assuming that a composition or translation in each is well executed and integrated with the music.

    What this boils down to, then, is a matter of suitability (objectively) and preference (subjectively). There was plenty of bawdy language in King James days, too, and we wouldn't want that at liturgy.

  7. A novel idea, Jeffrey. I've come up with four lines, but can't quite find a concluding 5th. Any ideas?

    There was a young man from Bethl'em
    Who called us to follow and worship Him.
    He said "follow me,
    I will make your soul free",

  8. If it takes modern English to reclaim the Propers, I'm all for it. I'm surprised at the number of people, who should know better, that still think the Propers are just an option and equal in value to alius cantus aptus. I do agree that the Propers in most cases need to be in the vernacular (unless at a wholly Latin Mass) as these are the changing texts. Also, while the liturgists of the world still think that someday Catholic congregations will turn into good singers, the Propers belong to the schola or choir. This is as much practical as it is traditional.

  9. It has little to do with audible participation, and much more to do with the first choice of GIRM 48.

    My friends, if you're going to promote sung propers as the first choice, you can't then, in all consistency, opt for the fourth choice among the way the entrance chant is sung, choir alone. It isn't, by the way, about making the best music all the time. The point is prayer, not performance.

    You may choose, in the name of music history, to abandon the modern Roman Rite entirely in favor of the 1962 Missal. But please don't suggest your choir-only option is the best rendition of singing the liturgy. However, if you can convince me this is in keeping with SC 1, by all means, take a good shot at it.

  10. Well, this is well-trod ground and it essentially comes down to whether we should read Sacrosanctum Concilium of 1963 in light of the whole history of the Roman Rite or in light of 1970s liturgical innovations drawn from pop culture sing-alongs. I just find no plausibility to the latter position.

  11. I should add that the number one inhibiting force to progress in liturgical music today is the near-pathological obsession that music leaders have about whether and to what extent the people are singing along. We've been through decade after decade with this fixation being the primary determining force and Catholic music has sunk further and further into mediocrity and incompetence, and the people (in general) are more alienated from the liturgy than ever (if you doubt it, wander into a random parish just about anywhere). There is something seriously wrong, and the way to fix the problem can be found in our heritage and letting the Roman Rite speak for itself.

  12. I think the inconsistency derives from the GIRM itself. The first option – sing from the Graduale – conflicts with the first option of how it should be sung (by choir and people). (Unless you are suggesting that the first choice listed in the GIRM is not really the preferred choice, which may also be the case.)

    How to resolve this? I suppose one either chooses the first choice listed for the music, or the first choice listed for performance. Either way can be cited for inconsistency.

    At any rate, I'm not sure why a choir-only option for the propers is such a threat to active participation, even if understood primarily in terms of lips moving. If the mass is really sung, the people are kept plenty busy with responses to almost everything going on at the altar and then some. And after the propers are done, there's plenty of time to sing songs and hymns.

    The problem has been that these songs and hymns have left no room for the propers, while singing the propers leaves plenty of room for songs and hymns, if desired.

  13. Jeffrey, the pathology you speak of is part of the Roman Rite. If you, Arlene, and others wish to remain authentic Roman Catholic church musicians, you're obliged to consider the Church's preference for method of performance (listed first of two) over the music. Otherwise, a retreat to the 1962 Missal would seem to be called for.

    As Catholic musicians, we are bound by honor, intellect, the spiritual life of our people, and the greater good of the liturgy to adhere to, or at least seriously consider the options given in the GIRM and in the Ordo Missae.

    Your performance of the Graduale repertoire is not impinged by letting the people enter the dialogue, either through the antiphon or the accompanying psalm. So tell me why you can't have the choir sing the proper antiphon, then have the people chant a selection of psalm verses, then perhaps have the choir repeat the antiphon? Your resistance on this point, to be frank, strikes me as sillier than Mitch Miller.

  14. Arlene,

    It's not so much that modern English can't produce good liturgical language; rather, that attempts to have it do so haven't been very successful. The ridiculous aside ("Wonder-Counselor" sounds like an advert for a pyschotherapist to me), it's too often flat and lightweight when compared with the music and gravity of Sacral English. Sure, that's partly a matter of time – the attempts to make a modern liturgical vernacular are all quite recent as these things go, and maybe they'll get into their stride. Cultural noise, though, inhibits progress: a focus on surface-meaning at the expense of semantic richness ("would John and Mary Catholic understand this?"), and an alienation from our past that sometimes seems to approach neurosis. In these respects the problems of liturgical translation are not unlike those of liturgical music.

    On a related matter, I find your choice of photo at the top of the post interesting. Would it not have been more appropriate to make it one of a group of clerics in their archaic ritual clothing?

  15. Todd said: "If you, Arlene, and others wish to remain authentic Roman Catholic church musicians, you're obliged to consider the Church's preference for method of performance (listed first of two) over the music. Otherwise, a retreat to the 1962 Missal would seem to be called for."

    This is schizophrenia. Both a hermeneutic of continuity and just a little common sense quickly dispel this egregious assertion. To even arrive close to this interpretation requires an incredible amount of speculative maneuvering, but to turn around and state firmly this interpretation as an absolute is beyond reason.

  16. Todd, that self-righteous lecture may have given you some satisfaction, but it appears to show you haven't payed attention to the conversation, as it ignores relevant points that others have made.

  17. Ian, I assure you I've read this whole conversation.

    I think it's a fine thing to be a musician and to promote early music. I think one can sing the propers however one wants and however the pastor allows it.

    However, my point was initially about the language of the propers: the preference for an approved liturgical translation or one in keeping with good biblical scholarship. And of course, that the people are involved in a way in accord with the GIRM. Whatever choice of language is made should be done with a mind to participation.

    Unfortunately, it was my friend Jeffrey who branched us off from that consideration with comments about "crazed focus" and "wild … distortion" and "limericks." I cited the GIRM. If we're talking about singing the liturgy (as opposed to singing at the liturgy) the liturgy itself, black and red, is the starting point for any discussion.

    Sam raised the matter of "inconsistency" but it's easy enough to solve if one reads Roman documents the way Rome intended. The propers are the first choice, not because of an idealized tradition, but because Rome lists them first. The "who" of the singing of the entrance chant is listed before the "what," so by the same reasoning Jeffrey and others promote the propers, the people should be in dialogue with the choir (#1) or cantor (#2) or be singing them in whole (#3) before the choir alone (#4) would be chosen.

    Adam and Ian suggest in turn this is my "schizophrenia" and self-righteousness surfacing. I assure you it is not. It is the way liturgists read the GIRM.

    I stated, admittedly with a bit of rabbinical exaggeration, that liturgical musicians are guided by the prescriptions of the rite in which they serve. Also, that as people of honor, we can't advocate a #1 choice on one list, for our own stylistic convenience, to the exclusion of 2, 3, and 4, while opting for a clear #4 choice on another list, to the exclusion of 1, 2, or 3.

    And certainly, if a faith community is used to singing songs, hymns, or propers at the entrance, and doing so fruitfully, clamping down on that development in order to sing choir-only propers in any language or dialect strikes me as self-serving.

    Getting back to the point, the language of the texts should be something of benefit for the liturgical spirituality of a community. Music history informs that choice, but takes a subservient position, nonetheless.

    This is a good discussion to have, my friends. But I would urge you to avoid the name-calling. It does your argument little good. For my part, I withdraw my suggestion some should consider withdrawing from the ordinary form, and I apologize for offense given.

  18. let me offer this to you todd. the girm is inconsistant. for example the propers are choice number one except they have never been officially translated into english. for you to then say it is hypocritical to choose the first option for propers and the 3rd option for choir alone strikes me as lacking in common sense (if the options are indeed in order of preference)
    i would maintain that until girm becomes clear on this point then theres got to some wiggle room. (your assertion that catholic congregations should, or even could, sing the propers strikes me as a sure way to destroy a congregations acceptance of said propers and then to reinforce the tyranny of the 4 hymn sandwich. )I cannot imagine that if you were in a position to do so, you would forbid the singing of the propers because the congregation couldnt sing along.
    no, full concious and active participation is not how much music you cram down a congregations throat nor is it the opposite of "performance"

  19. "If you, Arlene, and others wish to remain authentic Roman Catholic church musicians, you're obliged to consider the Church's preference for method of performance (listed first of two) over the music."

    May I suggest once again that there is a conflict and inconsistency to the instructions here? At the very least it seems strange that the first option for the music is one that cannot reasonably be done with the people.

    I find it interesting that the options for the music at communion (GIRM 87) does not mention performance options until it after it lists the musical ones – and then it lists "choir alone" first. This suggests that the musical options are primary.

    At any rate, I am not in favor of "clamping down" on hymns and songs, but at the same time, I do not see it as desirable to simply abandon any move toward the propers on the claim that people are already singing hymns in their place. By this reasoning we would never (and in fact haven't) moved in the direction the Church wants us to go – towards the propers.

    But I think the issues are deeper here than various interpretations of the GIRM, or rather, these interpretations are rooted in deeper issues. I have to disagree with you that the pathology that Jeffrey speaks of – "obsession that music leaders have about whether and to what extent the people are singing along" – is a "part" of the Roman rite. It is only if you accept a particular interpretation of Vatican II, namely that promoted most prominently by Universa Laus and NPM – which grants a primacy to the people singing (the "voice of the assembly") which is way out of proportion to that found in the documents. I would also argue that it represents an ecclesiology based more on modern democratic understandings than the tradition and liturgy of the Church.

    While the NPM model may be the dominant hermeneutic, I believe a broader view is becoming more accepted.

  20. "… the girm is inconsistant."

    I don't think so. I presume you are American, and the American approach to rules is not quite the same as the Roman.

    The Roman sensibility is to give an ideal for which we can aim high, but provide multiple alternatives when it might be hard or impossible to legislate quality.

    I don't recognize the caricature of "tyranny" or of the "Four-hymn sandwich," or the "NPM model." I'm suggesting we look at the rite. And if the rite appears confusing or contradictory, we look at it with Roman eyes, and not assume it gives us musicians license to do as we please.

    My friends, you aim and miss badly if you think I'm advocating hymns. I can conclude nothing else other than you haven't read my blog, my posts here, or have any understanding of me as a church musician and liturgist.

    I'm afraid my assessment of your liturgical approach is still very poor. If you're not attending to reading and studying and applying the rites, you're really not an improvement over any of the previous generation's liturgical abuses.

    My suggestion is that Jeffrey let me offer a guest post on GIRM 48 and take the change in topic to another thread. Then I think you'll have something substantive with which to work. I'm ending my presence on this thread, as I think I've said all that can be said on Arlene's original point as well as Jeffrey's commentary.

  21. todd
    "my assesment of your liturgical approach is very poor"

    i too have to respectfully disagree with you. Your assertion that you know the documents better then the rest of us is not a little insulting and pretty much negates any desire i have to further engage you on this or any other point.
    from now on ill limit my contributions to the forum.

  22. Regarding singing the propers, in Latin, a primary issue seems to be a schola not being able to adequately prepare.

    Well, in that case I'd prefer any given proper to be sung by just one person who gets the words right and makes a best effort at correctly sightreading the gregorian melody. Even if that best musical effort is far from the ideal.

    To not sing the propers because a schola's members can't sing them in chorus is, I think, absurd. If the above policy is adopted instead, the entire congregation will benefit while the schola members develop their sightreading skills and since the propers are only repeated at long intervals one need not worry about folks learning an incorrect performance of a proper tune.

    Seems to me that everyone benefits from this musical form of encouraging one another to love and good deeds, to paraphrase Hebrews 11.

  23. The other unfortunate result of your blunderbus, Todd, is that it's distracted attention from a post that begs discussion.

  24. "The propers are the first choice, not because of an idealized tradition, but because Rome lists them first."

    They are the first choice only because the competent authority has (arbitrarily) declared them to be the first choice? For no reason other than caprice? Power blindly asserting itself? Rome sez?

    If that is the way that "liturgists read the GIRM", then liturgists are either in thrall to a) a blind right-wing ultramontanism characteristic of the late 19th century, or b) a left-wing academic postmodernism characteristic of the late 20th. Neither seems consonant with the mind of the Church. Both suggest an impoverished positivism inconsistent with the worship of the Logos (see the "Regensburg Address" for a much more compelling account of this…)

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