The Idea of a National Mass Setting

The Catholic parish people know best is their own. It’s always complicated: musician burrowed in at certain times slots, demographic allocations that are never announced but everyone understands, compromises made for big players in parish life, accommodations granted for financial or political reasons. It takes time to get the lay of the land, and change always happens slowly.

But how much do we really know about national trends and the modal parish experience? Sometimes people do find themselves travelling on Sunday and experience other parishes. Mostly people tend to go to places attended by friends or famous local parishes that fit with their own view of what constitutes good Catholic liturgy.

The trouble with this approach is that we do not tend go to places that fall outside our comfort zone, and hence David Haas is not likely to attend an extraordinary form Mass where the people loudly sing Regina Caeli as the recessional, and I’m not likely to find myself in a college ministry liturgy that features a locally famous rock band. The upshot is that our perception of what constitutes the convention in American Catholic liturgy is unavoidably biased by our experience.

Most of us do assume that the Catholic experience considered on a national level is profoundly heterogeneous. There probably good aspects to that but there are limits. If it is not possible for Catholics to attend a random parish and recognize the sound and feel of at least the ordinary chants of the Mass, and those ordinary settings that are sung have nothing to do with the sensibility that is historically embedded in the ritual itself, there is a serious problem.

There is plenty of evidence that this is the case, and, truly, there is something strangely unCatholic about this reality. We should be able to travel and go into most any parish and have some sense that we are home away from home. There should be some familiarity. There should not be as many experiences of the Roman Rite as there are pastors and parishes. There really does need to be some standard, commonly sung setting of the Mass ordinary that people can point to with some sense of common experience.

Five years ago, if someone had suggested that the Bishops make it a priority to have some standard national setting, and that this setting should necessarily be English chant, I would have thought: give it up. It will never happen. There is no means to impose such a thing. People will resent it and refuse. In any case, music doesn’t work this way. It has to come from the heart, not from some bureaucracy above. The idea of a unified national Mass setting? Those worms long ago crawled away from the can.

Well, I guess I lack imagination because it turns out that this is precisely what is happening, and the means by which it is happening is absolutely fascinating. The new chants for the ordinary form of Mass are embedded in the new Missal that is being published for required use starting on the first Sunday of Advent this year.

In addition to that, the Bishops and the International Commission on English in the Liturgy are requiring of publishers that they print the full Mass setting from the Missal in all pew liturgical aids. And there has been an effort made to ensure that these chants are printed exactly as they appear in the Missal, not change or distorted by, for example, contorting them into a 6/8 metric or adding barlines or changing the text. Not even the punctuation can change. This rule has been applied uniformly with no exceptions.

(In any case, the text does not lend itself to being crammed into a metrical model. The attempt can even create absurdities.)

Now, in a draft of one GIA publication I saw, these chants were labeled as ICEL chants, which is highly unfortunate. I hope that by the time these are printed, the chants will be labelled as Missal chants. In any case, we can be fairly certain that the entire body of chants for the people as they appear in the Missal — which itself contains more music than any Missal printed in modern times — will also be in the pew books that are printed for Mass.

This is a dramatic change and a great cause for hope. For example, I’m unaware of any publisher that reprints the chants in the current, lame-duck Missal. We actually use them in my own parish (when we are not singing Latin) but I’ve been told that we might be one of the only parishes in the country that does this.

This is for a reason: the Missal pertains to the clergy. The choir feels free to ignore it, and so too the people. By requiring that the chants be printed for the choir and people, this change will take a gigantic leap toward unifying liturgical action – plus it provides the energy that is necessary to actually achieve what seems otherwise unachievable: a national Mass setting.

In addition, ICEL has taken the wonderful step of actually publishing all the music for the Missal on its website, in easy downloads for sharing and spreading. This is strategically brilliant, and represents a big shift from the ways of the past. I’m still not entirely sure who was responsible for this decision, but the choice is progressive and thrilling in ever way. Openness and liberality in the distribution of music is the first step toward really making a difference.

Now, among my friends, I hear the objection that these chants are not in Latin, so this would suggest that English has become standard in the ordinary form. I would just respond: look at the reality at it exists today and consider that English chant takes us a long way toward where we need to go. We have forty years of experience to know that the leap from praise music to Latin chant is a leap too large for most parishes – and how much more evidence do we need? Singing English chant is by itself a gigantic improvement, and it points the way toward the ideal.

Another objection is that the imposition of a national setting might actually pose a danger to those parishes that are current singing music from the Gregorian Kyriale. It is not an improvement but rather a regressive step to stop singing Gloria VIII or XV, or Credo I or III, and start singing English chant from the new Missal. I would certainly agree with this point, but we have to ask: under what circumstances would this scenario actually apply?

The question is: how many ordinary form parishes routinely use Latin chant at Mass? What would your guess be? Now, I might have thought that it would be 15 to 20 percent of parishes. I put the question to a Church official in the English-speaking world who would be very much in the know on this issue. And do you know what he said? He said that only one percent were doing this. Again, one percent!

What’s more, among those parishes where Latin chant is sung year round, it often happens in only one Mass of five or six on Sunday and usually in an outlying Mass time, like the vigil Mass or a very early morning Mass on Sunday. The idea here is to draw in (and get rid of) those dozen or so people in the parish who are otherwise confrontational about the need for solemn liturgy. The Latin chant in these parishes is thrown as a fish into the mouths of these dolphins so that they will swim away.

The tragedy is that millions and millions of people are being denied the spiritual experience of praying through the plainsong of the Church’s history – music that has stood the test of time and is organic to the liturgy itself. This has gone on for forty years – and the carnage that has resulted is essentially unspeakable.

There is a tendency of all Catholics to find their niche and stick with it, not looking outside the window to see what is going on elsewhere and then getting into the habit of mind that says “I really don’t care about what others are doing, so long as I’m taken care of.” This attitude is as true of people who prefer rock at Mass as it is of those who demand only Latin chant. This is a time to realize that the fate of all of us as Catholics is at stake. We need to take the necessary steps to make this happen – and this might even involve some degree of personal sacrifice for the greater good.

It is liturgically and even morally obligatory that something be done to fix the problem of deep disunity in the Catholic musical world. The approach being taken by the Bishops and ICEL are wholly defensible for this reason. It is even heroic. This could be the moment when history turns and the Roman Rite as experienced by the majority of Catholics starts being true to itself. Do what you can to make this happen. This is the moment, and we are all being called to do make a difference.

5 Replies to “The Idea of a National Mass Setting”

  1. Your last four paragraphs are extremely important, Jeffrey. You are right right on the money. Traditionalists who find pastoral solace and spiritual renewal through traditional liturgy, traditional music, traditional chant, and traditional (read well practiced and well executed) liturgical action are seen as anathema in many parishes. Having pastoral and spiritual needs met at peripheral masses such as vigil masses or early morning masses is clearly "the push off" and sends a strong message that those individuals seeking such liturgies/worship are less than important and vestiges of the past. However, look at the many photos, videos and other images that appear in various places and so many of the young people are seeking traditionally solid liturgies. As far as a common mass setting: again, Jeffrey you are right on the money. It does exist, but needs to be highlighted and its use promoted and encouraged. The USCCB publication "Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship" strongly encourages the use of chant and the learning of at least the simpler / shorter settings of the Kyrie, Sanctus, Agnus Dei and responses. Introducing the new texts gives the perfect learning opportunity to establish at least these as core common liturgical music repertoire. Traditional Anglicans learned this centuries ago with the use of Merbecke. Now, it's our turn.

  2. Wonderful!

    Growing up in the late '50s we all knew Mass XVI's Kyrie, Sanctus, Agnus Dei; Gloria XV, Credo I (thanks to the big cards from Gregorian Institute of America or McLaughlin and Reilly).

    About time this happened in English!

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