Common Mass Settings: Mistakes and Corrections

Pray Tell has drawn attention to the Diocese of Jackson, Mississippi, which is insisting that every parish teach and use two Mass settings as an effort toward a common repertoire – and one can hope that this is in addition to the Missal chants. The Bishop writes:

The two approved settings are: The Belmont Mass by Christopher Walker from Oregon Catholic Press and Missa Simplex by Richard Proulx from WLP/Paluch Music. Both settings are straight forward and based in plain chant so that they should fit easily into any parish. Either setting will facilitate our faithful learning the new English translation of the Mass in a simple and prayerful manner.

As Bishop and Guardian of the Liturgy for the faithful in the diocese, I mandate all parishes in the Diocese of Jackson to use only the above two Mass settings for Masses in English for the above listed transition period. This applies to all Masses including school and youth Masses.

After the transition period, parish music ministers may choose from the myriad of new and revised Mass settings, keeping in mind that Catholic musical tradition is about singing the Mass and not singing at Mass. Settings chosen should lend themselves more to congregational participation than to performances.

The Roman Catholic Liturgical Tradition is a beautiful and sacred treasure. As Bishop and protector of that treasure, I appreciate your full cooperation during this time of transition.

Both settings are fine and suitable – good choices overall, if we restrict ourselves to mainstream publishers, which this diocese is doing for understandable reasons. Both would serve regular parishes well. They treat the text well, are flexible enough to be sung with or without instruments, can be sung by a cantor alone or choir, and avoid the attempt to slice and dice the speech rhythm to turn it into a metrical song.

They have some degree of musical integrity even apart from the issue of whether and to what extent that people will sing along; neither settings attempts to sound like a pop song. And yet it would be a safe prediction that people will tend to sing along with the cantor or choir.

For most parishes, these settings would amount to a much welcome departure from the parish convention of singing settings that have three main problems: 1) they attempt to push prose into a strict metric with awkward results that too frequently result in dance-like songs, 2) they often strive to use the antiphon/response format when it doesn’t and shouldn’t apply (the Gloria is an example), and 3) the overt and primary goal of many settings is to get people to sing along, and hence the melodies are drawn from popular culture rather than staying within a liturgical style.

The forthcoming translation will help in this regard because it avoids that triple-time metric of the current Gloria and Sanctus translation. It also offers an opportunity to avoid the other two errors as well. That’s not to say that metrical settings are impossible or that participation can’t be anticipated with a chant-like setting. It is a matter of where the composer is placing the priority. If the primary goal is to create holy, beautiful, and universal music that adheres to the sense of the liturgical text, we have a good beginning. And the two settings link above are a good beginning.