Some of the most advanced thinkers in the world of music and liturgy have long identified the critical problem in Catholic music today. They have pointed out that the Mass itself provides for the texts and the music for the Mass, but in the General Instruction on on the Roman Missal, there appears a loophole. Musicians can sing what is appointed, or (“option 4”) they can sing something else, and that something else is limited only by what the musicians themselves deem as “appropriate.” What this has meant, in effect, is: anything goes. This is why it often seems that when it comes to music at Mass that, well, anything goes.
I’m happy to report that the legislative ground has just shifted, and dramatically so. The new translation of the General Instruction removes the discretion from the music team to sing pretty much whatever it wants. The new text, which pertains to the new translation of the Missal that comes into effect on Advent this year, makes it clear beyond any doubt: the music of the Mass is the chanted propers of the Mass. There are options but these options all exist within the universe of the primary normative chant. There can be no more making up some random text, setting it to music, and singing it as the entrance, offertory, or communion.
I have no doubt that the practice of singing non-liturgical texts will continue but it will now continue only under a cloud. If I’m reading this correctly, any text other than an appointed text for the Mass will now fall outside the boundaries provided for by the authoritative document that regulates the manner in which Mass is to proceed.
We can be sure that gigabytes of digits will be produced with the intention of explaining to me and everyone why what we can clearly read below does not really mean what it seems to be saying, that there has been some mistake in phrasing, that taking this literally is only the penchant of “traditionalists,” and that the prevailing practice surely has equal normative status. Nonetheless, the text is there, clear as a bell, and will be printed in all editions of the Missal that is now in preparation.
Catholic musicians of the world, the GIRM would like you to meet a new friend: the propers of the Mass.
Let us compare old and new:
47. After the people have gathered, the Entrance chant begins as the priest enters with the deacon and ministers. The purpose of this chant is to open the celebration, foster the unity of those who have been gathered, introduce their thoughts to the mystery of the liturgical season or festivity, and accompany the procession of the priest and ministers.
48. The singing at this time is done either alternately by the choir and the people or in a similar way by the cantor and the people, or entirely by the people, or by the choir alone. In the dioceses of the United States of America there are four options for the Entrance Chant: (1) the antiphon from the Roman Missal or the Psalm from the Roman Gradual as set to music there or in another musical setting; (2) the seasonal antiphon and Psalm of the Simple Gradual; (3) a song from another collection of psalms and antiphons, approved by the Conference of Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop, including psalms arranged in responsorial or metrical forms; (4) a suitable liturgical song similarly approved by the Conference of Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop.
48. This chant is sung alternately by the choir and the people or similarly by a cantor and the people, or entirely by the people, or by the choir alone. In the Dioceses of the United States of America, there are four options for the Entrance Chant: (1) the antiphon from the Missal or the antiphon with its Psalm from the Gradual Romanum, as set to music there or in another setting; (2) the antiphon and Psalm of the Graduate Simplex for the liturgical time; (3) a chant from another collection of Psalms and antiphons, approved by the Conference of Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop, including Psalms arranged in responsorial or metrical forms; (4) another liturgical chant that is suited to the sacred action, the day, or the time of year, similarly approved by the Conference of Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop.
Comment: There are several crucial differences. The new version clearly elevates the antiphons from the Roman Gradual or the Roman Missal as the core text. The old version had a mistake that had been confusing for years: it referred only to the Psalm from the Gradual. The new version clearly states that it is the antiphon and Psalm that are applicable from both books. Option three makes it clear that we are not talking about any song; we are talking about the liturgical chant, and there is a huge difference. Finally, option four blasts away the vague word “song” and again emphasizes chant, and with this important proviso: “suited to the sacred action, the day, or the time of year.” One would have to be deliberately obtuse not to see that this refers to the proper text of the day in question.
61(d). [T]he following may also be sung in place of the Psalm assigned in the Lectionary for Mass: either the proper or seasonal antiphon and Psalm from the Lectionary, as found either in the Roman Gradual or Simple Gradual or in another musical setting; or an antiphon and Psalm from another collection of the psalms and antiphons, including psalms arranged in metrical form, providing that they have been approved by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop. Songs or hymns may not be used in place of the responsorial Psalm.
61(d). …[I]nstead of the Psalm assigned in the lectionary, there may be sung either the Responsorial Gradual from the Graduale Romanum, or the Responsorial Psalm or the Alleluia Psalm from the Graduale Simplex, as described in these books, or an antiphon and Psalm from another collection of Psalms and antiphons, including Psalms arranged in metrical fonn, providing that they have been approved by the Conference of Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop. Songs or hymns may not be used in place of the Responsorial Psalm.
The textual differences are subtle but with huge implications. The 2003 GIRM subtly and confusingly implied that you can only use the Gradual if the texts of the Psalm with the same as the Lectionary. I’m not sure how often that occurs, but this sort of phrasing clearly gives primacy to the Lectionary over the Psalter dating back to the earliest centuries. That phrasing is now gone. It is now fantastically clear that one can use the Gradual as a primary source. It is clearly not depreciated any longer. And this is important: the Graduals are the oldest known body of Christian music. They should be permitted and not depreciated in the Roman Rite.
2003 and 2011 GIRM texts are identical:
74. The procession bringing the gifts is accompanied by the Offertory chant (cf. above, no. 37b), which continues at least until the gifts have been placed on the altar. The norms on the manner of singing are the same as for the Entrance chant (cf. above, no. 48). Singing may always accompany the rite at the offertory, even when there is no procession with the gifts.
Comment: the meaning of the paragraph is wholly dependent on getting the rubrics on the Entrance chant correct. Because the new GIRM corrects the rubrics on the entrance chant, this one stands corrected too. But there is a wrinkle here that will cause some scrambling to occur come November. There is no offertory chant in the Missal. The only place to find this is in the official ritual book the Graduale Romanum. It can also be found in unofficial books like the Simple English Propers and the Simple Choral Gradual. Most Catholic singers will be stunned to learn that there is an appointed text here.
87. In the dioceses of the United States of America there are four options for the Communion chant: (1) the antiphon from the Roman Missal or the Psalm from the Roman Gradual as set to music there or in another musical setting; (2) the seasonal antiphon and Psalm of the Simple Gradual; (3) a song from another collection of psalms and antiphons, approved by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop, including psalms arranged in responsorial or metrical forms; (4) a suitable liturgical song chosen in accordance with no. 86 above. This is sung either by the choir alone or by the choir or cantor with the people.
87. In the Dioceses of the United States of America, there are four options for singing at Communion: (1) the antiphon from the Missal or the antiphon with its Psalm from the Graduale Romanum, as set to music there or in another musical setting; (2) the antiphon with Psalm from the Graduale Simplex of the liturgical time; (3) a chant from another collection of Psalms and antiphons, approved by the Conference of Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop, including Psalms arranged in responsorial or metrical forms; (4) some other suitable liturgical chant (cf. no. 86) approved by the Conference of Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop.
Comment: once again, songs are out; chants are in. The word tangle in the first option that appeared in 2003 is now entirely gone. We aren’t talking about just the Psalm from the Roman Gradual. We are talking about the antiphons and Psalms from either the Missal or the Gradual. Thank you for that clarity; it makes a huge difference. Option three is also clear: not just any song but a chant like the first and section choice from another collection. Finally, a “suitable liturgical chant” in number four, folllowing the prior uses of the word chant, makes it very clear that the discretion here is gone. The texts must be from the liturgical books, as is implied with the mandate that it be approved by the USCCB or the Diocesan Bishop that regulates ritual texts for singing.
Only after the communion proper has been sung may a hymn be sung. The difference in word choice here is unambiguous: a chant is part of the liturgical structure. A hymn is something else. This usage is 100% consistent from the beginning of the GIRM 2011 to its end. And this clarity about usage finally removes all doubt about what must be sung at Mass: the Mass must be sung at Mass.
Now, I know what you are already thinking. You see a way around all this. Any pastor or musician can just decide to call the groovy tune that is chosen a “chant.” Here’s my chant, says Lady Gaga. It’s true that you could ignore the whole of English usage and call anything a chant, and I can also call my hat a banana and no one can stop me.
In like manner, you can ignore all the clear import of the mandates here pounce on the slight bit of liberality and say, hey, who’s gonna stop this? All of that is true. And so it is when dealing with children when you step out of the house for a bit: you can give the clearest instructions possible, a comprehensive list of dos and do nots, and yet somehow they will find a way to get around the rules. All of this is true.
In other words, it will still not be possible to bring an end to the pop music with random texts at Mass by waving this at your pastor’s face. It seems to me very clear that vast swaths of existing music used in the English speaking world are soon to be regarded as illicit. I don’t think there is any other honest way to read the new GIRM. There is very little if any room for anything now but the propers of the Mass.
I’m not naive and neither are you: the other songs will continue. Even so, they are not long for this world. The Church now speaks and sings with a clear voice; we can choose to sing along or sing some other song of our choosing.