Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Entrance to Mass

Laetare, Gaudete, Requiem: even now, these words exist as part of the Catholic lexicon. We hear them but most Catholics have no idea where they come from. They are the first words of the entrance chants for, in order, the fourth Sunday in Lent, the third Sunday in Advent, and the funeral Mass. But there’s no particular reason why we should focus on these days instead of others throughout the year. Every Mass has an appointed entrance chant - and these chants have been largely stable since the end of the first millennium.

The new book by Jason McFarland, Announcing the Feast (Liturgical Press, 2011) makes the case that by dropping the text and music, replacing it with something else, we are removing an integral part of the Roman Rite. The entrance chant is not there merely to foreshadow the readings of the day; it is there to build a theological and aesthetic foundation for the entire liturgical experience of the particular Mass that is being celebrated.

The book is hugely significant in many ways. It comes to what might be called “traditionalist” conclusions but does so within the contemporary liturgical context. He points out repeatedly that the Missal is not the only liturgical book for Mass; there is also the Graduale Romanum, which is the musical framework for the Mass. It cannot be neglected. It is not up to us to make up the music we use. The music is given to us in an official book. We need to rediscover it.

The McFarland book covers vast history and offers detailed and subtle arguments for the entrance (or introit). For many people, especially Catholic musicians, this will be the first they have heard of this issue. It will be a surprise. And certainly its use would amount to a dramatic departure from the existing practice of most parishes.

How practical is it to use the entrance? For a parish with a schola (trained or in training), and a community that has already warmed to the depth and meaning of the Latin, it is extremely practical. From my own experience in using it, I can say that it really does prepare the space for the mysteries that follow, and that nothing else quite achieves that precise result as fully and effectively. But how many parishes have the proper groundwork laid to make this possible? I would say: not that many. Perhaps 5%, maybe 10%. Most have no schola. Most congregrations are nowhere near prepared to be hit with a big Latin text upon arriving at Mass.

McFarland is aware of this. But he cautions: anytime you change the Latin to English, or you departure from the given melody in favor of something else, you are losing something important. He understands that singing the Gregorian introit is not really an option for most parishes right away. It is not merely a matter of turning a switch or pushing a button. There is much work to be done. So a large part of the book also involves the exploration of viable alternatives. He does a fine but incomplete job here. Even since his work was completed, several wonderful collections of alternatives to the Gregorian have been published, and right now many people are working on more. Some of the names involved: Adam Bartlett, Richard Rice, Adam Wood, Kathy Pluth, Samuel Weber. There are many others. The time of the introit may have finally arrived.

But what of the pastoral considerations? Can it really be so easy to replace the familiar “gathering hymn” with a real piece of liturgical music, even it is in English, even if it has a modern feel to it, even if the people are welcomed to join in the singing? The truth is that many pastors are very afraid to do this. They fear a kind of uprising. They worry that it will put people in a bad mood for the remainder of Mass. Just the prospect introduces anxiety for them and so they decide against it. This is very common.

The other day, I was visiting with a priest who has a very serious music problem in his parish - and I’ll spare you the details because you can probably guess. Hint: it’s the usual problem. In any case, he is ready for a change. He told me that he wants to be begin with introducing an English chant at communion, then move to offertory.

We would never discourage any progress and these are fine ideas. But there is a real problem here. Why are we waiting until the end or the middle of Mass to actually introduce music that is genuinely liturgical?

After a popular and bouncy entrance about some other topic (one or another version of “we are a happy people”), a popular and bouncy Gloria (“here is our happy song”), and probably a nice performance piece stuck into the intermission between the homily and the Eucharistic prayer, it can be jarring and strange to suddenly introduce something serious and meaningful. In fact, I can imagine that this is potentially dangerous from a strategic point of view. You put the chant at risk when you try to sneak it in as if you are adding medicine to soup you are serving a child.

Consider that the entrance might be the best way to begin the reform process. For the most part, people do not arrive at Mass prepared to reflect, pray, and experience the mysterious touch of time becoming eternity. They arrive carrying a gigantic satchel of emotional and mental baggage from the affairs of the week. They are carrying secular concerns in their head, secular tunes in their head, secular thoughts and ideas.

A poorly chosen “gathering song” only says to the congregation: hey, don’t worry about it. Nothing here is really different. This is pretty much the same kind of thing that has happened to you all week. This is more of the same: just another meeting, just another thing to do, just another place to be as you carry out your tedious obligations in life. You are doing this for the kids or maybe to reinforce some religious identity that your parents attached to you from birth. Otherwise, nothing is expected of you and nor should you expect anything to happen to you. It is all going to be over in an hour and you can go about your business.

These are the messages send by the very first piece of music that is heard at Mass. If this is so, how can you expect the homily to penetrate? How can you expect people to really listen to the prayers of the priest? How can you expect people to take the sacrifice on the altar seriously? How can you expect people to get serious about receiving the body of Christ?

It seems that there is wisdom in the Church’s idea to the introit. From the very outset, we hear the words of Christ in the Psalms proclaimed to us. From the Sunday forthcoming: “Let all the earth worship you and praise you, O God. May it sing in praise of your name, Oh Most High.” Then the Psalm verses follow. “Cry out with joy to God, all the earth; O sing to the glory of his name. O render him glorious praise. Say to God, ‘How awesome your deeds!’ “Because of the greatness of your strength, your enemies fawn upon you. Before you all the earth shall bow down, shall sing to you, sing to your name!”

Now imagine this text set to chant so that the text is very clear, proclaimed with confidence. No mixed messages, no yadayada about the community, no dance beats, no forced rhymns. Now, that’s an entrance. Does it produce some degree of discomfort? Probably it does. Thinking about God and eternity tends to do that. But it works as a kind of stimulus to the spiritual mind and to the soul. It gets us on the right track. It prepares us to understand and be changed by what follows. Why would we ever decline to open Mass with this goal in mind?

There is the issue of whether people will sing along or whether this is a schola chant only. I happen to believe that this whole issue is overwrought. Most people do not arrive at Mass with an itch to belt out a pop tune or sing much of anything immediately. This is why the opening hymn is notoriously undersung by people. There is nothing wrong and much right about letting people just stand and watch the procession without having to fiddle with a book.

But even if this is an issue, there is absolutely nothing wrong with having the people join in to sing the chant, even the Gregorian chant. There is nothing forbidden about that. But neither is there anything wrong with not making it a religious obligation.

The entrance might be the perfect way to begin the reform process. The beginning is sometimes the very best place to start.