Music that Broadens the Mind and Spirit

In all the debates about Catholic ritual music over the last half century, the issue of the propers of the Mass has played very little role at all. Mostly the debate has been about styles. It’s been pretty much the same since the 1960s: one group like the old hymns and one group likes music in contemporary style.

I’m temperamentally inclined toward the old hymn model. This is because they are less subject to changing tastes, whereas what is defined as contemporary changes about every ten years, with the Catholic inevitably about five years behind the times.

Theologically, older hymns tend to be more sound (overall). Plus, there is a sentimental case for old hymns. They help connect us to the past. Another important point is that older hymns do not cause aesthetic offense, whereas few things in this world are as grating as amatuer musicians attempting to sound like pop stars.

Over the years, I’ve had many people say to me, when discovering that I’m a Catholic musician, some version of the following: “I’ve learned to wince whenever I see that a chosen hymn was composed after 1965. I shut my book and try to brace myself until it goes away.”

I’m supposed to agree with this point of view, and I do sympathize with the feeling because I felt this way for years. But more and more, I find that these sorts of comments bother me. Most of the musicians singing post-1965 material are doing their best to make a contribution, and loathing their output can tend towards cultivating divisive antipathies.

Few of these musicians have any idea how many people are rubbed the wrong way by varieties of pop music at Mass. Plus, it seems like an odd demand that Mass should only have music written between, say 1850 and 1965. In the long history of the faith, that is a very small slice of time.

More substantially, the debate over hymns completely misses the essential point that has become more obvious over the last few years. The truth is this: the hymn war distracts from the core issue, which is whether we will sing what the liturgy is asking to be sung or whether we will sing something else. The Mass assigns texts throughout the year for the precise parts of the liturgy where hymns are often inserted.

The text in question is not metric as given. It takes a skilled hand to re-rendered them in a metric suitable for the hymn structure. Kathy Pluth and others have been doing this, and this strikes me as a fantastic thing. If you are going to sing a metric hymn — and so many of the traditional hymn tunes still have a beautiful sound and do not sound dated in the slightest — this is the best way forward. Kathy and her colleagues are working on providing introits and other propers for the entire years.

If you are going to take the text as given, the suitable vehicle is of course chant. Chant came about as a style of music precisely because it is the best method for textual declamation. Chant is flexible and adapts to any length of text. As chant emerged over the centuries, its melodic and harmonic structure became more rich and varied than we typically hear in modern music, so it can express a greater range of colors and emotions.

The sacred music community has been making this argument for a few years, hence completely changing the terms of debate. Except for one thing: I’ve really not detected much of a debate at all. The argument is so strong, so obvious (in retrospect), and so indisputably more faithful to the liturgy that it is not really debated at all — at least so far as I can tell.

In my view, then, the intellectual argument is largely a done deal. Why don’t musicians immediately change? Well, this is where matters get complicated. Music that is more accessible than the Graduale Romanum (the official book of the Latin rite) has only become available (in a suitable form) within the last 18 months. That’s just not long enough to make the decisive difference.

The musical trajectory of a parish music program is exceedingly difficult to change. Musicians are not warm to changing. They are often pained by learning new material. Directors of music, too, are disinclined to undertake a new direction for fear that it will reflect poorly on their choices and management to date.

In conversations with singers and musicians, I’ve also found an interesting cultural objection to the idea of chanted propers. They strike people who are used to random improvisation as too narrow, too closed, too conservative, too culturally bound up with specific attitude toward Church politics. Now, this point of view is entirely wrong. If anything, it is the opposite.

Chant opens up history in a way that other music does not. It takes us back to the first millennium, to the early church, and even to our ancient Jewish roots. Music that maintains its power to compel for this long is extremely rare. In fact, can you think of other music that is still in mainstream cultural circulation that has this long a history? Even now, anyone can hear a few notes of Roman Rite chant and know what it means: this is Catholic liturgy (or as people might say it today, “this sounds like monks and stuff”). Music that has this degree of longevity leaves time entirely and becomes truly timeless, pointing both to a long past and a long future.

More importantly to my mind is that chant opens up the word of God to us. This the source of the text of the propers of the Mass. To be sure, some old and new hymns are based on scriptural sources, but one cannot be absolutely certain of that on first look, and even when they are rooted in scripture, the paraphrases can depart to a great extent. What’s more, the propers of the Mass are assigned Sunday by Sunday.

Christ the King propers are different from Advent which are different from Christmas and so on. They are all chosen with precision by the Church for a particular liturgical purpose. Therefore, they not only open the word of God to us; they also provide another means of spiritually accessing the overall liturgical experience in a way that accords with the calendar.

Discovering the Mass propers is a liberating experience, very much along the lines of what people feel when they first discover the Catholic faith itself. We don’t have to make stuff up. We don’t have to manufacture our liturgy from our own sense of how things should be.

Our main responsibility is to bury the ego, defer to the Church’s wishes, allow ourselves to become part of something larger than our own time and place, and serve the faith. This is a huge responsibility. Singing the propers makes being a Church musician and honor and a serious apostolate.

A Music Set Apart

The offertory chant for this Sunday is the famous text “De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine; Domine, exaudi vocem meam.”

From the depths, I have cried out to you, O Lord;

Lord, hear my voice..

The text itself has inspired poems, novels, songs, plays, ballets, and films. One thinks, of course, of the tragic and difficult letter of Oscar Wilde from prison, in which he was working through his nascent Catholicism and coming to understand Christ’s ministry in his own way, years before finally embracing the faith from which he had been running his entire life. It was written during a dark part of his life, when he had fallen from the heights to the lowest level of the social order, and gradually climbed his way out, not back to society but to God. The Lord heard his voice.

To cry to God from the depths is an unavoidable part of the human experience, and this Psalm seems to capture that experience. So too has the text inspired the fundamental music of the Roman Rite, and in a way that is as robust and heart-wrenching as any of the other art to which the text has given rise. The chant begins precisely where it should, at the lowest point of the scale. And the cry itself is long and pleading, ending with a melismatic phrase on one syllable that is fully 35 notes long.

One gets the sense when listening that one is part of a private conversation, an intimate communication between one soul and that soul’s maker. The experience is evocative to the text to the point of novelist perfection. As much as I love English chant and polyphonic music, there is something about the Latin original that seems like the ultimate thing itself, the core music, the perfect expression of emotion and truth, all wrapped up in a form that is most suitable for liturgy. It is ordered and ritual spontaneity, a form of prayer given to us so that we can aspire to a higher form of expression than we ourselves are personally capable.

In many ways, we can say that any Mass that does not include this form of musical expression is deficient in some way. It is missing out. There is nothing wrong with seeking other kinds of ways to express the same thought, putting the idea in other languages and other forms. But to neglect or even forget the chanted original is to miss out on something extremely important. To hear this chant makes me grateful to all those who worked so hard to revive the chant during the late 19th century, and makes me sad that so many Catholics today have no way of experiencing this in the course of their liturgical lives.

Why haven’t we been hearing this kind of music? There are superficial explanations that have a element of truth about them. People can’t read the music well. People don’t know how to sing well anymore without instruments, without microphones. Latin is scary to people. A long melisma like this is hard for modern musicians who are used to didactic verbal expression. It all seems like it is from another time and place, and there is something about modern man that is both attracted and repelled by that time and place.

Also, the singing of this piece seems to violate every rule that people have invented for what constitutes successful liturgical music. The people do not sing it. Only the best singers do. Everyone else listens. The results are not cognitively communicative in a normal sense. The Latin is remote. You can’t swing and sway to it. The melody does not immediately stick in your mind. It doesn’t have a bright and uplifting message that puts a smile on our face. It has nothing in common with any music called popular today. It is free of the prison of rhythm and meter. It is sung in unison

That this music does not pass the routine tests that people put their musical selections through really should raise questions, not about Gregorian chant but about the tests themselves. We need to come to understand that Gregorian chant really is a music set apart, something absolutely sacred. Sacred is remote and mysterious. It has qualities that are out of reach from what is common and accessible in the normal sense. It resists being evaluated by the same standards we use to evaluate everything else. In fact, the reverse is true: what is truly holy stands apart in judgement of what we are, what we do, and what we want.

It is the failure to comprehend the sound of what is holy that I believe is at the root of the resistance to Gregorian chant. Otherwise, people would be inspired to overcome their inability to sing it and appreciate it. It’s true that the music is hard to sing and requires experience and training but it is not out of reach. It just takes effort. Why are we so unwilling to make that effort? Why are we so quick to grab and sing what is easy and available rather than work toward something that is higher, better, and more appropriate to the task?

What this generation of Catholic singers really lacks is inspiration to work harder toward a more noble goal. People imagine that nobility is not attractive on its own terms, that we need to “do something” to music to make it appealing. We have to let our personalities shine through and present music that reaches people in the same way that popular culture does. But what if this is completely untrue? What if what is holy is not only more pure and appropriate but also more effectively in drawing people to the faith and keeping people interested in liturgical life?

Benedict XVI seems to understand that hoy music is both true and practical; there is no contradiction between these two principles. In speaking to the St. Cecilia Association in Italy lately, he said:

we need not have recourse to illustrious persons to think of how many people have been touched in their depths of their soul listening to sacred music; and of how many more have felt themselves newly drawn to God by the beauty of liturgical musi… And, here dear friends, you have an important role: work to improve the quality of liturgical song with being afraid to recover and value the great musical tradition of the Church, which has in Gregorian Chant and polyphony of its highest expressions, as Vatican II itself states (cf. “Sacrosanctum Concilium,” 116). And I would like to stress that the active participation of the whole people of God in the liturgy does not consist only in speaking, but in listening, in welcoming the Word with the senses and the spirit, and this holds also for sacred music. You, who have the gift of song, can make the heart of many people sing in liturgical celebrations.

He is offering this generation a challenge to take on the hard task, to take seriously the musical responsibility, to avoid the easy and rationalistic path and embrace the difficult and holier path. Truly this generation needs to develop the humility to cry out from the depths and aspire to new heights.

How to Read Liturgically

I’ve put off writing this column for years even though it addresses a point that is a major and persistent problem in liturgy. I’ve put off writing about it because the people I’m correcting here are following the rules they know and they are very well intended otherwise. They are giving their hearts to the cause. They know not what they do. Still, it is time to speak out.

The problem is the manner in which people read the scripture in liturgy. The instruction books that are published by the major houses warn against reading plainly and solemnly with a steady tone. These manual urge them to bring some personality to the task, to elevate the voice on the important parts, make the reading more life-like and vibrant, and even to make eye contact with the people in the pews. They want long pauses between sentences and for every sentence to come across like a major declaration that sears itself into the ears and minds of the listeners. They try to make the text reach us in a new way.

But that is not the result of this approach to reading. The sing-songy sound of a reader trying out communicative inflections on word after word ends up producing the exact opposite of its intention. Instead of conveying the meaning, the reader ends up conveying himself or herself. The words and meaning get lost in the inflection and the tonal dance. The lilting attempt to emphasize one thing in the text over another robs the listener of the ability to understand the text on his or her own. It turns out to be a major distraction from the whole point of the exercise. It denies the scripture an opportunity to speak in its own voice. Adding “eye contact” only makes it worse.

There are a number of ways to explain this. I would first make reference to a comment by Joseph Jungmann, from The Mass of the Roman Rite, as quoted by William Mahrt in The Musical Shape of the Liturgy. He describes how the words of scripture ought to be brought to the liturgy like jewels on a golden plate. When you are bringing such jewels, you walk steadily and with great discipline and dignity. You do not run, you do not perform tricks, and you do not attempt to bring your own personal drama to the task. You walk carefully and present the jewels on the gold plate in a way that does not distract from their inherent worth.

There are examples from the secular world. Consider professional readers for books on tape. They read in the clearest possible way and minimize the amount of vocal inflection that goes into the task. They try to disappear in their personalities so that the text itself can emerge. Also, professionals understand that the reader can naturally get tired of hearing one person talk so the goal is to reduce the personality as much as possible to make it easy for the listening to focus on the text.

The same should be true of reading the scripture in Mass, except that it should be done with even greater dignity and even less personality and vocal inflection.

Another hint comes from the history of the lessons in general. Historically, evidence indicates that the lessons were sung and not read — in keeping with the general observation that the spoken Mass we know it today or before the Council was an invention of the second millennium. The sung Mass was the norm for the first one thousand years.

And what happens when you sing? You follow a formula of notes. The notes indicate the sentence structure but do not change based on the content or meaning. The formula permits the content to ascend in importance. The reader himself or herself does not bring his or her own perception of what is important. The reader does not add personality or seek methods to convey some drama to the text. The singing alone prevents that from happening by practically eliminating the tendency of readers to lift and lower the voice based on subjective understanding.

The effects created by the singing of the text — that effervescence of tone and stability of purpose — should carry over to the reading of the text. Of course these days, readings are not typically sung, so we no longer have a model in mind. This is a tragic loss.

Nonetheless, a good and serious reader can bring that sense of allowing the text to emerge from the thicket of human personality by maintaining a steady pace and a steady tone throughout. Just as the singer brings nothing to the reading other than word accents and notes, the reader similarly should being nothing to the reading other than calm, stability, precision, solemnity, and clarity.

One should not use the opportunity to read a lesson as a chance to compose a symphonically dramatic poem. You are not on stage. This is a point that every reader should understand from experience. It applies even more to liturgy. The liturgy should be permitted to speak on its own without our having to make it speak by hurling it out there or gussying it up with all sorts of on-the-spot, made-up drama.

How does it happen that all the mainstream instructions on this point are essentially wrong? Well, it all comes down to the persistent and hyper-vogue of the cult of the community. Since it is believed that reaching the people is the number one and nearly only goal of liturgy, the instructions for reading are similar to those you get for music too. Grab people by their shirt collars. Get their attention. Make it real. Meet people where they are. It’s up to you to do this. You have to make this happen. Otherwise people will check out.

This entire approach is wrongheaded because it doubts the inherent power of the liturgical voice, which is not the same as the human voice. It is a divine voice to which we are called to submit. To believe that one must somehow jazz it up and make it real implies a core doubting of the merit of what is being sung and what is being read. It labors under the conviction that the liturgical voice does not exist unless we work to make it exist through our own talents and choices. This represents a fundamental misunderstanding that ends up exalting the human ego and personality over the words of the liturgy itself that have been handed on to us and form a divine voice in our midst.

I would love to see these poorly conceived instruction manuals tossed out. They are misleading thousands of well-intentioned people and creating pain in the pews rather than doing what the readers themselves believe they are doing, which is bringing the text of scripture to life. But I don’t believe they are going away soon anymore than we are soon going to get rid of the common habit of replacing Mass propers with non-liturgical songs. It thereby becomes important for pastors to re-train readers themselves to cut the drama and the failed attempt to infuse the text with new meaning. The word of God needs to be permitted to speak to us in the voice of the liturgy, not the voice and personality of the reader.

Vatican Intervenes: No More Tropes in the Agnus Dei

The Vatican has intervened in the guidelines for Catholic liturgical music in the U.S.. It has sent a messages to U.S. publishers that it objects to extending the official text of the Agnus Dei to add additional text. The practice is called “troping” but that’s using a rather high-minded and deeply historical term for what is actually just pop-music riffing. Further, the Congregation for Divine Worship has asked the USCCB for a change in its musical guidelines to reflect this.

As the blog Gotta Sing reports, one publisher received the following note:

In response to a request from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, the USCCB Administrative Committee adopted a change on September 12, 2012 to the U.S. Bishops’ 2007 guidelines on liturgical music, Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship. Number 188 of the document has been altered to remove any further permission for the use of Christological tropes or other adaptations to the text of the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God).

This is a good development. Too little, too late, but still good. “Sing to the Lord” is vastly better than the barely-Catholic predecessor document called “Music in Catholic Worship” that had sent two generations of musicians off course (MCW, for example, said that music of the past is not a good model of music for the future).

Still, the new document has problems, such as claiming that the style of music used at liturgy is not a relevant consideration, as well as open contradiction of official documents that the Agnus Dei cannot be troped.

In many ways, this issue should be a non-issue. It is pretty well established that when you are singing the liturgical text…you should sing the liturgical text. Otherwise you are just inventing stuff on your own. Why would anyone think that musicians can do such things? Well, there is a very long precedent for doing so. That’s what’s going on in your parish every week, most likely, unless you have a choir director who knows what’s what.

And yet, one wonders if this intervention will make any difference. Note that it removes “further permission” but says nothing about the settings already published and already in use. Another issue is that any choir director could easily sing the real Agnus Dei text and then continue singing tropes, calling the extension an example of “other appropriate music.” People who don’t have the desire to follow the spirit of legislation will always find ways around the text of the legislation.

In general, however, as annoying as the troped Agnus Dei is, it is hardly the main problem of Catholic music today. A much more troubling issue concerns the USCCB’s permission to composers and publishers to completely mangle the text and structure of the Gloria itself. It is intended to be sung straight through, obviously. This is how it has been sung from the earliest years of the Church. This is how it is structure in the whole of the Graduale Romanum’s Kyriale, the official songbook of the Roman Rite.

One of the major purposes and intentions behind the text revision of the Gloria was to revive the chanted structure of the Gloria or, at least, remove what amounted to a rhythmic occasion of sin: it put the first line in a clear triple meter. That is now ended and thank goodness. But, again, people who ignore the spirit of the law will find a way around the law.

I was astonished when publishers, after the approval of the Roman Missal 3rd edition, started pouring out new floods of bowdlerized Glorias that mangle the whole structure. They have continued to turn the opening phrase into an antiphon, and treat the remainder of the text as a response. Thus do people sing sing “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will” again and again. Each phrase is separated with a fancy passage from the text sung by the choir alone. This contradicts the whole of the history of the Roman Rite. It is a wholly unwarranted corruption.

How could this be happening? Well, my inquiries led me to an extraordinary revelation. The U.S. Bishops approved it. And that’s that. The publishers begged and the USCCB complied. They unleashed all the publishers to put out these versions of the Gloria that continue the very problems that the new translation was supposed to stop. I have no idea how the Vatican allowed this to happen or whether anyone knew it was happening.

But it seems rather obvious to me that no matter how much autonomy that national conferences have, or believe they have, they should never be permitted to grant permission to fundamentally alter the text and structure of the liturgy itself, especially not concerning such a historically crucial part of the liturgy as the Gloria.

My question: why hasn’t the Vatican intervened here? It would take only one note to three people, the heads of the big three publishers. One quick fax or email. That’s all it would take to save the Gloria (The Gloria!) from this continued corruption of its structure and text. In addition, the antiphon-response artificiality here unleashes the choirs to turn a solemn celebratory text into a show-tune performance in which the people merely play a bit part of repeating the same line over and over again. It is contrary to the liturgical goal and patronizing to boot.

To be sure, the publishers are of the opinion that the people are too incompetent to actually managed more than one little line. If you want people to sing, they say, you have to give them easy stuff to sing over and over like songs on the radio. Whether that line is “I’m at a payphone, trying to call home,” or “Glory to God…” they people that the people need short catchy things to say or they won’t sing, and “getting the people to sing” is pretty much the sum total of the perceived goal of publishers and musicians today.

If you provide no challenges whatsoever to people, it is hardly surprising that they get bored of the whole project and enter protest mode. This probably accounts for 90% of the silence of Catholic congregations. But instead of embracing the actual liturgical text and structure, the publishers keep going further, making music ever sillier and the structure ever more simple. It’s just not working. But even if it did work, it shouldn’t be done.

When it is time to sing the Gloria, sing the Gloria. It’s not rocket science. Here’s to hoping for another intervention from Rome, this time without the proviso that grandfathers in nonliturgical renderings and instead insists that the liturgy be sung as it is given to us.

After that, we need an open discussion on the major problem that afflicts Catholic music today: the substitution of newly composed text for the given propers of the Mass. To repeat what I said above, when you are singing the liturgical text…you should sing the liturgical text. Otherwise you are just inventing stuff on your own. Why would anyone think that musicians can do such things?

“It is the right of the community of Christ’s faithful that especially in the Sunday celebration there should customarily be true and suitable sacred music.” ~ Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum

Why We Must Chant

It was 5:00am and I’m sleeping in a hotel in Bodrum, Turkey, a secularized Islamic state as far from fundamentalism as one can imagine. This is a thoroughly modernized country with universal rights. I heard something strange and mysterious, a voice of some sort, a song. I rolled over and went to back to sleep and woke an hour later to the sound of a rooster. I figured I had dreamed the whole thing.

The next day, however, the same voice came on at 5:00am and this time I listened. It was chant of some kind of religious nature. Then I realized. This was coming from the local Mosque. The cantor was singing on the loudspeaker and it was heard through this sector of town.

At first, the sound puzzled me. Too foreign. I couldn’t understand the words. But then I became curious and heard melodic and textual similarities to the Gregorian chant. Surely there is a common ancestor between Quranic chant and the Gregorian tradition. They both use scripture. They both proclaim the word. They both date from the first millenium. They are both unmistakably religious.

By the fourth day, I was hooked. I got up just to hear it.

Come to prayer
Come to success
Prayer is better than sleep
Allah is the greatest
There is none worshipable but Allah

Every day, it is the same. It sung with great power and lyrical interpretation. The better the cantor, the more elaborate the embellishment. To the ear of the faithful Muslim, it must be incredibly familiar but also essential. It is the chant that starts the day. It is the chant that ends the day. The word is with the faithful throughout the day, and throughout their lives.

The manner in which it is chanted is unchanged from the 8th century. It is chanted in a high version of Arabic, a form of the language studied in school and understood by everyone. It is a language that is technically dead in the sense that it does not change. The vernacular is different because it adapts to changes. The language of prayer is stable like the faith itself.

So prominent a role does this chant play, even in secular Muslim countries, that it is broadcast everywhere, like the bells of the local church that play on Sundays. The chant shapes the culture. It instills the faith. It gives evidence of belief that the word that came down to us so long ago still speaks to us in daily life.

The people might leave the faith but the faith never leaves them. The chant is a major reason.

The people who sing are enormously talented. They train. They take pride in what they do. A Mosque would never exist without the cantor, who, according to Wikpedia, is called muqri’ , tālī, murattil, mujawwid, or most commonly a qari. They obey the rules of chanting. It would be inconceivable to simply make something up or replace the chant with a popular song. In private life, Muslims can do that, but not at public worship.

There is no demand that the people sing along, as if only the collective makes it worth doing. The demand is that people participate in the prayer through listening and praying.

I can’t but help but compare to the Christian world. We have chant. It is fixed and unchanging, though scholarship to perfect the editions continues as befits the Western idea of progress. It was stabilized as early as the 8th century, the same period in which Islam developed. The language is from scripture. The language is liturgical. The chants are assigned for a reason. They give music to prayer and thereby ennoble it.

Christians today are inclined to think that the Muslims are religious freaks because they have regular prayer throughout the day. Don’t they know that religious stuff is only supposed to go on one hour per week on Sunday?

Even most Catholics are oblivious to the fact that Christianity and Islam share this idea of prayer throughout the day — sung prayer. But apparently the new version of such prayer that was cobbled together in a reformed way after the Second Vatican Council still doesn’t have music. The reformers forgot or delay that point. And we are still without, 50 years later. Fortunately we do have all the chants for Mass.

We all live in what might be called a secularized Christian country, meaning that the clerics do not run the government but the overwhelming majority adhere to some Christian idea. But strangely, people use this fact — and I heartily approve that the clerics do not run the government! — as an excuse to not practice their faith at all except in the most superficial possible way.

We have chants in the Roman Rite. They are embedded in our tradition. But we hardly hear them except in movies and on CDs. We heard them torn from their natural habitat. Then we go to Church on Sunday. The first song we sung does not announce the day or even come from scripture. It was put together by some guys writing stuff in the 1970s. We call these hymns. For many people, when they hear them, they think the opposite of the Muslim call to prayer: it would have been better to have slept in.

But then we look at our official prayer books. What’s this? There is an entrance. It comes from Scripture. It is chant. It is complex but distinct and beautiful. When you hear it, you know where you are. You know what you are doing. This is about giving praise to God. And you prepare yourself for what is going to happen. Then there are the unchanging chants like Kyrie and Gloria, followed by a reading, followed by that the glorious thing, the Gradual Psalm. This is the piece of music that has the most in common with Quaranic chant. Islam too embraces the Psalms.

Each piece in the official books serves a distinct liturgical purpose. To live with these chants is to live the life of faith through them. They become the theme song of our prayer. The melodies mark the seasons and the passage of time as seen through the life of Christ.

And yet: we’ve thrown it all away. Not entirely, but almost. And the faith suffers as a result. Somewhere along the way, we got this idea that the music at Mass is not really prayer and not really the word of God. It is just music. So of course if it is just music, we should play and sing music that we like most, music that makes us happy and feel just the right way. Nothing is given, everything is chosen.

Then we look around the world and see Islam making huge advances. We wonder why. We blame crazy people and crazy governments. We call out the troops. We impose restrictions. We sit at the dinner table and wring our hands about the coming of Sharia law.

Here is a better solution. Let’s shore up Christian tradition — particularly our public prayer. Let’s rediscover our own native chant, the sung prayer that built civilization. It’s right there waiting for us. We too can make a joyful noise when we pray. We too can chant praise to God. It can become part of our lives. It can make us more faithful. And it can attract more people to the faith.

The Madness of the Method


Every weekend or so, some name composer of mainstream Catholic music is out and about giving a workshop in a parish somewhere. I’ve been to enough of these to pretty much know what they are going say in advance.

They stand in front of parish musicians and repeatedly tell them that the most important job is to engage the congregation to the point that people feel like singing, and that means catchy tunes and simple words.

And how to decide between the hundreds of such songs in the mainstream pew resources? The answer is to look at the theme of the week, which is given by the readings. Flip through the book and find a song that seems to match in some way. Check out the theme index. Then consider and anticipate the congregation’s reactions the pieces of your choosing and give it your best shot.

Sadly, nearly everything about this is wrong. In this model, the musicians are being charged with making the liturgy happen on a week-to-week basis. The Church struggles with provide liturgical books with deep roots in history, but the musicians show up and put five minutes of thought into making decisions about styles and texts that have a gigantic effect on the overall liturgical ethos. It is too much responsibility to put on their shoulders, and no one is competent to pull it off.

What is restraining and constraining the musician’s range of play in this model? Only their own subjective view of what’s right and what works. in practice, this is no restraint at all.
The liturgy itself is being held hostage to a few people’s on-the-spot views of what the message should be and what should take place. A major aspect of the Mass, one that can make or break the entire point of the ritual, is being put in the hands of people who have little or no substantive guidance or basis for their decision making.

To be sure, it is flattering for the musicians to hear that they have this power. When the workshop leader comes and tell them this, their egos get a boost. Most aren’t paid and most are really trained, so this kind of responsibility can be welcome in lieu of material reward. It is to be accept a job that is almost priestly but without the trouble of six years of training and ordination. But the truth is that no actor in the liturgical world should have this level of power and discretion, and it is wrong to expect this of anyone.

What’s more, from what I can observe from parishes I visit, it doesn’t actually accomplish the goal. What actually happens is that people feel as if the musicians are overreaching and asking something of the congregation that the people don’t feel the need to give. Mandatory enthusiasm for someone else’s project doesn’t go over well in any aspect of life, especially not in music. Many just sit there vaguely and habitually protesting in their minds. So the musicians end up with a feeling of failure and confusion. Or they blame others and end up getting mad about the people and their refusal to go with the program.

What, then, is the constraint? Where are the boundaries? Where are the guidelines? The second Vatican Council plainly stated: Gregorian chant is to have first place at Mass. This statement has profound significance if you understand something of the structure of the liturgy and the purpose and applicability of Gregorian chant within it.

The trouble is that hardly anyone does understand this. Most everyone today think that Gregorian chant is a style or a genre, one marked by a monkish solemnity. They figure that, given that, it is enough to sing Pange Lingua on Holy Thursday, or sprinkle in a bit of Latin during Lent. Surely that is enough.

But this characterization completely misses the point. Gregorian chant’s distinct contribution is that it is the most complete and robust body of music for the ritual of the Roman Rite that elevates and ennobles the word of God in the liturgy itself. The point is not to sing chant but to sing the liturgy itself, meaning the text that is assigned to be sung at the place in the Mass where this particular text is intended to be sung. The notes are important but secondary to the word.

In other words, it is not our job to discern themes of the day and take over the job from the Church of pushing texts that we find appropriate. The texts for singing at Mass are already given to us. There is an entrance text, a Psalm text, an offertory text, and a communion text. These are in the liturgical books. The counsel to pick and choose whatever you want amounts to a counsel to ignore the liturgy of the Church and substitute something of your own making.

(If you want to know more about these points, there is no better source that William Mahrt’s The Musical Shape of the Liturgy (CMAA, 2012). Here is the fully presentation of the bracing but uplifting reality.)

So we can see that the Council’s embrace of chant was not about some old men who wanted to hear old-style music rather than new music. People who ignore chant and diminish its place in liturgy like to think this is true, but personal or generational preference has nothing to do with it. Nor is tradition the whole story. The embrace of chant is really the embrace of the liturgical text that is to be sung, and a drawing attention to the most complete and ideal musical model for presenting that text.

Of course musicians do not know that they are throwing out whole parts of the liturgy that have been integral to the musical experience of the Mass dating as far back as documentary history. Nor do the workshop leaders intend to do violence to the liturgy in this way. Most just don’t know about Mass propers and the role of the choir. Or if they do know, they find the project of singing propers to be unviable because…well…the project really hasn’t been picked up much over these last fifty years.

To be sure, this last point has been a serious problem. Musicians have not really had any really means of singing Mass propers. They are not in the hymnbooks. Bishops haven’t really insisted on them. Confusion about these points has been everywhere. The official chant books of the Church, to the extent anyone knows about them at all, seem forbidding. And as self justification for not following any guidelines, people could always point to the can-of-worms-opening clause in the General Instruction that permits “another suitable song” to replace propers when necessary.

But thanks mostly to the efforts of the Church Music Association of America, we now have the beginnings of a growing repertoire of music that is both accessible to parishes and seeks to do what the Church intends with regard to the liturgy, which is to say that these new resources set the liturgical word to music. The idea is to provide a bridge to the ideal, to re-root the singing at Mass in a coherent framework, to restrain the wandering power of the subjective imagination of musicians, and to unleash a new kind of beauty that comes with following both the letter and spirit of the liturgy itself.

For most Church musicians, this is a completely new way of thinking. It is an amazing thing to discover. It also comes with a new mandate, not to rule but to serve, not to invent but to re-discover what is, not to impose but to submit in humility to what is bigger and greater than ourselves. To discover Mass propers as the musical mandate is also a liberating experience because it frees us from implausible and unworkable tasks and gives us a means of truly contributing to the life of the liturgy.

Psalms at Mass: Tragedy and Solution

Scholars tell us several critical points about the Psalms as they relates to Christian liturgy. The early Christians had no question about their suitability as texts for liturgy. They were the very first text used for Christian song in all lands. What later emerged as the various liturgical rites all used the Psalms and the basis of song. The Psalms were the basis of what became the Divine Office. And the earliest and most developed of all the Gregorian chants at Mass were the Psalms.

The most prominent place for the Psalm at Mass was between the readings of scripture. Their performance was a time for prayer and meditation. They were the most elaborate chants of the entire Christian songbook. This Psalm between readings was called the Graduale, as a reference to the position of where it was first sung. This tradition of elaborate chants between the readings is preserved in the liturgical books to this today, particularly the book named after the Gradual itself, the Graduale Romanum.

In short the chanted Psalm, the crown jewel of the liturgical books and the foundation of so much musical development for centuries, is the foundation of song at Mass.

Sadly, anyone reading the above today, would find this entire history completely unrecognizable based on their own experience at Mass. Even people who have been attending Mass weekly for decades would find this history to be implausible. What mostly happens between the readings at Mass sounds and feels like nothing history, contemplative, reflective, and beautiful.

The question arises: what happened to the Psalm?

Contemporary reports show that before the reform of the Mass in 1969, the Psalm was not usually sung in its original form. The true chant was mostly too difficult for most parishes. So most parishes took recourse in the Psalm-toning technique, meaning that the text was rendered in a simple formula. It was dignified by comparison to what we are likely to hear today, but not what it should be. One can understand how people could have gained the impression that it just wasn’t that important.

But in 1969, something more dramatic happened. The Psalm was rendered in the vernacular, thereby making the older form awkward for any but the most enterprising music programs. Even more substantially, its form was changed from being a solo chant to necessarily involving the people. As William Mahrt was once told in the defense of this approach, the people needed to “have something to do.”

The people-involving form chosen was based on the chanted structure for the Divine Office. There would be an antiphon. The antiphon had to be easy for the people to sing. It had to be extremely easy to sing because people had to hear it only one time and then sing it back. Then it was followed by Psalm verses. The antiphon would be repeated after each verse or at the end.

Monks knew well how to accomplish this task because it had been part of their liturgy for more than a millenium. Sadly, lay people had long ago ceased being exposed to this approach to song, and they were the ones charged with writing music for the new approach. They had no clue about how to do this, and instead took recourse to the beats and tunefulness of music in the culture at large.

In other words, there was nothing inherently wrong with the Responsorial Psalm structure. It is not as perfect as the Gradual but it was not fundamentally flawed either. One can make a case for the new approach based on some scraps from history and also from the general sense that it did take place within the “Liturgy of the Word” so a borrowing from the Divine Office is not entirely outlandish.

But composing for it would be tricky, and require a great deal of subtlety and compositional sophistication. A handful of people accomplished this in the 1970s and 1980s. Theodore Marier would be primary among them. But his book in which the Psalms were published did not reach a wide audience. What did and has reached a wide audience were the Responsorial Psalm based on popular music. Forty years went by. Readers who have experienced these can provide their own assessments of their musical merit.

In any case, let us moved forward in time to the way in which this problem came to be addressed in a competent way. Five years ago, Jeffrey Ostrowski opened up a new website called Chabanel Psalms that provide free Psalm settings for download. He offered them to the world. Why? He was so upset about the poor quality of the standard Responsorial Psalm that he just had to fix it. This was his fix.

The website was a smash hit. Finally, after decades of waiting for something, people could freely download a dignified and fitting setting of the Psalm to sing between readings. It was marvelous. And it was just the beginning. Immediately others began to come forward. It turns out that many Church musicians had been composing their own settings for years! They began to send them into Jeffrey and Jeffrey very graciously and enthusiastically began to add those to his collection that he was offering for free.

Among those who were sending in sending was the director of my own Gregorian Schola, Arlene Oost-Zinner. She was insistent on retaining the Gregorian psalm tones for the verse. Her Psalm antiphon was composed in the Gregorian style. It was simple but sophisticated, paying careful attention to the text and the flow of the words. I had noticed in my own parish (in which these were a real godsend) that people were able to sing them very quickly (and, most impressively, not feel ridiculous for having done so!).

There are three years of Psalms that had to be composed — three times the whole liturgical calendar. In other words, this task is not for the faint of heart. It requires being creative on schedule, and sticking with it no matter how you feel that week. And you must do this for three full years, without seeing a dime in revenue for your work. After all, these were being given away and there was no revenue stream to compensate anyone at all.

This whole project is culminating in a number of new resources. The Vatican II hymnal is one example. My personal favorite is of course the ones I have known in my own parish and are loved by the parishioners in my parish. These the ones that have been among the most downloaded, the ones by my own schola director.

I’m pleased to say that these have all been typeset in a single book and made available as the Parish Books of Psalms, as published by the Church Music Association of America. This book allows anyone to have one resource that captures a good part of that original sensibility of the Psalm while retaining the Responsorial structure.

The antiphons are simple but dignified, and the verses are entirely written out for the singer, using traditional Gregorian Psalm tones. You only need to open and sing. It can be done by a single cantor or a full group, but I’ve never seen a case when the people do not sing along while maintaining an atmosphere of contemplation.

A point I find rather interesting about this music publishing business: once these resources come to be, people tend to take them for granted, as if they had always been here. But think about it: the problem of the Psalm dates back decades in the midst of a time when such resources were nowhere to be found! Generations have suffered and this suffering can now end.

It was this way with the Simple English Propers. No one seems to even remember what life was like without them. It will be the same with the Parish Book of Psalms. The remedy arrives and all is forgotten and forgiven. So let me just say this from the heart: it was a gigantic struggle to get to the place. Thanks be to God, the future will be better than the past.

This book will become available within two weeks.

The Preconciliar Rite in Our Time

The parish schola to which I belong had signed a man’s spiritual will that requested a full Requiem High Mass in the extraordinary form upon his death. The time came much sooner than it should have. He was only 57 when he died.

We had only three days between hearing of his death and the scheduled date of the Mass. We practiced for a total of 5 hours, and this was pushing it. The schola sings the chants from the Graduale Romanum every week at an ordinary form Mass but the elaborate form of the extraordinary form makes special demands on the schola, with very few options. There was a Gradual Psalm and Tract, plus offertory and verses, plus the Sequence, as well as Libera Me and the chants for the final exit, in addition to the chanted sections that we already knew from the ordinary form Requiem.

We knew that it had to be beautiful. There was more at stake here than met the eye. The parish in which we sang was in a town where there had not been this form of funeral Mass in at least half a century and perhaps even longer. Even before the Council, it is likely that the Requiem adhered to the convention of the time, which was a low Mass with vernacular hymnody. The high Masses tended to use Psalm tone propers and not the propers from the Roman Gradual. So this presentation was highly unusual, perhaps never heard in this parish or even in this town.

The celebrant, who did an outstanding job, had never said this particular Mass before. The servers and MC had to come from across the state. Our schola was imported. As for the congregation, it was split between Baptists — the faith tradition of the deceased’s family — and Catholics of the parish who are used to the common form of funeral Mass seen today. In other words, we had something here that was completely artificial from a human point of view, not part of a known tradition or experience in any way.

There were very few hooks to help people. We could have printed an encyclopedia of explanations and people would have still be lost. They expect a hymn and they get a chant in a language that is not their own. They expect readings in English but get them in Latin. They expect a Psalm but get a long melismatic piece. No Catholic in the pews today has even heard of the tract. The Sequence is known from movies but not real life. Not even the Angus Dei follows the same familiar text. The Pater Noster might have been known but it is said by the priest alone. From my observation from the loft, it struck me that the only familiar moment in the entire Mass was the Sanctus; we used the Requiem ferial setting that has become standard in many parishes and the only bit of Gregorian chant heard at all in most places.

So you can imagine that I had a full expectation of a sociological disaster. That did not happen. We did sing beautifully. The celebrant was amazing. There were moments of breath-taking beauty at the altar. The liturgy in general moved at a clip, taking in total about 80 minutes. It was absolutely wonderful, and well received. How and why did it work? No matter how much we work or how much all the actors believed that it was up to us to make this happen, we did not make this happen. The Divine took over. We merely needed the will to be guided by the spirit.

The Divine took over from the perspective of the pew as well. I heard reports of how people were enormously impressed at the solemnity and beauty, the quiet and the seriousness. No, people could not follow along despite the aids we handed out, and that’s fine. Remoteness is a feature of mystery and mystery is a feature of the liturgy. Immediate cognition is not the point. The penetration of the heart and soul, areas of our being we try to avoid on a daily basis, is made possible with the remarkable voice of the purest form of the Roman Rite.

The experience led me to some additional thoughts. Did this liturgy work as some kind of advertisement for the proliferation of the extraordinary form? Maybe and maybe not. People were very pleased to be part of the history and the significance of the occasion. But it did not and will not cause a clamor to have this form of the ritual become the mainstream much less the exclusive way that funerals take place. This cannot and will not happen. Not one person in attendance walked away thinking: all Catholic funerals should be required to be this way.

The periodic appearance of this rite in the mainstream of Catholic life is to be valued. But its continued life in our culture is ironically dependent on the the ordinary form as a means of bringing the liturgy to the people in the most direct way, as a teacher and guide. The ordinary form is and will remain the liturgy that Catholic culture knows best, and through it Catholics can grow to develop a special appreciation for the magnificence of what came before.

Pope Benedict XVI was extremely wise in institutionalizing these names: ordinary and extraordinary form. We can take these terms literally and use them in the modern sense to understand what the future holds as regards the two forms of the Roman Rite. I can foresee no circumstances under which this will change in our lifetimes.

To be sure, there are some changes that could be made to the extraordinary form that might give it a welcome boost in Catholic life, small changes that could cause it to become more integrated with the Catholic experience. Please understand that in saying this, and naming these changes, that I am not actually advocating these changes; that is the job of the Church, not laypeople who are writing articles. I would never presume to say that I know exactly what needs to take place to make the extraordinary form more accessible and prevalent in the modern world.

But based on my experience so far, the introductions of some options could make a big difference. If the readings could be in English, not during the homily but during the liturgy itself, that would dramatically increase the engagement of the congregation in the liturgical action. If some vernacular motets or hymns were permitted, and the music were not strictly limited to Psalm tones and Gregorian melodies in Latin, people would not have such a sense of being outside spectators of what is happening. I might further suggest that permitting English sung propers as options could advance the cause of the extraordinary form as well.

These are three very small options that could be introduced that would make a giant difference. If we look at the spirit of Vatican II’s mandate for change, I’m imagining that these are the types of changes that Sacrosanctum Concilium suggested should take place. The idea was not a wholesale revolution but the introduction of options that would fulfill the hopes and desires of the liturgical movement.

It is one of the great tragedies of Catholic history that in the six years after the close of the Council the cause of liturgical reform fell into the hands of a small cadre of rationalistic intellectuals and activists who used the opportunity for change as a time for exercising their wits and trying out their experimental ideology on the Church. We are still working to recover from this disaster.

For forty-five years, we have faced the choice between a reformed rite that often seemed to have nothing to do with our history, on the one hand, and, on the other, going back to repeat that history as if it had to be frozen to an absolute standstill in 1962 and the Council’s desire for marginal improvement completely ignored.

It is the task of this generation to carefully work toward bringing about a Catholic liturgical culture that is not so divided between old and new. There must be give and take on both sides of this spectrum, and the resistance is proportionally strong in both directions.

But let me mention something that gives hope here. Five years ago, no one would have believed that we would have a new Missal with such elegant language and music that is part of the Missal itself. It seemed like an impossible dream, and it too was doggedly opposed by the extremes on both sides. And yet here it is. It exists. It is beautiful.

There is still a long way to go, but so long as we have the example of the extraordinary form before us, and we are willing to consider that the ordinary form does have things to teach us, there is no reason to lose hope for a more integrated Roman Rite in the Catholic liturgical world in the future.

Is the Liturgy a Stage?

A text message arrived on my phone: “the end is near.”

I stared at it a few minutes and then texted back the only thing I could think to say: “Context?”

The message became more detailed. An older gentlemen whose Mass that my parish schola had contracted to sing was dying. Our schola needed to prepare.

Only then did I recall something I had forgotten about that dates back some six years ago. A gentleman in a neighboring town had attended the funeral of a friend. The music was the usual material we’ve come to expect from funerals. There was eulogy after eulogy. The priests wore white. People were encouraged to think of the deceased as being with God already. There was no chant. No Dies Irae. Nothing looked like a Catholic funeral as he understood it.

He thought to himself: I do not want this to happen when I die. So he contacted me, made up an extremely detailed list of do and don’ts for his own funeral, and had me sign the paper to guarantee that his own funeral would be thoroughly liturgical. He put it away among his things and made sure that his caretaker found it in the last hour.

Why would he do this? He would be dead, so what’s the point? He never put it this way but I suspect that he wanted to leave a gift of praise to God and a gift of beautiful liturgy to his family. I don’t think it was really about him. It was about God and others, very beautiful motivation.

A week later, we found ourselves in a peculiar situation. We don’t usually sing funerals. So we gathered for a just-in-case rehearsal, and took a very long time doing a crash course on all the chants of the purest form of Requiem Mass.

Three days later, he died. The funeral date was set. Then the call came from the Celebrant with news that I had not expected. This would be an Extraordinary Form high Mass. All along I had assumed this would be ordinary form. The change meant that the Gradual and Tract had to be sung as they appear in the liturgical books, and could not be replaced by the Responsorial Psalm and Alleluia verse. There would be the Responsory for incensing. The Sequence: required.

This meant more work for us. We cancelled regular rehearsal and gathered those who could come to the Requiem and got to work. Two hours later we had it mostly completed. This would have been an impossible task for a schola just starting out. We have been together for twelve years but, even so, it was not easy. We all felt that sense of being stretched to our limits.

The celebrant felt the same way. He has said the old form in a Low Mass context and some sung Masses but his experience is very limited. The servers were in a similar situation. It’s all new. I suspect that a high Requiem Mass has not been sung in the parish where the funeral is held in half a century, or, perhaps ever.

In some ways, this task is liturgically unnatural. Liturgy should be part of our lives. This level of work and struggle should not have to happen. We should know these chants as part of our apostolate. We should not have to be in a position to recreate anything. It should just happen. But, alas, we must accept the times in which we live and do the best we can. We’ve been given an amazing opportunity . We dare not let this slip by without doing everything we can do to let beauty live again in our liturgical lives.

I found myself thinking of the people in the pews. The deceased’s family is not Catholic. He is a convert in late age. The extended family is Baptist. The parish is a fine one but has no extraordinary form. The music is mixed, traditional in many ways but there is no singing of the Mass propers, no chant schola.

It is at the Requiem Mass where the difference between the two forms, as they emerge in real life, is most stark. The EF gives no choices. A high Mass is highly scripted. Our English motets are completely out of the question. There cannot be English adaptions of anything. The music is substantial and plentiful. The section of music between the readings consists of three separate and very long pieces of music, all sung in Latin, without instruments.

I’ve been wondering how it will come across. It is not likely that a single person attending this Mass will have ever experienced anything remotely like this. Most everyone will be lost the entire time. We could pass out hundreds of pages of guides and notes but it will not help. Nothing will be familiar to anyone there. There will be very little with which the people can connect or identify. It will last more than an hour but less than two, and people might leave mystified and probably a bit confused.

I’m not expecting anyone to walk away and say: wow, this was just fantastic!! I fully expect the results to be otherwise. I’m expecting grumbling and disappointment and disorientation. Maybe I’ll be proven wrong. Maybe lives will be changed on the spot. But I doubt it. I suspect that most people will be confused and even a bit annoyed.

The question is: what makes a liturgy successful? And a deeper question: what is the standard by which we are measuring success? I suggest that in our times, it is nearly impossible to get away from the standard that is the worst possible standard: we tend to judge liturgy as if all the performers are on a stage performing for us. We want to entertain and be entertained. We want to “reach” people so they can have a emotionally satisfying experience, a rich and memorable encounter with something we define as meaningful. If that doesn’t happen, we are inclined to think we failed.

This Requiem we will soon sing challenges that idea in the most fundamental way. By standards of entertainment and staging, it will be a failure. But judged from the point of view of praise and prayer to God, matters change. In this sense, it will be absolutely perfect. The profundity will be lost on many if not most. I know this. I would love to be proven wrong but I suspect otherwise.

And yet: the encounter with the Divine should not produce obvious and expected results. To have something reach a part of our hearts and souls that the modern world leaves untouched is a remarkable thing. It brings about lasting change. It leaves us with memories that increase in significance over time. The graces are planted and multiply. As the years pass, the people present may eventually come to realize that in this experience, they were presented with a vision of timeless truth, and that they did not and could not recognize it at the time because it was unfamiliar and unrecognizable.

The extraordinary form does this. It is the liturgy for the long term, the liturgy that speaks to something that escapes our immediate cognition but penetrates to the part of ourselves we don’t often access or even think much about. It speaks a language we do not speak. It is a language that we are too often afraid even to hear. But we must and do in the context of facing that terrifying thing: the mortality of all living things and the immortality of our souls.

This is the truth of the liturgy. It has nothing to do with being on stage, and nothing to do with entertainment. Can we handle the truth? I do not know. The deceased in this case did a bold and generous thing. He made it impossible for all of us to turn away from it. May we face it, see and hear its beauty, and be transformed by it.

Does the Ordinary Form Have a Distinctive Voice?

Does the ordinary form of the Roman Rite have a distinctive voice from that of the extraordinary form? One one level, the answer seems obvious. You go to the extraordinary form (EF from hereon) and you hear Latin, chant, silence, and the rubrics, worked out over many centuries, yield a result that can be stunningly beautiful. Happen onto one of many EF Masses that has been instituted over the last ten years, and this is what you experience.

The archetype of the ordinary form (OF from hereon) is very different. You hear the vernacular. There is popular music. The rubrics are loose. The atmosphere is casual. It can often be difficult to tell the difference between laxity, approved improvisation, parish tradition, and outright abuse. It all gets mixed up in what often ends up as a liturgical stew that, if observed from preconciliar point of view, would not look like the Roman Rite at all.

So, from the point of view of real-world experience, the question is easy to answer. But at the Sacred Music Colloquium of the Church Music Association of America, we’ve all attempted to show another side to the OF. We adhere to the General Instruction and attempted to present the Mass in light of the larger historical experience of the Roman Rite. We use Mass propers, whether in Latin or English. The celebrant has said the Mass ad orientem, that is, not facing the people. The celebrant is not front-and-center; the sacrifice on the altar is the focus.

We employ silence. The Mass parts are chanted. The dialogues are chanted. The readings are chanted. Vestments are beautiful. We’ve used polyphonic ordinary settings. We do not neglect the Kyrie. The creed is sung. Optional prayers are eliminated as unnecessary innovations. Instead of the Responsorial Psalm, we have typically sung the Gradual chant from the Graduale Romanum. The use of hymns is generally restricted to the recessional. There are lots of other “smells and bells.”

The result is something spectacular, something rarely if ever seen in the Catholic world. It is solemn and dignified. It is moving and spiritually fulfilling. Older Catholics who have attended these Masses say that it is easily recognizable as the Roman Rite that they knew from their childhood. Even sophisticated observers are unable to distinguish this OF from the EF. I had people insist to me that this was certainly the Tridentine Rite. Yes, it is missing the prayers at the foot of the altar, the last Gospel, and other pieces of the puzzle, but unless you are specially looking for those, you could easily mistake what you experience for the older form of Mass.

It is a beautiful thing to behold.

I’ve never really questioned this approach. It strikes me as an obvious proposition that the OF when done properly should look and feel like the EF of Catholic history.

And yet, some comments by one of our faculty do give me pause and cause me to wonder whether this is the whole of the answer to our liturgical problem. Paul Ford, author of the first English simple Gradual called By Flowing Waters, wrote on the blog PrayTell that we really went too far with this methodology. The OF does have a distinctive voice and all our efforts to dignify the celebration have managed to mute that voice.

Here is what he wrote:

This CMAA Colloquium was the perfect venue for experiencing the reform of the reform at its most exemplary. Readers of this blog will know that I am not convinced that the ordinary form of the Mass can be enriched (let alone needs to be enriched) by the extraordinary form in ecclesiology, sacramental theology, or pneumatology, although the latter can contribute to the former its ars celebrandi and its standard of musical composition and music making…. Although the extraordinary form’s ars celebrandi and its standard of musical composition and music making were august, I am not convinced that we need to celebrate the ordinary form ad orientem. The wise presider gets himself out of the way by directing his attention to the assembly, to the word, to what he is doing, and to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Professor Ford offers other comments along these lines. He wanted the congregation to sing the propers. He wanted to hear the prayer of the faithful. He wanted more integration between the sanctuary and the nave, and he desired more active participation from the people.

One can argue with his specifics, and the chaplain of the CMAA did so, defending ad orientem and the elimination of the sign of the peace by the people. These defenses were persuasive, in my view, and I remain unconvinced by the specifics that Paul Ford offered.

And yet that leaves the larger question. Is the only path through the reform of the reform to make the OF like the EF as much as possible? Maybe not. The OF certainly does have some merit on its own: the intelligibility of the readings, the openness and audibility of the some prayers, the unavoidable emphasis on deeper involvement of the people in the pews.

Had the postconciliar reforms been conducted with more caution, we might have ended up with all the benefits of reform without experiencing the radical remake that the rite of Paul VI ended up being.

But that’s all water under the bridge at this point. The vernacular exists. The OF exists. The calendar was changed. So let us put the question a different way. Does the OF, as it exists in the liturgical books (as distinct from how it exists in the real world) have anything unique about it that needs to be protected from being absorbed by the history of the Roman Rite? I find this question intriguing and the answers not entirely settled.

In general, I think the answer is yes. The Of does offer some uniquely meritorious features that I would not want to see entirely go away. The vernacular is a gift, as Msgr. Schuler used to say. The wider range of readings is a good thing. I can even see that there is a point to the Responsorial Psalm when done well. To my mind, these must be considered against what I find to be regrettable aspects of the OF: its linearity, its lack of quiet prayers, its reductionism, and, above all, its overemphasis on choices and options.

Nonetheless, Ford does raise interesting points. It is undeniable that, for example, polyphonic settings of the Mass ordinary, enjoy a happier existence in the EF than the OF framework (for distinct reasons). Even from the point of view of the liturgical books, the OF does seem to call forth a distinct treatment, and I do believe that Ford might be onto something here. The problem of the reform of the reform might not so easily be addressed with the one standard that the EF provides.