By Deacon Frank Agnoli
(Editor’s note: The publication of the third edition of the Roman Missal provides a great opportunity for each diocese, parish and individual Catholic to grow in their love for — and knowledge of — the liturgy. In the conclusion of this series Deacon Frank Agnoli, the Davenport Diocese’s director of liturgy, reflects on the parts of the Mass.)
Singing the Mass
Note that the title isn’t “Singing at Mass.” Those who spearheaded the liturgical reforms that took shape at Vatican II were fond of saying: don’t just pray at Mass, but pray the Mass! We can say the same thing about singing.
Mass is not “American Idol.” We are not auditioning; we are praying. Singing involves the whole body in the act of worship. A sad side-effect of recorded music is that we think songs are just for listening, for entertainment. Such a view is completely foreign to the liturgy.
Roman Catholic liturgy is intended to be sung; but that does not mean that we sing everything possible every time we assemble for worship. In choosing what to sing, we are governed by two principles: the principle of progressive solemnity and the principle that certain Mass texts or parts are more important than others.
Citing the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, the U.S. bishops define progressive solemnity as follows: “Progressive solemnity means that ‘between the solemn, fuller form of liturgical celebration, in which everything that demands singing is in fact sung, and the simplest form, in which singing is not used, there can be various degrees according to the greater or lesser place allotted to singing’” (Sing to the Lord, #111).
How do we decide which celebrations call for a greater solemnity and which a lesser? First, there is the day: Sundays ought to be observed with greater solemnity than weekdays. Second, the liturgical season also calls for adjustments in our singing. The Easter and Christmas seasons, for example, call for greater singing while Lent and Advent are more subdued. Finally, individual solemnities and feasts call for greater solemnity; the key feasts of Easter, Pentecost and Christmas, for example, would call for the greatest use of music.
But what should we sing? As we’ve mentioned before in this series, the most important Mass parts are the dialogues and acclamations. These are the most important to sing. The antiphons and psalms are likewise intended to be sung on a regular basis. At the other end of the spectrum might be the chanting of the Gospel, which could reasonably be reserved to the most solemn of occasions. The key is that each community must discern for itself how best to live out these principles.
Finally, it is important to keep in mind that silence is a crucial component of liturgy, as Sing to the Lord #118 mentions:
Music arises out of silence and returns to silence. God is revealed both in the beauty of song and in the power of silence. The sacred liturgy has its rhythm of texts, actions, songs and silence. Silence in the liturgy allows the community to reflect on what it has heard and experienced, and to open its heart to the mystery celebrated. Ministers and pastoral musicians should take care that the rites unfold with the proper ebb and flow of sound and silence. The importance of silence in the liturgy cannot be overemphasized.
Entering the Mystery
Do I sing? Do I fully consciously, and actively enter the liturgy by raising my voice in praise, thanksgiving and petition? Do I honor God’s gift of song, reflecting that the primary musical instrument in the liturgy is the human voice?
The Ars Celebrandi
As a priest or deacon, do I model the full participation called for by the Council by joining in the singing? Do I carry a hymnal in the procession so I can sing along? Have I learned to chant the parts of the Mass, to the degree that I am able? Can I let go of my shyness or embarrassment and give voice to the long-standing tradition of sung (unaccompanied) liturgy in the Church? Do I turn my microphone off, so as not to overshadow the assembly?
As a music minister, do I keep in mind that my ministry is to support the community in their sung prayer, not to take center stage? (For example, when a presider or minister chants a prayer, am I able to lead the assembly’s response in a similar chant style?) Do I avoid any sense that I am the master, and not the servant, of the liturgy; that I am there to entertain? Do I avoid becoming the center of attention by stepping away from the microphone when the assembly is singing — and by stepping out of view when we are singing well-known pieces? Do I avoid exaggerated or extraneous gestures, as well as limit my gesturing to only when absolutely necessary?