Who should sing what in Mass?
Less than fifty years ago very few people were allowed to sing in Mass. At that time the official church teaching was that singing belonged only to "the choir of Levites" - clerics, "men of known piety" and boys if "soprano and alto are wanted" (Pius X, Instruction on Sacred Music, 1903). The only exception to this was the unaccompanied Gregorian chant of the celebrant and the sacred ministers at the altar. More than fifty percent of the church were to be completely excluded from singing at Mass for "being incapable of exercising such an office," by virtue of being female. While this instruction was strongly resisted for many years, by the 1940's all-male choirs were replacing Australia's traditionally strong mixed choirs in most centres.
The most influential change in music in the Mass in the last hundred years occurred well before the changes brought in by Vatican II. On Christmas Day 1955 Pope Pius XII formally announced his approval for using popular religious hymns to accompany the entrance, offertory, communion and recessional processions in 'Low Mass' (Latin Masses that were not sung solemnly). In the same breath, he prohibited the use of these hymns in the Solemn High Masses (Masses where the ritual Mass parts were sung). In these Masses, the Latin Gregorian Chants were to be sung during the entrance, offertory and communion processions. Also at this time, Pius XII repealed the ban on women singing in choir, ironically the same year that St Mary's cathedral finally implemented the previous 1903 instruction to replace mixed choirs with male only choirs. For the first time in thirteen hundred years, the assembly could now choose to sing or not to sing. They could directly participate in singing in a "sung" Low Mass, or they could attend a "said" Low Mass, or they could observe a choir singing a Solemn High Mass. Most people opted for the Low Mass, with or without the hymns, resulting in the large-scale abandonment of the traditional repertoire of Gregorian chant, polyphony and classical art music.
And so began our "tradition" of singing four hymns at Mass. Successive publications of Australian hymnals, such as the Living Parish Hymnal and the Hymnal of St Pius X, helped to build a strong repertoire of hymns for Catholics. When the Mass was reformed after Vatican II, there was a shift in emphasis that was not widely recognised in Australia for many years. While retaining the option for singing hymns during the processions, the instructions for the new Mass clearly focused on encouraging the assembly's singing of the ritual Mass parts. However people in Australia had become used to singing the hymns and not singing the Mass parts; the popular hymnals contained very little in the way of ritual Mass parts in the English language. It wasn't until twenty years after Vatican II that the first comprehensive ritual song book was published in Australia - the Catholic Worship Book. Released in 1985, it challenged our thirty year "tradition" of singing only hymns in Mass.
Today everyone is encouraged to sing the ritual Mass parts as one of the most significant means of their active participation in the liturgy. All the parts of the body of Christ - bishops, priests, deacons, servers, lectors, cantors, choirs, congregation, indeed the entire assembly - have ritual singing roles in the Mass. Just as no one would exclude themselves from singing the ritual "happy birthday" for a friend, so no one should exclude themselves from singing the ritual Mass. Indeed, Christ is present when the church sings (Vatican II, Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy, 7). And if Christ is our model, then we will want to sing the Mass: for the word of God reveals to us that Jesus and the apostles sang ritual songs at the Last Supper (Mt 26:30; Mk 14:16).
7. Who should sing what in Mass?
Why We Do the Things We Do at Mass © 2005 Paul Mason
Paul Mason is Pastoral Associate at Naremburn and Northbridge parishes. He is a member of the Australian Academy of Liturgy and the Diocesan Liturgical Commission of Broken Bay.
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