Song of Songs

Of all the heavy debates on Catholic Liturgy that seem to cause a threatening snarl and an intimidating stripe of raised hair down the backs of even the most gentle child of God, that on appropriate music is the only one which actually causes yours truly to bite. I am no theologian, nor expert on Church documents. I am, however, a musician and a Catholic. As such, I care enough about this debate to investigate suggestions I find contrary to what I have been taught or have come to believe on my own.

This article from an Australian Catholic newspaper made a few such suggestions that rubbed me the wrong way. Fortunately, the author’s arguments are made based on segments of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), which is easily accessible from the USCCB website. Upon reading the document, I found (as I hope you, the astute reader will, too) much of the article’s conclusions to be taken out of context.

The first, and most prominent, assumption of the article is that a Communion song must be sung, and that to indulge in silence during the Communion procession is virtually forbidden by the GIRM. The article states:

Delaying the song encourages people to adopt an attitude of individual quiet reflection at this point rather than the union of spirit and joy of heart appropriate to this rite. (General Instruction of the Roman Missal #86).

Further, the author criticizes the common practice of singing a post-Communion meditation:

Despite logic and the exhortations of the General Instruction, it is common for the communion procession to take place in silence or to be accompanied by quiet instrumental music and for a communion hymn to be sung after communion has finished.

GIRM #86 looks like this:

While the priest is receiving the Sacrament, the Communion chant is begun. Its purpose is to express the communicants’ union in spirit by means of the unity of their voices, to show joy of heart, and to highlight more clearly the “communitarian” nature of the procession to receive Communion. The singing is continued for as long as the Sacrament is being administered to the faithful.74 If, however, there is to be a hymn after Communion, the Communion chant should be ended in a timely manner.

What I found that apparently the author did not, is this little snippet from GIRM #87:

If there is no singing, however, the Communion antiphon found in the Missal may be recited either by the faithful, or by some of them, or by a lector. Otherwise the priest himself says it after he has received Communion and before he distributes Communion to the faithful.

While the author correctly interpreted the purpose of the Communion chant (did anyone else catch that?), I do not agree that an attitude of individual quiet reflection is so strictly prohibited, especially since an allowance is made in the following paragraph for no singing. Let us not read this section of the GIRM outside the context of the tradition of the Church, either: “Those who receive the Eucharist are united more closely to Christ. Through it Christ unites them to all the faithful in one body – the Church” (CCC 1396). Our communion is in the first place with our Lord in a most personal way. It is only through Him that we can hope to find communion with the rest of the Church.

I also disagree that the phrase “no singing” be equated to “no music.” In GIRM #86 allowance is made for a post-communion hymn, indeed, with the suggestion that the Communion chant itself be shortened to accommodate one if needed. The GIRM continues to elaborate on this allowance in a later section:

88. When the distribution of Communion is finished, as circumstances suggest, the priest and faithful spend some time praying privately. If desired, a psalm or other canticle of praise or a hymn may also be sung by the entire congregation.

All of the above, however, really must be interpreted with respect to the section specific to singing throughout the liturgy, which gives us guidelines as to what is important to sing and what is not; this is found in GIRM #41 (emphasis mine):

In the choosing of the parts actually to be sung, however, preference should be given to those that are of greater importance and especially to those to be sung by the priest or the deacon or the lector, with the people responding, or by the priest and people together.49

So, in reality, the Communion Procession is not a part of the Mass that is of prime importance to sing, because the priests and deacons are busy at this time distributing the Eucharist.

What bothers me most, however, is not so much the part about needing a song during the Communion Procession. In many churches (especially the really old, beautiful, and unfortunately, noisy ones) appropriate music can serve to mask a variety of distracting racket, including (but not limited to), squeaky pews, thumping kneelers, squalling toddlers (well, if you sit near my family, anyway), and clacking dress shoes.

What bothers me is that this author’s need for music completely ignores what music the GIRM itself (not to
mention the tradition of the Church) supports and promotes. This quote really got my blood boiling:

The communion procession, which should be the most joyful of all, is often more like a sombre march to the communion table than a joyful gathering at the banquet of the Lamb.

Now, I could be misinterpreting this statement, but it sounds to me like this author is looking for a toe-tapping tune to get us all smiling, not recognizing the value of a quiet, meditative, reverent type of joy. You know, the kind that is best expressed by what the GIRM tells us should be our first choice of music:

41. All other things being equal, Gregorian chant holds pride of place because it is proper to the Roman Liturgy.

In fact, any time the GIRM makes any specific recommendation about music, the very first choice is from the Graduale Romanum, which, of course, is a collection of Gregorian chant. Second in ranking are sacred polyphony, psalms, and antiphons; lastly, other pieces that have been pre-approved by the Bishops. In any case, the music must always “correspond to the spirit of the liturgical action and…foster the participation of all the faithful.” (GIRM #41)

The spirit of this particular liturgical action, while being one of joy, must also be one of reverence and awe, for it is not simply any banquet table.

“In the Eucharist the Church is as it were at the foot of the cross with Mary, united with the offering and intercession of Christ” (CCC 1370).

I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel like clapping my hands and tapping my feet when I consider uniting myself to the Creator of the Universe in the very action of His crucifixion, bloody or unbloody.

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