Liturgy: Recovering the Sung Mass
Liturgy: Recovering the Sung Mass

Liturgy: Recovering the Sung Mass

Fr Tim Finigan FAITH MAGAZINE September-October 2014


Recovering the Sung Mass

What hymns shall we choose for Mass? When preparing the Liturgy for a particular celebration, this is commonly the key question that is addressed. It may be the organist who chooses the hymns for a parish Mass, the class teacher for a school Mass, the family for a funeral. The priest might put his foot down and ban the use of hymns that contain doctrinal errors: the one where Jesus is reported as saying “I am with you in this bread and wine” for example. The organist might try to move the parish away from the ones that have six verses and only one word changes in each verse. At school, the repertoire might be limited to a dozen or so songs that became popular in the seventies and eighties. This is justified by the circular reasoning that “the children know them.” (How did they get to know them then?)

“Few people involved in preparing the Liturgy for Mass, whether in parishes or schools, or even, sadly, many Diocesan events, realise that the Church has already chosen the music for Mass, and it does not include hymns”

Much heat is generated by discussing which hymns are better: because they are popular, because they are theologically deeper, because they make people clap their hands and smile, because they evoke sentiments of devotion, or because someone like Blessed John Henry Newman, St Ambrose or St Thomas Aquinas wrote them. My purpose is not to contribute to this discussion but to call the whole process into question. When we ask “What hymns shall we choose for Mass?” there are two problematic words: “hymns” and “choose.”

Few people involved in preparing the Liturgy for Mass, whether in parishes or schools, or even, sadly, many Diocesan events, realise that the Church has already chosen the music for Mass, and it does not include hymns. The second Vatican Council urged that these texts be sung, as has every official document since the Council. Fatally, an exception was made to the effect that if it is impossible to sing the texts, another suitable chant or song (alius cantus aptus) may be sung in place of the texts. Well-meaning though it may have been, this get-out clause has effected the almost complete disappearance of sung Mass in parishes. We do not normally sing the Mass, we sing things at the Mass, hymns that have no relation to the liturgical prayers of the Mass. Liturgy commissions used to produce guides (perhaps they still do) with a selection of hymns that had some tangential relevance to the readings, but never to the texts of the introit, gradual, offertory or communion, for which they were meant to be apt replacements. It is also worth noting on the subject of the readings, that these are universally called “readings” and are virtually never sung. Yet in a sung Mass, they should be.

The first objection to actually singing the Mass is that it is impossible. Never mind that many parishes managed to sing Mass properly when all the texts had to be sung in Latin, it is now apparently an unattainable dream to sing them in English. In fact there is a structural problem in that even the official texts seem to assume that it is impossible. The Typical Edition of the Roman Missal and its vernacular translations do not include the texts of the offertory chants, and the lectionaries offer only the option of the Responsorial Psalm. This, of course, can be sung and is one of the parts of the Mass that is sung more often, but few people know that singing the Gradual is a legitimate alternative.

The second objection is that there is no setting for the texts of the Mass in English. Actually that is no longer true since various musicians have now made musical settings available free of charge on the internet. It may be difficult for many choirs to jump from singing hymns to singing introits, but a start can easily be made by singing the texts to a simple psalm tone. The advantage of doing so is immediately apparent: rather than choosing an opening hymn, and later arguing about whether it was too happy-clappy or too sombre, the choir simply sings what is set for the Mass of the day. Nobody is going to say “Hey, that was a great introit!” but equally, nobody coming into the Church off the street is going to think that anything else is going on but the worship of God.

Parish music directors may need our understanding in this matter. Quite often it is the priest who has determined which hymns are to be sung, at the same time ruling out the possibility of a properly sung Mass by himself refusing to sing the orations, the preface, or indeed the gospel. The Christian tradition of singing the sacred Liturgy, a hallmark of Christian worship from antiquity, has largely been replaced by saying the Liturgical prayers and singing something else. It is a painful irony that this has been accomplished in the name of liturgical reform.

The genuine reform of restoring the sung Mass is a challenge for parishes because there has been little official encouragement of it. A sprinkling of random hymns and perhaps the singing of the ordinary is a comfort zone from which it is going to be difficult to shift parish priests, or indeed many bishops. I am sure it would be a powerful motivation for many if they were to realise that singing the texts of the Mass would mean that there need be no further arguments about which hymns should be chosen. A deeper motivation is provided if we consider that it is integral to the Liturgy down the ages that it be sung, and that such sacred chant powerfully aids the genuine participation of the faithful in worshipping God in spirit and in truth.

Father Timothy Finigan is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary, Blackfen, and a visiting tutor in Sacramental Theology at St John’s Seminary Wonersh. You can read his blog at

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