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Father Nick Nelson: The church has definite ideals about music at Mass

I have been writing this column for less than a year, but you can probably tell that I have a passion for the liturgy. But this makes sense. As you “play how you practice,” you become how you worship.

Fr. Nick
Father Nick
Handing on the Faith

I didn’t always have a passion for the Mass. Even when entering the seminary, while the Eucharist as sacrament was important to me, the ars celebrandi, the “art of celebrating the Mass,” was not on my radar. You see, I grew up at your average Catholic parish, so that is what I was used to, and that was what I thought Mass was supposed to be.

But as I studied theology and the liturgical tradition of the church, and more importantly, as I attended beautiful Masses at seminary and in various other places, I realized that what our average parish celebrated on Sundays was not exactly what the Catholic Church had in mind. I’m not saying that what we have been doing is totally wrong or contrary to what the church says. I am saying that it’s not ideal.

Think of this example. It’s your wife’s birthday. So, you can get her a bottle of French Chardonnay or a bottle of Italian Chianti. The Chardonnay is your favorite, and she’ll be OK with it, but what she really loves and wants is the Italian Chianti. If it’s her birthday, and it’s about her, shouldn’t you get her the Chianti? A lot of what we have been doing at Mass is allowed, but it’s been more of what we want or what we think is best, rather than truly offering God what he wants.

Because we do know what God wants. The church is quite clear in some things as to how God wants to be worshiped. I wish to just offer a few examples in regard to music at Mass.

We are to sing the Mass and not just at Mass

The Roman Missal is the big red book that all the prayers are taken from for the Mass. In the instruction for it, which we call the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (at your cocktail parties, you can impress your friends by referring to it as the “GIRM”!), we find guidelines for singing. What we find is that the Mass itself should be sung, not just singing added to the Mass. The parts that primarily should be sung aren’t the opening song and the closing song, but rather the dialogue parts, the Mass parts. In the GIRM we read, “Every care should be taken that singing by the ministers and the people is not absent in celebrations that occur on Sundays and on holy days of obligation. In 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” (40).

We are to sing the antiphons proper to each Mass

We are all most familiar with the “four-hymn sandwich,” in which the Mass is sandwiched between songs for four different points in the Mass i.e., the processional, the offertory, Communion, and the recessional. And while hymns are acceptable, the church actually has something else in mind during those processions, namely the antiphons (GIRM 48). Those who go to daily Mass are familiar with the entrance antiphon and the Communion antiphon. Those are usually said by the priest and the people. Well, every Mass has entrance, offertory, and Communion antiphons, and those have been set to music.

Consider the Fourth Sunday of Lent. we call that “Laetare Sunday.” Why? Because that is the first word of the entrance antiphon for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, meaning “Rejoice!” So instead of picking a song to sing, imagine hearing that antiphon sung as the servers and ministers process into the sanctuary and immediately understanding why we call it Laetare Sunday. The antiphons are an integral part to the Mass. They bring out the particular theme and attitude proper to each Mass.

There are as many different preferences for music at Mass as there are people. But we must remember that the Mass isn’t about us. It is about God. We don’t go to Mass, and we don’t sing there, to get something out of it or to feel something. If we are concerned about getting something out of Mass, then we are missing the point, because the point of Mass is to glorify God as he wishes to be glorified.

When we realize that the Mass isn’t about us, that is when we are the freest and realize how good and gracious God is, that while it is all about him, he still blesses us during the Mass in so many ways. We do get so much out of Mass, most especially Christ himself! To be clear, we don’t need to start chanting the entire Mass or change our music repertoire overnight, but we should consider and work towards what the church has in mind regarding singing at Mass. Let’s not give God the Chardonnay when he really desires the Italian Chianti!

We are having a Sacred Music Workshop on Saturday, May 4, at Blessed Sacrament in Hibbing. Please consider attending if you are interested in learning more about music. Contact me for more information.

Father Nick Nelson is pastor of St. Mary, Cook; St. Martin, Tower; and Holy Cross, Orr. He studied at The Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome. Reach him at [email protected]