Page 15, November 2011

November 2011
Page 15
Page 15, November 2011 — Music Praying twice

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Locations: Glasgow


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Music Praying twice

The new Mass translation cries out for music, says James MacMillan. This Advent is the perfect time for parishes to embrace the church music revival As the new English translation of the Mass beds down and reveals itself more fully this Advent it might be an appropriate time to reflect on how the Church can grow and transform itself when it moves out of its comfort zone.

It was duringAdvent a few years ago that my Dominican parish priest and I attempted to introduce our Glasgow congregation to the concept of singing the appropriate Propers during Mass, replacing, in part, the largely Protestant hymn sandwiches that we have become used to in recent times. This is a more authentic practice and is being encouraged now as a way forward in the gradual process of enhancing the deeper prayerful experience of Catholic liturgy.

There was initial bewilderment among some of the congregation. They had not encountered this idea ever before. Nevertheless, the responsorial structure of the Entrance and Communion antiphons was familiar through the singing of responsorial psalms, of course, but the more austere and stark beauty of the chant shifted them out of their familiar warm bath of “spirit of Vatican II” sentimentality. The liturgy was being gradually re-Gregorianised in the vernacular.

This particular way forward will become more available to Catholic parishes in the years to come. For example, the new Blessed John Henry Newman Institute of Liturgical Music is planning to produce a new Graduale Parvum which will open up huge opportunities to our clergy, liturgists, musicians and laity to reclaim our divine praises according to a traditional Catholic paradigm. It could mean that we start singing the appropriate antiphons and using the right scriptural texts week on week in a way that makes our Sunday liturgical experience more cohesive, more meaningful and more prayerful.

The purpose of the institute is to provide direction and training in liturgical music so that the Sunday liturgy in parishes may benefit from a doctrinal, liturgical and musical formation. The institute has inaugurated a course of study mornings and evenings particularly designed to promote the music associated with the new translation of the Mass which will come into effect now at Advent.

The institute’s aim is to assist clergy and laity to fulfil their complementary roles in the celebration of the Mass in particular. It provides a practical instruction on singing the Mass and a theological and historical background to Church music. Clergy are being trained to sing the different parts of the Mass in Latin and English. It is not “clericalist” to draw attention to how important it is to have our priests able and willing to sing the Mass. St Augustine said that those who sing pray twice. This can be facilitated by clergy leading from the front. It is a great pity that seminaries have largely stopped training our priests to sing the Mass. This is especially the case now when the new translation is crying out to be sung. Indeed, one could even say that the Mass, with its elevated, cosmic and poetic expression, needs the heightened form of “song” to come into its own.

I was thinking of this recently when attending an Anglican Eucharist in the chapel of Royal Holloway, University of London, where my youngest daughter is now a chorister. When the liturgy reached the Preface to the Eucharistic Prayer, the woman celebrant began singing the text – beautifully, naturally, intrinsically to the ritual. It made me think (not about women priests, I hasten to add: I am a loyal Catholic and support our Church’s teaching on priesthood, vocation and mission). But I was forced to ask myself why it seemed most straightforward for the Rev Cate Irvine to sing the sacred words of Eucharist while our own priests are stuck, resolutely defiant to all entreaty to enhance our liturgy in its fullest, sung form. Many Catholic priests I have spoken to are either sullenly opposed to the very idea or have never considered it as an option in the first place. Our communal prayer life and praise of God is all the poorer for this.

Yet there are signs that this might be about to change. Most encouraging is the wider discussion the Church is having about using the new missal. This is full of music. The missal chants, whether for the Ordinary, the priest’s words or the laity’s responses, are all there. In a sense they are the paradigm, pointing us to best practice. It is not completely beyond the experience of Catholics to have heard a priest intoning the Sursum Corda, the Preface, the Eucharistic Prayer and so on. In fact, a few years ago I wandered into a church in Glasgow and heard these being sung. The setting was woeful, however. A cheesy “Hammond organ” tremolando wheezed into action, accompanying the celebrant in an ecclesiastical karaoke straight out of a working men’s club. Indeed, for a moment I thought I had wandered on to the set of Vic Reeves’s Shooting Stars when he was doing his club version of a well-known pop classic. It was unintentionally hilarious and dispiritingly scandalous simultaneously. I left the church feeling I had encountered something deeply blasphemous, in spite of all the good intentions and inane smiles.

It does not need to be like this. We fret too much about what new music we should be using for our divine praises. Our starting point should be the new missal, and this Advent is a perfect time to initiate a sense of rootedness and renewal in our liturgy. ◆ For more information about the Blessed John Henry Newman Institute of Liturgical Music visit For free music and texts for the new missal, visit

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