Protestant Songs at Mass?

ROME, NOV. 11, 2003 ( Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum.

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Q: What criteria should be used in judging the use of modern music in Mass? Is it OK to use Protestant songs? What criteria apply in those cases? — P.C., Honolulu, Hawaii

A: First it is necessary to recall that the choice of text and melody is not totally arbitrary but requires the use of properly authorized texts.

The new General Instruction on the Roman Missal (GIRM), explaining the different modes of singing the proper of the Mass, gives as the fourth and last alternative «a suitable liturgical song similarly approved by the Conference of Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop.»

The other choices are: (1) the antiphon from the Roman Missal or the Psalm from the Roman Gradual as set to music there or in another musical setting; (2) the seasonal antiphon and Psalm of the Simple Gradual; (3) a song from another collection of psalms and antiphons, approved by the bishops’ conference or the diocesan bishop, including psalms arranged in responsorial or metrical forms (No. 48; see also Nos. 86 and 87).

Referring specifically to the United States, it states: «Bearing in mind the important place that singing has in a celebration as a necessary or integral part of the Liturgy, all musical settings of the texts for the people’s responses and acclamations in the Order of Mass and for special rites that occur in the course of the liturgical year must be submitted to the Secretariat for the Liturgy of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops for review and approval prior to publication» (No. 393).

Some episcopal conferences have published official repertoires of songs that may be used in the liturgy while others have yet to install a system for the approval of musical texts. The diocesan bishop may decide for himself the manner in which he approves hymns and songs for liturgical use. He may publish a diocesan repertoire or may simply limit himself to approve any hymnal or liturgical songbook containing an imprimatur from another bishop.

What is important is to understand that the choice of texts and music for the liturgy is not merely a question of personal taste but entails the deeper question of ecclesial communion.

In general the criteria used for the approval of suitable texts is that the hymn or song be inspired by Scripture or the liturgy although vested in a poetic form, and also that the text should be, in some way, a confession of faith, expressing perennial and orthodox truths rather than current issues.

This should be taken into account in the case of Protestant hymns. They may be used in the liturgy provided they conform to Catholic doctrine. Any hymn that contains doctrine contrary to Catholic teachings, or is ambiguous, should not be used.

Liturgical melodies are there to assist prayer and should be distinctive in style and tone from worldly music. Their function is to elevate the spirit — not set the foot tapping or the imagination rolling. Therefore, they should never be baptized versions of current hits — or, as is more common, hits from the previous generation — but should seek to express the religious value of the text for, in Catholic tradition, the text always has priority over the music and in a sense is its soul.

The dearth of good liturgical music is fairly understandable given that after the introduction of the vernacular, parishes found themselves almost overnight with the need for music adapted to the new liturgy. The repertoire of traditional vernacular and Latin compositions was unfortunately judged insufficient, or worse, out of fashion or irrelevant. As Mozarts don’t come a dime a dozen, and the need for new music was pressing, most parishes took what they could get and they got a lot of dross although some fine pieces were also composed.

Almost every country experienced a period of generally dreadful music, especially in the 1970s. In Spain, for example, many traditional American or English tunes were adapted with new words, raising tourists’ eyebrows as they heard Spanish versions of «Nobody Knows the Troubles I’ve Seen» or «Land of Hope and Glory» belted out at Mass, or even the «Lord Have Mercy» and the «Sanctus» sung to the Beatles’ «Hey Jude» and «Help.»

This invasion of the profane into the realm of the sacred is a recurring problem in Church music and has always been strenuously combated.

Around the time of the Council of Trent, for example, many bishops complained about the use of secular melodies as musical themes for polyphonic masses, such as the one inspired in a popular ditty called «Bacciami amica mia» (Kiss me, my dear). St. Pius X , both as bishop and Pope, also fought against the fashion of individualistic opera style music in Italian churches.

In recent years there has been marked, albeit slow, improvement in many places. Along with the recovery of many traditional songs, and even some return to the use of Gregorian chant and classic polyphony, some serious contemporary composers are addressing the problems of music for the liturgy.

Italy, for example, has seen many excellent compositions that could easily provide a benchmark for the work of composers in other languages. Most notable perhaps is the work of Monsignor Marco Frisina, whose biblically and liturgically inspired music is both beautiful and easily memorable, being open to interpretation either by a simple congregation or a full-blown, four-voice choir.

Although it will probably take several decades, it is probable that a new corpus of good liturgical music will be formed in accordance with the principles of the Second Vatican Council and authentic Catholic tradition.

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Follow-up: Kiss of Peace

Several correspondents raised interesting points regarding the kiss of peace. One reader from Toronto inquired as to the history of the kiss of peace and when was it introduced.

The kiss, or sign, of peace was known from the earliest times, often inspired by St. Paul’s invitation to the Corinthians: «Greet one another with a holy kiss» (1 Corinthians 16:20). Jesus urged that one should be reconciled with a brother before taking one’s sacrifice to the altar. The kiss of peace is also an explicit answer to Christ’s admonition to fraternal reconciliation and peace, to purify one’s sacrifice.

The rite is mentioned in ancient sources such as the «Apostolic Constitutions» and the sermons of St. Augustine.

At first the kiss of peace was considered as an important, and even obligatory, preparation for those about to receive Communion but was later extended to all. After the year 1000 the kiss of peace gradually became a far more formalized rite and later the exclusive preserve of the clergy, except for some special occasions.

Thus the sign of peace, as described in the present missal, roughly restores the rite to the form it had in medieval times in which everyone briefly gave the kiss of peace to the person beside him. At that time the gesture of the kiss was more a mark of respect than of affection. Hence, the gesture adopted today should be what local custom considers as a gesture of respect.

A correspondent from Kentucky asks if the priest or deacon has the option to use other formulas for the invitation to make the sign of peace, besides the one printed in the missal and even if «the priest is allowed to change the words of the invitation to say, ‘If you so wish, you may offer one another a sign of peace,’ thereby transferring the ‘option’ to the people?»

Although the missal in English is fairly limited in this regard, other languages such as Italian and Spanish provide several formulas for the sign of peace, some of which reflect the liturgical seasons. Thus it is possible to have slight variations in the invitation.

Although I doubt that the priest or deacon using the particular example cited by our reader is consciously trying to shift the option of making the sign of peace from celebrant to people, it is rather clumsy and would be better left out, since some people may ref
rain from giving the sign of peace for a good reason (other than not wishing to).

This is not to let the grumpy members of the congregation off the hook, for while some people are naturally disinclined to shake hands with total strangers, a kind smile and gentle countenance costs nothing and is worth a lot.

Another priest from a multicultural situation in which parishioners have developed an «extended sign of peace» over the years, and who is experiencing difficulties in making them understand the true nature of this rite, asks: «Would it be acceptable and in keeping with the spirit of the GIRM if the fractioning rite (with the ‘Lamb of God’) is festive and more prominent than the ‘extended’ exchange of peace … that has been the custom of these communities?»

I would suggest that the priest adopt a patient approach explaining the rite and the universal norms guiding its use. Above all, he should motivate and inculcate his parishioners’ spiritual understanding of the significance of the gesture as a preparation for Communion and unity in Christ’s Mystical Body. This can never be reduced to being no more than a sign of our mutual affection, ethnic solidarity, or any other merely human value.

Once this explanation has been carried out, it is a good idea to strengthen the prominence of the «Lamb of God» with respect to the sign of peace. Thus the choir or cantor should be instructed as to when to intone the «Lamb of God,» leaving a brief but congruous space of time for the sign of peace.

During the transition period from the «extended sign of peace» to a more solemn «Lamb of God» it would probably be better to use simpler melodies that facilitate the singing of the entire congregation. Once the habit of a briefer sign of peace has been formed, the choir may occasionally move on to more complex melodies and even dare sing it in Gregorian chant.

Singing the «Lamb of God» in a more festive, albeit measured, manner is in conformity with the letter and spirit of GIRM No. 83:

«Christ’s gesture of breaking bread at the Last Supper, which gave the entire Eucharistic Action its name in apostolic times, signifies that the many faithful are made one body (1 Cor 10:17) by receiving Communion from the one Bread of Life which is Christ, who died and rose for the salvation of the world. The fraction or breaking of bread is begun after the sign of peace and is carried out with proper reverence, though it should not be unnecessarily prolonged, nor should it be accorded undue importance. … The supplication Agnus Dei, is, as a rule, sung by the choir or cantor with the congregation responding; or it is, at least, recited aloud. This invocation accompanies the fraction and, for this reason, may be repeated as many times as necessary until the rite has reached its conclusion, the last time ending with the words ‘dona nobis pacem’ (grant us peace).»

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Readers may send questions to Please put the word «Liturgy» in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country.

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