Singing at the Elevation

And More on the Profane at Mass

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ROME, DEC. 14, 2010 ( Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: Our priest used to sing a verse from «Come Let Us Adore Him» during the elevation of the consecrated host. Most of the congregation would sing along with him and it was beautiful. Then someone threatened him that they were going to report this to the bishop, so now he has stopped singing this. Is there any reason why a priest could not sing during the elevation and thus bring the message to the congregation more fully? — T.V., Canada

A: While the priest’s zeal in promoting faith in the Real Presence is appreciable, I cannot agree with this particular mode of doing so as it goes against sound liturgical principles. It may also be true that the priest stopped acting this way not so much out of fear of the bishop but rather that some parishioner convinced him of his error. I am sure that a priest who shows such veneration for the Real Presence would also desire to show equal respect for liturgical law.

The overarching principle to be applied in this respect is that of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 24: «Nevertheless, the priest must remember that he is the servant of the Sacred Liturgy and that he himself is not permitted, on his own initiative, to add, to remove, or to change anything in the celebration of Mass.»

The motive behind this principle are well articulated in the instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum:

«[11.] The Mystery of the Eucharist ‘is too great for anyone to permit himself to treat it according to his own whim, so that its sacredness and its universal ordering would be obscured.’ On the contrary, anyone who acts thus by giving free reign to his own inclinations, even if he is a Priest, injures the substantial unity of the Roman Rite, which ought to be vigorously preserved, and becomes responsible for actions that are in no way consistent with the hunger and thirst for the living God that is experienced by the people today. Nor do such actions serve authentic pastoral care or proper liturgical renewal; instead, they deprive Christ’s faithful of their patrimony and their heritage. For arbitrary actions are not conducive to true renewal, but are detrimental to the right of Christ’s faithful to a liturgical celebration that is an expression of the Church’s life in accordance with her tradition and discipline. In the end, they introduce elements of distortion and disharmony into the very celebration of the Eucharist, which is oriented in its own lofty way and by its very nature to signifying and wondrously bringing about the communion of divine life and the unity of the People of God. The result is uncertainty in matters of doctrine, perplexity and scandal on the part of the People of God, and, almost as a necessary consequence, vigorous opposition, all of which greatly confuse and sadden many of Christ’s faithful in this age of ours when Christian life is often particularly difficult on account of the inroads of ‘secularization’ as well.

«[12.] On the contrary, it is the right of all of Christ’s faithful that the Liturgy, and in particular the celebration of Holy Mass, should truly be as the Church wishes, according to her stipulations as prescribed in the liturgical books and in the other laws and norms. Likewise, the Catholic people have the right that the Sacrifice of the Holy Mass should be celebrated for them in an integral manner, according to the entire doctrine of the Church’s Magisterium. Finally, it is the Catholic community’s right that the celebration of the Most Holy Eucharist should be carried out for it in such a manner that it truly stands out as a sacrament of unity, to the exclusion of all blemishes and actions that might engender divisions and factions in the Church.»

And with specific mention of the Eucharistic Prayer: «[53.] While the Priest proclaims the Eucharistic Prayer ‘there should be no other prayers or singing, and the organ or other musical instruments should be silent’ except for the people’s acclamations that have been duly approved ….»

From another standpoint I think that introducing the phrase «Come let us adore him!» in fact unwittingly reduces the scope of the Eucharistic mystery. By concentrating only on the Real Presence, this expression leaves out the full reality of the Mass as a memorial making present the entire salvific mystery that is, in a way, the latest moment in salvation history. In fact, this reality is better expressed by the usual acclamations after the consecration which ties the Eucharistic mystery of faith to the Passion, Resurrection and Second Coming.

I certainly have no objections to a priest singing in order to underline the importance of this moment of the celebration, but this can be done without any undue additions. First of all, the rubrics already allow him to sing the entire consecration itself. It is also highly recommendable that he also intones the «Mystery of Faith» so that the faithful can also sing the memorial acclamation.

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Follow-up: The Profane at Mass

Somewhat related to the question of dramas during Mass (see Nov. 30) is that of particular folk traditions. An Ohio reader asked: «Our parish had its … 25th annual polka Mass. The band consists of trumpet, saxophone, trombone, accordion and vocalist. They play ‘Roll Out the Barrel’ and other polka tunes to which the words of the liturgical hymns are substituted. I believe this to be sacrilegious …»

We have written before about the so-called polka Masses on April 20 and May 4, 2004, and maintain the same position.

This inquiry leads me to note one aspect of Catholic tradition with respect to the music used in church. This characteristic could be called the «rejection of the profane» and means that the Church is wary of accepting any music that the faithful easily associate with non-religious music.

This is not a novelty. Pope St. Gregory the Great (590-604) forbade the deacons from singing lyrical psalms and limited them to the simple tones of the Gospel. He said, «The cantor serving the altar irritates God with his customs even when he fascinates the people with his melodies.» An 11th-century monk thundered against the fad of early attempts at polyphony and solo singing: «What compunction, what tears are born from these tropes when someone elevates the voice like a buffalo while in church. Monks have not entered this solitude to stand before God inflating the neck so as to sing melodies, rhythm arias, agitate their hands and jump from one foot to the other.»

The birth of polyphony, at the same time deeply Christian, was not without dangers. Some composers used popular songs as musical themes for the composition of Masses which then took the name of the song. This is why there is a Mass called «bacciami amica mia» (kiss me, my dear). The Council of Trent attempted to contrast such tendencies in its 22nd session by decreeing: «That form of Music must be removed from churches in which anything impure or lascivious is mixed in, either from the sound of the organ, or through song … so that the house of God may truly be called a house of prayer.»

It must be recognized that some musical forms are inherently profane either because they are tied up with irreligious or immoral contexts or simply intimately associated with the secular sphere. So long as the music invokes the non-religious original, then «baptizing» the lyrics is simply insufficient.

On the other hand, sacred and profane with respect to music often depends on time and circumstances rather than any inherent quality of the music itself. Certain secular tunes can with time lose their exclusively profane context and eventually be used as religious hymns. The lyrics to the popular Christmas carol «What Child Is
This,» composed in 1865, are much better known than those to the original Tudor love-song «Greensleeves.» The so-called Ave Maria of Schubert was originally a German translation of Sir Walter Scott’s «Lady of the Lake.» It was only later adapted by other composers to the full text of the Hail Mary.

Thus, while some flexibility may be allowed, the church is not the place to introduce experimental music which may grind on the sensibility. The primary function of liturgical music is to assist divine worship and to be a prayer itself. The forms of music should contribute to this goal.

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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. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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