Songs With God in First Person

And More on Genuflections

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ROME, OCT. 9, 2012 («> Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: I have a question about the use of music in liturgy. A priest has stated that we should not be singing songs where we sing as if it were God speaking: «I, the Lord of sea and sky, I have heard my people cry …» or «I am the bread of life .…» What is the norm on this? I did a little research but could not find an answer. — D.E., San Jose, California

A: Although there is a widely held opinion that these songs should not be used, there is in fact no norm that expressly prohibits them.

Some argue that the texts of such hymns do not form part of Catholic liturgical tradition. In this there is a valid argument, as songs of this kind are fairly novel in the repertoire. It is not a very strong argument, however, because the practice of integrating hymns into the Mass is itself a post-conciliar novelty in the Church, so there is not much tradition to go on.

It is true that in some cultures the faithful did sing hymns while Mass was going on. But these hymns were, in a way, tangential to and not integrated into the Mass itself. I think it is fair to say that outside of the Liturgy of the Hours, Catholics before the Second Vatican Council sang hymns principally as part of popular piety and not at Mass.

It is also important to remember that even today these hymns are considered as substitutes for singing official texts such as the entrance and communion antiphons. The four-hymn model that is now typical at Mass in the ordinary form developed because vernacular musical versions of these official texts were almost nonexistent and the legitimate possibility of using existing Gregorian chants remained unused.

In recent years quite a few composers have started to produce music for the proper texts at Mass in the vernacular. It is to be hoped that this movement will continue to flourish and eventually supplant the four-song model.

Let’s return to the question about texts that use God in the first person. In order to reach a judgment I think we could for the moment leave out any discussion of the musical quality of these hymns, which goes from quite decent to drivel.

 I also think it is also fair to say that nobody really thinks they are speaking as God when they sing these songs. Rather, they are aware that this is Scripture and the message is addressed to them as much as to others. Certainly, scriptural based texts are part of both Catholic tradition and the recommendations of the Church for hymns.

I would say that the question as to the legitimacy and convenience of these texts largely boils down to whether we can find any foundation for them in traditional and official liturgical sources.

We do find occasional texts in which the choir or assembly sing or recite texts in which God speaks in the first person. The clearest example is the reproaches of Good Friday: «My people, what have I done to you? Or how have I grieved you? Answer me! … I fed you with manna in the desert, and on me you rained blows and lashes. My people .…»

Occasionally the communion antiphons use texts in the first person although usually inserting a phrase such as «says the Lord» which eliminates any suspicion about who is speaking. Thus, Monday of the first week of Lent: «Amen, I say to you: Whatever you did for one of the least of my brethren, you did it to me, says the Lord. Come you blessed of my Father, receive the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.»

There are times, however, when this addition is omitted. For example, the communion antiphon of the second Sunday of Lent: «This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.» And that of Palm Sunday: «Father, if this chalice cannot pass without my drinking it, your will be done.» Also, Thursday after the second Sunday of Easter: «Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age, alleluia.»

The Gregorian chant repertoire also has a few examples of compositions with God speaking in the first person. For example, the Alleluia of the feast of the Sacred Heart, «Tollite iugum meum … [Take up my yoke]» is taken from Matthew 11:29. An offertory antiphon used on this feast, «Improperium expectavit cor meum … [Insults have broken my heart],» is a text of Psalm 69:20 but which the liturgy places in the mouth of the Sacred Heart.

In conclusion, any new composition that truly identified the singer with God would induce into doctrinal error and should never be used.

However, if a composition is made up of Scriptural texts, or very closely tied to scriptural contexts, so that there is no danger of any doctrinal confusion, I would say that their use cannot be excluded as a matter of principle. It is necessary to examine each song in particular and judge it on its doctrinal, literary and musical merits.

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Follow-up: Genuflections and Ciboria

In the wake of our«>Sept. 25 column on genuflections during Mass a reader commented: «A thought on your note about not genuflecting if the tabernacle is close by the altar: I have regarded the altar table as distinct from the tabernacle. They are two different places, a place of sacrifice and a place of reservation, with two different purposes. I genuflect before leaving the place of sacrifice and walk to a different place, albeit a few steps, and genuflect entering the place of reservation.»

I would not quite agree with this practice. It is true that altar and tabernacle are two distinct places. It is also true, however, that going to the tabernacle to obtain extra hosts during the fraction rite at Mass is not a distinct ritual moment but a practical need within the Eucharistic celebration itself.

In this case I believe that the liturgy would not encourage adding more ritual gestures than are strictly necessary. At this moment the norms concentrate ritual attention upon the recently consecrated hosts upon the altar. The deacon or priest who goes to the tabernacle always remains within the one celebration and within his ministerial functions.

It is important to remember that while ritual gestures are based on doctrine they are not in themselves formal doctrinal statements and also obey practical considerations. For example, the general rule that those carrying objects in a procession do not genuflect (Ceremonial of Bishops, No. 70) cannot be interpreted as saying that holding a candle outweighs adoration of the divine presence. It is a practical norm that ensures a smooth flow of the ritual gestures.

Let’s return to the case at hand. I say that if the tabernacle is within the sanctuary, then the deacon or priest should not make a genuflection before leaving the altar nor on opening the tabernacle, nor on placing the ciboria upon the corporal alongside the other hosts. If the tabernacle is outside the sanctuary, he should only genuflect on opening the tabernacle door. Likewise, if the need for more hosts were to arise during the distribution of Communion itself, he should genuflect on opening the door.

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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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