Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: I would like to inquire whether after communion, while the priest is purifying the vessels, and the communion song/hymn is finished, is it proper to play instrumental music while waiting for the priest to finish? I observed in some churches, after communion, and after the communion hymn ended, the organist ad-libs a music instrumental until the priest is finished purifying the vessels and is ready for the prayers after communion. Isn’t it appropriate to observe silence since the communion hymn has already finished? – F.X.D.R., Cotabato City, Philippines
A: The norms regarding instrumental music found in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal are the following:
“32. The nature of the ‘presidential’ texts demands that they be spoken in a loud and clear voice and that everyone listen with attention. Thus, while the priest is speaking these texts, there should be no other prayers or singing, and the organ or other musical instruments should be silent.
“142. After this, as the minister presents the cruets, the priest stands at the side of the altar and pours wine and a little water into the chalice, saying quietly: Per huius aquae (By the mystery of this water). He returns to the middle of the altar, takes the chalice with both hands, raises it a little, and says quietly: Benedictus es, Domine (Blessed are you, Lord). Then he places the chalice on the corporal and covers it with a pall, as appropriate.
“If, however, there is no Offertory chant and the organ is not played, in the presentation of the bread and wine the priest may say the formulas of blessing aloud, to which the people make the acclamation: Benedictus Deus in saecula (Blessed be God forever).
“313. The organ and other lawfully approved musical instruments should be placed in a suitable place so that they can sustain the singing of both the choir and the people and be heard with ease by everybody if they are played alone. It is appropriate that before being put into liturgical use, the organ be blessed according to the rite described in the Roman Ritual.
“In Advent, the use of the organ and other musical instruments should be marked by a moderation suited to the character of this time of year, without expressing in anticipation the full joy of the Nativity of the Lord.
“In Lent, the playing of the organ and musical instruments is allowed only in order to support the singing. Exceptions, however, are Laetare Sunday (Fourth Sunday of Lent), Solemnities, and Feasts.
“393. … While the organ is to be accorded pride of place, other wind, stringed, or percussion instruments may be admitted into divine worship in the Dioceses of the United States of America, according to longstanding local usage, in so far as these are truly suitable for sacred use, or can be made suitable.”
With respect to silence the GIRM states:
“45. Sacred silence also, as part of the celebration, is to be observed at the designated times. Its nature, however, depends on the moment when it occurs in the different parts of the celebration. For in the Penitential Act and again after the invitation to pray, individuals recollect themselves; whereas after a reading or after the Homily, all meditate briefly on what they have heard; then after Communion, they praise God in their hearts and pray to him.
“Even before the celebration itself, it is a praiseworthy practice for silence to be observed in the church, in the sacristy, in the vesting room, and in adjacent areas, so that all may dispose themselves to carry out the sacred celebration in a devout and fitting manner.”
With respect to silence after communion it says:
“88. When the distribution of Communion is over, if appropriate, the Priest and faithful pray quietly for some time. If desired, a Psalm or other canticle of praise or a hymn may also be sung by the whole congregation.
“164. After this, the Priest may return to the chair. A sacred silence may now be observed for some time, or a Psalm or other canticle of praise or a hymn may be sung (cf. no. 88).”
In 2007 U.S. bishops published a document called “Sing to the Lord.” While not binding in any way for other countries, some of its reflections can prove useful. With respect to instrumental music it says:
“43. Those with the requisite talent and training should be encouraged to continue the musical tradition of improvisation. The liturgical action may call for improvisation, for example, when a congregational hymn or choral piece concludes before the ritual action is completed. The art of improvisation requires its own special talent and training. More than mere background sound is called for. When worthy improvisation is not possible, it is recommended that musicians play quality published literature, which is available at all levels of difficulty.
“44. There are also times when the organ or other instruments may be played alone, such as a prelude before the Mass, an instrumental piece during the Preparation of the Gifts, a recessional if there is no closing song or a postlude following a closing song.
“91. Although instruments are used in Christian worship primarily to lead and sustain the singing of assembly, choir, psalmist, and cantor, they may also, when appropriate, be played by themselves. Such instrumental music can assist the gathering assembly in preparing for worship in the form of a prelude. It may give voice to the sentiments of the human heart through pieces played during the Liturgy and postludes after the Liturgy. Instrumentalists are to remember that the Liturgy calls for significant periods of silent reflection. Silence need not always be filled.
“92. Instrumentalists are encouraged to play pieces from the treasury of sacred music by composers of various eras and cultures. In addition, those with the requisite talent and training are encouraged to improvise, as described in no. 43.”
With all of the above in mind, I think we can draw the following conclusions regarding the precise question at hand.
None of the documents mention the use of instrumental music during the silence after communion. The only options given are silence or the singing of meditative hymns or psalms.
It is probably possible to have some brief instrumental music in the case that the communion song has finished but the distribution of Communion itself is not over. This would usually be an instrumental version of the communion song rather than a new melody.
Even this limited option would be excluded during Lent and best avoided during Advent.
Should the priest not return to the chair after distributing Communion, the moment of silence or the singing of a hymn or psalm begins with the conclusion of distribution of Communion while the sacred vessels are being purified.
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