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Liturgy Q&A: Songs for the Offertory

And More on Masses for the Dead

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Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: Are there new norms for songs proper for the offertory? In which Church document can this be known? We received information some years ago that songs for the offertory include the words “bread and wine,” but there was no mention of the reason behind it. Is this indication correct? Is this liturgical to follow? And does it apply to songs in various languages? — C.B., Manila, Philippines

A: The offertory song in one of those areas in which certain people have almost dogmatic opinions on what should be done, with scarcely any basis in universal liturgical law.

From the viewpoint of universal legislation, the most important source is the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. To wit:

“48. This [entrance] chant is sung alternately by the choir and the people or similarly by a cantor and the people, or entirely by the people, or by the choir alone. In the Dioceses of the United States of America, there are four options for the Entrance Chant: (1) the antiphon from the Missal or the antiphon with its Psalm from the Graduale Romanum, as set to music there or in another setting; (2) the antiphon and Psalm of the Graduale Simplex for the liturgical time; (3) a chant from another collection of Psalms and antiphons, approved by the Conference of Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop, including Psalms arranged in responsorial or metrical forms; (4) another liturgical chant that is suited to the sacred action, the day, or the time of year, similarly approved by the Conference of Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop. If there is no singing at the Entrance, the antiphon given in the Missal is recited either by the faithful, or by some of them, or by a reader; otherwise, it is recited by the Priest himself, who may even adapt it as an introductory explanation (cf. no. 31).”

“74. The procession bringing the gifts is accompanied by the Offertory Chant (cf. no. 37 b), which continues at least until the gifts have been placed on the altar. The norms on the manner of singing are the same as for the Entrance Chant (cf. no. 48). Singing may always accompany the rite at the Offertory, even when there is no procession with the gifts.”

The official books referred to in No. 48 are publications based on another official source called the “Ordo Cantus Missæ.” This almost completely unknown book, published in 1970, assigns all the Mass propers found in the extraordinary-form missal to the ordinary-form missal and calendar.

Unlike the current missal, the extraordinary form foresaw a proper offertory chant for each Mass. This is not an optional text but is proper and specific to each particular day or season. A glance at the liturgical calendar shows that the prescribed text for the offertory is frequently taken from the psalms. The text usually refers to the feast being celebrated and only very rarely mentions bread and wine.

For example, on Marian feasts, the text usually refers to Mary and in many cases is taken from the first part of the Hail Mary, or a psalm verse applicable to Mary and occasionally is an original composition such as on the feasts of Mary, Mother of God, the Queenship of Mary and the Assumption.

The “Ordo Cantus Missæ” assigns a proper offertory chant to the current calendar. In its introduction it states:

“13. After the offertory antiphon, versicles may be sung according to tradition, but they may always be omitted even in the antiphon, Domine Jesu Christe, in Masses for the dead. After each verse, there is a repetition of the part of the antiphon marked for repetition.”

However, because it is a complex book and difficult to use, it was left lying in the doldrums. In recent years this has been somewhat remedied by the publication of practical versions of these propers, such as those by the monks of the Benedictine monastery of Solesmes, and by Corpus Christi Watershed’s Lalemant Propers in English. There might be other versions I am unaware of.

Therefore, at least as regards universal law there is not much to support the idea that the offertory should always mention bread and wine or the gestures of presenting the gifts.

With respect to documents from bishops’ conferences, the 2007 guidelines on liturgical music, “Sing to the Lord,” published by the U.S. bishops’ conference, give only general criteria regarding hymns. To wit:

“A hymn is sung at each Office of the Liturgy of the Hours, which is the original place for strophic hymnody in the Liturgy. At Mass, in addition to the Gloria and a small number of strophic hymns in the Roman Missal and Graduale Romanum, congregational hymns of a particular nation or group that has been judged appropriate by the competent authorities mentioned in the GIRM, nos. 48, 74, and 87 may be admitted to the Sacred Liturgy. Church legislation today permits as an option the use of vernacular hymns at the Entrance, Preparation of the Gifts, Communion, and Recessional. Because these popular hymns are fulfilling a properly liturgical role, it is especially important that they be appropriate to the liturgical action. In accord with an uninterrupted history of nearly five centuries, nothing prevents the use of some congregational hymns coming from other Christian traditions, provided that their texts are in conformity with Catholic teaching and they are appropriate to the Catholic Liturgy (no. 115).”

It is sometimes difficult to find specific “appropriate” hymns for the preparation of gifts, as this moment of the Mass has received less attention from modern composers than the entrance and communion rite. Moreover, older vernacular hymns for this moment are very rare.

It is also true that a hymn is only one of several options at this moment. Apart from a hymn, it is possible to use the traditional Latin chant for the day; an English version of the same chant; a polyphonic piece by the choir; purely instrumental music (outside of Lent); and even no music at all.

However, given the example of the official document referred to above, in selecting “appropriate” texts, we can be guided by the liturgy of the day and there is no reason to be limited to hymns speaking of bread and wine.

* * *

Follow-up: Funeral Masses and Requiem Masses

In the wake of our July 28 column on requiem Masses, a reader from the Philippines asked for the following clarification:

“During this time of the imposed quarantine, when bishops suspended public celebration of Masses, would it be licit to celebrate a private Mass at the request of the bereaved family for a person who has just died of COVID-19 and preach to them online through a video-communication service like Zoom and Google Meet? My concern revolves around the actual participation of the faithful in the liturgy. I understand that a private Mass intention could be offered for the dead. But is it OK to broadcast it online for the relatives to console them, through a homily that is preached to a camera? The intention might be good but won’t that be a liturgical abuse?”

At the risk of seeming to be a nitpicking liturgist, I would first recall that there is really no such thing as a “private Mass.” The Mass is by its very nature always public even if celebrated alone by a priest. It is always celebrated as Christ’s and the Church’s greatest act of worship to the Father.

Our reader is clearly referring to a Mass which, due to current circumstances, is celebrated for the faithful but without their physical presence.

He is correct that there is no difficulty in celebrating the Mass whose intention is the repose of the soul of a recently deceased person. If the liturgy of the day permits, a priest may also use the appropriate texts for Masses for the Dead and mention the deceased in the Eucharistic Prayer.

As we mentioned in our article of May 12 this year on online Masses:

“These Masses offer the faithful an occasion of growing in grace by hearing God’s word proclaimed, by being nurtured by preaching, and by uniting themselves, in a manner analogous to spiritual communion, with the prayers and actions of the priest who celebrates the holy sacrifice of the Mass.

“However, and here we must be very clear, just as making a spiritual communion is a good thing but is decidedly not the same as receiving Christ’s body and blood, following an online Mass is a good thing but it is not participating at Mass. Only those who are physically present at the Mass participate fully.”

With this in mind, and providing the family of the deceased are fully aware of the limitations involved, I see no particular difficulty that they follow this Mass online.

However, it would be best if at least one or two people could also be physically present at the Mass to represent the Church, participate in the rites, and ensure that the priest is not just preaching to the camera. If this is not possible, given the current circumstances, I think the priest could offer words of Gospel encouragement to those who are virtually present, either at the beginning of Mass or as a homily.

 * * *

 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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Fr. Edward McNamara

Padre Edward McNamara, L.C., è professore di Teologia e direttore spirituale

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