LITURGY Q & A: Hymns at Communion Time

Fr. Edward McNamara Says Official Rules Are Few

Light of candles into a church

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Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.

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Q: Is the hymn “Parce Domine” an appropriate hymn to be sung for the Communion procession during the season of Lent? I ask because the Communion hymn is to be Eucharistic in nature in order to praise and give thanks to God. – E.S., Columbus, Ohio

A: Surprising as it may seem, there are few official rules regarding any of the four hymns usually sung at Mass. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal says regarding communion:

“86. While the Priest is receiving the Sacrament, the Communion Chant is begun, its purpose being to express the spiritual union of the communicants by means of the unity of their voices, to show gladness of heart, and to bring out more clearly the ‘communitarian’ character of the procession to receive the Eucharist. The singing is prolonged for as long as the Sacrament is being administered to the faithful. However, if there is to be a hymn after Communion, the Communion Chant should be ended in a timely manner.

“87. In the Dioceses of the United States of America, there are four options for singing at Communion: (1) the antiphon from the Missal or the antiphon with its Psalm from the Graduale Romanum, as set to music there or in another musical setting; (2) the antiphon with Psalm from the Graduale Simplex of 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) some other suitable liturgical chant (cf. no. 86) approved by the Conference of Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop. This is sung either by the choir alone or by the choir or a cantor with the people.

“However, if there is no singing, the antiphon given in the Missal may be recited either by the faithful, or by some of them, or by a reader; otherwise, it is recited by the Priest himself after he has received Communion and before he distributes Communion to the faithful.”

The reason why we get no more than “some other suitable liturgical chant” for this is quite simple: In spite of the many and varied opinions about them, these hymns (the communion but also the entrance, offertory and exit) are among the least important elements from the point of view of the liturgy.

For the entrance and communion processions the Missal provides antiphons. The Latin texts of these antiphons are some of the finest examples of Gregorian chant, and there are also some excellent polyphonic versions.

There is no longer any official text in the missal for the offertory in the ordinary form, although the Roman Gradual does provide some musical texts and settings for this moment.

There is nothing whatsoever regarding the concluding hymn.

Although there is still a lot of work to be done by musicians to compose suitable music for the official vernacular texts, there are evident signs of hope with some very good versions of the antiphons accompanied by psalms. One of the benefits of the Internet is that these compositions can become more widely known and used in relatively short time once the necessary episcopal permission has been obtained.

Although singing the actual antiphon is by the far the best practice, when this is not possible, the text of the antiphon should at least give us some guidelines as to what constitutes a “suitable” hymn. The Communion antiphons from Ash Wednesday until the second Sunday of Lent are:

“He who ponders the law of the Lord day and night

will yield fruit in due season

“Create a pure heart for me, O God;

renew a steadfast spirit within me.

“O Lord, make me know your ways,

teach me your paths.”

“I desire mercy, not sacrifice, says the Lord,

for I did not come to call the just but sinners.

“One does not live by bread alone,

but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.

“The Lord will conceal you with his pinions,

and under his wings you will trust.

“Amen, I say to you:

Whatever you did for one of the least of my brethren,

you did it for me, says the Lord.

Come, you blessed of my Father,

receive the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.

“When I called, the God of justice gave me answer;

from anguish you released me;

have mercy, O Lord, and hear my prayer!

“All who take refuge in you shall be glad, O Lord,

and ever cry out their joy, and you shall dwell among them.

“Everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds;

and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

“As I live, says the Lord, I do not desire the death of the sinner,

but rather that he turn back and live.

“Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect,

says the Lord.

“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased;

listen to him.”

As we can see they are scriptural texts from both the Old and the New Testaments. However, they are not necessarily centered on the Eucharist or on the act of receiving Communion but rather reflect the general spirit of the Lenten season. In some cases they reflect the Gospel of the day.

The antiphon “Parce Domine” is a text derived from Joel 2:17. This antiphon is used in the liturgy as one of those sung during the imposition of ashes. The antiphon is sometimes also used to accompany Psalm 51 “Have mercy on me O Lord.”

The hymn that usually accompanies it, “Flectamus iram vindicem,” is attributed to St. Ambrose. Below is the Latin text with a suggested translation from Internet sources.

REFRAIN: Parce, Domine, parce populo tuo:

ne in aeternum irascaris nobis.

Spare, Lord, spare your people:

Be not angry with us forever

  1. Flectamus iram vindicem,

Ploremus ante Judicem;

Clamemus ore supplici,

Dicamus omnes cernui:

Let us appease His wrath,

Beg for mercy from our Judge;

Cry to Him in supplication,

Let us all prostrate and say:

  1. Nostris malis offendimus

Tuam Deus clementiam

Effunde nobis desuper

Remissor indulgentiam.

Refrain

By our sins we have offended

against your mercy, O God

Pour forth from above

O pardoning One, your forgiveness

  1. Dans tempus acceptabile,

Da lacrimarum rivulis

Lavare cordis victimam,

Quam laeta adurat caritas.

Having given us this acceptable time,

grant that in the water of our tears

we may purify our heart and that it may become

a joyful sacrifice offered out of love.

  1. Audi, benigne Conditor,

Nostras preces cum fletibus

In hoc sacro jejunio,

Fusas quadragenario.

Refrain

O Merciful Creator, hear

our prayers with our weeping

in this holy time of

forty day fasting.

This is obviously a Lenten hymn and is not too far from the overall sense found in the antiphons. Therefore I would say that it could be used as a Communion hymn.

That said, however, I think that the text fits far better with the general tone of the texts of the Lenten entrance antiphons and would probably be better suited as an entrance hymn.

In some cases it could be used at the preparation of gifts as this song should also reflect the nature of the season or feast and is not necessarily tied to the act of offering.

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Readers may send questions to [email protected] 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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