Music and the Missal – a reflection for ‘Open House’


When the new Missal was launched, the hopes of Pope Benedict 16th and the encouragement of Bishop Toal and the bishops of Scotland were in tune with the expectations of priests and parishioners. Our instinct is to support the Church –‘a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession’ (I Peter 2:9) and we are so aware of our personal and corporate limitations that we begin every Mass by asking forgiveness for our sins. There are some really beautiful phrases, sentences and ideas– ‘you never cease to gather a people to yourself, so that from the rising of the sun to its setting a pure sacrifice may be offered to your name’. ‘Help us to work together for the coming of your Kingdom, until the hour when we stand before you, Saints among the Saints in the halls of heaven . . . and ‘Blessed indeed is your Son, present in our midst when we are gathered by his love, and when, as once for the disciples, so now for us, he opens the Scriptures and breaks the bread……’.


Nevertheless, many of us struggle to be as positive as we would like to be about the Missal. How many superfluous ‘we pray(s)’ are there? And why is it so often long-winded and even obscure? The disappointments in the text need to be acknowledged and will surely be dealt with. Meantime, we need to get on with it. At least, it has provided us with a fresh start.


The General Instruction of the Roman Missal makes it clear that music is a vital tool for participation, and it clarifies who should be singing what and when. We are invited to give more attention to the ‘Mass parts’ which belong to the congregation. The role of the choir is re-affirmed. The clergy are encouraged to sing the ministerial ‘chants’ or songs especially the dialogues. Introits or entry songs are again commended to us as the optimum way of starting Mass. And the difficulties that people experience in singing during the communion procession can be partly overcome by the re-introduction of the antiphonal or responsorial Communion Song with Cantor or choir.

The Mass parts

The ‘Mass parts’ are meant to be sung by the whole congregation, supported and led by the choir when such is available. These are: the Kyrie, Gloria, Psalm response, Gospel Acclamation, Sanctus, Memorial, Amen and Agnus Dei. Not only are they important because of what they say and accompany, but they help divide the liturgy into the active and the receptive.


The Gloria is such a large text that sometimes the choir will take a major part in its singing, and the congregation then sings a response, most commonly made up of the opening lines. In other texts such as the Sanctus there is no question of the voice of the people being replaced by that of the choir.


The role of the choir

The choir has even greater importance now because of its capacity to lead the congregation, to enrich it with descant and harmony, and to facilitate the introduction of fresh repertoire, as well as to sing its own special parts – without inhibiting either the full, conscious and active participation of everyone else or holding up the smooth flow of the celebration. Choirs need to sing their own beautiful choral music for liturgy. We are blessed with a vast repertoire of motets and anthems which are our heritage, but we need to use them with discrimination lest the choir’s singing inhibits the singing of the other members of the assembly, the congregation.


Richard Wagner, though not a Catholic, recognised that the increased use of instrumental music and accompaniments did much to secularise church music. ‘The first step towards the decadence of Catholic Church Music was the admission of Orchestral Instruments into the Church. With them came a sensual appeal in the expression of Religious sentiment which did a great damage and had a disastrous influence on the Chant itself. The virtuosity of the instrumentalists tempted the singers to show a similar virtuosity and soon the profane taste of the opera penetrated the Church’.[1] There is surely some basis for Wagner’s assertion. Such a view undoubtedly prompted many people in the 19th century to turn to plainsong for an answer – but surely the rot really set in very much earlier when the singing of the clergy and of choirs displaced that of the congregation.


Incidentally, choirs should be ‘distinct but not separate’ from the congregation so that they can lead effectively as part of the congregation but still be able to be coherently together in their own singing – which suggests that galleries are not ideal.


Missal chants

It seems that the music provided in the Missal was printed there to send an unambiguous signal that many texts are better sung. People may judge for themselves whether the music provided is as good as it should be. Whatever we think of the chants provided, the singer needs to mean what he is singing or reciting and there is no substitute for preparation.


For the priests, these recitatives and dialogues – for example the Prefaces and Preface Dialogue – can give an added sense of the holy, the special or the different. Singing may seem daunting, and it does not necessarily come easily to everyone. Priests need to be assured that our singing can enrich rather than detract from the holiness of the occasion. A lot more of us are singing the Preface Dialogue and Preface to the Eucharistic Prayers, and I notice in some parishes that the response to the Preface Dialogue is very strong and the voices of men can be clearly heard especially when the pitch is not too high. There are lots of recordings on websites to help.


Some fifty years ago, when the vernacular was introduced, most parishes made immediate use of hymns to let people get involved. This was – and is – well intentioned, but most of the hymns were written for use at services other than Mass. On the other hand we have enriched our repertoire with some classic English hymns – and with some less impressive ones – so we should take care to increase rather than diminish what we have, but use it with discretion. When using a hymn as an Introit, let’s use the verses needed and not the whole hymn – otherwise people will be exhausted before we reach the Collect.


With the new Missal, a new focus has been placed on Introits and Communion Antiphons. They were always significant even in the previous Missal, but most of us didn’t realise how useful they are. Introits, in particular, focus on the theme of the feast or the season and they last as long as is necessary to cover the entry procession. The texts are usually taken from scripture, and their aptness can be seen in lots of examples such as:


Advent: I lift my soul to you, I trust you, Lord my God. No-one who waits on you will ever be put to shame.
sheetmusic | audio

Christmas: The Lord said to me: you are my son. I have begotten you this day . . . . . .…..

Lent: He will call to me, and I shall answer with freedom and honour and length of days. . . .
sheetmusic | audio

Easter: I have risen. I am with you once more. . . . . . .

All Souls: Just as Jesus died and rose, so those who sleep in him will be restored by God. As in Adam all have died, so all will live in Christ.


Even short verses can work well as general purpose Introits: You alone are holy; In the Name of God; the Glory to the Father; Grace to you and Peace; Christus Vincit; You must Love the Lord; I give you a New Commandment; In the Morning let me know your Love; From the Rising of the Sun. There are plenty of others.


The Communion antiphons

People seem to feel inhibited when asked to sing during the Communion procession. It may be practical when they can sing a hymn by memory, but otherwise they mostly walk in silence. Cantor or choir alternating with congregational antiphon can make it a lot easier..

The General Instruction commends the antiphon from the Graduale Romanum (Latin) or from the Graduale Simplex. The texts in the 1967 Graduale Simplexexist in two vernacular versions: A Simple Gradual and By Flowing Waters. The Simple Gradual has been out of print for a long time but By Flowing Waters is available from the Liturgical Press, Collegeville.

There is an ever increasing repertoire, such as inPsallite (Collegeville), Music for the Eucharist (Kevin Mayhew). The Complete Book of Prayer Chants, byKeith Duke, Geoffrey Nobes and Margaret Rizza, published by Kevin Mayhew, has many useful examples such as Geoffrey Nobes’ I am the Vine and the setting of Ubi Caritas.

Already many parishes are using Taize material such as Eat this Bread; or Noel Donnelly’s As we eat this Bread; or the Benedictus with verses in English; or either of my own two settings of Behold the Lamb of God and a host of other antiphons with or without verses from psalms or elsewhere.


While the introduction of the new Missal has caused some parishes to lose repertoire before gaining a new one – and that is surely due to misunderstanding – I am certain that we will gradually rebuild both repertoire and participation. There are a host of useful websites including those of the Society of St Gregory, the Liturgy Office in London, the USCCB (United States Catholic Conference of Bishops), St Mungo Music, Forth in Praise, Galloway Music Network, the Roman Missal Scotland . . . . .


Gerry Fitzpatrick studied Liturgical Music at the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music in Rome, and then continued his music studies at GlasgowUniversity. He is Director of Music of the Archdiocese of Glasgow and Parish priest of St Leo’s, Dumbreck and Ibrox.

[1]Wagner, Gesammelte Schriften, Leipzig g 1871 t.II,p335, quoted in Outline History of Liturgical Music by Rev J E Ronan MCG, LCSC