The Proper Place of Mass Propers

By Tucker, Jeffrey | Sacred Music, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

The Proper Place of Mass Propers


Tucker, Jeffrey, Sacred Music


I sometimes wish that I could be released from my continuing focus on the question of what went wrong with Catholic music in the 1960s and 1970s. Somehow, however, I can't get past the suspicion that in these years we might find the answer to why it is that the average Catholic parish offers a liturgical experience that no Catholic in the history of the faith would recognize as aesthetically familiar. And if we can focus in a very precise way on what it is that happened, we will have a clearer idea of where to go in the future.

Investigations keep leading back to a central idea: hymns have replaced proper texts of the Mass. Think of it. The Sunday Mass has four given proper texts: introit, gradual, Alleluia or tract, offertory, and communion. The gradual and Alleluia of old may be licitly replaced by this new idea called the responsorial psalm and a dramatically shrunken Alleluia while the "gospel acclamation" has displaced the glorious tracts of old. That much I understand.

But what about the introit, offertory, and communion? The offertory chant text doesn't appear in the missal, apparently because the missal only includes spoken propers whereas the offertory is a sung proper. Even so, what is not in the missal doesn't usually make an appearance at Mass. As a result, the priest and people sit following the prayers of the faithful and it feels like little more than intermission that permits the parish to collect money from people and for the choir to sing what the Protestants call their "special music" of the day. That sense of ritual and liturgy comes to a screeching halt, and we take a breather in anticipation of the start of the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

Still, the offertory appears in the Graduale Romanum for all to see. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) refers to the "chants at the ... offertory" (37b), says that "the procession bringing the gifts is accompanied by the offertory chant" (74), and notes that "when the prayer of the faithful is completed, all sit, and the offertory chant begins" (139). To underscore the point, the GIRM sums up: "The norms laid down in their proper places are to be observed for the choice of chant ... at the offertory" (367).

Many celebrants today don't even know that there is such a thing as the offertory chant. In fact, they wouldn't know unless they happen to be browsing through the Graduale Romanum or the Gregorian Missal, books that most Catholic choirs and music directors in the United States are yet unaware even exist. How can the rubrics be followed if people don't even know that central parts exist? They can't, which is why this part of the Mass seems like an accounted-for break of some sort.

The entrance and communion chants are nearly always displaced by some other form of music besides chant--hymns, hymns, hymns, world without end--and the texts are taken from anywhere and everywhere but the proper chant of the day. Indeed, the proliferation of hymns at the expense of propers has gone on without correction since the new missal was first promulgated in 1969 and 1970.

Now, it seems clear that this was never the intention of Vatican II. The Constitution on Sacred Liturgy went to great lengths to elevate the chants of the Mass to the highest possible priority. Chant deserves primacy of place, the document said. The people should be actively involved in singing the parts that belong to them. As for new compositions--and this is a critical passage--"the texts intended to be sung must always be in conformity with Catholic doctrine; indeed they should be drawn chiefly from holy scripture and from liturgical sources." Chiefly! The liturgical sources of course are the propers, and these are drawn from scripture.

Now, six years passed between the promulgation of this constitution and the new Mass which is now called the ordinary form of the Roman Rite. …

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