How Music Furthered Vatican II's Trajectory

By Joncas, Michael | National Catholic Reporter, October 11, 2012 | Go to article overview

How Music Furthered Vatican II's Trajectory


Joncas, Michael, National Catholic Reporter


Permit me to highlight five musical elements that have changed in Catholic practice over the past 50 years, changes both inspired by and furthering the Second Vatican Council's trajectory. My perspective is limited insofar as I am a 60-year-old Roman rite diocesan priest from the Upper Midwest, my ministry mostly spent in academic settings with English as the common language. Nonetheless, in workshop and convention settings, I have witnessed musical practices far beyond home, interacting with many communities in Canada, Ireland, England, France, Italy, Germany and Australia.

The first musical element is reclaiming the voice of the assembly as a regular constituent part of Catholic sung worship.

Prior to the council, a Eucharist celebrated in public was categorized as a missa lecta (a "read" or "low" Mass--all the ritual texts spoken by a priest celebrant and server[s]), or a missa cantata (a "sung" or "high" Mass--the majority of ritual texts chanted) or a missa solemn is (a "solemn" Mass, which was a missa cantata celebrated with the assistance of a deacon and subdeacon). Most Catholics experienced low Masses; most people did not actively contribute vocally. At high Masses, a choir normally "substituted" for the congregation in singing the responses.

So, to have post-Vatican II Catholics regularly sing responses to "The Lord be with you"; chant litanies such as the "Lamb of God"; or engage acclamations such as the "Holy, Holy, Holy" is a transformation of our musical practice.

It manifests the council's teaching about the people of God gathered in worship forming an assembly organically unified and hierarchically ordered. This ordered singing symbolizes that in the liturgy the baptized gather as a community to participate in the worship Christ offers the Father in the Spirit through ritualized sacramental signs.

As a corollary of reclaiming the assembly's "voice," our sung texts are increasingly careful to avoid sexist, demeaning, or forms of inappropriate exclusionary language.

The second element is singing vernacular texts.

Pre-Vatican II, English-speaking Catholics did sing a limited number of songs in the vernacular--either sandwiched into the missa lecta or associated with particular devotions (e.g., "At the Cross Her Station Keeping" during the Stations of the Cross, or "Bring Flowers of the Rarest" during Marian devotions).

Singing texts in the vernacular, and supplementing official texts with those generated in the vernacular for particular cultures, certainly corresponds to the council's call for full, conscious and active participation of the baptized in the liturgy. It also exemplifies the process of inculturation the council articulated.

That inculturation was pioneered here by Clarence Joseph River's exploration of African-American gospel music ("God Is Love"), C. Alexander Peloquin's adaptation of Broadway sounds ("Mass for Joy," "Lyric Liturgy"), Joe Wise's engagement with Appalachian and country music ("Gonna Sing, My Lord"), and many composers influenced by folk-pop genres (Ray Repp, James Thiem, Paul Quinlan, Miriam Therese Winter). These inculturation patterns continue with the African-American music found in the music of Grayson Warren Brown and Rawn Harbor, the Broadway influence on Francis O'Brien's or Janet Sullivan Whitaker's music, the Shaker influence on the Blessed Fire Mass, or the folk-pop influences on the compositions of David Haas, Scott Soper, Chris de Silva or Gregory Norbet.

The third element is singing biblical and biblically-inspired texts.

The pulsed tones developed by Jesuit Fr. Joseph Gelineau for the Bible de Jerusalem were applied to a sprung-rhythm English-language translation of the Psalms by the Ladies of the Grail. That provided a new model of sung vernacular psalmody. Lucien Deiss' Biblical Hymns and Psalms popularized compositions in which a refrain was assigned to the congregation with verses sung by cantor or schola. …

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