The Idea of a National Mass Setting

Article excerpt

The Catholic parish people know best is their own. It's always complicated: musicians burrowed into certain time slots, demographic allocations that are never announced but everyone understands, compromises made for big players in parish life, accommodations granted for financial or political reasons. It takes time to get the lay of the land, and change always happens slowly.

But how much do we really know about national trends and the model parish experience? Sometimes people do find themselves traveling on Sunday and experience other parishes. Mostly, people tend to go to places attended by friends or famous local parishes that fit with their own view of what constitutes good Catholic liturgy.

The trouble with this approach is that we do not tend go to places that fall outside our comfort zone, and hence a "praise musician" is not likely to attend an extraordinary form Mass where the people loudly sing Regina Caeli as the recessional, and I'm not likely to find myself in a college ministry liturgy that features a locally famous rock band. The upshot is that our perception of what constitutes the convention in American Catholic liturgy is unavoidably biased by our experience.

Most of us do assume that the Catholic experience considered on a national level is profoundly heterogeneous. There are probably good aspects to that but there are limits. If it is not possible for Catholics to attend a random parish and recognize the sound and feel of at least the ordinary chants of the Mass, and those ordinary settings that are sung have nothing to do with the sensibility that is historically embedded in the ritual itself, there is a serious problem.

There is plenty of evidence that this is the case, and, truly, there is something strangely uncatholic about this reality. We should be able to travel and go into most any parish and have some sense that we are home away from home. There should be some familiarity. There should not be as many experiences of the Roman Rite as there are pastors and parishes. There really does need to be some standard, commonly sung setting of the Mass ordinary that people can point to with some sense of common experience.

Five years ago, if someone had suggested that the bishops make it a priority to have some standard national setting, and that this setting should necessarily be English chant, I would have thought: give it up. It will never happen. There is no means to impose such a thing. People will resent it and refuse. In any case, music doesn't work this way. It has to come from the heart, not from some bureaucracy above. The idea of a unified national Mass setting? Those worms long ago crawled away from the can.

Well, I guess I lack imagination because it turns out that this is precisely what is happening, and the means by which it is happening is absolutely fascinating. The new chants for the ordinary form of Mass are embedded in the new missal that is being published for required use starting on the First Sunday of Advent this year.

In addition to that, the bishops and the International Commission on English in the Liturgy are requiring of publishers that they print the full Mass setting from the missal in all pew liturgical aids. And there has been an effort made to ensure that these chants are printed exactly as they appear in the missal, not changed or distorted by, for example, contorting them into 6/8 meter, or adding bar lines, or changing the text. Not even the punctuation can change. This rule has been applied uniformly with no exceptions.

(In any case, the text does not lend itself to being crammed into a metrical model. The attempt can even create absurdities.)

Now, in a draft of one GIA publication I saw, these chants were labeled as ICEL chants, which is highly unfortunate. I hope that by the time these are printed, the chants will be labeled as missal chants. In any case, we can be fairly certain that the entire body of chants for the people as they appear in the missal--which itself contains more music than any missal printed in modern times--will also be in the pew books that are printed for Mass. …