There is a debate that occurs every year around this time. When is the official start of the Christmas Season? Some argue that it begins the day after Thanksgiving. For others, it’s not until Dec. 1. Most of these hallmarks are purely secular, such as when Santa appears in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, or when the TV networks begin their “25 Days of Christmas” count-down of holiday specials.
Let me admit up front that I realize this topic may only be of interest to certain liturgy-geeks such as myself. But it deals with something that truly impacts all of us, and that is the music we hear at Mass. As any of us can attest, the music we hear at Mass has a profound influence on the atmosphere of prayer and can enhance our worship when done well; it can also have the opposite effect if done poorly. Therefore, it only follows that the Church actually has instructions as to what should and should not be sung. Those instructions can be found in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal.
For the singing at the Entance of Mass, during the Offertory, and at Communion, the Church gives four options for selecting what is sung. I’ll paraphrase the first three.
- The antiphon (proper chant) for that particular day given in the Roman Missal (the book the priest uses to say Mass) or the Graduale Romanum (Roman Gradual, the official music book of the Roman Rite of the Church, which contains Gregorian chant).
- The antiphon (proper chant) for the liturgical time given in the Graduale Simplex (Simple Gradual, another official music book of the Roman Rite of the Church, giving simpler Latin chants arranged for the liturgical seasons).
- The antiphon (proper chant) for the day or season from another collection of chants and antiphons with ecclesial approval. (This may include vernacular translations of the above).
“another liturgical chant that is suited to the sacred action, the day, or the time of year, similarly approved by the Conference of Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop” (GIRM 48).
This quote is from the most recent third edition of the GIRM that was promulgated at the same time as the current third edition of the Roman Missal. The prior edition, for the number four option as listed above, simply read, “another appropriate liturgical song,” which is a rather open-ended guideline. And it was this fourth option that the great majority of American parishes used for the Entrance, Offertory, and Communion at Sunday Mass. A hymn would be selected from the parish hymnal as “an appropriate liturgical song.” This practice was so wide spread that most Catholics in the pews were unaware (and remain unaware) that three other options are available.
But with the new edition of the Roman Missal, it would seem that the Church wants to lead us in a direction towards more truly liturgical singing. And so if your cantor or choir is not singing the proper chants for that day or season from one of the official liturgical texts (the Roman Missal, Roman Gradual, or Simple Gradual), or from another similarly approved collection of antiphons, then they should at least be singing “another liturgical chant that is suited to the sacred action, the day, or the time of year.” This is rather specific.
One thing that has slightly confused me about option four, however, is figuring out just what would qualify. I mean, it seems very specific. It must be a liturgical chant (not just any religious song). It must be suited to either the sacred action (what is taking place in the liturgy at the time), or the specific day, or the time of year (such as Lent, Advent, Easter, etc). My question about this fourth option has been this: what qualifies that does not already fall under the first three options? It seems like if you are looking for a liturgical chant suitable to the sacred action or the time of year, you’d be looking in either one of the official collections of liturgical music (options one and two) or in another approved collection of liturgical chants (option three). What else is there?
Well, yesterday, for the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, I used option four for the Communion chant. Here is my reasoning why.
Yesterday was also freshman move-in day on campus, and as such we offered an afternoon Mass in our campus chapel so that the incoming freshmen could attend Mass. However, the choir are all returning upperclassmen and were not back yet from summer break. So I handled the music. My general habit when having to cantor a Mass with no other choir is to chant the antiphons from the Simple English Propers by Adam Bartlett (which would fall under option three). This collection features English translations of the antiphons from the Roman Gradual.
Last week was also very busy for me preparing for the students to arrive back on campus, so I did not have a lot of time to prepare. Most of the chants were familiar to me from previous years, and offered no problem. However, the melody of the Communion Antiphon was unfamiliar. The text is from Lk 1:48-49, “All generations shall call me blessed; for he who is mighty has accomplished great things on my behalf.” This is from what is called the Magnificat or the Canticle of Mary.
The gospel reading for the Mass was Lk 1:39-56, which includes the entire Magnificat. It so happens that there is a very simple Gregorian chant setting for the Magnificat which is familiar to me. And that is what I chose to sing instead of the proper antiphon. I chose option four.
It is a liturgical chant. It is suitable not only to the day (the Assumption), but also to the liturgical action. What does the Magnificat have to do with Communion, you might ask? The proper Communion chants from the Roman Missal and Roman Gradual most often are taken from the gospel text for that Mass, as a means of drawing together the gospel and the Eucharist. So chanting the Magnificat during Communion is well in keeping with that tradition.
So there you have it. I finally found something that would qualify as an “option four” selection that made liturgical sense and seems in keeping with the spirit of the other three options. And I believe this is key — understanding that the fourth option is the fourth of four options to be considered and not the first “go-to” option as so many parish musicians have been conditioned to using it.