Vatican II and the Treasure of the Sung Mass

12-10-2017Father's CornerFr. Will Schmid

The first document the Second Vatican Council produced was the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, known as Sacrosanctum Concilium, which was completed in 1963. Since the Liturgy is at the heart and center of the Catholic faith, the bishops wanted the world to know that liturgical reform would be at the heart and center of this historic Council.

Pope Benedict XVI, as a young theologian participating in the Council sessions noted, “The decision to begin with the liturgy schema was not merely a technically correct move. Its significance went far deeper. This decision was a profession of faith in what is truly central to the Church - the ever renewed marriage of the Church with her Lord, actualized in the eucharistic mystery where the Church, participating in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, fulfills its innermost mission, the adoration of the triune God.” 

In this important document, ten articles are dedicated specifically to Sacred Music (articles 112-121). Much of this section is a reaffirmation of the principles for sacred music established by the previous popes from the first half of the 20th century, along with the articulation of a mission for continued liturgical reform. The implementation of Sacrosanctum Concilium’s vision concerning Sacred Music was laid out in a follow-up document known as Musicam Sacram, which was published in 1967. In our reflections on Sacred Music and Vatican II, it is best to use these two documents together, since the latter is the implementation plan of the former.  

The section on Sacred Music from Sacrosanctum Concilium begins with a very bold statement: “The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as sacred song united to the words, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy.” This is a bold statement for two reasons.

First, the emphasis on Sacred Music as “a treasure of inestimable value,” and “greater than that of any other art,” implies that her musical tradition is more valuable than her mosaics, sculptures, paintings, and architecture. As you may already know, the Church has been a strong supporter of the arts for centuries. Some of the greatest pieces of art in the history of the world can be found in Catholic Churches. People will wait hours in line to spend but a few moments in the presence of sacred art. To put this bold statement into perspective, Sacrosanctum Concilium is implying that the Church’s chant is more valuable than the architecture of St. Peter’s Basilica, Michelangelo’s sculpture of the Pieta, and Caravaggio’s painting of the Calling of St. Matthew. 

Second, on account of the fact that her musical tradition is more valuable than any other art form, Sacrosanctum Concilium follows up with an additional bold claim that her musical tradition “forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy.” This means that the sung Mass is the ideal form of the liturgy. As Bishop Olmsted says, “The Mass is most itself when it is sung.”

As I mentioned in my previous article, prior to Vatican II, the Mass was either recited with no chanting at all (the low Mass – because the priest spoke in a “low” or quiet voice) or it was sung in its entirety (the high Mass – because the priest sang in a “high” or loud voice). The common Mass experience for most Catholics was the low Mass - the merely recited Mass without music. For many Catholics, chanting was seen as a lengthy addition to the liturgical celebration rather than something essential or important to its celebration. The boldness of article 112 of Sacrosanctum Concilium is that it squashes the idea that music in the Mass is merely a liturgical dressing. Although a recited Mass is a valid and licit celebration of the Eucharist, each part of the Mass is designed to be sung - is oriented towards being chanted. This is why every piece of text in the Roman Missal has musical notation for its chanted form.

Musicam Sacram affirms the sung Mass as the “fuller form of the liturgical celebration” and encourages Catholics to sing the Mass, but also recognizes that many priests and communities are unable to sing the Mass in its entirety. Many communities lack the resources to make the sung Mass a reality. Thus, Musicam Sacram proposes a third option by which some of the parts of the Mass could be sung without having to sing the entire Mass, making it easier for priests and congregations to participate in a fuller expression of the Liturgy.  

To accomplish this, Musicam Sacram establishes a hierarchy to follow when deciding which parts of the Mass are to be sung. The hierarchy of chanting concerning the active participation of the people is categorized into three degrees of importance (articles 29-30).

The first degree is of the highest importance, and if music is to be included in the Eucharistic celebration, the parts of the Mass that belong to this degree are always to be sung. Musicam Sacram says, “These degrees are so arranged that the first may be used even by itself, but the second and third, wholly or partially, may never be used without the first.”

The following parts of the Mass belong to the first degree:

  1. In the entrance rites: the greeting of the priest together with the reply of the people, and the collect (the opening prayer).
  2. In the Liturgy of the Word: the acclamations at the Gospel (the dialogue between the priest/deacon and the people at the beginning and end of the Gospel).
  3. In the Eucharistic Liturgy: the offertory prayer, the preface with its dialogue, the Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy), the final doxology (“Through Him, with Him, and in Him…), The Lord’s prayer with its introduction and embolism (conclusion), the sign of peace, the prayer after Communion, and the final dismissal.             

The following parts of the Mass belong to the second degree:

  1. The Kyrie (Lord have mercy), the Gloria (Glory to God in the Highest), and the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God)
  2. The Creed
  3. The Prayers of the Faithful

The following parts of the Mass belong to the third degree:

  1. The Entrance and Communion antiphons (or substituted hymns)
  2. The Responsorial Psalm
  3. The Alleluia before the Gospel
  4. The Offertory chant (or substituted hymn)
  5. The readings of Sacred Scripture

The irony concerning the above hierarchy is that the common liturgical experience of the average Catholic parish in America is the opposite of what is asked for by Musicam Sacram. In most parishes, hymns substituted for the proper liturgical chants (which belong to the third and lowest degree) are sung, but the dialogues between the priest and the people (which belong to the first and highest degree) are merely recited. This experience is an inversion (and a direct violation) of the hierarchy of chant given by the document commissioned to implement the vision of the Second Vatican Council concerning Sacred Music. Thus, we can conclude that the average Catholic liturgical musical landscape is far from fulfilling the vision of Vatican II established a half a century ago.

In light of all of this, what does it mean that the Mass is meant to be sung? Why is music so integral to the Liturgy? Let me give an example to help us better understand this truth. Take a moment and read the following words:

  • Happy Birthday to you.
  • Happy Birthday to you.
  • Happy Birthday, dear John.
  • Happy Birthday to you.

If I had to put money on it, I’d bet that you didn’t merely recite those words in your head, but that you hummed them to the tune of the “Happy Birthday” song. The reason for this is that these words were composed in their particular form so that they would fit together with a specific tune. In fact, I imagine that most of us have never heard these words repeated in this form apart from the proper musical tune that goes with them.

Imagine for a moment that you had never heard the tune that accompanies the above text. If able, try reading the words out loud as if you didn’t know the accompanying tune. Sounds kind of funny, doesn’t it? However, to someone who has never heard the song, the recitation of the words wouldn’t sound funny at all. They might sound like an odd repetition of the phrase “Happy Birthday,” but for the most part they would be recognized as a discernible birthday greeting. Part of what makes the “Birthday song” so appealing is that the tune and the words are wedded together.

Now, imagine that the texts of the Mass were constructed in such a way that they were meant to be sung. Yet, at the same time, imagine that you had never heard the musical chant that was designed to accompany these texts. It is perfectly acceptable and discernible to read them without music, but the fullness is lost when the music is completely removed.

Both Sacrosanctum Concilium and Musicam Sacram affirm the truth that the Mass was designed to be sung. The texts of the Mass were constructed for chant. They can certainly be said without music, but when accompanied by the Church’s chant, a fuller expression of the meaning behind the words is communicated. This is at the core of the mission behind the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on Sacred Music. The liturgical texts are meant to sung, especially the parts that belong to the entire Body of Christ (both laity and clergy).

In further bulletin articles I will examine a few more important insights from Sacrosanctum Concilium and Musicam Sacram that will help us better understand the Church’s vision for Sacred Music.  

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