It has been almost a year since I explained the principles for our music program going forward and introduced our new hymnal. In case you need a refresher, you can click these links for the original letter and homily, as well as these updates from September 2021 and January 2022.
For having worked on this for a full year, it can feel like we have not made much progress on congregational singing and that we are still very much struggling with our hymns. I am specifically hearing that, unless a person is sitting next to a strong singer, it is really hard to sing without the cantor. I absolutely get that, and I feel it right along with you. A few notes:
- Not my preference. To be honest, I really liked what we were forced to do with music during COVID. I pray well with music in the background, so to have Dr. Mabalot singing solo was a very prayerful experience for me. I felt like I could get lost with God during Mass. I truly wish we could just keep doing that forever. Returning to congregational singing has been rough for me, because it is not currently my preferred way to pray. Singing hymns was my preferred way to pray from childhood until a few years after college, it is just not where I am at right now.
- This is Vatican II. Over the years I have taken to asking people who attend the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass why they do so; after all, the pre- and post-Conciliar Masses are not that structurally different. The most helpful answer I have received is that she liked the “silent canon” (the former practice of the priest saying the Eucharistic Prayer softly to himself and God) because she felt like she could pray better. It was a helpful answer because this is a major difference and is exactly what Vatican II set out to change liturgically – to unite the liturgical action with the prayer of the people. The Council wanted us to pray using the liturgy itself, not using other prayers merely at the same timeas the liturgy. It is because of this core principle of Vatican II that the Church has asked us to emphasize so strongly the participation of the people, through chanted dialogues, Mass parts, and even hymns. It is because of Vatican II that we cannot just have a cantor singing on our behalf – like a performer – but that we are all supposed to try to sing, too.
- Most of this year was interrupted by COVID. We started this new approach to music in July 2021, had to shut down congregational singing again in early September 2021, and did not bring back congregational singing until mid-March 2022. So we have only really been at this for 2 months, not a full year. With the fits-and-starts we should expect things to be a little bit of a struggle, and we should not be discouraged by that.
- Our Mass responses are strong and getting stronger. The one thing we have been able to do for the full year has been the chanted Mass responses, and we are getting really good at these. Our patience has paid off, and I believe the same will happen with our hymn singing.
- The struggle is the lack of cantor. Science folks can tell you that, when running an experiment, you only change one variable at a time, otherwise it is impossible to tell what is the actual cause of the observed change. Unfortunately, we changed hymnals, started chanting the Mass, and stopped mic’ing the cantor all at the same time, so it has been hard to tell exactly what is working and what is not. However, with the Mass chants now fairly stable and Dr. Mabalot’s effort to use, in almost every case, hymn tunes that were part of the previous hymnal, it is becoming clearer that the primary struggle is the lack of mic’ed cantor. I have been of a mixed mind about what to do about this, though. On the one hand, we could mic the cantor again, but we cannot settle, long-term, for a performance mentality (cf. point about Vatican II), and eventually we do need to phase out the cantor during congregational singing. On the other hand, we are all still learning, and a cantor is really helpful for learning, like training wheels when learning to ride a bike, so maybe we went too far too soon. On the third (?) hand, even with its focus on participation, the Vatican II music documents do allow for a balance between reflective pieces sung by a choir and congregational pieces sung by the people, and once we have our choir back that balance may really help the feel of things.
- Chanted Eucharistic Prayer is optional. You may have noticed that I have stopped chanting the Eucharistic Prayer on most Sundays. This is because of some helpful conversations I had with people who “did not like the chanting” or found it “distracting”. When I pushed on what exactly they meant by that, one parishioner told me that it felt too much like a performance, which was a real lightbulb moment for me. As I explained in my letter on why I chant the Mass, I do not think the Church gives me an option with the chanted dialogues, but I do have an option with the Eucharistic Prayer. Given that the Eucharistic Prayer is the part that is going to feel most like a performance anyway, I stopped chanting it during Lent to see how things would go and if that would be an appropriate compromise. I still plan to chant it during “fancier” Masses, similar to how I chant the Gospel on Christmas and Easter, and I am currently trying to determine what Masses count as sufficiently fancy.
Thank you, deeply, for your patience as we re-learn how to sing together following COVID. I remain convinced that the long-term joy and unity of our liturgy will benefit from the work we are putting in now.