This is an edited version of an article of mine that was published January 15, 2016 in Homiletic and Pastoral Review. It is reprinted with permission.
This may be a surprise to most Catholics who attend Masses in the Ordinary Form, but we aren’t supposed to be singing hymns exclusively or predominantly at Mass. We are supposed to be singing the Mass.
According to authoritative Roman Catholic Church documents on liturgy from before, during, and after the Second Vatican Council, the Church has never stopped wanting us to sing sacred texts that are intrinsically part of each day’s Mass. This statement from one Vatican organization in charge of implementing the Vatican II liturgical changes is typical: “[T]exts must be those of the Mass, not others, and singing means singing the Mass not just singing during Mass.”
I’ll never forget an extreme example of how singing during the Mass can be abused, which occurred one Christmas. The Italian choir in which I sang joined with the English and Spanish choirs at my local parish to provide the music for a multi-lingual Midnight Mass. A musician from the Spanish choir wearing a black leather suit with silver studs and high-heeled black cowboy boots sang John Lennon’s “Imagine,” accompanying himself on a black and silver electric guitar. “Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try … And no religion too.” This was even more jolting because the Italian choir had just sung their favorite Christmas hymn “Tu Scendi dalla Stelle” (“You Descended from the Stars”). What could be more absurd than to follow that pious hymn to the newborn Divino Bambino with an atheist anthem?
Actually, what was even more absurd is the fact that no one in the church, except for me, seemed to think anything was wrong about singing “Imagine” during a Mass. Most sang along. People have gotten used to the absolutely whimsical way music is chosen for Masses, and from this example, it seems that they might not even listen to what the words mean. Mistaken opinions about what we should be singing abound among laity and clergy alike. Only a few weeks before that Christmas Eve, the pastor had told the Italian choir director that the "Gloria" was not really required during Mass any more, but another song would do, even, for example, “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah!”
And, although I love "Tu Scendi dalla Stelle" as much as anyone could, even that charming Christmas carol does did not belong in the Mass. The choir should have been singing instead the Scriptural texts that the Church has assigned to the First Mass of Christmas at Night.
I know, I know, I've got some explaining to do. The topic of what kind of music should be sung at Mass is complex.
Experts write about this subject all the time, but they forget to explain many things that are second nature to them in a way that non-experts among the clergy and laity can also understand. I sang in a Gregorian chant choir for about a decade; I attended Sacred Music Colloquia; I have studied with, and interviewed several masters of sacred music, and I’ve done a lot of reading on the topic. So, as a passionate lover of sacred music, I’m going to try to share what I’ve learned from the experts about what went wrong with Roman Catholic Church music after the Second Vatican Council, and what’s being done to fix it.
This article was written to accompany another article titled, “Fr. Samuel Weber’s “The Proper of the Mass: An Interview with Dr. Peter Kwasniewski." In the interview, Dr. Kwasniewski answered questions about the purpose and importance of a recently released collection of chants that were composed by his colleague and friend, Fr. Samuel Weber, O.S.B., and published by Ignatius Press. The full title for Fr. Weber's collection is: The Proper of the Mass for Sundays and Solemnities: Chants for the Roman Missal in English. Fr. Weber’s work is one of many important recent attempts to provide appropriate settings for English Mass texts. In his "Foreword," San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone wrote that Fr. Weber’s work is “invaluable: it provides a resource to enable our people and musicians to sing the biblical texts assigned by the Church to the various moments of the liturgy.” The interview explains more about what is unique about Fr. Weber's accomplishments.
You may be asking yourself, “What is a Proper?” Or, maybe, "What’s the big deal about a collection of English chant settings?" This article provides definitions of terms, some of the recent history of singing in the Catholic liturgy, and citations from some relevant Church documents that will help you at least get a glimpse of the big picture of what Catholics should be singing at Mass, according to the mind of the Church.
What’s a Four-Hymn Sandwich?
Ever since 1969, the vast majority of Masses is celebrated in what is called the Ordinary Form, and a sequence of four hymns is typically sung at the Entrance, the Preparation of the Gifts (Offertory), the Communion, and during the Recessional procession at the end of the Mass. Sacred Music experts often refer to this sequence as the “four-hymn sandwich,” and, while some object to the term as being snarky, I’ll use it in this article with no offense intended, because it’s colorful, and it makes its point.
A lot of Catholics have grown up with the “four-hymn sandwich,” and many have been led to believe (erroneously) that Vatican II abolished Gregorian chant and Latin. Some think that to include chant and Latin to any extent is to take a step back to a dark era, to return to a time when nobody understood what the priest was doing during Mass, and when the laity were excluded from participation. This article cannot go off topic far enough to address the false claims that nobody understood Latin, and that the laity were excluded from participation during the hundreds of years that the traditional Latin Mass was the only Mass. But I will start by addressing the fact that Vatican II never abolished Gregorian chant and Latin.
A good number of priests and church musicians have humbly taken the time to learn what the Church really intends to be sung during the liturgy, but some are afraid it might be safer to leave things the way they are, because the topic of singing at Mass is so fraught with emotion. Many churchgoers are passionately attached to their favorite hymns, and they are not going to stop singing hymns at Mass without a rebellion.
There actually have been cases where a pastor’s, or music director’s, sincere attempts to gently and slowly re-introduce the minimum of what is spelled out in Church documents about music at Mass, have led parishioners to complain so loudly that the pastor, or music director, has been removed. As many Church music directors and musicians reveal, who converse at “The Chant Café" that their struggles in parishes indicate that it is extremely difficult to change people’s minds about what should be sung at Mass.
Laying aside the possible resistance, the fact is that when a parish decides what music belongs at Mass, the decision should not be based on what you, or I, or anyone else, may prefer emotionally. Sacred music settings of sacred texts are what the Church teaches are the only fitting music for our worship of God.
And Now a Few Terms: Ordinary? Proper? Poly-Wha?
Gregorian chant (otherwise known as “plainchant”) is the Church’s unique sacred music, which developed as an intrinsic part of the liturgy of the Catholic Church. It is unique among all types of music because it has always been used only for worship. Some refer to Gregorian chant as “sung prayer.” Purely melodic, it may be sung by one or several singers, who all sing the same notes. It does not use harmony, counterpoint, or accompaniment.
“Gregorian” refers to Pope St. Gregory I, the Great (540-604), who played an important, if disputed, role in codifying which chants are sung during the liturgical year. Unlike modern music, chant is not restricted to two modes, but has many modes, and it does not have a fixed meter or time signature. It has a free rhythm that is uniquely complementary to worship.
“Polyphony” is unaccompanied, multi-voiced music that developed from chant. Unlike other forms of music that are often used in Masses these days, chant and polyphony do not carry associations with worldly things in the listeners’ minds. For one simple example, music with the instruments and beats of a rock concert is going to stir up the same kinds of emotions evoked at a rock concert. If the words are religious, any song can be said to be religious, but there is a distinction between religious music and sacred music that is important to understand. Religious music is fine, in its place, but only sacred music belongs at Mass.
In 1903, Pope St. Pius X proclaimed that Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony were the official music of the Roman Catholic Church’s liturgy. “The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as sacred melody united to words, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn Liturgy.” Subsequent popes, including Pope Paul VI in 1974, have affirmed the same thing.
Popes before, during, and after the council also stress the importance of Gregorian chant. Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI also reaffirmed what the Vatican II official constitution on the liturgy stated, that Gregorian chant is the Church’s own music, and that it should be “suitably esteemed and employed as the chant proper to the Roman liturgy.”
The Second Vatican Council devoted a chapter to sacred music in Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC), the constitution on the liturgy. SC was the first of the four Constitutions to be promulgated by the Second Vatican Council (on December 4, 1963), and was voted for by an overwhelming majority of the Fathers of the Council. Paragraph 116 of SC affirmed that Gregorian chant is “specially suited to the Roman liturgy” and that Gregorian chant should have first place among all legitimate types of sacred music.
Stanford musicology professor, William P. Mahrt, would prefer that the Latin not be abandoned. Mahrt is president of the Church Music Association of America, and his St. Ann choir continued to sing Latin Gregorian chant in Ordinary Form Masses during the past fifty years—even during the years when it was practically banned. Mahrt has written that the rich repertoire of Gregorian chants should not be abandoned. Although it might be almost inconceivable that any music written by an individual in our time could approach the state of polished perfection that was achieved by Gregorian chant as it was developed over the ages to be sung for each day of the year, the Church has no objection to new compositions, as long as they are composed according to the supreme model of Gregorian chant.
Pope Saint John Paul II repeated in 2003 the affirmation from SC that Gregorian chant is “specially suited to the Roman Liturgy,” along with the words of Pope Pius X that chant is “the supreme model of sacred music,” and Pope John Paul II continued, “With regard to compositions of liturgical music, I make my own the ‘general rule’ that St Pius X formulated in these words: ‘The more closely a composition for church approaches in its movement, inspiration, and savor of the Gregorian melodic form, the more sacred and liturgical it becomes; and the more out of harmony it is with that supreme model, the less worthy it is of the temple.’”
What’s in Your Sandwich?
Hymns have always had their place in the Divine Office, and still belong in the post-conciliar “Liturgy of the Hours,” and in devotions outside of Mass (such as May processions), but the music of the Mass has consisted, for hundreds of years, of texts from the Scriptures, and of other sacred texts set to Gregorian chant, and sacred polyphony that developed as part of the Mass.
The practice of having the congregation sing four hymns at Mass actually started back in the mid-to late-1950s as a way to promote congregational participation during the parts of Low Masses where the priest was praying silently. Hymn singing came into Catholic Masses by way of Protestant worship services, some say from Methodism. The movement to allow hymn singing at Masses came from Germany and the low countries.
Martin Luther is the one who first propagated the communal singing of hymns in the German language in worship service in the 16th century. Before Luther, many hymns existed but they weren’t sung in Masses. One of Luther’s biggest goals was to “restore worship to the people,” so Luther set to work and wrote thirty-seven hymns in German for the people to sing during his new Sunday worship service. Luther started such an explosion of hymn writing that by the time he died, sixty German hymnals had been published, and the explosion continued, so that a remarkable twenty-five thousand German hymnals had been published sixty years after his death. Although Luther removed many parts of the Mass that did not fit his theological formulations, he was conservative compared to the later founders of other denominations.
Protestant Reformers continued removing more and more parts of the Mass that they didn’t agree with, until what was left in most denominations was a stripped down service consisting of congregational hymn singing, didactic prayers, readings from scriptures, and long sermons, with a communion service once a month or once a year. A worship service without the Eucharistic sacrifice, and the singing of the prayers of the Mass, needs lots of hymns and a long, long sermon.
Before the Second Vatican Council, during the period when hymns were allowed for Catholics to sing at low Mass, hymns did not replace the prescribed Mass texts, but were an addition to them. But after Vatican II, unfortunately, hymns were treated as a replacement for the prescribed texts. This happened because when the Mass of 1969 in the local languages was introduced, the distinction between Low and High Mass was removed, and the practice of singing hymns spread into all Masses, irrespective of the Mass’ solemnity.
The singing of the prescribed Mass texts (which still existed) almost totally disappeared as a result of the haste in which the new form of the Mass was implemented. In the new form of the Mass, the texts of the Mass that had been in Latin were now in the vernacular, but there was no music available to go with the vernacular translations for years. The magisterial documents directed that people should sing, but there was a big hole because there was no music for the translated texts. Hymns moved into the void.
One big problem with the current situation is that the hymns are often selected from 20 to 30 old favorites that are sung, week after week, and they do not usually have any discernible connection to that particular day’s place in the liturgical year. Another big problem is that hymns seldom seem connected, as they ought to be, to the sacred actions going on in the parts of the Mass during which they are sung. The hymns seem to be picked at random by the whim of whoever gets to select the songs that day; and as my earlier example shows, they sometimes are actually heretical.
There is a movement to return to singing the parts of the Mass that have been ignored, and Fr. Samuel F. Weber’s collection of chant settings of approved English texts is a valuable contribution to that movement. In 2013, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone recruited Fr. Weber, O.S.B. to found the Benedict XVI Institute of Sacred Music and Divine Liturgy at St. Patrick’s Seminary and University in Menlo Park, California for the Archdiocese of San Francisco. Archbishop Cordileone wrote in his foreword to Fr. Weber’s “Proper of the Mass” about how the collection fills the void that the hymns moved into. “Now, thanks to the efforts of Father Weber, a recognized expert in the field of chant, it is possible for us to sing the entire Eucharistic liturgy.”
What Does “Ordinary” Mean in Church-Speak?
The parts of a Mass that do not change every week are called the “Ordinary.” The following table lists the Ordinary parts of the Mass.
Great composers through the ages have written many musical settings for the Ordinary parts of the Mass, and the collection of the five standard parts is called a Mass. For example, the Mass for Three Voices by William Byrd (composed in the 1590s) has the same five parts of the Ordinary as Missa Papae Francisci (Mass of Pope Francis) by Ennio Morricone, which premiered in 2015.
Who Sings the Ordinary? We Do! How Should We Sing It? In Latin!
Hardly any Catholics have ever heard about this, but the Church wants everyone—not just the choir or trained singers—to know how to sing the Ordinary in Latin. In 1974, Pope Paul VI issued a booklet called "Jubilate Deo" (“Joyfully Sing Out to God” is an English paraphrase, but note that the title is in Latin) with simple settings of the Ordinary chants, and responses and some other hymns—because he wanted every Catholic to learn the chants in that booklet. An accompanying letter to all the bishops and heads of religious orders said that the Gregorian chants that were contained in the booklet were to be considered the “minimum repertoire of plainchant.”
Pope Paul VI asked them to both teach the faithful these Latin chants, and have the faithful sing them: "This minimum repertoire of Gregorian chant has been prepared with that purpose in mind: to make it easier for Christians to achieve unity and spiritual harmony with their brothers, and with the living traditions of the past. Hence, it is that those who are trying to improve the quality of congregational singing cannot refuse to Gregorian chant the place which is due to it. … In presenting the Holy Father’s gift to you, may I, at the same time, remind you of the desire which he has often expressed that the Conciliar constitution on the liturgy be increasingly better implemented."
Obviously, Sacrosanctum Concilium was not being well-implemented and, by 1974, Pope Paul VI felt strongly that the “quality of congregational singing” needed improvement. It still does. The truth is that Jubilate Deo is practically unknown.
For example, a few weeks ago, I met a recent graduate of a Catholic university in California who majored in history, and I mentioned that at least some Ordinary Form Masses are still celebrated with some parts of the Mass in Latin, such as the "Sanctus." From the look on his face, I realized I was drawing a blank. “Sanctus? Haven’t you ever heard 'Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus'—you know, Holy, Holy, Holy?” At least he knew Holy, Holy, Holy!
What is notable and lamentable about his lack of exposure to even the word Sanctus is that the "Sanctus" is one of the Ordinary chants included in Jubilate Deo. The fact that a Catholic, even with a history major, can graduate from a Catholic university without any sense of the historic and current role of Latin in the Catholic Church, is one striking example of how official church teachings, and the wishes of the popes about Latin, are being ignored.
The Parts of the Mass That Belong to the Faithful
Pope Paul VI’s Jubilate Deo was an attempt to bring about the desire expressed in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, from the Second Vatican Council, which said that “steps should be taken enabling the faithful to say or to sing together, in Latin, those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass belonging to them” (§54).
The 2002 General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), also said this, “Since faithful from different countries come together ever more frequently, it is fitting that they know how to sing together at least some parts of the Ordinary of the Mass in Latin, especially the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, set to the simpler melodies” (GIRM §41).
Those of us who attended Mass before the switch to the vernacular in 1969 remember that we could go to Mass anywhere in the world and follow it because we had learned it in Latin. With that common, sacred language, we had the strong sense of being a member of a world-wide Church, and shared with Roman Catholics around the globe a universal liturgy. The Vatican continues to encourage the use of Latin at Masses attended by people who don’t have a shared language in order to promote unity.
When Is It Proper to Sing the Propers?
Like the word “Ordinary,” “Proper” is another liturgical word whose meaning differs from the usual understanding of the word in common speech. In the broadest sense, the proper parts of the Mass are the parts that vary each day, and are specific to each Mass, or, as the Merriam Webster dictionary puts it, the parts that are “appointed for the liturgy of a particular day.”
Some of the variable parts of the Mass—the Collect, Prayer over the offerings, Prayer after communion, and readings—are supposed to be sung or spoken by the priest, lector, or deacon. Other variable portions of the Mass are spoken, or sung, by the choir, or by the people.
All the discussions about singing propers at Mass refer to the propers that are supposed to be recited or sung by the congregation, or sung by the choir. In the following table, the proper antiphons of the Mass are listed in the left column, and the sequence of hymns that have come to replace them, are listed on the right. Note that the list of propers does not include a recessional chant to correspond to hymn #4 in the sandwich. At many churches where the propers are sung, either a hymn is sung, or an organ postlude is played, as the priest leaves the altar.
The text of an antiphon that is sung during Mass, or the Divine Office, typically consists of one or more verses from the Psalms, or from other parts of Holy Scripture, but occasionally the text is not from Scripture. The Catholic Encyclopedia's (1913) article about the “Introit” of the Mass gives this example of a rare case where the antiphon was taken from a poem: “Salve, sancta parens,” from the Christian poet, Sedulius, is the Introit used in traditional Latin Masses for the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Another important thing to understand is that an antiphon is not something that stands alone, but it is typically either chanted, or recited, before and after, a Psalm or a Canticle. In the Divine Office/Liturgy of the Hours, antiphons are prayed with complete Psalms. In the Ordinary Form Mass, antiphons are commonly prayed with only one, or just a few, Psalm verses. Fr. Weber’s book of propers provides chant settings of approved English translations of the antiphons at four levels of difficulty. It is also helpful because it provides settings for the Psalm verses that may be sung with the antiphons.
A Bit of a Mess Still to be Sorted Out
Before the Mass was revised in 1969, things were simpler for church musicians. After the new Mass was introduced in the vernacular, because of the absence of musical settings for the new translations, there was great confusion, and the “four-hymn sandwich” took hold. Now that more clergy and church musicians are starting to understand better the need to chant the propers at Mass, a dizzying variety of proper chant settings are being composed and published in the English language.
Some standardization would still seem to be needed. My thought is that ideally a music leader should be able to turn to a single approved set of propers for a choir to sing instead of needing to comb through all the collections, and train a choir to sing a variety of chants. We don’t have a Pope Gregory the Great around to tell the Roman Catholic Church of the 2010s, and beyond, what proper chant settings to sing. But when and if a standard does emerge, Fr. Weber’s collection of propers is an excellent contender to become that standard. For even more on these issues, I highly recommend the Catholic World Report magazine article entitled: “The Renaissance of the Mass Propers.” It provides a lot of up-to-date information, and points to many more resources. And, not incidentally, that article also mentions Fr. Weber’s The Proper of the Mass as one of the highly useful resources that are now available.
 The subtitle of this article refers to "The Great Catholic Music Debate: 'Post-Vatican Folk' vs. 'Reformist Retro'" by Bill Kassel, which appeared in Homiletic and Pastoral Review magazine, August 9, 2015.
 Benedict XVI first introduced the terms “Ordinary Form” and “Extraordinary Form” in his 2007 document on the liturgy, Summorum Pontificum, to differentiate between the Mass of Pope Paul VI according the Missal of 1969 (which is often called the Novus Ordo Mass) and the Mass of Pope Saint John XXIII according to the Missal of 1962 (which is called the Traditional Latin Mass, the Vetus Ordo, or the Tridentine Mass). Pope Benedict clarified that there are not two Masses in the Roman rite, but two forms of the Roman rite that are both equally valid. The Mass of Pope Paul VI is the Ordinary Form, while the Mass of Pope John XXIII is the Extraordinary Form.
 In his article at the New Liturgical Movement website, Jeffrey Tucker quoted the Consilium (the group of bishops and experts set up by Pope Paul VI to implement the Vatican II Constitution on the Liturgy), “What must be sung is the Mass, its Ordinary and Proper, not 'something,' no matter how consistent, that is imposed on the Mass.”
 You may have experienced a multilingual Mass yourself. They were all the rage in San Jose when I was still attending Ordinary Form Masses in the 1990s. When a Psalm is read, for example, you’re likely to hear one line in Spanish, one in Tagalog, one in Vietnamese, and so forth, a practice that is designed to be inclusive, but that has the inadvertent, and rather ill-thought-out outcome, that everyone gets to understand only one line out of three or four (or out of however many languages are included). It has often been pointed out that preserving Latin as our universal language of worship, makes sense for a worldwide religion, and that every Roman Catholic should be familiar at least with the basic chants in the Roman Church’s mother tongue.
 The Chant Cafe is an interactive blog, a project of the Church Music Association of America that describes itself as a place where “Catholic musicians gather to blog about liturgy and life.”
 Even though by definition chant is not accompanied, exceptions are often made, and an organist often accompanies the Ordinary chants that are supposed to be sung by the congregation to encourage them to sing.
 See Father Zuhsdorf’s analysis of SC 116 at “What does Sacrosanctum Concilium 116 Really Say?."
 Summorum Pontificum, The Musical Shape of the Liturgy, p. 114. 2012 Church Music Association of America, Richmond, Virginia.
OF THE SUPREME PONTIFF JOHN PAUL II FOR THE CENTENARY OF THE MOTU PROPRIO "TRA LE SOLLECITUDINI'ON SACRED MUSIC