We have all heard of those “choir Masses” – the kind where only the members of the choir sing because they alone know the songs and hymns. I find it a bit unusual to hear only a small section of the congregation or a few voices in the choir loft singing at Mass, simply because the choirs keep changing the songs or the choir master makes no effort to familiarize the mass goers with the hymns to be sung at the liturgy. Whatever happened to the community Mass where everyone knows the words and the music?
A Hundred and One Versions
In many parishes in my home country of the Philippines, it is difficult enough to sing with the choir as many local dialects are spoken in every region or province. But where Masses are said in English and Filipino (our national language), the Lord’s Prayer has a hundred and one versions! The same is true of other hymns such as “Glory to God in the Highest”, “Lord, have mercy” (The Kyrie), “Holy, Holy, Holy” and the “Lamb of God”.
If you happen to hear Mass on a Sunday in your favorite parish church, you can bet these hymns (along with those for the Offertory, the Mystery of Faith, the Doxology, the Communion hymn and the Recessional) will not be the same the following Sunday.
Limbo Rock Mass
In the chapel of a hospital where my husband, daughter, and I often attend Mass on Sundays, a choir belts out songs as though they want to make an impression. A musical concert will pale in comparison. Why? Because it has the musical accompaniment of two cellos, an electric guitar, a bass guitar, a flute, an organ, drums and cymbals. You could blame it on my being a traditional Catholic – but I call them “limbo rock” Masses!
Since it is a small air-conditioned chapel, the choir’s voices and the sound of drums reverberate and fill the entire chapel even as the members shout out each line beyond normal, tolerable decibel levels. And because the voices are ear-piercing, they distract the members of the congregation. Worse, the entire liturgical service is robbed of its solemnity – regardless of the season.
When guitars were allowed in the 1970s, I remember what we called “a-go-go Masses”, where a choir stretched its imagination so far that they sang the Cat Stevens song, “Morning Has Broken”, during Communion!
The Enduring Power of Choirs
I wonder now if church choirs are more “powerful” or exercise greater right than the parish priests or chaplains themselves. Because in the Masses we have attended, the priest often has no choice but to give in when the choir begins to sing the Kyrie, skipping altogether the recitation of the Confiteor, which is the primary form of the Penitential Rite. Imagine a choir dictating the order of the Mass!
Don’t get me wrong. I love everything about the Mass. I love singing the Kyrie and “Lord, have mercy” but must mass goers put up with choirs who seem quite hasty and impatient to sing the Kyrie without waiting for the priest to say, “I confess to Almighty God…”? The members of the congregation don’t stand a chance to recite the Confiteor even if they want to.
Does the choir now have a so-called right to sing the songs they want to sing in specific parts of the Mass? Must we also put up with choirs who treat their singing at Mass as a “stage performance”?
Role of Priests and Chaplains
I also wonder if church choirs ever consult their parish priests or chaplains as to what songs and hymns are most appropriate at Mass. As far as I know, parish priests have a say about what kind of liturgical music church choirs should adhere to – they are called presiders for a reason. In fact, it is their duty to guide choir members and choirmasters about which songs are appropriate and which are not.
If choirs truly and sincerely want to serve the Church, choirmasters must take the trouble of familiarizing mass goers before the Mass about how to sing, for example, the Responsorial Psalm (if the response is to be sung, that is). Their apostolate requires them to teach the congregation whenever a new tune is introduced (whether in English, Latin or, in our case, the vernacular) particularly for the Kyrie, Offertory, Communion and Recessional.
May I ask then: has the community Mass metamorphosed into the “choir Mass”? The Second Vatican Council’s Instruction on Music in the Liturgy, Musicam Sacram (MS), says: “One cannot find anything more religious and more joyful in sacred celebrations than a whole congregation expressing its faith and devotion in song” (MS 16). How then can a group of mass goers be one unified congregation when the choir sings unfamiliar Mass songs – those that sound like they were picked from the Billboard Hot 100 chart or from the hits of the famous folk music group Peter, Paul and Mary?
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) also says:
Great importance should therefore be attached to the use of singing in the celebration of the Mass, with due consideration for the culture of peoples and abilities of each liturgical assembly. Although it is not always necessary (e.g., in weekday Masses) to sing all the texts that are in principle meant to be sung, every care should be taken that singing by the ministers and the people is not absent in celebrations that occur on Sundays and on holy days of obligation. (GIRM 40)
Musicam Sacram adds that a choir’s music ministry and singing should therefore defer to “the degree of festivity and solemnity of the particular celebration of the day, feast or season” (MS 7).
Mass Hymns of Old
I’ve observed in most cases that hubris, vanity and a sense of entitlement could get in the way of any choir’s apostolate. What’s wrong with singing old, familiar Mass hymns like “Anima Christi”, “Take and Receive, O Lord”, “Sing a New Song Unto the Lord”, “Glory and Praise to our God”, “Here I am, Lord”, “How Great Thou Art”, “Lead Me, Lord”, or “Let There Be Peace on Earth”? Why do church choirs find singing traditional liturgical songs revolting?
Let me assure the church choirs of this generation that they need not be adventurous as far as liturgical singing and musical accompaniment are concerned. We have been around long enough to sing those old Mass songs that uplift our experience of the Eucharistic celebration.
People are bombarded with an overload of worldly distractions every minute of the day. I’m sure that at Mass, the pious among the young and old will appreciate the unflashy, toned-down and less distracting vibrato mode of a pipe organ or the soothing music produced from plucking the strings of a solo guitar. The holy sacrifice of the Mass is rendered ineffectual with all the choir overkills – so maybe it’s time to return to the community Mass.