14/10/12 – Fifty Years Since Vatican II – Noble Simplicity and Scripture

On Thursday, the Church marked the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council.  During this Year of Grace, we have been invited to revisit the constitutions of Vatican II.  The first of these constitutions was on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium.

After addressing general principles that were to underpin the constitution’s understanding of the liturgy, it began to articulate some general norms that were to be observed when implementing the liturgical reforms the constitution would subsequently propose.

The first was that the liturgical rites were to be marked by a “noble simplicity”, that they be clear and generally comprehensible.  It should not, for example, be necessary for there to regularly be lengthy explanations needed during a liturgical celebration for people to understand that is taking place.

Gospel According to MarkAnother general principle was that of the importance of sacred scripture in liturgical celebrations.  Sacrosanctum Concilium called for an increased use of a wider range of scripture texts.  It emphasised the importance of good preaching, helping people to come to a better understanding of the scriptures and the liturgical rites.  Finally, the constitution also encouraged an more frequent use of what it called “Bible services”, especially on more important occasions during the liturgical year, and in places and on occasions when a priest is not available.

5/2/12 – The Ambo

The Church is nourished spiritually at the table of God’s word and at the table of the eucharist: from the one it grows in wisdom and from the other in holiness. In the word of God the divine covenant is announced; in the eucharist the new and everlasting covenant is renewed. The spoken word of God brings to mind the history of salvation; the eucharist embodies it in the sacramental signs of the liturgy.

(Introduction to the Lectionary for Mass, article 10)

The amboRecently we looked at the increased use of scripture in liturgical celebrations since the Second Vatican Council.  The ambo, then, as the place where the scriptures are proclaimed, needs to be a permanent, prominent place suitable for its liturgical function.  Its use is reserved to the proclamation of the readings, the responsorial psalm and the Easter proclmation.  It may also be used for the homily and the prayer of the faithful.

There must be a place in the church that is somewhat elevated, fixed, and of a suitable design and nobility. It should reflect the dignity of God’s word and be a clear reminder to the people that in the Mass the table of God’s word and of Christ’s body is placed before them. The place for the readings must also truly help the people’s listening and attention during the liturgy of the word. Great pains must therefore be taken, in keeping with the design of each church, over the harmonious and close relationship of the lectern with the altar.

(Introduction, article 32)

22/1/12 – The Year of Mark

Gospel according to MarkDuring much of Ordinary Time this year, we will listen to readings from the gospel according to Mark.  For Sundays we have three years worth of readings.  Year A is comprised mostly of Matthew; Year B, Mark; and Year C; Luke.  Parts of John are proclaimed during the Easter Season, and on other feast days and occasions across the three-year cycle.

It has not always been this way, however.  For a long time the same readings were proclaimed every year.  In the first half of the 20th century, biblical scholarship began to develop once again in the Church.  This was reflected in the proceedings at the Second Vatican Council, which began fifty years ago this October.  The Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy spoke of the importance of scripture in liturgical celebrations, and called for the larger, more extensive collection of readings we use today.

Sacred scripture is of the greatest importance in the celebration of the liturgy. For it is from scripture that lessons are read and explained in the homily, and psalms are sung; the prayers, collects, and liturgical songs are scriptural in their inspiration and their force, and it is from the scriptures that actions and signs derive their meaning. Thus to achieve the restoration, progress, and adaptation of the sacred liturgy, it is essential to promote that warm and living love for scripture to which the venerable tradition of both eastern and western rites gives testimony… In sacred celebrations there is to be more reading from holy scripture, and it is to be more varied and suitable.  (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, no. 24, 35)

Substituting the Psalm

On Tuesday, Fr Edward McNamara, regular liturgy contributor for the Catholic news site Zenit, published his usual “Q & A” style liturgy column for the week.  This week’s article responded to the submitted question of whether a song, perhaps relating to the second reading or the gospel, could be used in place of the responsorial psalm.

Fr McNamara quite rightly answered this question in the negative, referring to no. 61 in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal.

This matter of the responsorial psalm is frequently misunderstood by music ministers and others.

The main reason for this, I believe, is that in the celebration of Mass, music is normally used with a ritual action.  We typically see music accompany processions and the like.  Yet in the case of the Responsorial Psalm, the music is the ritual action.  A clear understanding of the parts of the Mass and their purpose is crucial.

The notion that the psalm can be replaced with another song doesn’t wash when we consider the responsorial psalm first and foremost as a proclamation of scripture, which is what it is.  That is why it is a part of the Liturgy of the Word.  We have quite rightly encouraged the use of music at the responsorial psalm because the psalms have always been the “songbook” of the Jewish faith from which they originate.  Yet if those who make the music selections, and those who sing the psalm forget that at this point of the Mass, their primary duty is to proclaim the scriptures, then it’s all too easy to start thinking that “it’s okay to use another song instead.”

To sing the psalm of the day each week does require sound resourcing and commitment on the part of music ministers, and not all parishes can sustain this while ensuring the psalm is proclaimed well.  In consideration of this, the liturgical documents do offer alternatives:

  • Common or Seasonal Psalms. Not all parishes may be able to learn all the psalms in the lectionary, but learning a collection of core psalm repertoire for each season of the year is by no means impossible.  There are only 20 common psalms for all four seasons of the Church year (which isn’t much given that’s every Sunday across the three-year cycle).  Our own parish music suggestions resources recommend a common psalm for each Sunday.
  • Psalms in Metrical Form. Many composers have set psalms to more song- or hymn-like forms of music, which music ministers may find easier to learn and use with their assemblies.  Take care, however, with such settings where it says the lyrics at “Based on…” the psalm.  Some composers alter or vary the words of the psalm, and some may bear little resemblance the the version you will find in the lectionary.  Others are much more faithful to the psalm text, and/or quote it directly.
  • Chant. I’m not saying you need to learn Gregorian chant here.  If you do have music for the response, then with knowledge of a few chords, you can easily chant the lines of the psalm on a single note.  The psalms of Michel Guimont may help here, but they can be even simpler than that if you wish.
  • Sing the Response Only. If your parish lacks the resources to sing the entire psalm, then perhaps the best alternative is to sing the response only, then have a Minister of the Word proclaim the verses from the lectionary.

Like all things in liturgy, the documents set forth the principles and guidelines that underpin what we do and articulate for us an ideal to strive for.  Given the great diversity within our Church, we also have some accommodations that allow us strive towards those ideals in light of the nature of each worshipping community.  The Responsorial Psalm is a case in point.  Although I would recommend to any liturgical musician that they visit their nearest Catholic bookstore that sells music (such as Pauline Books and Media, for example) and look at the collections of psalms that are available.  A number of composers have set the entire three-year Sunday cycle of psalms to music, and some are quite simple and straightforward to use.

18/1/09 – One Season Ends, Another Begins

Last week we celebrated the feast of the Baptism of the Lord.  This officially brought to a close the season of Christmas, when we celebrated the incarnation; Christ’s becoming one like us

Our parish’s celebration of Christmas required the assistance and hard work of many parishioners.  My sincere thanks go to all of the liturgical ministers who served our community, both during the liturgical celebrations themselves, and in the “behind the scenes” work that took place.  The commitment these people make to our parish can never be taken for granted.

mark1With the conclusion of last Sunday, we entered the season of Ordinary Time.  The term “Ordinary” is used to describe the season because the weeks are numbered from the first to thirty-fourth week.  Those who have been to Mass during the week have already entered into this season.  The rest of us get our first taste today with the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time (it’s the second Sunday because it’s the Sunday that begins the second week).

In Ordinary Time, the general pattern of the gospel readings is for us to listen week by week to excerpts that progress through one of the gospel books.  Year B focuses on the gospel according to Mark, with some inclusions (like this week) from the gospel according to John.  Thus various aspects and events of Jesus’ ministry are proclaimed for us in the weeks from now to Lent, and from after Pentecost until the feast of Christ the King in late November.