Archdiocese Local Ministries Parishes

Music adds solemnity and festivity to Mass

Shaun Whisler, music director at Corpus Christi Parish in Lawrence, directs the handbell choir during Mass at the church. LEAVEN PHOTO BY JAY SOLDNER

by Joe Bollig

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — What kind of sandwich did you have at Mass last Sunday?

Not a real sandwich, but a musical one. 

Among church music directors and accompanists, the slang term for the four major hymns or songs most of us experience at Mass is the “hymn sandwich.” 

The constituent parts are more commonly called the processional, offertory, Communion and recessional hymns.

But there is a lot more to Mass music than the hymn sandwich. The Catholic Church has built up an impressive tradition of liturgical music over the past 2,000 years, and there have been even more rapid developments in church music in the 50 years since the Second Vatican Council, held 1962 to 1965.

Have you ever asked: “Why do we use that music at Mass?” 

Well, here’s the answer: “It’s complicated.”

The church began with music

Music has always been part of Christian worship, said Michael Podrebarac, archdiocesan consultant for the liturgy and sacramental life office.

“The earliest Christians still worshiped in the synagogue and the [Jerusalem] Temple,” said Podrebarac. “When they were removed . . . by the Jewish authorities, they then met in homes. But from everything we know, they still sang the psalms. 

“The [Book of Psalms] is the hymnal of the Bible for both Jews and Christians. They continued to sing them to the same musical tunes that, in time, became the psalm tones of Gregorian chant.”

 So, psalms it was until the great theological controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries, when the writing of hymns became a means of instructing people in correct doctrine. 

“People like St. Ambrose and St. Athanasius would write hymns that would end with a trinitarian doxology,” said Podrebarac.

Over the centuries, church music developed differently in the different parts of the former Roman Empire and beyond, such as the Latin West and Greek East. The oldest music still used in the Latin rite is Gregorian chant.

 Silence and the sandwich

Is music at Mass a necessity? 

No. In fact, most parishes have daily Mass without music. The reason for that may be more practical, but it’s also a longstanding tradition.

“The Mass can certainly be celebrated without music,” said Podrebarac. “The [Roman] Missal says the various texts can be said or sung and, of course, the church has a longstanding tradition of the so-called Low Mass, when the Mass [would be] simply recited by the priest and, in later years, the responses were said by people.”

The longstanding mindset of the church, however, is that music adds solemnity and festivity, and it makes the liturgy more engaging. It underscores the fact that people worship not only with their minds and hearts, but with all the senses — which includes singing and hearing music.

And this is, in part, where we get our “sandwich.”

“This comes from a time when it was possible to sing hymns at Low Mass, and these were the places where even vernacular (common language) hymns could be sung,” said Podrebarac. “But vernacular hymns in the Extraordinary Form (Latin Mass) are never sung at High Mass, except at the recessional.”

Sorting the sandwich — and more

There are two basic kinds of music used during the Mass in the Ordinary Form — your typical parish Sunday Mass.

The first kind falls into the category of “processional songs,” which make up three-fourths of the so-called hymn sandwich. 

These are sung when the priest goes to the altar at the beginning of Mass, the offertory when the gifts are brought to the altar, and during Communion when the people go forward to receive the Eucharist. 

As an option, antiphons can be sung instead of the processional hymns. (Antiphons are short passages from the Psalms sung as a refrain.)

Interestingly, the liturgical documents that govern the music used at Mass do not mention “recessional” hymns. These developed more out of custom. Technically, they’re not part of the Mass. 

The second category is made up of “acclamations and responses.” The latter includes what are variously called the people’s Mass parts, settings, service music or the ordinary of the Mass. These are the Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus (Holy, Holy), “Mysterium Fidei” (“Mystery of Faith”), Great Amen and Agnus Dei (Lamb of God). 

The practice (not a requirement) is that a change of liturgical season is accompanied by a change in the music for the Mass parts. You might notice this change very soon — when the church season of Advent starts right after Thanksgiving, to be precise. 

The Mass parts are usually sung, but can be spoken. There are also other parts that can be sung, called “dialogues,” that are usually spoken.

For example, the priest may sing:  “The Lord be with you,” and the people respond by singing: “And with your spirit,” and so on.

“[According to liturgical documents] the first and most important form of music is actually those times when the priest addresses the congregation and the congregation responds, sometimes called the dialogues,” said Podrebarac. 

“This is the most important music to be sung,” he continued, “but, of course, we find those dialogues hardly ever sung. All too often musicians are much more concerned about choosing [the processional hymns].”

Why is this? It’s because in the years after the Second Vatican Council, priests and musicians largely discarded the High Mass/Low Mass mentality and focused more on the hymns sung at Mass. 

Interestingly, the dialogues are making a comeback.

“The reason they’re coming back is that more and more of the faithful are appreciating a more solemn celebration of the liturgy,” said Podrebarac, “and one of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council is that music . . . adds solemnity to the liturgy.”

How do you choose?

When a parish musician prepares the music of a liturgy, he or she is expected to make three judgments, said Podrebarac.

The first is a musical judgment: Is it good music, musically speaking?

The second is a liturgical judgment: Is the music appropriate to the liturgy being celebrated?

The third and final is a pastoral judgment: Is the music suitable to the kind of congregation gathered?

The decision as to what music to use is less a matter of mere opinion than of the musician’s expert discretion, said Podrebarac. 

“In the end the question is: What music texts and melodies does the worshiping congregation need in order to properly participate in the divine mysteries,” he said.

There are other, practical considerations, too. 

What resources does the parish have? What talent is available? What cultures are present in the parish? What language groups?

 Our current liturgical tradition is only 50-some years old. During that time, there has been a tremendous amount of experimentation in the kinds of music used, as well as instruments.

Some music has stood the test of time and some hasn’t. Some music simply has gone out of style.

“The hymns of the ’70s are lovely and beloved by a lot of people,” said Beth Blankenship, former musician at Corpus Christi Parish in Cincinnati and current member of St. Pius X Parish in Mission.

“However, just like the Latin Mass, not everyone likes them. . . . . A lot of parishes are using more of a mix of [music] — some contemporary, some ’70s, some traditional, some more eclectic.”

Others are using — at least for teen Masses — what is commonly referred to as praise and worship songs.

And this is all taking place in a time of increasing shortages of a crucial commodity for Catholic worship: organists.

According to Podrebarac, there is a new and growing appreciation by some of the more traditional music, including sacred chant and choral pieces, and a recognition of the need to evaluate the kinds of music Catholics use in light of certain foundational liturgical principles. 

“And herein lies the challenge,” said Podrebarac. “How can we be faithful to those founding principles and, at the same time, provide the pastoral response that some people express they need?”

About the author

Joe Bollig

Joe has been with The Leaven since 1993. He has a bachelor’s degree in communications and a master’s degree in journalism. Before entering print journalism he worked in commercial radio. He has worked for the St. Joseph (Mo.) News-Press and Sun Publications in Overland Park. During his journalistic career he has covered beats including police, fire, business, features, general assignment and religion. While at The Leaven he has been a writer, photographer and videographer. He has won or shared several Catholic Press Association awards, as well as Archbishop Edward T. O’Meara awards for mission coverage. He graduated with a certification in catechesis from a two-year distance learning program offered by the Maryvale Institute for Catechesis, Theology, Philosophy and Religious Education at Old Oscott, Great Barr, in Birmingham, England.

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  • It may be an over-simplification to say that is a shortage of organists. If there is a shortage it is largely because over the last 50 years, we as Church, partly out of need for new material, have shifted our focus from the “art of the making” as a worshipful act to musical goods to that are consumed by the faithful, and we’ve taken the cheapest, quickest, and easiest route to get there—only to find that our ritual music now participated in an economy where fewer and fewer people have the capacity to make art, and the language and grammar of popular is shrinking to a bare minimum of data. It takes 9 years to learn to play a musical instrument at the level required to carry the musical traditions forward. Are there even significant numbers of children enrolled in sufficiently rigorous programs? One sign of hope is that we have one of the largest graduate programs in organ and church music in our own diocese—at the University of Kansas—and many of the students are Catholic. Perhaps we ought to find ways to (1) keep them, and (2) ensure that we have enough young people studying music early enough to feed into exemplary local programs forming future generations of leaders.