Reflecting on 21 Centuries of Faith

The Musical Settings for the Revised Roman Missal

By Lucy E. Carroll

Faithful Catholics have waited expectantly for the revised translations of the English missal, which will adhere more precisely to the original Latin missal. The texts have been sent ahead to publishers, and are set to be introduced to parishes at Advent 2011.

The first vernacular translations submitted in the aftermath of Vatican II were very close to those found in the old Latin/English missals. Little by little, however, the International Commission on English in the Liturgy imposed its agenda, and the translations became clunky and even erroneous. The current Confiteor and Gloria, for example, are actually missing entire phrases. One of the memorial acclamations — “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again” — did not appear in the Latin missal; it was a rogue statement inserted only into the English missal.

With the sudden and jarring change from Latin to the vernacular, new music was needed in a hurry. Music was needed for the Mass parts and for the hymns that would — temporarily, we were told — replace the daily parts of the Mass originally called “Propers,” since those would need more time for composition.

The contemporary musical culture of the late 1960s and early 1970s had a tremendous influence on hymn composers, and a slew of folksy, pop-style hymns wound their way into the Mass. Although the secular culture has moved on, this genre sadly still remains in most parishes, at least in part. In due time, the parts of Mass itself were set to music in the mode of these pop-style hymns. Masses are still in use today that sport a preponderance of percussive accompaniments and non-sacred musical elements. Some of these are published with music underpinning the priest’s prayers, something specifically forbidden even in the Novus Ordo. Pope Benedict XVI wrote in Sacramentum Caritatis (2007): “Certainly as far as the liturgy is concerned, we cannot say that one song is as good as another …. The introduction of musical genres which fail to respect the meaning of the liturgy should be avoided” (#42). Yet the Latin American pop rhythms and soft-rock-style accompaniments play on.

Soon we will be treated to translations of the Mass texts that are much closer to the original Latin missal. This is most obvious in the Gloria, which will match the phrases as they appear in the Latin missal, rather than relying on the chopped-up and re-organized translation currently in use. Along with the revised translations, may we now expect more sacred musical settings?

Sadly, this does not appear to be the case. A mailing from one of the major publishers assured me that the revised translations would be adapted to current settings, and new settings are coming, but from the same composers who gave us the old secular-style settings and hymns. It is an opportunity missed.

At the monastery where I serve as organist/director, we gave up on those Mass settings some time ago. For several years now, we have used only Gregorian chant settings of the Kyrie, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. Our little congregation knows several of these, as well as two chant settings of the Gloria. We do have a simple chanted setting of the Gloria and Credo in English, which I prepared for the monastery. I have reset these for the revised translations. In the coming year, we hope to include Credo III periodically for special feasts.

Gregorian chant is not simply for choirs and scholas. Pope Pius XII wrote in Mediator Dei (1947): “So that the faithful take a more active part in divine worship, let Gregorian chant be restored to popular use in the parts proper to the people” (#192). Yes, the revival of chant was for the benefit of the people in the pews.

Settings of chant Masses are available for the English translations, but these are sadly deficient. To fit the text, the melody must often be mutilated, for the notes and Latin syllables are very closely wedded together. Besides that, revising must be done each time there is a change in the translation. How can the melodies survive? If one is to sing chant, sing it in the original Latin.

There is a lovely synagogue near our monastery where, for special Shabbas services, the entire congregation chants the entire service in Hebrew, unaccompanied. It is quite inspiring. Are our Catholic congregations less able? If so, it is because we have not given the proper training and the example.

Pius XII wrote in Musicae Sacrae (1955) that the Mass “must be holy. It must not allow within itself anything that savors of the profane nor allow any such thing to slip into the melodies in which it is expressed. The Gregorian chant which has been used in the Church over the course of so many centuries, and which may be called, as it were, its patrimony, is gloriously outstanding for this holiness” (#42).

I propose that until such time as the musical settings of the Mass approach this ideal, congregations should boycott secular music and return to chants. With time, they will come to love them and prefer them. I also propose that classically trained composers prepare new settings for the revised texts and write in a style closer to chant and further from the secular world — free of pianos, guitars, percussion, and pop-style accompaniments. And most of all, I propose that publishers publish them and parishes use them.

Let us not permit this opportunity to go completely wasted.


Lucy E. Carroll, D.M.A., is organist/director at the Carmelite Monastery in Philadelphia. She is also adjunct associate professor at Westminster Choir College of Rider University, Princeton. Lucy E. Carroll’s article, “Revised Musical Settings for the Revised Missal?” originally appeared in the Guest Column of New Oxford Review (July-August, 2011), pp. 36-37, and is reproduced here by kind permission of New Oxford Review, 1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley, CA 94706.

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