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Let’s hope the new Missal leads to more sung Masses

The English settings I learnt at school seem to have disappeared entirely

By on Wednesday, 31 August 2011

The Mass is meant to be sung but, by and large, is not (CNS photo)

The Mass is meant to be sung but, by and large, is not (CNS photo)

So that is that, then. Out with the old, in with the new. Last Sunday was the last Sunday of the current translation of the Roman Missal, and next Sunday will be the first Sunday with the new translation – at least in part. Last Sunday I made sure I sang the doxology at the end of the Eucharistic prayer. It took me the best part of two decades to learn how to sing the “Through him, with him, in him…”, and that knowledge is now redundant. The new translation has new words and a new word order, and it will probably be about 2027 before I can sing the doxology again.

The new translation is of course arriving incrementally, and what we have is an interim Missal for the use of the priest and the cards for the use of the congregation. I am fairly familiar with the texts and I have to say that I like them. Having the interim missal in my hands, I was struck by the way it contains quite a lot of music; but this should not be suprising, as the Roman Missal, 1973 edition, also contained a lot of music. This reminds me forcibly that the Mass is meant to be sung, and that this was very much the intention of the framers of the liturgical reform. And yet, by and large, it is not sung.

If you think about it, the Gloria is a hymn, and therefore to be sung; the Kyrie, the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei are chants, and thus to be sung too; and there seems to be unanimity in all the best sources that the Our Father should be sung as well – certainly the interim Missal gives music for the Our Father. Until now, I have noticed that while a paraphrase of the Gloria is usually sung, and the Sanctus too, the Kyrie and the Agnus Dei have often dropped out of the repertoire and are merely said; and the same goes for the Our Father. I am not sure that this is universal, but it is certainly the case in many places where I have been.

A long time ago, as schoolboys at Ratcliffe College, we were all taught the parts of the Mass, by the late Father Eugene Monaghan, may he rest in peace. This included various Latin chants – the very simplest ones, namely the Kyrie, Sanctus and Gloria from the Missa de Angelis and the Agnus Dei from Mass XVIII along with the Our Father, and the magnificent Credo III. And then we were also taught various English settings, all of which, without exception, I have not heard for years. My impression is that back in the late 1970s there was a conscious effort to promote sung English Masses, but these efforts never really took root, and what eventually filled the vacuum were more folk-like tunes. But now, looking at the interim Missal I see (even if my knowledge of music is virtually nil) that some of those English Mass settings, closely based on the Latin, are back, such as the Our Father setting that closely follows the traditional Latin one. I think that what this means is that once more we are being encouraged to sing the parts of the Mass that ought to be sung, and to sing them in the way they should be sung.

I wonder if this will work. I hope it does, but one has to ask why the singing in the Mass has developed the way it has. The answer must be that people (such as myself) find chant, or the sort of English chant we were given to sing, too difficult. I can sing the Pater Noster (in Latin) but the English equivalent is another matter. Perhaps we should go back to the Latin (or in the case of the Kyrie, the Greek)? It is easier to sing in Latin, after all, and these chants do not constitute a large part of the Mass.

There may well be a huge fight about this (I hope not, I hate conflict); or else nothing much may happen, and things may continue much as before. We shall see. Time shall tell. Next Sunday, and all the Sundays ahead of that, may be very interesting.

  • Patrick Heren

    The English like singing good robust hymns but seem to be less interested in liturgical singing and chanting. Perhaps we are all musical Wesleyans. The one exception is the stirring and beautiful Credo III, which always seems to raise the church roof when we are allowed to sing it (much more now than, say, ten years ago).
    Fr Alex is right about English mass settings. I have heard a reasonable setting by the Dominicans at Oxford, but mostly it’s insipid. Some of the least inspiring chant can be heard in Benedictine monasteries, though no doubt the holy monks would say they are thinking about the words.

  • Morys Ireland

    Go to an Orthodox service and practically the whole thing is sung – I’ve never been to even the smallest little service that hasn’t been sung, even when just a handful of people have turned up. The singing and chanting are the most beautiful aspects of an Orthodox service. It’s clearly difficult though and the congregation play little part – the singing being done by the priest and a small choir. As we do not go by the same principal that masses should be sung wherever possible I suppose we have ended up with a situation whereby many churches don’t have choirs and not very many priests seem to be keen to sing… which is a bit sad really. Still, it’s the words that matter in the end – not whether you are singing them or saying them.

  • quilisma

    Dear Reverend Father,
    I’m sure that the new doxology won’t pose you too many problems and, with a bit of application, could be learned in under 5 minutes, rather than the 16 years you suggest….!
    What I do have a problem with is the very melodies for the Ordinary. You see, they’re just that little bit different from the Gregorian originals, which, for me, make them difficult to sing. Idem for the Our Father. I’m sure that, had I never known the Latin setting, the English one would be easier, but it just stops in the wrong places, has a note or two here and there, which are different. Ok, they’ve done an admirable job fitting the English text but for me, singing the Latin is just easier and it flows better.
    Nevertheless, if it furthers singing of the Mass – I’m all for it.

  • Anonymous

    I think I read somewhere that the Divine Liturgy in the Orthodox Church must always be sung, but I could be mistaken.

  • Anonymous

    The new translation of the Mass is to be welcomed, but wouldn’t it also be good to encourage more use of Latin in the Mass. Vatican II specifically stated that the Latin language was to be retained and at no point countenanced it’s almost total abandonment which is what appears to have happened at parish level.

  • quilisma

    Despite my misgivings about the English setting of the plainsong melodies, they may indeed one day help in the achieving the wishes of Sacrosanctum Consilium para. 54: “Nevertheless steps should be taken so that the faithful may also be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them.”
    If the congregation actually manage to learn, for example, the Credo in the new Missal (based on Credo I), they won’t be a million miles away from singing it in Latin. Apart from having the same problems as I do going from the Latin to English version.

  • J Lopuszynski

    If anyone wants to listen to - or learn - the new music of the missal (Priest
    AND people’s parts) then there is a series of video clips that can be viewed at

  • Genius

    Yes, lets encourage more Latin and watch the young people depart from our ever shrinking congregations.

  • Anonymous

    Yes, because ever since the abandonment of the Latin Mass there’s been a surge in young people coming to Mass. People like you never cease to amaze me, you honestly think they way to solve the Churches problems is to continue with the disastrous liturgical reforms of the past 40 years, talk about burying your heads in the sand.

  • Mrs W

    I’ve not wanted to comment until I’ve had a chance to get used to it….but although there is value in  it, there are other elements that I suggest are clumsy and also excluding. 

     Not everyone can understand that ‘……I am not worthy to welcome you under my roof…..’ is a metaphor:  if I were homeless I might well think that as I do not have a roof, I am not worthy at all. It’s also clumsy in English.  What was wrong with ‘…I am not worthy to receive you…..’? I was always moved by that phrase:  it is far more spiritual; implying a complete infusion  of the Lord into one’s soul as opposed to inviting Him to supper!

    More unfortunate is  ‘..the supper of the Lamb’ . Someone suggested to me after  Mass that it sounded more like the old meat marketing ad of ‘Slam in the lamb’ for Sunday lunch! This is what ordinary congregations are thinking. A lot are not very happy and are grudgingly accepting it. You in this forum might revile us for this: we are ignorant saps, brainwashed by Vatican II, unthinking, bad Catholics. But we are the congregation, we do support our Church, we do contribute plentiful resources both in time and money and family commitment.  As for music – our parish has always taken part in the music of the liturgy; I also can still sing the old Credo and Pater Noster by heart.  Our choir  however, has had to abandon wholesale all our lovely modern Mass settings – particularly the beautiful and much-loved Shrewsbury Mass and the St Anne’s Mass (previously the Westminster Cathedral standard).  as they do not have the right words.  Yes, we have the new (rather dull) plainchant which we’ve learnt – but we also had a tradition of modern polyphony in our church which the congregation loved and responded to in great voice; enjoyed and commented on by visiting priests and prelates. 

     I see few mothers contributing to this forum. As a mother of three, one of whom is still at home, I have to report that the  new Missal has  alienated them. I  now have difficulty  getting my youngest to church; she says that she does not feel part of it anymore. But we persevere.   Some may say it’s due to the ‘dumbing’ down of modern children but I can assure you that in our own family, this is not the case. 

    By contrast, I recall the enthusiasm when we changed from Latin to English. I was at primary school and I was truly excited by it despite my also loving the Latin responses. I do not see that same level of enthusiasm for the new Missal.   The flight of young people from the church has nothing to do with Vatican II. Vatican II  was the one thing that kept many of us early ‘seventies teenagers in my parish still going to church when we were heartily reviled & mocked by our peers for doing so.  Dare I suggest that church members ought to look at other matters when pointing the blame for this? 

     I actually think our congregation has dwindled since the new Missal came in – though perhaps the latest round of abuse scandals has not helped! No one I know has really been enthusiastic about the changes.
    I hope and pray that all this effort is not the manifestation of a church rearranging its metaphysical deck chairs on the Titanic……..

  • Celia

    I found my faith in the 1970s. I have held on to my attendance at mass through the 1980s and 1990s and into the new century when all around me were sneering at my belief. The words of the mass sustained me throughout. Now I find there are new words and the old words are dismissed as being happy clappy claptrap. The silence in my church on Sundays as the priest waits for the congregation to respond to the new translation has to be experienced to be believed. It feels like my own church now laughs at the words that bought me to faith. So what am I to say now?

  • Paul Bryan

    If the church believes that introducing an almost entirely sung Mass is a way of retaining or bringing back young people through its door, it could not in my opinion be more wrong. The former Mass was there for all Catholics, with a sung option at most parishes for those that prefered them. Now only a sung Mass in its entirety for all, but this type of worship is not for everyone, myself included. With the modern style (rounded) churches with the added noise and quite frankly chaotic comings and goings, I long for solice and prayer. I struggle on a number of fronts with it. It is no wonder that Islam and its solumn prayer recieves so many converts. If I wanted to be a member of an evangelical church with this type of worship I would convert to one. I do not, I was not brought up with that type of worship, I should not have it thrust upon me know. Completely the wrong decision for the future of the church!