Liturgical Music FAQ

Liturgical Music FAQ

The information below contains the popular questions about liturgical music asked by users of this site and their answers. To submit a question about liturgical music at St. Jude Parish to the St. Jude Liturgical Music Committee, please contact us and we will reply to you through e-mail. We also post frequently asked questions to this list so you may want to peruse the list to see if your question has been answered.

Sources used to answer questions:

Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium
General Instruction of the Roman Missal (published by the USCCBpdf
Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship (published by the USCCB)
Committee on Divine Worship Newsletters (published by the USCCB)

Who is the St. Jude Liturgical Music Committee?

This committee is composed of pastoral musicians – singers and instrumentalists – who minister to the assembly during liturgies at St Jude. With the liturgical documents of the Church as a guide, the members prayerfully evaluate the music that the congregation sings. They are interested in your feedback as well as any questions you have concerning music in the liturgy.

At one point we sang just 4 hymns: the Entrance, Offertory, Communion, and Recessional. Why have things changed?

The “Four-Hymn Mass” began long before the liturgical reforms of Vatican II, as part of the old “Low Mass,” the “silent” Mass in which the priest did all the prayers quietly in Latin while the congregation went about their own devotions.

In the 18th century in Germany, Poland and other countries, the custom began of singing songs in the people’s language during Low Mass, and by the late 19th century this was standard in those areas. Songs were written that mirrored the various parts of the Mass.

Later, in the 1940s, in North America and Northern Europe, the Dialogue Mass developed – still a Low Mass, but with the people responding in Latin to the prayers of the priest, as the servers had done previously. It was at this time that the “Four Hymn Mass” began, with real hymns that made sense for the beginning of Mass, the Offertory, the Communion (now that lay people were encouraged to receive Communion regularly at Mass). The hymn at the end, or the recessional, was borrowed from Protestant practice. There has never been a song officially ending the Roman Rite Mass.

After the reforms of Vatican II, we began to implement the decisions of the world’s bishops about the liturgy, and to sing the Mass, not just sing hymns at Mass. The Mass text itself is sung, and hymns may be sung at particular points. Thus, in a given Mass, we may sing the Entrance or Gathering Song (a psalm or hymn), the Kyrie, the Gloria, the Responsorial Psalm, the Gospel Acclamation, the Intercessions. At the Preparation of the Altar and the Gifts, we may sing a psalm or a hymn, or we may listen to choral or instrumental music, or we may just have silence. The entire Eucharistic Prayer may be sung by the priest, but with the people always singing the Sanctus (Holy), the Memorial Acclamation and the Great Amen. We may sing the Lord’s Prayer and its conclusion (the doxology), the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God), and during Communion a psalm or responsorial song. There is an option for a song of praise after Communion. At the end of Mass, no song is mentioned anywhere in the liturgical documents. It has become the custom in the USA to sing something at this time. This is outside the time of Mass itself, after the final dismissal.

Why have things changed? Over several hundred years, our understanding of the Mass has changed from a private prayer of the priest which people must attend without outward participation, to the most important act of the Body of Christ, gathered together to give thanks to God, to hear God’s Word, to respond in song, to join themselves to the sacrifice of Christ, and to receive the Body and Blood of Christ.

The “Four Hymn Mass” was one brief portion of our journey to recovering the liturgy of the early church in a way that makes sense for people today.

Why don't we sing during the collection?

It is, of course, possible to sing during the collection, but think of what happens when we do. People fumble with envelopes and wallets and money as we ask them to pick up a hymnal. Hymns are meant to create unity of prayer, but that is not what happens when we try to do something else while we sing. At the same time, the corporal, book and chalice may be placed on the altar, and the presider may move to the altar. In some places, the gifts of bread and wine are brought forward while the collection continues. All these things going on at once hardly meet the liturgical mandate that the rites be simple, unencumbered, and understandable.

At Saint Jude Church, since Ash Wednesday of 2000, we have followed a different procedure, so that members of the assembly can see and understand the rite of preparation, preparing their hearts for the Eucharistic Prayer. Also, we have taken into consideration the need for silence in the liturgy, something often forgotten.

Our church documents tell us that the purpose of singing during the procession with the gifts is to “accompany and celebrate the communal aspects of the procession.” So we don’t sing till it is time for the procession to begin.

If you would like more details, see the article Preparation of the Altar and the Gifts

Please contrast listening to choir pieces vs.assembly singing.

The choir is never to substitute for the congregation. Rather, the choir sings to lead and reinforce the singing of the people and to add solemnity and variety to that singing. The choir, like the cantor, often sings in dialogue with the congregation, alternating verses, or singing the verses between congregational refrains.

Among the times the choir may sing alone, according to our liturgical texts, are: the Gloria, if it is one not suited for the singing of everyone; during the preparation of the altar and the gifts, to bring the hearts and minds of the people together in preparation for the Eucharistic Prayer. At Saint Jude Church, the choir sings alone at Preparation, which is a time when reflection by the congregation is a legitimate option.

In addition, outside the Mass itself, the choir may sing prelude and postlude music.

What is the purpose of the communion hymn?

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, the Roman document which describes how we are to celebrate Mass, says: “While the priest is receiving the Sacrament, the Communion chant is begun. Its purpose is to express the communicants’ union in spirit by means of the unity of their voices, to show joy of heart, and to highlight more clearly the ‘communitarian’ nature of the procession to receive Communion.” (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, #86)

Sometimes we sing a song of praise after communion and sometimes we don't. Why? Some parishes always have a meditation song performed by the music ministers after communion. Why doesn't St. Jude's do this?

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, the Roman document which describes how we are to celebrate Mass, makes this clear.

“When the distribution of Communion is finished, as circumstances suggest, the priest and faithful spend some time praying privately. If desired, a psalm or other canticle of praise or a hymn may also be sung by the entire congregation.” (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, #88)

What role does music serve to accompany liturgical actions?

The church teaches that music, particularly sacred song, is an integral part of the liturgy, not something tacked on. Think about the purpose of the various songs at Mass. The gathering or entrance song accompanies the gathering of our hearts and minds into the beginning of the liturgy, as well as the entrance of the sacred ministers. The Kyrie (Lord, have mercy) accompanies our recognition of the mercy of God, whose forgiveness is always available to us. The Gloria (Glory to God) accompanies the turning of our hearts and minds to the praise of the Holy Trinity.

The gospel acclamation accompanies the movement of the Book of Gospels from the altar to the ambo and prepares us to hear the proclamation. Sung intercessions accompany the raising of our needs to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit.

We sing at the procession of the gifts to “accompany and celebrate the communal aspects of the procession,” according to the Roman rules for the celebration of Mass. We sing the Sanctus (Holy), the Memorial Acclamation and the Great Amen to focus our great thanksgiving, the Eucharistic Prayer, as an act of all God’s people.

The Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) accompanies the breaking and distribution of the Bread of Heaven. The communion song, according to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, “is to express the communicants’ union in spirit by means of the unity of their voices, to show joy of heart, and to highlight more clearly the ‘communitarian’ nature of the procession to receive Communion.”

There are also songs that stand on their own: the responsorial psalm, a proclamation of the Word of God; the Lord’s prayer when it is chanted; the song of praise after communion.

Why does the choir wear robes when some of the other ministers do not?

Robes or vestments are prescribed for the sacred ministers (bishop, priest, deacon) but are optional, according to local custom, for the other ministers. At St. Jude Church, as in many other places, the choir and servers wear robes, while other ministers – lectors, cantors, extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion – do not. This custom developed because of the roles of the various ministers and their location in the church building.

Lectors, cantors and extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion are seated in the body of the assembly, with the entire congregation. They come forward for their ritual roles, and then return. Servers and choir members serve from fixed locations, near the altar, where they are visible throughout the celebration. Their robes not only mark their function, but are an aesthetic element that helps us focus on the altar, and not draw our eyes by a distracting confusion of colors and styles of clothing.

Please explain the difference between singing psalms antiphonally and singing responsorially.

When we sing a psalm antiphonally, we alternate singing that day’s appointed Responsorial Psalm. The cantor begins by singing the first line and the assembly then sings the next line. The cantor and the assembly take turns singing equal portions of the psalm, usually to the same melody, until the entire Responsorial Psalm has been sung.

When we sing the psalm responsorially, there is a refrain, sung by all, and the cantor sings the verses. Typically, the refrain has one melody that is familiar to the assembly or is easy for the assembly to sing, and the verses vary musically in melody as well as timing. In some cases, where the assembly knows the entire psalm, the assembly sings both verses and refrain.

At St. Jude’s, we use several sources for our music. Our hymnals, Worship, Gather, are sources, as is Psalms for the Church Year and other published music. When each liturgy is planned, the Old Testament, New Testament and Gospel are studied. The Responsorial Psalm is selected based on how the text of the psalm complements the Old & New Testament and Gospel readings. If there is no psalm that the assembly knows or can comfortably sing that complements the readings, then we sing that day’s Responsorial Psalm antiphonally.

Where is the cantor/psalmist best positioned to sing psalms during Mass especially when the church has a choir loft? Can the person be permitted to sing responsorial psalms from the choir loft?

The Introduction of the Lectionary for Mass states, in paragraph 22: “The responsorial psalm is sung or recited by the psalmist or cantor at the lectern.” The General Instruction of the Roman Missal states, in paragraph 61: “Hence the psalmist, or the cantor of the Psalm, sings the verses of the Psalm from the ambo or another suitable place.” The clear preference is that the psalm be led from the place where the readings are proclaimed, however another “suitable” place may be used. What does this mean? If we remember that the psalm is in dialogue form, a proclamation of the Word of God with verses and response exchanged between the psalmist and the rest of the assembly, a place that is visible is important, even if it cannot be the ambo (the lectern of the readings). Singing the psalm from the choir loft, while clearly not forbidden, makes as much sense as reading the readings from behind the seated people. This placement should be used only if there is a serious pastoral reason to do so.

What if the choir has no cantors? Can the readers read the psalms?

The Introduction to the Lectionary for Mass, paragraphs 19 to 22, makes it clear that the psalms are to be sung, either led by a cantor, or sung straight through by all. Again, it does not forbid a reader from proclaiming the verses, but makes it clear that this should only be done when the psalm can really not be sung. Even if a reader proclaims the verses, the assembly should sing the response. This is also stated in paragraph 61 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal.

The readers from the first and second readings: do they have to read the universal prayers too?

No, they do not have to. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, paragraph 71, states: “The intentions are announced from the ambo or from another suitable place, by the deacon or by a cantor, a lector, or one of the lay faithful.” It is for the priest-celebrant who presides at Mass to introduce and conclude the prayers, but the intentions themselves are not his function, but that of the deacon or one of the other persons mentioned in the quotation.

Why we don't sing Christmas carols during Advent?

For the same reason we don’t sing “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today, Alleluia!” during Lent.

We are waiting. We are preparing. We are getting ready for the feast. It is not yet time to shout and celebrate. That time will come, and we’ll be ready for it.

During Advent, we dwell with the prophets of old who yearned for God’s coming. Though, of course, Emmanuel is already with us, we take the time to reflect on what it means to wait for the fullness of God’s coming. The kingdom of God is among us – but not yet fully realized. That’s up to us. So now we consider the whats, hows and whos of our participation in the coming of God’s reign on earth.

We wait for Jesus coming in history. We wait for Jesus coming to us as we assemble and pray. We wait for Jesus coming to us in the proclamation of the scriptures. We wait for Jesus coming to us in Holy Communion and all the sacraments. We wait for Jesus coming for each of us at the end of our lives. We wait for Jesus coming in glory at the end of time.

After more than three weeks of quiet, reflective waiting, we are ready to shout: “Joy to the world! O come, all ye faithful! Hark, the herald angels sing!” But until then, we anticipate with delight what we know will come on December 24, in the middle of that Silent Night, Holy Night.

Is it proper to sing a recessional hymn during Lent?

This is a matter of local custom. The recessional hymn is not a part of the official liturgy, which ends with the dismissal (The Mass is ended, etc./ Thanks be to God). In some places, there is a song at this point, in others not. At St. Jude’s in Fort Wayne, we usually sing a brief refrain after the dismissal, but during Lent, to mark the special character of the season, we do not sing or play instruments at this time. There are no rules governing this.

Can we sing more than one communion song while everyone is receiving communion if it is taking a longer time? This would be before the communion meditation.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal mentions only one Communion chant, that begins while the priest receives Communion and continues throughout the reception of Communion by the assembly. There is also an option for a song of praise sung by the entire congregation after Communion. There is no such thing as a Communion Meditation in any of our liturgical books or documents. You can find the relevant passages at the following link, at paragraphs 84-89.

However, the “Pastoral Introduction to the Order of the Mass” mentions the possibility of two Communion songs when the distribution of Communion takes a long time. It also makes it clear that one Communion song is to be preferred when possible. (Click HERE for information on the Pastoral Introduction to the Order of the Mass.)

So, it depends on the situation and, to a large extent, on local custom. Introducing two songs when it isn’t really necessary may not be the best liturgical practice, but in case of real need, it may be done, though it is never required.

The decision should be made in light of the purpose of the Communion Song as stated in paragraph 86. That’s the norm against which to judge singing during the Communion Procession.

St. Jude Catholic Church
2130 Pemberton Drive
Ft. Wayne, IN 46805
(260) 484-6609

St. Jude Catholic School
2110 Pemberton Drive
Ft. Wayne, IN 46805
(260) 484-4611

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Music Ministry
(260) 484-6609