Propers of the Mass Versus the Four-Hymn Sandwich

Two Catholic Scholars Look at "The Great Catholic Music Debate"

Angels Singing from the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan Van Eyck (1430 – 1432)

(The subtitle of this article refers to “The Great Catholic Music Debate: ‘Post-Vatican Folk’
‘Reformist Retro'” by Bill Kassel, which appeared in this magazine, August 9, 2015.

This may be a surprise to most Catholics who attend Masses in the Ordinary Form,1 but we aren’t supposed to be singing hymns exclusively or predominantly at Mass. We are supposed to be singing the Mass.

According to authoritative Roman Catholic Church documents on liturgy from before, during, and after the Second Vatican Council, the Church has never stopped wanting us to sing sacred texts that are intrinsically part of each day’s Mass. This statement from one Vatican organization in charge of implementing the Vatican II liturgical changes is typical: “{T}exts must be those of the Mass, not others, and singing means singing the Mass not just singing during Mass.”2

I’ll never forget an extreme example of how singing during the Mass can be abused, which occurred one Christmas. The Italian choir in which I sang joined with the English and Spanish choirs to provide the music for a multi-lingual3 Midnight Mass. A musician from the Spanish choir wearing a black leather suit with silver studs and high-heeled black cowboy boots sang John Lennon’s “Imagine,” accompanying himself on a black and silver electric guitar. “Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try … And no religion too.” This was even more jolting because the Italian choir had just sung their favorite Christmas hymn “Tu Scendi dalla Stelle” (“You Descended from the Stars”). What could be more absurd than to follow that pious hymn to the newborn Divino Bambino with an atheist anthem?

Actually, what was even more absurd is the fact that no one in the church, except for me, seemed to think anything was wrong about singing “Imagine” during a Mass. Most sang along. People have gotten used to the absolutely whimsical way music is chosen for Masses, and from this example, it seems that they might not even listen to what the words mean. Mistaken opinions about what we should be singing abound among laity and clergy alike. Only a few weeks before that Christmas Eve, the pastor had told the Italian choir director that the Gloria was not really required during Mass any more, but another song would do, even, for example, “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah!”

The topic of what kind of music should be sung at Mass is complex. Experts write about this subject all the time, but they forget to explain many things that are second nature to them in a way that non-experts among the clergy and laity can also understand. I’ve sung in a Gregorian chant choir for about a decade, have studied with, and interviewed several masters of sacred music, and I’ve done a lot of reading on the topic. So, as a passionate lover of sacred music, I’m going to try to share what I’ve learned from the experts about what went wrong with Roman Catholic Church music after the Second Vatican Council, and what’s being done to fix it.

This article was written to include another article titled, “Fr. Samuel Weber’s “The Proper of the Mass: An Interview with Dr. Peter Kwasniewski,’” that is included at the end of this article. In the interview, Dr. Kwasniewski answers questions about the purpose and importance of a recently released collection of chants that were composed by his colleague and friend, Fr. Samuel Weber, O.S.B., and published by Ignatius Press, whose full title is: The Proper of the Mass for Sundays and Solemnities: Chants for the Roman Missal in English. Fr. Weber’s collection is one of many important recent attempts to provide appropriate settings for English Mass texts. In his Foreword, San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone wrote that Fr. Weber’s work is “invaluable: it provides a resource to enable our people and musicians to sing the biblical texts assigned by the Church to the various moments of the liturgy.”

You may be asking yourself, “What is the Proper?” Or, maybe, what’s the big deal about a collection of English chant settings? This article provides definitions of terms, some of the recent history of singing in the Catholic liturgy, and citations from some relevant Church documents that will help you at least get a glimpse of the big picture of what Catholics should be singing at Mass, according to the mind of the Church.

What’s a Four-Hymn Sandwich?
Ever since 1969, the vast majority of Masses are celebrated in what is called the Ordinary Form, and a sequence of four hymns is typically sung at the Entrance, the Preparation of the Gifts (Offertory), the Communion, and during the Recessional procession at the end of the Mass. Sacred Music experts often refer to this sequence as the “four-hymn sandwich,” and, while some object to the term as being snarky, I’ll use it in this article with no offense intended, because it’s colorful, and it makes its point.

A lot of Catholics have grown up with the “four-hymn sandwich,” and many have been led to believe (erroneously) that Vatican II abolished Gregorian chant and Latin. Some think that to include chant and Latin to any extent is to take a step back to a dark era, to return to a time when nobody understood what the priest was doing during Mass, and when the laity were excluded from participation. This article cannot go off topic far enough to address the false claims that nobody understood Latin, and that the laity were excluded from participation during the hundreds of years that the traditional Latin Mass was the only Mass. But I will start by addressing the fact that Vatican II never abolished Gregorian chant and Latin.

A good number of priests and church musicians have humbly taken the time to learn what the Church really intends to be sung during the liturgy, but some are afraid it might be safer to leave things the way they are, because the topic of singing at Mass is so fraught with emotion. Many churchgoers are passionately attached to their favorite hymns, and they are not going to stop singing hymns at Mass without a rebellion.

There actually have been cases where a pastor’s, or music director’s, sincere attempts to gently and slowly re-introduce the minimum of what is spelled out in Church documents about music at Mass, have led parishioners to complain so loudly that the pastor, or music director, has been removed. As many Church music directors and musicians reveal, who converse at “The Chant Café”4 that their struggles in parishes indicate that it is extremely difficult to change people’s minds about what should be sung at Mass.

Laying aside the possible resistance, the fact is that when a parish decides what music belongs at Mass, the decision should not be based on what you, or I, or anyone else, may prefer emotionally. Sacred music settings of sacred texts are what the Church teaches are the only fitting music for our worship of God.

And Now a Few Terms: Ordinary? Proper? Poly-Wha?
Gregorian chant (otherwise known as “plainchant”) is the Church’s unique sacred music, which developed as an intrinsic part of the liturgy of the Catholic Church. It is unique among all types of music because it has always been used only for worship. Some refer to Gregorian chant as “sung prayer.” Purely melodic, it may be sung by one or several singers, who all sing the same notes. It does not use harmony, counterpoint, or accompaniment.5

“Gregorian” refers to Pope St. Gregory I, the Great (540-604), who played an important, if disputed, role in codifying which chants are sung during the liturgical year. Unlike modern music, chant is not restricted to two modes, but has many modes, and it does not have a fixed meter or time signature. It has a free rhythm that is uniquely complementary to worship.

“Polyphony” is unaccompanied, multi-voiced music that developed from chant. Unlike other forms of music that are often used in Masses these days, chant and polyphony do not carry associations with worldly things in the listeners’ minds. For one simple example, music with the instruments and beats of a rock concert is going to stir up the same kinds of emotions evoked at a rock concert. If the words are religious, any song can be said to be religious, but there is a distinction between religious music and sacred music that is important to understand. Religious music is fine, in its place, but only sacred music belongs at Mass.

In 1903, Pope St. Pius X proclaimed that Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony were the official music of the Roman Catholic Church’s liturgy. “The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as sacred melody united to words, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn Liturgy.” Subsequent popes, including Pope Paul VI in 1974, have affirmed the same thing.

Popes before, during, and after the council also stress the importance of Gregorian chant. Both John Paul II and Benedict XVI also reaffirmed what the Vatican II official constitution on the liturgy stated, that Gregorian chant is the Church’s own music, and that it should be “suitably esteemed and employed as the chant proper to the Roman liturgy.” 

The Second Vatican Council devoted a chapter to sacred music in Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC), the constitution on the liturgy. SC was the first of the four Constitutions to be promulgated by the Second Vatican Council (on December 4, 1963), and was voted for by an overwhelming majority of the Fathers of the Council. Paragraph 116 of SC affirmed that Gregorian chant is “specially suited to the Roman liturgy” and that Gregorian chant should have first place among all legitimate types of sacred music.6

Musicology professor, William P. Mahrt, is president of the Church Music Association of America, and his St. Ann choir continued to sing Latin Gregorian chant in Ordinary Form Masses during the past fifty years—even during the years when it was practically banned. Mahrt has written7 that the rich repertoire of Gregorian chants should not be abandoned. Although it might be almost inconceivable that any music written by an individual in our time could approach the state of polished perfection that was achieved by Gregorian chant, as it was developed over the ages to be sung for each day of the year, the Church has no objection to new compositions, as long as they are composed according to the supreme model of Gregorian chant.

Pope Saint John Paul II repeated in 2003 the affirmation from SC that Gregorian chant is “specially suited to the Roman Liturgy,” along with the words of Pope Pius X that chant is “the supreme model of sacred music,” and Pope John Paul II continued, “With regard to compositions of liturgical music, I make my own the ‘general rule’ that St Pius X formulated in these words: ‘The more closely a composition for church approaches in its movement, inspiration, and savor of the Gregorian melodic form, the more sacred and liturgical it becomes; and the more out of harmony it is with that supreme model, the less worthy it is of the temple.’”8

What’s in Your Sandwich?
Hymns have always had their place in the Divine Office, and still belong in the post-conciliar “Liturgy of the Hours,” and in devotions outside of Mass (such as May processions), but the music of the Mass has consisted, for hundreds of years, of texts from the Scriptures, and of other sacred texts set to Gregorian chant, and sacred polyphony that developed as part of the Mass.

The practice of having the congregation sing four hymns at Mass actually started back in the mid-to late-1950s as a way to promote congregational participation during the parts of Low Masses where the priest was praying silently. Hymn singing came into Catholic Masses by way of Protestant worship services, some say from Methodism. The movement to allow hymn singing at Masses came from Germany and the low countries.

Martin Luther is the one who first propagated the communal singing of hymns in the German language in worship service in the 16th century. Before Luther, many hymns existed but they weren’t sung in Masses. One of Luther’s biggest goals was to “restore worship to the people,” so Luther set to work and wrote thirty-seven hymns in German for the people to sing during his new Sunday worship service. Luther started such an explosion of hymn writing that by the time he died, sixty German hymnals had been published, and the explosion continued, so that a remarkable twenty-five thousand German hymnals had been published sixty years after his death. Although Luther removed many parts of the Mass that did not fit his theological formulations, he was conservative compared to the later founders of other denominations.

Protestant Reformers continued removing more and more parts of the Mass that they didn’t agree with, until what was left in most denominations was a stripped down service consisting of congregational hymn singing, didactic prayers, readings from scriptures, and long sermons, with a communion service once a month or once a year. A worship service without the Eucharistic sacrifice, and the singing of the prayers of the Mass, needs lots of hymns and a long, long sermon.

Before the Second Vatican Council, during the period when hymns were allowed for Catholics to sing at low Mass, hymns did not replace the prescribed Mass texts, but were an addition to them. But after Vatican II, unfortunately, hymns were treated as a replacement for the prescribed texts. This happened because when the Mass of 1969 in the local languages was introduced, the distinction between Low and High Mass was removed, and the practice of singing hymns spread into all Masses, irrespective of the Mass’ solemnity.

The singing of the prescribed Mass texts (which still existed) almost totally disappeared as a result of the haste in which the new form of the Mass was implemented. In the new form of the Mass, the texts of the Mass that had been in Latin were now in the vernacular, but there was no music available to go with the vernacular translations for years. The magisterial documents directed that people should sing, but there was a big hole because there was no music for the translated texts. Hymns moved into the void.

One big problem with the current situation is that the hymns are often selected from 20 to 30 old favorites that are sung, week after week, and they do not usually have any discernible connection to that particular day’s place in the liturgical year. Another big problem is that hymns seldom seem connected, as they ought to be, to the sacred actions going on in the parts of the Mass during which they are sung. The hymns seem to be picked at random by the whim of whoever gets to select the songs that day; and as my earlier example shows, they sometimes are actually heretical.

There is a movement to return to singing the parts of the Mass that have been ignored, and Fr. Samuel F. Weber’s collection of chant settings of approved English texts is a valuable contribution to that movement. In 2013, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone recruited Fr. Weber, O.S.B. to found the Benedict XVI Institute of Sacred Music and Divine Liturgy at St. Patrick’s Seminary and University in Menlo Park, California for the Archdiocese of San Francisco. Archbishop Cordileone wrote in his foreword to Fr. Weber’s “Proper of the Mass” about how the collection fills the void that the hymns moved into. “Now, thanks to the efforts of Father Weber, a recognized expert in the field of chant, it is possible for us to sing the entire Eucharistic liturgy.”

What Does “Ordinary” Mean in Church-Speak?
The parts of a Mass that do not change every week are called the “Ordinary.” The following table lists the Ordinary parts of the Mass.

Latin (with one exception) English
Kyrie (Greek) Lord Have Mercy
Gloria Glory be to God
Credo Creed (Profession of Faith)
Sanctus and Benedictus Holy, Holy, Holy
Agnus Dei Lamb of God

Great composers through the ages have written many musical settings for the Ordinary parts of the Mass, and the collection of the five standard parts is called a Mass. For example, the Mass for Three Voices by William Byrd (composed in the 1590s) has the same five parts of the Ordinary as Missa Papae Francisci (Mass of Pope Francis) by Ennio Morricone, which premiered in 2015.

Who Sings the Ordinary? We Do! How Should We Sing It? In Latin!
Virtually no Catholics have ever heard about this, but the Church wants everyonenot just the choir or trained singersto know how to sing the Ordinary in Latin. In 1974, Pope Paul VI issued a booklet called Jubilate Deo (“Joyfully Sing Out to God” is an English paraphrase, but note that the title is in Latin) with simple settings of the Ordinary chants, and responses and some other hymnsbecause he wanted every Catholic to learn the chants in that booklet. An accompanying letter to all the bishops, and heads of religious orders, said that the Gregorian chants that were contained in the booklet were to be considered the “minimum repertoire of plainchant.” Pope Paul VI asked them to both teach the faithful these Latin chants, and have the faithful sing them:

This minimum repertoire of Gregorian chant has been prepared with that purpose in mind: to make it easier for Christians to achieve unity and spiritual harmony with their brothers, and with the living traditions of the past. Hence, it is that those who are trying to improve the quality of congregational singing cannot refuse to Gregorian chant the place which is due to it. … In presenting the Holy Father’s gift to you, may I, at the same time, remind you of the desire which he has often expressed that the Conciliar constitution on the liturgy be increasingly better implemented.

Obviously, Sacrosanctum Concilium was not being well-implemented and, by 1974, Pope Paul VI felt strongly that the “quality of congregational singing” needed improvement. It still does. The truth is that Jubilate Deo is practically unknown.

For example, a few weeks ago, I met a recent graduate of a Catholic university in California who majored in history, and I mentioned that at least some Ordinary Form Masses are still celebrated with some parts of the Mass in Latin, such as the Sanctus. From the look on his face, I realized I was drawing a blank. “Sanctus? Haven’t you ever heard Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus—you know, Holy, Holy, Holy?” At least he knew Holy, Holy, Holy!

What is notable and lamentable about his lack of exposure to even the word Sanctus is that the Sanctus is one of the Ordinary chants included in Jubilate Deo. The fact that a Catholic, even with a history major, can graduate from a Catholic university without any sense of the historic and current role of Latin in the Catholic Church, is one striking example of how official church teachings, and the wishes of the popes about Latin, are being ignored.

The Parts of the Mass That Belong to the Faithful
Pope Paul VI’s Jubilate Deo was an attempt to bring about the desire expressed in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, from the Second Vatican Council, which said that “steps should be taken enabling the faithful to say or to sing together, in Latin, those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass belonging to them” (§54).

The 2002 General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), also said this, “Since faithful from different countries come together ever more frequently, it is fitting that they know how to sing together at least some parts of the Ordinary of the Mass in Latin, especially the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, set to the simpler melodies” (GIRM §41).

Those of us who attended Mass before the switch to the vernacular in 1969, remember that we could go to Mass anywhere in the world, and follow it because we had learned it in Latin. With that common, sacred language, we had the strong sense of being a member of a world-wide Church, and shared with Roman Catholics around the globe a universal liturgy. The Vatican continues to encourage the use of Latin at Masses attended by people who don’t have a shared language in order to promote unity.

When Is It Proper to Sing the Propers?
Like the word “Ordinary,” “Proper” is another liturgical word whose meaning differs from the usual understanding of the word in common speech. In the broadest sense, the proper parts of the Mass are the parts that vary each day, and are specific to each Mass, or, as the Merriam Webster dictionary puts it, the parts that are “appointed for the liturgy of a particular day.”

Some of the variable parts of the Mass—the Collect, Prayer over the offerings, Prayer after communion, and readings—are supposed to be sung or spoken by the priest, lector, or deacon. Other variable portions of the Mass are spoken, or sung, by the choir, or by the people.

All the discussions about singing propers at Mass refer to the propers that are supposed to be recited or sung by the congregation, or sung by the choir. In the following table, the proper antiphons of the Mass are listed in the left column, and the sequence of hymns that have come to replace them, are listed on the right. Note that the list of propers does not include a recessional chant to correspond to hymn #4 in the sandwich. At many churches where the propers are sung, either a hymn is sung, or an organ postlude is played, as the priest leaves the altar.

Propers Hymns
Entrance Antiphon (Introit) Entrance Hymn (#1)
Responsorial Psalm or Gradual
Alleluia or Tract
Offertory Antiphon (at the Preparation of the Gifts) Offertory Hymn (#2)
Communion Antiphon Communion Hymn (#3)
Recessional Hymn (#4)

The text of an antiphon that is sung during Mass, or the Divine Office, typically consists of one or more verses from the Psalms, or from other parts of Holy Scripture, but occasionally the text is not from Scripture. The Catholic Encyclopedia‘s (1913) article about the “Introit” of the Mass gives this example of a rare case where the antiphon was taken from a poem: “Salve, sancta parens,” from the Christian poet, Sedulius, is the Introit used in traditional Latin Masses for the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Another important thing to understand is that an antiphon is not something that stands alone, but it is typically either chanted, or recited, before and after, a Psalm or a Canticle. In the Divine Office/Liturgy of the Hours, antiphons are prayed with complete Psalms. In the Ordinary Form Mass, antiphons are commonly prayed with only one, or just a few, Psalm verses. Fr. Weber’s book of propers provides chant settings of approved English translations of the antiphons at four levels of difficulty. It is also helpful because it provides settings for the Psalm verses that may be sung with the antiphons.

A Bit of a Mess Still to be Sorted Out
Before the Mass was revised in 1969, things were simpler for church musicians. After the new Mass was introduced in the vernacular, because of the absence of musical settings for the new translations, there was great confusion, and the “four-hymn sandwich” took hold. Now that more clergy and church musicians are starting to understand better the need to chant the propers at Mass, a dizzying variety of proper chant settings are being composed and published in the English language.

Some standardization would still seem to be needed. My thought is that ideally a music leader should be able to turn to a single approved set of propers for a choir to sing instead of needing to comb through all the collections, and train a choir to sing a variety of chants. We don’t have a Pope Gregory the Great around to tell the Roman Catholic Church of the 2010s, and beyond, what proper chant settings to sing. But when and if a standard does emerge, Fr. Weber’s collection of propers is an excellent contender to become that standard. For even more on these issues, I highly recommend the Catholic World Report magazine article entitled: “The Renaissance of the Mass Propers.”9 It provides a lot of up-to-date information, and points to many more resources. And, not incidentally, that article also mentions Fr. Weber’s “Proper of the Mass” as one of the highly useful resources that are now available. 

Fr. Samuel Weber’s “Proper of the Mass”: An Interview with Dr. Peter Kwasniewski
As mentioned above, chant composer, Fr. Samuel Weber, O.S.B., recently published a collection of chant settings titled: The Proper of the Mass for Sundays and Solemnities: Chants for the Roman Missal in English. According to Jeffrey Tucker at The Chant Café10, “Fr. Weber is truly one of the greatest, and most inspired, Catholic music scholars, composers, and practitioners of chant in the English-speaking world.” Dr. Peter Kwasniewski was referred to me by Fr. Weber as a trusted liturgical expert and friend who could knowledgably answer some questions I had originally submitted to Fr. Weber for an email interview. Dr. Kwasniewski is Professor of Theology and Choirmaster at Wyoming Catholic College. Dr. Kwasniewski’s book, Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis: Sacred Liturgy, the Traditional Latin Mass, and Renewal in the Church, was published by Angelico Press, and he is currently finishing work on his latest book, Ecstasy and Rapture in the Thought of Thomas Aquinas.

Question 1: Please tell us first: Why do you think this resource is needed?

Dr. Kwasniewski: Ever since the introduction of the English liturgy, Fr. Weber has been among those asked to provide resources for singing the Mass in English. He had been answering requests from individuals, parishes, and religious communities for many years. This new book takes care of all requests, as far as the Entrance, Offertory, and Communion antiphons go, as well as a number of other important chants for Holy Week. For this particular project of the Benedict XVI Institute, he provided the following for each of the antiphons:

  • Four levels of settings, so that one cantor, or a highly trained choir, would have options they could manage, depending on available talent, and
  • Appropriate psalm verses for the antiphons for those who would want them (and they are very helpful, since the same action in the liturgy can take a short time, or a long time, depending on many factors).

I know that Fr. Weber is also working on organ accompaniments in different keys, as well as SATB11 settings of verses.

The need for this resource is simple to grasp. The propers (as you no doubt explain in your article) are part of the basic structure of the Roman Rite of the Mass. They are ancient—we find them in the earliest manuscripts we have of the Mass, and they were handed down for centuries. They are part of our inheritance from the apostles, first bishops, and first Christian communities, who were steeped in Jewish worship, and for whom the psalms occupied a central place.

The Psalms came to be the very backbone of the Western liturgical tradition, in the Mass, as in the Divine Office, because they are the very prayers Jesus inspired, and then carried on his own sacred lips, sang in the synagogues, and offered to the Father on the gibbet of Calvary. There is simply no way to avoid the fact that these Proper chants are not a mere add-on, or marginal feature, but stand at the very center of our liturgical heritage.

In the days before the Council, when the Low Mass tended to predominate, after permission was given for hymns to be sung during the parts of the Mass where the priest prayed silently, the Propers were still always retained, albeit only recited. The Council asked for a High or Sung Mass to become the norm—the Sung Mass as it then existed, where the Propers and the Ordinary would be chanted. But after the Council, chaos broke out, and the Propers, like many other treasures, were abandoned and forgotten.

I see a real parallel between what happened to the Propers, and what happened to the man en route to Jericho, who was attacked, and left by the side of the road to die. The priest and the Levite passed him by, but the Samaritan stopped, took him up, and cared for him, and made sure the man would be restored to full vigor. Jesus identified himself with the Samaritan, and asks us to do the same. We are now in a position to be Good Samaritans, take the Propers up again, care for them, and restore them to their fitting role in the Mass.

In short, if we would honor Our Lord, and the traditions he himself inspired in our Church, the Propers need to be restored to their place of honor in the Mass. This collection of chants makes it truly possible and practical to do so in the context of celebrations in English.

Question 2:  I’ve found several reviewers of this book claiming that it is the best of the many attempts to set the Propers in English. You yourself wrote in an Amazon review: “Fr. Weber’s magnum opus does the job better, overall, than has ever been done before.” Music director, Andrew R. Moytka, wrote a review at Corpus Christi Watershed in which he said that the publication of this book “sets an extremely high bar for those of us interested in the musical proper of the Mass… He is undoubtedly one of the modern masters of setting English chant.”12 Given that there are already similar collections available, including: Adam Bartlett’s Simple English Propers, Arlene Oost-Zinner’s Parish Book of Psalms, Corpus Christi Watershed’s Lalemant Propers, Fr. Guy Nicholls’ Graduale Parvum, and the Simple Choral Gradual of Richard Rice, what makes The Proper of the Mass different from the others?

Dr. Kwasniewski:  The distinguishing mark of the book is twofold: (1) for all the Entrance, Offertory, and Communion antiphons, it contains full chant settings in the style and spirit, and often the very melodies, of the Latin originals in the Graduale Romanum; (2) for the same texts, it gives a pair of psalm-tone settings, so that a cantor or choir can easily “shift gears” from more melodic or melismatic settings, to straightforward psalm tone settings. In this way, the book is versatile. For example, I could see using different levels of settings for different Masses, because, as we know, at most parishes, one of the Masses is more of a “high” Mass, while others might be plainer and shorter—but all of them can and should benefit from chanted Propers.

Question 3:  What a labor of love! Jeffrey Ostrowski at Corpus Christi Watershed, and others have mentioned that Fr. Weber has been writing the settings for these antiphons for years, one antiphon at a time, and has published different versions for each chant over the years, testing and refining them.13 Do you know how long it took him to compose and set the chants in this nearly 1,000-page book?

Dr. Kwasniewski:  For sure, it’s been a long-term project. The most intensive period has been the past four years, but he’s been fielding requests to set this or that proper antiphon for decades. Seminaries, parishes, cathedrals, monasteries, colleges, chapels, have used these chants successfully, and given him feedback on what works best. The melodies have been refined through experience, just as it happened with the original Latin chants. And the task is still going on, as Father writes the organ accompaniments, and SATB psalm verses. “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” as the saying goes.

Question 4:  Who will sing the chants? If the congregation will be singing them, how will they learn them? I ran across an interview that you conducted with Fr. Weber at the New Liturgical Movement website about another book, the Hymnal for the Hours.14 In that interview, Fr. Weber described an approach where the chant settings are made available to the congregation in booklets; he said that, with the lead of a “strong and confident cantor,” the congregation is always able to sing alternately, with little or no practice. Is this the method recommended for these chant settings? Do you expect this to be a pew book that everyone can use?

Dr. Kwasniewski:  Oh, no, the Proper of the Mass is not for the congregation; it is for cantors and choir. As Vatican II stated, there is a special and important role for the choir—not everything is meant to be sung by everybody. This flies in the face of a certain narrow interpretation of “active participation,” where the lowest common denominator prevails. In reality, Vatican II taught that there are actions and roles appropriate to various individuals, and each person should do those things, but only those things, that pertain to his role. The layman does not say the words of consecration; the celebrant does not say “And with your spirit.” The congregation is supposed to sing the many responses, the chants of the Ordinary, and, when appropriate, simple antiphons (although on special feasts, a polyphonic Mass, and motets, might be sung to mark the occasion).

But for Sundays and Holy Days, a cantor or choir should be there to sing the Propers, while the people actively participate by listening meditatively, allowing themselves to be moved by the melodies and texts, and offering them to God as their own prayers. Indeed, Pope John Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI, taught that such prayerful listening is an important mode of participation, all the more so because modern Western man is too much given to a superficial activism that seldom penetrates into the depths.

However, Ignatius Press has also brought out the Ignatius Pew Missal, which has been very successful, and is growing in popularity. This is an annual publication whose fine classic hymns, and simple chant settings, make it a worthy alternative to the other annual paperbacks on the market. In this book, all the music is chosen or written so that it can be sung by the congregation. I would think that having the Ignatius Pew Missal in the aisles, and The Proper of the Mass in the choir loft, would be an excellent combination for most parishes.

Question 5:  Chant composers differ about the right way to adapt Latin chants into English. Jeffrey Ostrowski at Corpus Christi Watershed has written about a “sing as you speak” approach that claims the natural rhythm of spoken language should determine how chants are composed. The opposite approach, which Ostrowski prefers, is called cantillation. Ostrowski wrote that the problem with “sing as you speak,” is that “music is not speech. Music is music.” Should chant be written as speech or as music? Can you define cantillation and share your thoughts on this topic?

Dr. Kwasniewski:  Cantillation is “heightened speech.” The sacred melodic patterns come to us from the Temple and Synagogue. These patterns served the Word of God in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin. The task is not to “adapt Latin chants”—the task is to tailor the patterns of cantillation to suit the target language. An apt comparison: when you buy a suit, the fashion or “mode” is common to all. But each suit must be tailored to fit the individual, not the other way around. When I go to buy a suit, the tailor does not trim my arms and legs to fit the one-size-fits-all suit… It is the other way around.

Jeffrey Ostrowski is certainly right to this extent: there should be, as much as possible, the beauty of a true melody in chanted antiphons, as we see in the Graduale Romanum and the Divine Office antiphons. Psalm tones come in handy for longer texts or simpler ceremonies, but one would not wish to subsist on a diet of them—it would be like fasting on bread and water, rather than having a piece of broiled fish, as Jesus did after the Resurrection.

Question 6: What would be the main differences between English and Latin that one needs to take into consideration when setting English texts to chant? When one adapts melodies from an existing Gregorian chant setting of the Latin, what kinds of changes to the chants does one need to make to accommodate the differences between English and Latin?

Dr. Kwasniewski: Fr. Weber’s approach, for the first two settings of each antiphon, has been to take his inspiration from a Gregorian exemplar, whenever available, while tailoring the traditional melodic patterns to suit the needs of the English words. This produces a feeling of “oh, that’s the famous chant for Christmas!” but without the awkwardness of the Palmer-Burgess method of forcing the English into an unchanged melody originally designed for a different language altogether.

English is a challenging language to set to music because it has a lot of diphthongs, its sentences tend to end on “masculine” cadences (strong beats with no left-over syllables, such as, “Lord,” “God,” “him,” “praise,” and so forth), and there are consonant combinations that are hard to enunciate clearly. Plus, Americans sing with a bit of a twang, so we don’t have the “polished” sound of English choirboys. But these challenges can be overcome by taking great care in setting the words to melodies, and by preparing the chants well in choir practice.

Question 7: Lots of discussions have gone around in sacred music circles about the fact that the wording of the Propers differs between the Graduale Romanum, whose antiphons are appointed to be sung, and the Roman Missal, which contains frequently different Entrance and Communion antiphons that were chosen for ease in being spoken at Mass. I’ve seen some criticism of the Proper of the Mass because it uses the wording for the Entrance and Communion antiphons from the Roman Missal. I’ve also seen that in the United States version of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal15 dioceses have been given permission to use either the version of these antiphons from the Roman Missal, or from the Graduale Romanum. In his foreword, Archbishop Cordileone wrote that the book is a valuable resource for the English-speaking world, but some object that neither the Irish nor United Kingdom versions of the GIRM allow this option. What are your thoughts about these issues?

Dr. Kwasniewski: The project had as its goal the setting of the texts of the Roman Missal, with the United States primarily in view, but without excluding other countries (as I will explain in a moment). This much seems true to me: as a matter of liturgical law, in which I am far from expert, we are in a state of some confusion as regards what texts ought to be sung at Mass. We cannot go wrong by taking our texts either from the Graduale Romanum (as has been done in this book for the Offertory antiphons, since they do not exist in the Roman Missal) or from the Roman Missal itself, either because it is permitted to do so, or under the generous umbrella of alius cantus aptus (other appropriate song). There are other approaches that could work, too. The only thing that is non-negotiable is keeping the music and texts truly in line with the rubrics, laws, and “genius” of the Roman Rite.

Perhaps, many years from now, this confusion will all be sorted out, with one standard set of antiphons which will be created for all circumstances, and the singing or reciting of them will be made obligatory. (It is quite bizarre, when you come to think about it, that this supremely obvious step was not taken long ago.) But we are, I think, still far away from that official resolution of our difficulties, and meanwhile, generations of Catholics are growing up without the faintest clue about the kind of music and texts that are historically authentic, and liturgically appropriate to the Mass. We need to do something now; indeed, we needed to do something yesterday, but at least now we have the resources. They will serve admirably for the years ahead, as the Church gradually continues to assimilate the teaching of Pope Benedict XVI on the hermeneutic of continuity, and his own personal example of friendliness to tradition, which has been so influential among young Catholics who are zealous for the Faith.

Question 8: In looking back on the history of Gregorian chant, we see that growth of chant as an intrinsic part of the Mass was organic, and its composers were anonymous. Different versions of the chanted liturgy came into being in different parts of the Catholic world, until various popes, in effect, canonized a single official collection of chants that made up the music of the liturgy of the Roman rite. Then, a rupture happened, and after the introduction of the vernacular Mass, chant almost disappeared. Fr. Weber’s work is part of an increasing movement to bring chant back into the Mass where it belongs, but so much has changed in the Church that it is hard for me to imagine how the movement can succeed. Chants are now composed by individuals whose names and reputations are known, and collections are made available for sale by publishers. The average Catholic pastor and music director seem to ignore directives from the Vatican, and from the bishops, who make the rules. And even when a pastor educates himself about the Church’s will for liturgical music, and tries patiently to reintroduce the missing parts of the Mass, the outrage from parishioners who feel entitled to their favorite hymns has been known to drive the pastor from his parish. Do you see any ray of hope here?

Dr. Kwasniewski: We have to take a long, long view on all this. Our times may well be the most confused period in the Church’s history, liturgically speaking, but there have been many times over the course of the centuries when liturgical practice was at a low ebb, and when renewal was desperately needed. Many improbable victories have been won across the great arc of Church history. We just need to do the right thing, all of us who know what the Church is asking for, and what her liturgy demands, and leave the rest to Divine Providence. The progressive ways of the 1960s and 1970s, although they still have their defenders, are really showing their age, and are not attracting new converts. The rediscovery of tradition is the place where it’s at today.

I don’t think it matters that today we know the names of the composers, whereas we don’t know who the anonymous monks were who wrote the original chants. Let’s not forget that by the Middle Ages, the poets who wrote the great sequences, and Marian antiphons, are known to us by name, that our ancestors used to attribute a great deal of chant to St. Gregory and St. Ambrose, and that we know the names of all the great composers of the Renaissance—Palestrina, Byrd, Tallis, Victoria, Guerrero, Morales, and so many others—whose music is held up by the Church as the most fitting sacred music after chant. As with St. John the Baptist, we’re not worthy to unfasten their sandal straps, but by placing ourselves in the school of Gregorian chant, and patiently taking up this work, their spirit will rub off on us. We, too, must strive to produce music that is worthy of the sacred liturgy, and of its musical heritage.

It is also not entirely true to think of the chant of the past as a single monolithic entity. There were various kinds and traditions of chants in the Western and Eastern churches, and while certain forms eventually predominated, a certain healthy pluralism tended to prevail—healthy because it was essentially built upon a deep consensus about the nature and structure of the liturgy, its multitudinous musical requirements, and the fitting manner of meeting its artistic needs. Thus, for us today to have several English chant books to choose from is a sign of vitality, not a sign of anarchy, even though I firmly believe that, over time, artistic judgment will shape market forces, and some of the current options will quietly pass away. Of course, I have no crystal ball (as it were), but I predict that Fr. Weber’s Proper of the Mass will become established as the definitive book of its kind.

The ignorance of Church documents is a huge problem, and I can only hope and pray that younger clergy will take pains to educate themselves by wide reading, and careful thinking. There is certainly no lack of germane reading material out there, like William Mahrt’s The Musical Shape of the Liturgy, Jeffrey Tucker’s Sing Like a Catholic, or my own Resurgent in the Midst of Crisis.

As for priests getting in trouble, we all need to remember that an incremental approach is going to work better 99% of the time. Don’t just get rid of hymns. Introduce Propers alongside hymns—something that is easy to do, if, for example, you sing a couple of verses from a hymn to cover the procession, and then chant the Introit as the priest incenses the altar. The same thing can be done at Offertory and Communion. Slowly bring in a selection of better hymns, and phase out the worst of the repertoire. Pick one of the Sunday Masses, and ramp up the sacred music for that one, so that it can be the “flagship,” but people who are not ready for it still have other options. It’s going to require strategy and patience; it won’t be an overnight fix. On the other hand, we should be grateful for the many communities that have availed themselves of the provisions of Summorum Pontificum, because the strict rubrics of the 1962 Missal facilitate “ready-made” good liturgy, and, for many, it’s somehow less of a problem to see the introduction of a different form of the Roman Rite (hey, we’re all about diversity these days!) than to see unexpected changes to the vernacular Mass they’re accustomed to.

Still, the worst thing is doing nothing, and being stuck in the rut of conformism—just going along with whatever happens to be the status quo. The liturgy is our most precious possession as Catholics, and we need to treat it with the greatest love, wonder, and reverence. To do so, we must restore the treasury of sacred music that Vatican II itself praised and called for.

  1. Benedict XVI first introduced the terms “Ordinary Form” and “Extraordinary Form” in his 2007 document on the liturgy, Summorum Pontificum, to differentiate between the Mass of Pope Paul VI according the Missal of 1969 (which is often called the Novus Ordo Mass) and the Mass of Pope Saint John XXIII according to the Missal of 1962 (which is often called the Traditional Latin Mass, the Vetus Ordo, or the Tridentine Mass). Pope Benedict clarified that there are not two Masses in the Roman rite, but two forms of the Roman rite that are both equally valid. The Mass of Pope Paul VI is the Ordinary Form, while the Mass of Pope John XXIII is the Extraordinary Form.
  2. In his article at the New Liturgical Movement website, Jeffrey Keyes quoted the Consilium (the group of bishops and experts set up by Pope Paul VI to implement the Vatican II Constitution on the Liturgy, “What must be sung is the Mass, its Ordinary and Proper, not “something,” no matter how consistent, that is imposed on the Mass.” <>
  3. You may have experienced a multilingual Mass yourself. They were all the rage in San Jose when I was still attending Ordinary Form Masses in the 1990s. When a Psalm is read, for example, you’re likely to hear one line in Spanish, one in Tagalog, one in Vietnamese, and so forth, a practice that is designed to be inclusive, but that has the inadvertent, and rather ill-thought-out outcome, that everyone gets to understand only one line out of three or four (or out of however many languages are included). It has often been pointed out that preserving Latin as our universal language of worship, makes sense for a worldwide religion, and that every Roman Catholic should be familiar at least with the basic chants in the Roman Church’s mother tongue.
  4. The Chant Café is an interactive blog at, a project of the Church Music Association of America that is described as a place “Catholic musicians gather to blog about liturgy and life.”
  5. Even though by definition chant is not accompanied, exceptions are often made, and an organist often accompanies the Ordinary chants that are supposed to be sung by the congregation to encourage them to sing.
  6. See Father Zuhsdorf’s analysis of SC 116 at “What does Sacrosanctum Concilium 116 Really Say?” <>
  7. Summorum Pontificum, The Musical Shape of the Liturgy, p. 114. 2012 Church Music Association of America, Richmond, Virginia.
  8. <>
  9. The Renaissance of the Mass Propers,” March 05, 2013, J. J. Ziegler Retrieved October 12. 2014. <>
  10. The Chant Café is an interactive blog at, a project of the Church Music Association of America that is described as a place that “Catholic musicians gather to blog about liturgy and life.”
  11. SATB stands for soprano, alto, tenor, bass singers in a choir or schola.
  12. “Proper Of The Mass” (Ignatius Press) Part 1 of 7. April 15, 2015 by Andrew R. Motyka. Retrieved August 19, 2015. <>
  13. “Proper Of The Mass” (Ignatius Press) Part 7 of 7. April 22, 2015 by Jeff Ostrowski. Retrieved August 19, 2015. <>
  14. “Celebrating the Liturgy ‘Worthily, Attentively and Devoutly’: Interview with Fr. Samuel F. Weber, O.S.B.” July 16, 2014 by Peter Kwasniewski. Retrieved August 19, 2015.
  15. The Foreword to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal at the USCCB (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) website has this sentence, “The translation contained here, and also in the ritual edition of the Roman Missal, Third Edition, is now the single official translation for the English-speaking world.” And it has this sentence, which seems to make clear that the permission to sing the texts of the Proper antiphons from the Roman Missal was granted only to the United States, “Proper adaptations for the United States were confirmed on July 24, 2010.” <>.
Roseanne T. Sullivan About Roseanne T. Sullivan

Roseanne T. Sullivan is a writer from the Boston area who currently lives in San José, CA. Many of her writings and photographs have appeared in the Latin Mass Magazine, at the New Liturgical Movement, in Regina Magazine, National Catholic Register, at the Dappled Things blog, Deep Down Things, and other publications. Her own intermittently updated blog, Catholic Pundit Wannabe, is at