Putting Words to Intuition in the Liturgy

I recently re-read a very instructive chapter in Monsignor Francis Mannion's excellent book Masterworks of God: Essays in Liturgical Theory and Practice in which he provided a framework for understanding things done in the sacred liturgy. This has been helpful for my students over the years, and I thought I'd bring it to the readers of CMR.
We've all heard complaints over the years that "Father did such and such" or "the music director did so and so." Usually we have a sense that something was wrong, but don't often know what. Usually these things aren't so much matters of overt heresy as they are of imbalance. Lay people try to do things that are reserved for the ordained, the priest tries to appear approachable to the congregation and departs from the rite, the musicians want "high music" at the expense of participation, or they want "low" music at the expense of the rite itself. Monsignor Mannion's helpful triangle, of which I made a diagram above, can come in handy in determining the nature of the problem.
His basic argument is that in the earthly dimension of liturgy, there are three different irreducible parts: the rite (texts, vestments, art, music, architecture, etc.), the ordained minster (priest or deacon) and the congregation (everyone else). These are intended to be in proper balance, and if they get out of balance, some other aspect of the liturgy tends to suffer.
If the rite so dominates the priest and the people -- turning the Mass into a fashion show of vestments and incense or a concert of sacred music -- we see the appearance of ritualism. If the people become the center of the worship to such a degree that they disregard the proper role of the priest, the texts of the Mass, or liturgical art, we see congregationalism at work. If the priest decides that the ritual book is his alone (either by denying the people their proper role or by making unauthorized changes) one gets clericalism.
Before the Council, people claimed that we saw too much emphasis on the rite and the priest, and not enough on the congregation. In an exaggerated response in the 1970s, we saw quite often an extreme congregationalism. Today, most serious Catholics are trying to find a balance. The priest has his proper role, the people have their proper role, and the rite binds them all together. They enrich and mutually reinforce each other when properly balanced.

Hopefully this will be a handy reference point for determining what's going on in your own parish or for testing your own liturgical preferences against a theological standard.


  1. Just another reminder, which Rorate-caeli blogspot has also posted:

  2. This is really good! Thanks!

  3. I don't have the book. It looks appealing.
    Not having the book, I'm curious about how "high" music would have to be to be "too high." Is the level of music determined by the secular culture? Not having the book, I don't know.

    Is Gregorian Chant "too high"? It's supposed to be given pride of place. In practice, it seems that "pride of place" is like the corner chair reserved for the crazy great uncle when he comes to visit.

    Also, I've always been put back by the idea that active participation means everyone has to be singing. Here too it seems that there needs to be a balance between internal and external participation. If people are singing, and not uniting themselves to the sacrificial reality of the mass, they are missing a lot.

    Ok, I'm done venting....

  4. aquinasadmirer,
    There are various ways high music can be "too high".
    1. The music becomes the focus of the Mass (concert performance).
    2. Required perfection excludes all but a tiny handful from a schola cantorum.
    3. The music director dictates the entire Mass.
    4. No training/education of the congregation on the music, so they don't really know/understand what is being sung or why. If the congregation can't actively participate (without singing) in the purpose of the chant, then what's the point? It becomes really loud background music that distracts from the sacrifice of the Mass.

    At least, that's some of what I see as possibilities.

  5. Imho, I think the Parish deserves a chance to grow in the rich traditions of Sacred Chant and Polyphony. By introducing simple chant (you don't get simpler music than chant, sorry OCP, but you just don't!) a little bit at a time, the Congregation can comfortably grow to include it into their repertoire. One new chant piece each Lent and Advent, print the Latin/English translation in the Bulletin, have the choir start it at the Offertory, and then slowly work it in through a Communion Meditation, etc... Chant does deserve Pride of Place, and the Congregation deserves the chance to learn from this most sacred and beautiful music.

  6. Thanks Matthew,

    Given what you've said, it seems like this is primarily an issue of catechesis and instruction.

    1. I agree. There is a danger here. However, I know on only one parish in my state that might come close to this end of the pendulum.

    2. I'm not sure what is meant by required perfection. But even folk music can be--and is currently being--done badly.

    3. I don't know how this is different from now. Most music directors I've worked with have the attitude "my way or the highway." regardless of the genre of the music.

    4. This can be done with slow incrementally introduced elements of the mass. The time frame would be over the course of a few years. As a kid (in the 70's) we were introduced to new pieces of music about once a month. This was about ten minutes before mass. In short, people will learn the melodies pretty quickly.

    In fact the USCCB's document "Sing to the Lord" has a paragraph that touches on this:

    75. Each worshiping community in the United States, including all age groups and all
    ethnic groups, should, at a minimum, learn Kyrie XVI, Sanctus XVIII, and Agnus Dei XVIII, all of
    which are typically included in congregational worship aids. More difficult chants, such as
    Gloria VIII and settings of the Credo and Pater Noster, might be learned after the easier chants
    have been mastered.71
    76. “The assembly of the faithful should participate in singing the Proper of the Mass as
    much as possible, especially through simple responses and other suitable settings.”72 When the
    congregation does not sing an antiphon or hymn, proper chants from the Graduale Romanum
    might be sung by a choir that is able to render these challenging pieces well. As an easier
    alternative, chants of the Graduale Simplex are recommended. Whenever a choir sings in Latin,
    it is helpful to provide the congregation with a vernacular translation so that they are able to
    “unite themselves interiorly” to what the choir sings.

    Also, I don't equate singing with participation. They may be related, but they aren't equal. I would offer that someone who is silently offering up all of his interior sufferings with the mass is fully participating.

    Again, thank you for your points, they've got me thinking more deeply about the topic.

  7. aquinasadmirer,
    I don't find my point 1 to be very likely, but it is a possibility. By "required perfection", I meant to say that the music director (or what ever one wants to cal him) forms a tiny exclusive group of "worthy" singers, and the Mass becomes all about them and how great they are.

    As to your response to point 4, I'd love to see that come about.

    And I agree that singing is not true participation. The last sentence in 76 is more in lines with what I was thinking.

  8. Matthew,

    Thanks for your thoughts.

    To your "required perfection" statement, yup! The choir is assisting the congregation to worship God. It is NOT a recital for the congregation. I agree with you.

    At my particular parish, the choir is to the left of the sanctuary, and it faces the congregation. I find this location and orientation makes the choir seem like it's singing to the congregation. For me, this makes the focus and purpose of the choir more difficult to understand for both the congregation and the choir itself. This makes the concern you have more difficult to overcome when compared to the choir located in a loft.




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