Agnus Dei, Beyond the Norms

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Agnus Dei, Beyond the Norms


Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: It has always been my understanding that the Agnus Dei was a set part of the Mass, consisting in singing twice "Lamb of God, You take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us"; and concluding with "Lamb of God, You take away the sins of the world, grant us peace." However, at the Mass which I attend in my parish, it is used as an opportunity for creative expression, with the cantor singing such phrases as "Prince of Peace," "Lord of Lords," and other expressions to the refrain from the congregation of "Have mercy on us" until the end of the Communion procession, at which time it will segue (unannounced) into "grant us peace." While this can be very edifying and pleasing, it does not seem to me to meet the requirements of the liturgical norms. — C.C., Dallas, Texas

A: The norms regarding the singing on the Agnus Dei are found in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 83: "…The supplication Agnus Dei, is, as a rule, sung by the choir or cantor with the congregation responding; or it is, at least, recited aloud. This invocation accompanies the fraction and, for this reason, may be repeated as many times as necessary until the rite has reached its conclusion, the last time ending with the words 'dona nobis pacem' (grant us peace)."

Therefore, as a rule, the invocations may be repeated if the rite of fraction is prolonged. But there is no mention of inserting new invocations or of prolonging the Agnus Dei as a Communion song. Thus the invocation "Grant us peace" should be said at the end of the fraction and no extra invocations introduced.

That said, the melody used in the Agnus Dei may be taken up again after the "Lord, I am not worthy" and used as a Communion song. In this case there is no obstacle to introducing adequate new invocations as described above.

This can be a way of using certain classical polyphonic versions which would be too long for the present rite. A system similar to the one described by our reader is long-established custom in some European cathedrals.

The then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger considered this practice legitimate in a conference given at Regensburg on the occasion of his older brother's retirement as music director of that city's cathedral. ZE07042407

* * *

Follow-up: Agnus Dei, Beyond the Norms [5-15-2007]

After our comments on the Agnus Dei (April 24), a Pittsburgh reader asked: "During the Easter season, our parish is using a sung version of the 'Lord, I Am Not Worthy.' However, the words in the setting are changed to, 'Lord, we are not worthy to receive you into our hearts, but only say the word and we shall be healed of our sins.' Although the music is moving, it does not seem appropriate to alter the words of the liturgy, particularly the change of 'I' to 'we.'"

Effectively, this altered musical version could possibly be used as a Communion song inspired by the liturgy. But it is not correct to alter the approved liturgical text, especially as in this case the words are based on the Bible.

The Latin text of this acclamation is taken literally from the Latin Vulgate version of Matthew 8:8: "But the centurion answered him, 'Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant will be healed,'" changing only the word puer (servant) to anima (soul).

The current English version departs somewhat from the biblical text although it appears that the upcoming new translation will be closer to the Latin.

Furthermore, substituting "I" for "we" also tends to eliminate the personal element of Communion. Receiving Communion is a personal, not a community, act even though the community is certainly involved.

It is true that none of us is worthy to receive Communion, but the proclamation of such unworthiness is a personal acknowledgment. We are not authorized to publicly proclaim the unworthiness of our neighbors.

As mentioned above, this adapted version could still be used as a Communion song. And it is quite possible that the music was originally composed with this purpose in mind.

This article has been selected from the ZENIT Daily Dispatch
© Innovative Media, Inc.

ZENIT International News Agency
Via della Stazione di Ottavia, 95
00165 Rome, Italy

To subscribe
or email: with SUBSCRIBE in the "subject" field