Ordinary of the Mass

Author: Fr. Robert Skeris

SACRED MUSIC Volume 117, Number 1, Spring 1990 From The Editors

ORDINARY OF THE MASS Monsignor Richard J. Schuler

That term, "ordinary of the Mass," is rarely seen today in liturgical writing, and yet it remains in musicological parlance as the classical description of a musical form which for a thousand years produced masterpieces of music in every period of western music history. For the music student, the term "Mass" -indicated a composition of five or six movements based on the unchanging texts of "Kyrie," "Gloria," "Credo," "Sanctus-Benedictus" and "Agnus Dei." The immutability of the texts was contrasted to the variety of musical settings accompanying them. Every age left its treasury of compositions written by a multitude of composers who undertook to use the form of the "ordinary of the Mass" for the glory of God and the edification of the faithful. It is, for the most part, this emense library of polyphony which is meant by the "treasury of sacred music" that the Vatican Council refers to and orders to be fostered, used and further enriched by new compositions, both in Latin and in the vernacular languages.

And yet, the past twenty-five years have seen fewer attempts at composition in this form than any previous ages since the fourteenth century. Both in the vernacular and in Latin the setting of the ordinary texts of the Mass has almost completely fallen off. The liturgists have discouraged the singing of those texts and have even eliminated them from the Mass. Composers have not chosen to write when their work would not be performed; publishers have not printed works for which there is no market for sales.

Why has this happened? Basically, it is because there is and continues to be an attack on the ancient "Missa Romana cantata." The Mass as a musical form is a very Catholic and very Roman thing. There is no doubt that a false ecumenism, filled with an anti-Roman spirit, has been at the basis of much of the attack on the Roman liturgy, even if ostensibly its ultimate intentions were to extend the faith. In destroying the "Missa cantata" Christians in the west, both Catholic and non-Catholic, were deprived of a cultural form that for centuries was its heritage. Innumerable people have been attracted into the Church through that musical heritage; to push it aside is a mistake as one can clearly see in the reaction (not only among the followers of Archbishop Lefebvre but more widely even within the Church) that the present interpretations of the conciliar reforms have produced.

On a personal note, I have experienced how the Latin Mass, celebrated with Gregorian chant and the masterpieces of polyphonic settings, has attracted great numbers to attend and many to become Catholics and some even to become priests. The presence at the solemn Mass on Sundays at my parish of university students and many young people demonstrates the attraction of music, ceremony and dignity in worship.

Involved also in the disappearance of the ordinary of the Mass is the false attack leveled against choirs and artistic choral music. If choirs are not to be allowed, then by whom will settings of the ordinary be sung? If they are not sung, then why publish them? This ridiculous notion that choirs interferred with active participation wrought incalcuable harm to liturgical music, and particularly to the singing of the ordinary parts of the Mass, the very core of most choirs' repertory.

There can be no denial of the unhappy state of the liturgical reform in the United States today. While few will admit it, the tremendous drop in Mass attendance must be laid in great part at the feet of the misguided liturgists; the Tridentine movement finds its cause in the abuses of liturgy foisted upon our Catholic people; parishes where a sound implementation of the reforms of the council has been accomplished are flourishing. The vocational crisis, the disintegration of orthodox catechesis, lack of preaching about the essentials of the faith, indeed a loss of reverence for the holy and a denial of sin can all be attributed to some degree to the failure to implement the liturgical decrees of the Second Vatican Council in this country.

It is naive to think that a restoration of the Tridentine Mass will bring about a thorough renewal of the Church. It is equally naive to think that a revival of choirs and the composition of more settings of the ordinary parts of the Mass will cause such a renewal either. But all these things together can start a new beginning. Only when the decrees of the Second Vatican Council are seriously and conscientiously implemented "in toto" will we see the flowering the Church so earnestly seeks.

The history of the Church records a gradual development with each generation building on the work of the previous ones. The great challenges of the reforms of Vatican II were intended to rest on the past. The Mass is indeed "for all times" and our Mass today is the same as that of the Council of Trent and the early middles ages, indeed of all the centuries of the Church's life. We need not throw out the past to achieve our goals. In fact, it is only upon the tradition of the past that the present and the future can be created. Let without tradition, new efforts can only fail, as we have so painfully learned.