Sacred Music and the Liturgical Year

Author: Fr. Robert Skeris


Volume 118, Number 3, Fall 1991


The church calendar, or the liturgical year, is a sacramental, i.e., it is a sign of a deeper reality and it is a means of grace. The deeper reality is the very life of Christ as it is relived by the Church, year after year until the end of time, for Christ is with us as He Himself told us He would be. The Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, is indeed the very Person of Christ living on for each succeeding generation, inviting us to live His life which He presents to us in the liturgy, especially in the Mass.

In Advent,by sacred sign, particularly through sacred texts, the Church offers us the centuries of waiting for the Messiah. The use of purple vestments, the absence of flowers on the altar, the silence of the organ and other musical instruments, and above all the words of the prophets foretelling the Incarnation--all teach us and move us to prepare to enter the redemptive action of the God-Man. His birth at Christmas, His manifestation at Epiphany, His life of mercy and wisdom during Lent, His suffering and death and resurrection in the holy triduum of Eastertime carry us through to the glory of His Ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Then follow the many weeks that are a sign of His continuing life in this world, His living in the Church down through the centuries until the perousia. Then we return to begin again at Advent.

The life of the Christian must be pre-eminently the life of Christ, since it is only through Him that salvation can be achieved. Since Christ lives in His Church and the Church is indeed the very Person of Christ, then salvation can be found only through the Church. That life of the Church, the life of Christ, is presented to us chiefly in the liturgy, which Pope Pius X called the "primary and indispensible source of divine life." It is in the liturgy that we touch Him, "and grace goes out from Him."

The liturgy is the re-presentation of Christ's life and it is given to us by its annual sacramental renewal of the events that constituted His life in this world. They are the grace-producing mysteries that effect the redemption of the entire race from Adam to the end of time. The sacrament, which the liturgy is, employes sacred texts, sacred music, sacred signs, sacred ceremonies and sacred ministers. Most basic of all are the texts which for centuries have made up the Mass and the various hours of prayer, most of which are from the scriptures and some from the writings and works of the saints, the fathers and doctors of the Church. Selected for specific times of the liturgical year, they bear the burden of re-presenting the mysteries being offered to us. The very Word of God brings to us the sanctifying grace of the mystery being commemorated. Adorned by music, proclaimed in a sacred setting, received by the people who are present, these sacraed rites again join us to Christ reenacting His redeeming life.

How close the church musician comes to all this. The opening words of Chapter VI of the constitution on the sacred liturgy from the II Second Vatican Council emphasize this:

"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 a combination of sacred music and words, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn ligurgy."

But church musicians in this country have all but abandoned the liturgical year. Two practices war against the understanding and use of the liturgical year. One is the widespread custom of singing four hymns at Mass, replacing the texts of the liturgy, those proper parts of the Mass in which the identity of the feast or season is particularly exposed. The other is the growing introduction of the so-called "general anthem," a composition with a very neutral text, some suitable for observances as far apart as Christmas and Easter.

The musical capabilities of most American congregations is minimal. Because very early in the reform, singing was declared to be the primary and foremost method of participation in the liturgy, music capable of congregational performance had to be found. The hymn was selected, and it replaced the proper texts of entrance antiphon, offertory and communion pieces. Hymn texts were not intended to establish the liturgical season or set the tone for the feast, which are the function of the proper liturgical texts. Given the limited selection of hymns in most missalettes, the church musician very quickly found problems. All the Sundays became alike and the seasons became indistinguishable. The liturgical year was taken away; grace was lost; the sameness of every Sunday produced a boredom that certainly has some connection with the decline in Sunday-Mass attendance.

The general anthem is a boon for music publishers. It opens a market that can well include Roman Catholics, Jews and Protestants. Examine the texts of these compositions. No truly Christian theme or doctrine is stated. Texts from the Old Tesament abound, worthy of use for nearly every occasion. Texts such as "Alleluia," "Praise the Lord," "Sing a new Song," "God is Love," are surely acceptable, but the church musician who uses these frequently can set aside the whole liturgical year for his congregation. Many times, too, the texts for the general anthems are not from scripture or liturgical sources as the council demanded them to be.

Composers will write the music that the Church wants. Publishers will offer the music that they can sell. The liturgists have indicated that the texts of the ordinary of the Mass ("Kyrie," "Gloria," "Credo," "Sanctus- Benedictus," "Agnus Dei") are not what they want or recommend for us. Thus we do not see new settings for these ancient texts that every generation but our own has set to its particular musical idiom. The texts of the proper of the Mass (introit, graduale, tract, alleluia, offertory, communion and the responsorial psalm) are likewise forgotten by the composers, even though immediately after the close of the council several efforts were mounted to set the responsorial psalms to music for both congregation and choir. With the proper text replaced by hymns or general anthems, the liturgical year cannot be descerned. Every Mass and every season become the same.

This certainly is not the wish of the council. A whole chapter of the constitution on the sacred liturgy is given over to the liturgical year. It is an essential element of the life of the Church, the sharing in Christ's life, the growth in grace that comes from the Mass and the sacraments. Church musicians should not be an obstacle to God's grace, to participation in the work of salvation, or to the sharing of the sacramental system through the reliving of Christ's life. We must work against the "four hymnns," and the "general anthem," by restoring the use of the ordinary and proper texts of the Mass. If we want them, the composers will provide and the publishers will happily sell them to us.