Singing the Consecration

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Singing the Consecration

ROME, 9 MAY 2006 (ZENIT)

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

Q: I attended Midnight Mass this past Christmas Eve while visiting friends in Virginia. I do believe this is the first time I have experienced the priest singing all the words of consecration that Jesus spoke. He sang beautifully, and reverently, but I wonder if this is proper? I assume the consecration was valid. — E.N., Richmond, Virginia

A: Until the Second Vatican Council the Latin rite was practically the only one that did not sing the words of the consecration.

Among the changes brought about by the Council's liturgical reform was to open up the possibility of singing the consecration, indeed the singing of the entire Eucharistic Prayer, in the Latin rite. As the General Instruction of the Roman Missal says:

"No. 30. Among the parts assigned to the priest, the foremost is the Eucharistic Prayer, which is the high point of the entire celebration. Next are the orations: that is to say, the collect, the prayer over the offerings, and the prayer after Communion. These prayers are addressed to God in the name of the entire holy people and all present, by the priest who presides over the assembly in the person of Christ. It is with good reason, therefore, that they are called the 'presidential prayers.'

"No. 32. The nature of the 'presidential' texts demands that they be spoken in a loud and clear voice and that everyone listen with attention. Thus, while the priest is speaking these texts, there should be no other prayers or singing, and the organ or other musical instruments should be silent."

"No. 38. In texts that are to be spoken in a loud and clear voice, whether by the priest or the deacon, or by the lector, or by all, the tone of voice should correspond to the genre of the text itself, that is, depending upon whether it is a reading, a prayer, a commentary, an acclamation, or a sung text; the tone should also be suited to the form of celebration and to the solemnity of the gathering. Consideration should also be given to the idiom of different languages and the culture of different peoples.

"In the rubrics and in the norms that follow, words such as 'say' and 'proclaim' are to be understood of both singing and reciting, according to the principles just stated above.

"No. 40. Great importance should therefore be attached to the use of singing in the celebration of the Mass, with due consideration for the culture of the people and abilities of each liturgical assembly. Although it is not always necessary (e.g., in weekday Masses) to sing all the texts that are of themselves meant to be sung, every care should be taken that singing by the ministers and the people is not absent in celebrations that occur on Sundays and on holy days of obligation.

"In the choosing of the parts actually to be sung, however, preference should be given to those that are of greater importance and especially to those to be sung by the priest or the deacon or the lector, with the people responding, or by the priest and people together."

Apart from these general indications, the new Latin Missal, as well as several officially approved vernacular translations, also provide music for singing the Eucharistic Prayers or at least the consecration.

It is important to remember, however, that all musical settings for the ordinary of the Mass must be approved for liturgical use by the bishop or, in some cases, by the bishops' conference.

While singing the entire Eucharistic Prayer is quite uncommon, and usually requires a musically capable priest, singing the consecration can contribute to forming a sense of the sacred. It is especially useful in concelebrations so as to guarantee some degree of uniformity among priests who are used to their own personal rhythm of celebration.

At this year's Chrism Mass in St. Peter's Basilica, Benedict XVI sang the entire Roman Canon (Eucharistic Prayer I), including the consecration in which he was joined by hundreds of concelebrating bishops and priests.

As far as I know this is the first time that a Pontiff has sung the entire canon since the liturgical reforms, although it is possible that it was more common during the first Christian millennium. ZE06050924

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Follow-up: Singing the Consecration [05-23-2006]

After our comments on sung consecrations (May 9), a reader from Marquette, Michigan, asked: "May the organ be played under the celebrant's voice as an aid to his own musical presentation? Where I have seen this done the instrument did not detract from the prayer in any way. I have been told that it was improper, but I thought it contributed to the effect."

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 32, has very clear indications with respect to this: "The nature of the 'presidential' texts demands that they be spoken in a loud and clear voice and that everyone listen with attention. Thus, while the priest is speaking these texts, there should be no other prayers or singing, and the organ or other musical instruments should be silent."

When these "presidential" texts are sung, the "loud and clear" aspect of their proclamation is reinforced. The prohibition of all other words or music at this time is to help everybody to listen with attention to the actual words being proclaimed.

For some, perhaps, low background organ music might enhance the sense of the sacred, but not everybody is equally endowed with musical sensibility. People who are both sensitive and musically literate could easily be distracted in assessing the quality of the playing, or recalling other works of the composer. People who are less attuned might find the music a trifle annoying. In either case concentration on the words and sacred action is diminished.

A priest asked: "What is meant by the requirement that the words of consecration be spoken 'clearly and distinctly'?"

The word "distinctly" indicates distinction (difference) rather then simply with good diction, which is catered for by the word "clearly."

This is probably a case where the message needs to be emphasized in order to get it across. In almost every language there are phrases which pair two words of similar meaning to produce a concept that is stronger than either word taken separately: neat and tidy, loud and clear, right and proper, etc.

The "clear and distinct" of the rubric probably stems from the Italian "chiara e distinta" which was transformed into the Latin rubric "distincte et aperte." Although the entire Eucharistic Prayer should be said or sung intelligibly and fervently, the rubric does indicate that the consecration be distinguished from the rest of the prayer.

Rather than a precise technical meaning, however, the "clear and distinct" of the rubric embraces a range of concepts that stress the overall requirement that the words be proffered with good diction, be easily audible, and that they be pronounced with due pause and reverence. ZE06052315

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