Singing the Gospel

Author: Father Edward McNamara, LC


Singing the Gospel

By Father Edward McNamara, LC

ROME, 16 April 2013 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: I know that the Gospel is to be sung during Christmas and Easter Holy Mass. Because each are a "season," does that entitle or require the deacon or priest to sing the Gospel every Sunday of the season or just during the octave of said season? For the past four to five years I have been singing the Gospel during the "Christmas and Easter season." Are we to proclaim, emphasize via song, the good news of the season? I do not see a clear-cut word in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal or in the missal itself. — C.D., Pendleton, California

A: Actually there is no rule which would oblige the Gospel to be sung in any particular season nor any norm that would restrict its being sung outside of these seasons.

In other words, the Gospel could theoretically be either sung or read on any day of the year. The choice as to do one or the other is based on such circumstances as the solemnity of the liturgical day or season, the ability of the minister to do so adequately, and the overall pastoral efficacy of the practice.

That said, it is highly recommendable to sing the Gospel on all major solemnities and feasts so as to underline its importance within the celebration.

The liturgical norms also highly recommend the singing of the responsorial psalm.

This does not mean that the singing of the other readings is to be excluded if the readers can be sufficiently well trained. The Gregorian tradition has several chants that are commonly used in solemn Masses. One chant is for the Old Testament, another for the Epistle, and a third for the Gospel. The importance of the latter is underlined, not just by the fact of its being sung, but by the solemnity of the introduction, the procession of the Book of Gospels, the use of incense, and its proclamation being reserved to an ordained minister.

In recent years, several composers have proposed relatively simple chants adapted to the particular musical traditions of each local language.

Regarding the importance of singing at Mass, the Introduction to the Roman Missal says the following:

"39. The Christian faithful who gather together as one to await the Lord's coming are instructed by the Apostle Paul to sing together psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (cf. Col 3:16). Singing is the sign of the heart's joy (cf. Acts 2:46). Thus Saint Augustine says rightly, 'Singing is for one who loves.' There is also the ancient proverb: 'One who sings well prays twice.'

"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.

"41. All other things being equal, Gregorian chant holds pride of place because it is proper to the Roman Liturgy. Other types of sacred music, in particular polyphony, are in no way excluded, provided that they correspond to the spirit of the liturgical action and that they foster the participation of all the faithful.

"Since faithful from different countries come together ever more frequently, it is fitting that they know how to sing together at least some parts of the Ordinary of the Mass in Latin, especially the Creed and the Lord's Prayer, set to the simpler melodies."

* * *

Follow-up: Singing the Gospel [5-7-2013]

In response to our comments regarding singing the Gospel (see April 16), a priest wrote: "I am near tone-deaf but would love to sing the Gospel at least for Christmas and Easter. Is there a very simple version for clergy in my unfortunate situation? Otherwise we would be introducing a severe penance to the congregation at an inappropriate time in the liturgical calendar."

In principle all chants for the Gospel should be fairly simple. In fact Pope St. Gregory the Great forbade deacons from singing the elaborate and fairly free psalm melodies and restricted them to the simple tones of the Gospel so as not to be showy in the liturgy. He said that the cantor at the service of the altar irritates God by his customs even though he (the cantor) fascinates the people with his melodies.

However, if one is incapable of maintaining even these simple chants, it is better either to ask for help from another cleric or refrain from causing undue pain and suffering. It would be a pity if people were to say that the priest was trying in every sense of the word.

Related to this a reader from Melbourne, Australia, asked about the Alleluia: "When I was growing up I remember the whole congregation singing or reciting the Alleluia (or Lenten chant), then the lector or psalmist or cantor would read or sing the prescribed verse (or sometimes a choir would sing it) and then everyone would sing or recite the Alleluia again. The new practice, which is apparently now the more or less accepted norm in most parishes, is that the whole congregation sings or recites both the verse and the Alleluia. I am not entirely comfortable with this practice and am reluctant to join in the verse, but I am not sure if my reluctance is not misplaced. My understanding is the GIRM (#62, quoted in your reply) indicates that the verse is reserved to the cantor or choir and I suppose, by extension, to the lector or psalmist if it is recited. Am I being too scrupulous about this? Am I too literal in my reading of the GIRM or is the option described above indicated in another document which I do not know about?"

I would say that both forms are entirely acceptable, in accordance with the community's ability to sing. If the community is capable of singing the entire verse, then it is preferable. If the community is capable of singing only the Alleluia but a cantor is able to sing the verse, then this should be preferred to the whole community reciting the verse.

In other words, the solution which allows for the most singing is to be preferred.

The very elaborate Gregorian Alleluias for feasts were composed to be sung by the entire choir (or monastic community) and so the singing of the complete Alleluia is certainly rooted in tradition.
These Alleluias may still be used but require a well-trained choir or community to execute them.

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