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Translation and Transition: Evaluating their effect on pastoral music

I believe in the Holy Spirit

My relationship with the 2010 translation of the Mass first began in 2008, when publishers received the official translation of the Mass ordinary (penitential act, Glory to God, Creed, Holy, memorial acclamations, Lamb of God). In my editorial work at World Library Publications, most of my involvement with these texts had to do with musical settings. I was the editor who contacted Richard Proulx to do a revision of two WLP "Heritage" Masses, People's Mass and Mass for Christian Unity, both composed by Jan Vermulst in the early years after Vatican II.

One day, Richard called me and asked if he could send me a "by-product" of his work with the Mass for Christian Unity. We received a beautiful "Gloria Simplex," which had been inspired by the opening theme of Vermulst's Holy. As we began to field-test this piece with musicians around the United States, its overwhelmingly positive reception led us to plan to have Richard compose an entire Missa Simplex based on this piece, but his unexpected death early in 2010 halted that plan. However …

Shortly after Richard's death, we received a Missa Simplex by Michael O'Connor, OP, who had been inspired by Richard's Gloria just as Richard had been inspired by Jan Vermulst! Experiencing the Spirit at work in this way, and with our other composers, was very uplifting, and I began to refer to all my work with the revised translation as an "I believe in the Holy Spirit!" time. (Full disclosure: I confess that there were also days of frustration in working with the revisions; on those days I still repeated the same phrase as a mantra, but in a different manner!)

Revised or new?

As WLP began to preview new musical settings of the Mass with pastoral musicians around the United States, the first large-scale issue we encountered was that of parish musicians having a hard time deciding whether to use revisions of Masses their assemblies already knew or to learn completely new ones. We quickly found out that settings we referred to as "revised" were actually "new" to congregations who had not sung them previously!

The advantage of using a revised setting was that sections that had not changed — Penitential Rite C, Gospel acclamations, Lamb of God — could still be used. Disadvantages mainly occurred with settings that sounded familiar to assemblies but then contained a "speed bump" where new text had to be accommodated. New settings had no such bumps, but they didn't have the same "by heart" quality for singing assemblies.

More important than that decision, however, was the opportunity this change provided for musicians to seriously reflect on and discuss the issue of how the assemblies they serve learn and retain the music of the rites. In my own experience as a parish musician, I learned that what I thought was a generous period of time for the assembly to learn a new musical setting for a Mass part (a month) was not nearly generous enough, so more learning and review time were needed. This principle is true for teaching the assembly any new musical item for the Mass. As pastoral musicians, we will do well to remember that our first responsibility in ministry is to help people pray — so we are on the assembly's learning curve, not they on ours!

Everything is grace

When I was doing catechesis on the revised translation with young adults for the Archdiocese of Chicago's Theology on Tap program, I received a somewhat contentious question one evening about a text that had changed substantively (and not for the better, in the view of the questioner). I said a quick "Come, Holy Spirit" to myself and replied that what helped me in praying some of the new texts was to remember that maybe somebody a few pews away from me found the prayer to be easier with precisely the words that I didn't care for. Then the Spirit truly came to my aid, and I said we could look to the Little Flower, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who reminds us that "Everything is grace" when we truly consecrate our lives to the will of God.

"Everything is grace" became my updated motto as I continued to give presentations on the revised translation; it even allowed me to take on some of the more difficult points in the translation, some of which had become quite unpopular. For all parish liturgical ministers, but for musicians in particular, as we continue the work of building our parish repertoire anew, we might find some real occasions for spiritual growth and maturing if we strive to find God's grace in all we do.

The sonics of liturgy

Though not explicitly connected to music, the priest's prayers — particularly the opening collects and the prefaces — have a very different tone to them and give a different sound to the liturgy. These prayers have been variously referred to as dignified, confusing, reverent, ungrammatical, exalted, and complicated — quite a polarized vocabulary. What cannot be argued is that they have a very different sound from the previous translation. To a musician's more attuned (pun very much intended) ear, this can provide a cue that all kinds of vocabulary are appropriate and can be appropriated for our corporate prayer. To some musicians of my acquaintance, I have pointed out the contradiction of their love for diversity of musical styles in the liturgy but their disdain for diversity of textual style. To others who have exclaimed, "We don't talk like that," I have observed that we don't talk in rhymed iambic tetrameter either, but nobody says a poetic hymn text isn't appropriate for Mass.

It is too early to tell if having musical chant notation printed in the missal with the priest's prayers will have the intended effect of more priests chanting these prayers, but that is certainly a worthy goal for parish clergy and musicians to work toward together. These chanted prayers can sonically show the assembly that our prayer at the Mass is intended to be sung!

Official and proper texts

The revision of the Mass translation has also generated a heightened awareness of the use of officially approved texts in other parts of the Mass. For musicians, this has been particularly true of the responsorial psalm, as many have come to realize that the postconciliar liturgy has always prescribed the use of an approved translation, not a paraphrase, for the psalm during the Liturgy of the Word. A music director friend of mine called me this year with her discovery that the lectionary psalm for the First Sunday of Lent (Ps 25:8) states, "Thus [the Lord] shows sinners the way," whereas the paraphrase she'd used for years reported that "the sinners know the way" — two very different thoughts! The revised translation of the Mass led her to reevaluate the sung versions of Scripture she was using.

More musicians are also (re)discovering the proper antiphons of the Mass that the missal prescribes, especially for the entrance and communion processions. While not all music directors are having their parishes sing these antiphons, they are appropriately consulting the antiphon texts rather than the lectionary readings for guidance in the selection of entrance and communion music. Some musicians are startled to learn that the missal's communion antiphons rarely speak of bread, wine, cup, or even the body and blood of Christ.

Let's turn now to a few specific musical texts and some opportunities for grace they can provide for us as we move through this time of transition.

Glory to God

Forty or so years ago, my first organ teacher (who was also the parish music director) spoke very critically of a new setting of the Gloria she'd just received; it was in refrain-verse format, something of a novelty at the time. She pointed out to me that just when the text was proclaiming "we worship you," the voice of "we" was shut down and the voice of one cantor (or perhaps the choir) took over. Needless to say, we sang through-composed Gloria settings in my boyhood parish!

When our composers began to work in 2008 on the revised Gloria, a number of them expressed a desire or preference to write a through-composed instead of a refrain-verse setting. Steve Janco did this in his revision of Mass of Redemption as well as his new Mass of Wisdom. In Mass of St. Ann, Ed Bolduc crafted the Gloria so that it could be learned in refrain-verse form, with an eventual transition to through-composed. Given the new translation's return to the full, five-fold "we praise-bless-adore-glorify-give thanks" litany at the beginning of the text, a setting in which all sing the entire Gloria allows us to experience a renewed sense of this entire angelic hymn belonging to the whole people gathered to offer their sacrifice of praise.

Memorial acclamation

People expressed a good deal of dismay when they discovered that the "Christ has died / Christ is risen / Christ will come again" acclamation would not be allowed for the English-speaking churches of the United States. There was even a t-shirt for its "farewell tour" during the summer of 2011! This acclamation had come to be favored by many, if not most, pastoral musicians. But in my view, this acclamation impoverished assemblies who did not know the riches of the other acclamations, which more explicitly articulate our eucharistic belief in the saving power of Christ in his passion, death, and resurrection proclaimed in our eating the bread and drinking the cup.

The memorial acclamation inaugurates the remembrance-memorial portion of the eucharistic prayer in the same way that the Holy inaugurates the entire prayer; it is not a response to the consecrations that precede it. The three acclamation options for the eucharistic prayer now offer us a grace-filled time to recatechize the singing assembly on singing the mystery of faith that launches the whole postconsecratory section; this is an opportunity to form God's people in an awareness that all present — the baptized body of Christ — offer that great prayer of praise and thanksgiving together.

Lamb of God

One item of liturgical legislation that publishers received was in regard to the Lamb of God. Previously published settings that used variable invocations (Bread of Life, Word-made-Flesh) could continue to do so, but new settings could not. The use of variable invocations had become a custom in numerous parishes, though no official permission with the weight of liturgical law had ever permitted it.

Looking at the larger context of the communion rite in which the Lamb of God is located, we see that it precedes the invitation in the revised translation: "Behold the Lamb of God," in which we are "called to the supper of the Lamb." The rite clearly has the image of Christ the Lamb at its heart; any additional invocations are to be repetitions of "Lamb of God" and not other titles for Christ. Composers Steve Warner and Karen Schneider Kirner of the University of Notre Dame made the most of this opportunity in their Mass for Our Lady, in which the cantor's invocation is "Agnus Dei, Lamb of God …," which honors our Latin rite heritage and reinforces that core image of Christ the Lamb, who is our saving sacrifice, our self-offering, our pardon, and our peace.

Transition becomes tradition

I sometimes challenge workshop participants to name one "traditional" part of the Mass that wasn't, at some point in time, a liturgical novelty. It can't be done; every tradition we observe today is part of the ongoing work of the Spirit through times of transition in our liturgy. Some people in our assemblies and active in ministry can recall the transition of Latin to English, various provisional translations, and changes in the structure of the Mass itself. As we continue to pray in song with the 2010 translation and evaluate its effect on pastoral music, we can take heart that this will, eventually, become our tradition — until the next transition!

An examination of conscience:
The fruits of the Spirit

Through all of my work with the revised translation — as an editor and as a pastoral musician — I have kept this examination of conscience handy. I plan to keep it handy for some time to come!

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. (Gal 5:22–23)

  • In this time of transition, do I always treat others in a spirit of Christian love?
  • Do I view everything with joy for the gift of the Eucharist?
  • Can I find peace in knowing all work is, ultimately, God's work?
  • Will I be patient with others and myself through this transition?
  • Will kindness characterize all my thoughts, words, and actions?
  • Do I show generosity with my time and gifts in assisting others?
  • Do I remain faithful to the direction of the church's teachers?
  • If I experience any harshness or criticism, will I return gentleness?
  • Do I control my opinions when they might be harmful to the prayer of others?

Note: All Mass settings referred to in this article may be found at ML

Alan J. Hommerding is senior liturgy publications editor at World Library Publications ( in Chicago. He is a member of the music ministry staff of St. Joseph Parish, Downers Grove, Ill., and serves on the music advisory staff for the Archdiocese of Chicago's Office for Divine Worship.