How to say the Sanctus

Having now attended a number of spoken Masses in several different places, I’ve noticed a problem concerning the new translation that I had not anticipated: no one knows how to say the Sanctus.

More specifically, there seems to be no consensus as to where the pauses go in the first line. What seems to happen is that people say it rather tentatively, trying to follow the lead of the celebrant, who doesn’t seem to have a very clear idea himself of where he is going to pause. This doesn’t seem to happen when the Sanctus is sung, since the music provides guidance.

I have heard at least three different different variations and have pondered where they find their source.

1. Perhaps influenced by the former translation:

Holy, / Holy, / Holy Lord / God of hosts.

2. Perhaps influence by the Missal chant or by strict reading of the punctuation:

Holy, / Holy, / Holy Lord God of hosts.

3. Perhaps influenced by. . . who knows? Maybe the hymn Holy, Holy , Holy:

Holy, / Holy, / Holy / Lord God of hosts.

#2 has the advantage of following the punctuation and the chant, though “Holy Lord God of hosts” seems like a lot to say without a pause. For some reason #3 seems to make more sense rhythmically. I don’t think #1 has much to commend it and I suspect it is the result of people getting halfway through the first line before they remember that we have a new translation.

What have other people heard? What do other people prefer?



  1. I feel the second makes more sense. I always found the problem existed in the previous translation, too, and said that in one breath – and it was longer.

  2. Siobhan Maguire
    The first is also the rhythm of Vermulst’s Mass for Christian Unity (WLP/JS Paluch). As I understand it, this was originally composed for the provisional text (which is the same as the Roman Missal 3d edition 2010). The music was adapted to accommodate the 1974 Sacramentary text: Holy, Holy, Holy Lord / God of pow’r and might. And now we’re back to the original composition.

  3. The issue is grammar: what belongs to what and what modifies what.

    The phrase “Lord God of Host” is a unit.
    “Holy, Holy, Holy” modifies the entire unit, not just “Lord.”

    Like this:

    3Holy(Lord God of Hosts)

    as opposed to

    3Holy(Lord) + God of Hosts
    (wherein God of Hosts is an addendum)

    or (similarly)

    (Wherein God of Hosts modifies the everything preceeding).

    This formulation:
    3Holy(Lord God of Hosts)

    respects the understanding of the complete title “Lord God of Hosts” and makes sense with the other common English translation of the whole phrase:
    Holy, Holy, Holy IS THE Lord God of Hosts

    The problem with easily understanding this is a mental artifact leftover from the old translation:
    Holy Holy Holy Lord God of Power and Might

    which (even worse) was often adapted to
    Holy Holy Holy Lord God of Power God of Might

    with that structure, there’s very little chance of seeing/saying/understanding it any way other than “God of Power and Might” as a whole unit – or worse, “God of Power” and “God of Might” as two separate units, leading to:

    3Holy(Lord) + God_of_Power + God_of_Might
    3Holy(Lord) + God_of_Power_and_Might

    which makes turns the first line into a sort of weird little litany, or, if you consider that last part a modifier:

    The you are saying:
    The really Holy Lord is the God of Power and Might.
    OR (in the current wording)
    The really Holy Lord is the God of Hosts.

    Subject: The Lord (who is holy)
    Information about Subject: He is the God of Hosts (or Power and Might)

    This is wrong.

    It should be:

    Subject: The Lord God of Hosts
    Information about the subject: He is really super Holy.

    Incidentally, I mentioned all of this (in a less developed way) in blog posts last year about two Mass settings I really like. Chris…

  4. I agree with Adam and have always thought it should be that way, in keeping with the original vision in Isaiah 6 and with the way it has always been chanted. I also agree with Siobhan that the change began with the Vermulst arrangement and has been perpetuated by nearly every other composer in English since that time.

    1. Siobhan Maguire
      Er, um … I don’t think I meant to imply that Vermulst is the source of this problem. (Big shout out to all my friends at WLP!)

      And I would like to add, what’s so hard about saying all 7 words together, without a break?

      When we inaugurate Mass for Christian Unity (re-revised) this Lent, my choir will sing those 3 measures as one phrase. I don’t pretend that I have control over how the assembly will phrase this acclamation, but I’m pretty sure we can nudge them in the desired grammatical direction.

  5. Number 2 matches the angelic hymn in Revelation…the triple Holy, followed by the Name of God makes it consistent with Scripture, which after all, is what we Lutherans are all about.

    Thankfully, spoken Masses are VERY rare among us. My brothers tend to just skip the Eucharistic Prayer in favor of the Institution narrative alone….such a shame….thankfully, our Lord has chosen to “show up” anyway!

  6. Deacon, we had a little discussion about this over at MusicaSacra. The third solution seems most proper, and your conclusions about the other two versions seem correct to me. Adam’s analysis is also very good.

    The (incorrect) #1 is no doubt due to the previous translation, and lives on by accident on the part of many of us, especially if the sung settings we use don’t make it difficult to shoehorn the text into that pattern!

  7. I have before me a copy of the Saint Joseph Daily Missal from 1962 and the Sanctus is printed as HOLY, HOLY, HOLY, Lord God of Hosts. It was easy to say then and I think, would be easier to say now.

  8. The Anglicans did it first,

    We said (say in RIte One)

    Holy, Holy, Holy, / Lord God of Hosts

    If it sounded good that way for hundreds of years, why all the bother?

  9. We’re having some trouble with the new translation of Domine non sum dignus too. It’s a mouthful and it doesn’t scan.

  10. It has been a problem for me and for those attending daily Mass when the Holy is not customarily sung here. I appreciate the observations. Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts is what I will inflect from now on.

    I also agree with the difficulty of the Domine non sum dignus. This is certainly the most problematic for me and for the people. I believe this is because it is so remarkably different from what we have all been praying. The reference to roof is confusing for many; and the shift from “I shall be healed” to “my soul shall be healed” is perplexing. The former phrase refers to a healing that can involve more than just my soul. The new phrase ironically seems to eliminate a physical connotation even though the centurion was seeking and received a physical healing for his servant. Go figure.

    1. I think the response could be slightly tweaked to “and your servant shall be healed” to positive effect, unless we don’t like the term “servant”.

      As for “my soul shall be healed”, I think it might be addressing the unworthiness of the soul to receive the Lord (rather than any notion of an external or bodily unworthiness), and so the response is, in effect, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you [enter under my roof], but you can make me worthy to receive you.”

    2. And the Eucharist is a remedium for soul AND body. This is specified in a number of the Prayers after Communion.

      Agreed. Go figure.

    3. I was startled to find out that my adult children did not connect the story of the centurion with this prayer. I had always assumed the connection was obvious, but obviously I was wrong. If some fairly intelligent adults who attend Mass regularly missed this connection, what else did they miss? This suggests a number of homily topics.

  11. This is something that does not seem to be specifically addressed in Liturgiam Authenticam, but I think that the spirit of LA is that people should pause at the place when they would have paused if they had said it in Latin, even if that is awkward.

  12. I think the Adoremus people had an article about this a long time back with the old translation. As I recall, the author was recommending reciting it according to number (3) above -‘Holy Holy Holy/ Lord God of power and might’. Probably because the phrase was a bit long, that never caught on. But I think it works better for the new translation.

  13. # 13—”
    Even if that is . . . [not English]”

    Why can’t the translators LOVE the English language?

    Is it “Catholic” to say that Enlgish words should be less English to be alright?

    Why is it “Catholic” to say only one language is really the right one?

  14. You might want to think of it this way…
    Why the “Holy” 3 times? An old testament scholar explained that in fact, it is a way of saying, “Holy, holier, holiest Lord God of Hosts” because hebrew has no way of expressing a qualitative value as we can in english. Ergo…
    holy = holy,
    holy holy = holier
    holy holy holy = holiest

  15. RJ –
    What an interesting contribution from the Hebrew. I have been in awe all my life at the singing of these words… now they will be even more profound!

    As for running ‘holy Lord’ together? I had always thought that this was just another puzzling blooper in the ’73. It is so self-evidently ill-devised.

    1. But certain chant settings of the Sanctus run “holy” and “Lord” together, such as the Requiem.

      Sanc * tu-us /
      Sanc * tu-us /
      Sanc * tus Do * mi * nus De * us Sa * ba * oth /

      1. JP –
        You are right indeed. That just goes to show you that we XXI. century folk don’t have a monopoly on questionable taste or impeccable musical settings! In the Mass XVIII, which you quote, it is the hardest thing in the world to get choirs and congreations to put the accent where it belongs, on the first syllable, and not to run sanctus dominus together. Whoever the original composer of this chant was was inept, and saddled Catholics throughout history with history’s most unspeakably boring three or four lines of music… with the attendant Agnus Dei a very close second, if not a tie.

  16. In South Africa, since Advent 2008 we’ve been using the people’s parts of the unadulterated-by-Vox-Clara 2008 ICEL version. In many parishes we are still praying:

    Holy, Holy Holy is the Lord God of Hosts…

    even though the 2011 VC version has removed “is the”.

    Of course “is the” helps make clear what the 3x-holy refers to.

    Another case of ICEL 1, Vox Clara 0?

      1. Fitz – I’ve not noticed any pause – the sentence is always completed as a unit in the parishes I’ve visited.

  17. On the card that comes with the Liturgia Horarum and is pulled out for the Te Deum every Sunday, feast, and solemnity, we see

    Sanctus, * Sanctus, * Sanctus * Dominus Deus Sabaoth.

    So it is written, so it is said or chanted. For how many centuries? So why not apply the hermeneutic of continuity?

  18. Brigid, was this in relation to the previous translation, or the newer one?

    I only asked the question relative to the new translation because previously I’d assumed everyone caught the reference. It was only in the discussion here that I found out otherwise. I honestly thought people were exaggerating when they said others didn’t recognize it.
    I really think that getting to the bottom of this would be enlightening. Are people not thinking of the words they recite every Sunday? Are they dividing the prayers from Scripture? Are they not listening to one or the other or both?
    I’ve commented before that I believe the excessive wordiness of the current Mass detracts from community worship because people tend to block the priest’s words after a while. This may be an example of some important words being ignored because of less important words.

  19. I’m grateful for this topic. Our pastor and I were just talking about this the other day. The fact that Sanctus…Sabaoth is all in the nominative case, rather than vocative (Sancte, Domine) should be part of the discussion. We have here a description of God. At Pleni sunt caeli…, we address God: “gloria tua.” This change in person of address, so common in the psalms, is obscured in our new English text by the ommission of ‘is” in the first sentence of the Sanctus. In the Latin, is (est), is understood by ellipsis. English can have ellipsis too, but it is much less common, hence our difficulty in understanding what is actually happening in the first sentence.

    Also, compare all this to Isaiah 6:3 itself.

    1. I blogged about this at the end of December. I’d been reading A Commentary on the Order of Mass by LitPress, and Anscar Chupungco argues for “holy Lord” and against “holy is the Lord”.

      I made the nominative argument on my blog, but an Australian reader suggests a different reason for not including “is the” in a translation of the Sanctus:

      Like Latin, Greek has a perfectly serviceable verb for “to be”, but it isn’t used in this Greek version of Isaiah 6:3 any more than it is used in the Latin version that appears in our Sanctus.

      To me, this indicates that the passage functions as something other than either an acclamation addressed to or a statement about the Lord God of hosts. The best conclusion is that it is an acclamation of (but not addressed to) the Lord.

      It is hard for me to think of a comparative modern equivalent, but imagine a stadium full of people acclaiming a great athlete or sports star named (for the sake of the argument) John Smith, yelling, “Champion! Champion! Champion! John Smith, king of the athletes!” The last thing they are trying to do is convey information about John Smith.

      In the Sanctus, the assembly cries out: “Holy! Holy! Holy! YHWH God of hosts!” It is an acclamation – not a statement – of – not to – the Lord God of hosts.

      So, perhaps it’s not as easy as it looks…

    2. This comes closest to how I understand the Sanctus. Certainly it is not about conveying information, but about reaching for words to express the immensity of God.
      Thus the crescendoing Holies.
      Lord of hosts means not “commander of an amry” but leader of “a great multitude, which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue.” (not to mention angels, nine choirs of angels)
      The Commonweal blog had a discussion this week of “whooping,” as encouraged by St Augustine. The Sanctus is the place for it imo.

      1. “Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy!
        Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy! Holy!
        The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy!
        The nose is holy!. . .”

        Allen Ginsberg, Howl.

  20. And one cried to the other, and they said, Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts: (Isa 6:3 LXE)

    et clamabant alter ad alterum et dicebant sanctus sanctus sanctus Dominus exercituum (Isa 6:3 VUL)

    The angels are crying one to the other because they are in the presence of God. In the liturgy we join in their cry to one another because we are entering the presence of God.

    Remember Isaiah says “Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isa 6:5 NAB)

    In some ways this cry is like the leper who cries “unclean, unclean” telling people of his presence and warning them.

    Perhaps the “holy, holy” is meant to echo the angels cry one to another and “holy Lord of hosts” goes together, so that option 2 might be the better option.

  21. We are reciting it as, Holy/Holy/Holy/ Lord God/ of Hosts. It is very similiar to the revised Community Mass from Richard Proulx. Ironically, we are not using this mass setting when we sing.

  22. In German Masses, the Sanctus is (too) often spoken, mainly on Weekdays. Some congregations are so very used to it, that they have their own rhythms for the spoken text.

    Generally, I think that the old rule of almost all Christian liturgical traditions makes sense: Either a text is sung by one person, or sung by a group, or sung by all. But when a text is spoken, it is only done by one person, never by a group or an entire congregation. It simply aesthetically doesn’t work, and it is totally against any cultural traditions of expressing a text in public. (Up to the middle of the 20th century, even the Lord’s Prayer in the Mass used to be recited by the priest alone, the congregation only said the last line together.)

    In my eyes, this is one more reason (among many others, mainly according to the Biblical origin of the Sanctus) why the Sanctus should be sung and not spoken by the congregation. If it cannot be sung (for whatever reason), maybe it would be better if the priest spoke it alone, such as all other parts of the High Prayer. (The congregation could probably add the “Hosanna in excelsis” together, like the “Amen” elsewhere.) As far as I know, this has never been done anywhere, but somehow I think it would be the “less unfitting solution”, if the Sanctus cannot be sung.

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