I once had a spiritual director who said that nobody knows a sin as well as the person who commits it.
In this series of “unnecessary impoverishments” (this is the third of five) that principle certainly holds true for me. I know these impoverishments intimately because I have—in the course of my ministry—unnecessarily impoverished God’s people through implementation of them. However, I likewise figure that if growing in wisdom was good enough for Jesus, I should do my best as a disciple to go and do likewise.
Being a “conciliar cusp” Roman Catholic, I did have an early experience of singing the proper communion antiphons. Through the late 1960s (including my debut on the organ bench in 1969) and into the early 1970s, we (I do mean the entire congregation) would chant the communion antiphon from the missalette—always to Gregorian tone VIII—during the priest’s communion, and then transition into a communion song. This was still our parish practice when I first began to accompany the Mass as an organist. (This experience turned me into one of those people who could literally chant the Sears-Roebuck catalog to tone VIII.)
I can’t chronologically locate precisely when we ceased chanting the proper antiphons and turned exclusively to a diet (pun somewhat intended) of communion songs that focused exclusively on the bread, wine, cup, Body, Blood, altar/table, meal, sacrifice, eating, drinking, and so on. Eventually, as was proposed with common responsorial psalms (covered in part one of this series), noted liturgical authors put forth the idea that a congregation needed only a handful of these communion songs to last the liturgical year.
To be completely honest, I didn’t miss the proper antiphons—largely because I didn’t miss tone VIII. In the ensuing years, as I pursued more formal theological/liturgical studies, the big Eucharistic focus was to emphasize the distinction between the active celebration of Eucharist at Mass, and passive adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. So the communion song texts that focused on the Eucharistic elements and actions were important in making and preserving that distinction.
When I began to encounter a resurgence of interest in the proper communion antiphons (from the Missal, but more often from the Graduale Romanum’s antiphons and psalms), I was dismayed by the generally combative tone of the discussion. This seemed to be generated by a misinterpretation of the word “proper” to mean “mandatory.” Of course, in this context, “proper” doesn’t mean that any more than “ordinary” (as in the Ordinary texts of the Mass) means “unremarkable.”
What did capture my attention and imagination was the degree to which the proper antiphons both in the Sacramentary and Graduale Romanum largely ignored all the bread, cup, Body, Blood, etc. language that was the near-exclusive focus of the communion song repertoire I knew and used. I noticed (and began to read about) the manner in which the proper antiphons and psalms looked back to the altar of the word even if, as with the proper entrance antiphons (see part two of this series), the revision of the Lectionary and Graduals wasn’t terribly well coordinated. A post-conciliar desire to connect the tables of Word and Sacrament, however, was preserved in the General Instruction, at #6 in the rubrics about Ordinary Time:
“Two antiphons are provided for Communion, the first from the Psalms, and the second for the most part from the Gospel. One or the other may be selected, as circumstances suggest, but preference should be given to an antiphon that is in harmony with the Gospel of the Mass.”
It was at this point that I began to realize how well I had come to know both the sin of omission in ignoring the precious treasure of the body of texts the Church had prepared for us to sing as we came to the supper of the Lamb; and my sin of commission in selecting a paltry, barely surface-scratching body of communion songs for the faithful’s reception of the deepest and richest mystery they are to become.
I’ve come to wonder if the object-focus of many communion songs was a curious manifestation of the inheritance of objectification received via Eucharistic adoration. For centuries, the faithful’s main participation in the Eucharist was through adoration (ocular communion) of the consecrated host, usually in a gold monstrance. Though a focus on eating/drinking was a corrective to the passivity of adoration, the emphasis on the object of Eucharistic adoration remained, amplified by including other objects (such as wine/Blood/cup in addition to bread/host/Body).
When we objectify human persons, we limit them unnecessarily, and we also impoverish our own opportunities to come to know them more deeply, thoroughly, and wholly. Though I don’t wish to overdraw the analogy, how much more is this true when we are speaking of the Word-made-Flesh, made truly and substantially present again in the sacrament? How much fuller is our plumbing of the Incarnational and Paschal mysteries when we regularly traverse the bridge between the altar of God’s word and the altar of sacrifice?
I’m not proposing nor recommending that we surrender or lose our familiarity with or love of current communion repertoire. “Gift of Finest Wheat” was the hymn on my dad’s lips shortly before his passing—what a true gift that was! Of course Psalm thirty-four, alive in various beautiful “Taste and See” settings, must be sustained. As with the entrance antiphons and their psalms, our current sung practice can also be informed—and subsequently enriched—by the texts of the proper communion antiphons and psalms.
I may even be ready for an occasional re-visitation of tone VIII.