Chanting the texts of the liturgy, from Tim O’Malley at Church Life

Tim O’Malley has a fascinating opinion piece over at Church Life today. He’s in favor of chant, not instead of hymnody, but instead of reading. I have to admit I find this argument intriguing:

Last Sunday, we went to the Melkite Liturgy on campus. The entire liturgy, as anyone knows who has attended Eastern liturgies, is sung. Despite our son’s lack of familiarity with the words on the page, he hummed along the entire time (sometimes even during the Eucharistic Prayer). With his slight speech delay, with his limited grasp of understanding of English, the chant allowed him to participate in the Eucharistic sacrifice in a way that he rarely experiences (Tim O’Malley, “Why Chant is Good for Children,” Church Life).

Is this a good idea? My kids are also much more engaged by music in the liturgy. I recall Hilda humming along to monastic chant at less than 6 months, and Thomas is always wondering why we only have trumpets at the Easter vigil, so I find it pretty compelling myself.

What are the practical implications? How important would consistency be? (If you have one or two lectors who can chant, should they do it?)


  1. Hmmmm…. The Melkites I know usually get annoyed when one references a “Eucharistic Prayer”. That’s not in their tradition.

  2. I sing quite well I am told, but I remember only one occasion on which I chanted the gospel. I have only been present on a few occasions when someone else chanted a lesson at Mass. My assessment is that it is a somewhat precious practice apparently inspired by someone’s need to do that. The lessons from God’s word in the NO are intended to form the minds and hearts of those who have ears to hear. IMO, chanting the lesson calls attention to the form rather than the message. I may be wrong. I shall follow the comments with interest.

  3. I remember not that long ago a discussion about how we should either only speak either the Penitential Act or the Gloria, never singing both, because it put too much music into the introductory part of the Mass.

    My observation was that we had eliminated the singing of the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, even the Preface Dialogue that yes, it felt over balanced … but our decisions had intentionally created the imbalance.

    Our Deacon can intone the Gospel beautifully, but takes constant grief when this happens (on solemnities at the direct request of the Priest). Only in the past year have we been able to restore the singing of the Responsorial Psalm. One asks, why? … the answer that most commonly returns is “it makes things too long” or “is too prayerful.”

    A sung Mass breathes differently. It paces differently. It rises and falls differently. It dances before the Lord in a dynamic way. I believe people of all ages recognise and respond to beauty and to aesthetics, particularly within the liturgy. The problem is balance. If we are to chant the various parts of the prayers and readings, then the whole service must be elevated to that level. The tendency today is to accommodate down to the lowest level, not lift everyone up to the highest … so today the lector who cannot or will not sing sits this service out. Either that, or we wear running shoes with our best suit.

    We often hear the mis-attributed-quote, “to sing well is to pray twice” … but this only follows if you are praying once in the first place.

    1. @Don Donaldson:

      While I think I understand what is meant, I’m not quite sure how I would respond to a comment that Mass was “too prayerful.” I think I’d have likely have a confused, slightly stunned look on my face. Do those who would make such a statement actually hear what they’re saying??

  4. Chanting is a discipline, but I think so is prayerfully reciting the Missal and Lectionary texts. I know many good priests who are hesitant-afraid-of using anything other than EP II, for example, because when they use a different text that they don’t know as well it just doesn’t flow. Practice makes perfect! Singing/chanting can add a lot to the amount of prep the presider or lector/cantor will have to do. But once you do something enough times, you get used to it.

    I really resonate with Don’s note about your “best suit;” I have chanted the bulk of a few Masses, Eucharistic Prayer included, but only with EP I because they were very “high” Masses. Ideally I would like to get to the point when even a daily, feria could have a chanted EP II and it be no big deal. For that to be possible, those singing have to have a good pace. Don’t let it drag!!

  5. Tim’s piece is wonderful! It proves the point that children understand better than adults.
    Perhaps if we introduce children to good sung liturgy they will grow up with an appreciation for it.

  6. Since discovering Sung Mass it’s been my opinion that the loss of singing the Mass is the biggest liturgical problem of the Latin Rite. I’d pick a sung Mass in English facing the people over a spoken Latin Mass facing ad orientem. Even if we got to the point of singing the entire ordinary (all the dialogues, prayers, Creed, etc), but not the readings, it would still be a vast improvement.

    Sung liturgy flows and has *UNITY* – it comes off as a single act rather than a disjointed group of spoken prayers, readings, and songs. Singing also internalizes things in people in a way speaking it does not. I can remember a half dozen old ICEL English Glorias from growing up and can sing the Credo in Latin three different ways from memory, but don’t ask me to recite the English Creed because I couldn’t do outside of a group.

  7. Singing or chanting the liturgy comes straight out of the Temple and synagogue traditions, and of course, our eastern brethren frequently chant most if not all of their liturgy. Something about music penetrates the soul and stays there in a way that mere speech rarely can do. I’ve only attended Paschal services twice in my entire life, and even now, half a decade later, I’ll find myself humming “Christos anesti ek nekron…” around that time of year. Both times I attended in person, it would get stuck in my head for weeks. Likewise, the Exsultet stays lodged in my brain for most of Eastertide.

    I doubt I could summarize a single sermon I heard as a child, but I remember the songs from my Catholic school days, even the ones I only heard once or twice. Put simply, I’m all for more chanting, and certainly more of it honors the recommendation of Sacrosanctum Concilium. Having said that, it’s important that whoever is chanting the lessons is trained. I can only speak for the EF and similar liturgies elsewhere, but it’s a bit painful to hear the Epistle lesson, which is mostly chanted monotone, if the lectors don’t inflect their voice at all.

  8. Singing the readings, while having challenges of its own, certainly avoids the problems posed by the quick conversational style of reading aided and abetted by amplification, which too many people don’t realize is a problem. Worship suffers when it sounds too much like the conversation of people gathered in an airport terminal.

  9. Here in Japan it is possible to chant both the Ordinary and the Propers for Mass. Much to the credit the dedicated work of less than a handful of composers when the Missal we currently use was translated. That generation have almost all passed on, and as work on the translation of RM 3 goes ahead – to recount the ongoing struggles with the CDWDS on that topic would require numerous posts – a new generation is working on new settings for the Ordinary and the Propers.
    Though personally I am “vocally challenged”, can’t keep a note, I’ve always appreciated and valued Eucharistic Celebrations on Solemnities and other special occasions, vow ceremonies, ordinations, when both the Ordinary and Propers are sung. On such occasions the Eucharist Prayers are also chanted and as a concelebrant I have found it allows me to hear and pray the words in a way not possible when recited. Japanese actually seems to lend itself to chant, with the result that in our seminary and many of the religious communities I’ve been acquainted with over the years, the Divine Office/Prayer of the Church is more likely to be chanted rather than recited.
    Along with the rest of the Diocesan Liturgical Commission, we are in the final stages of organizing a workshop on music in the liturgy, past, present and future for the beginning of next month. The workshop will be directed by the leader of the team working on the music for the, hopefully definitive Japanese translation of RM 3.

  10. But texts that are not sung are not just to be read or recited, they are to be proclaimed (especially the readings). If people knew how to proclaim, not just read or recite, it would be a bettter experience. I find that many lay readers do an excelllent job proclaiming, while clergy read or recite.

  11. I think it’s an exciting topic. Singing rather than reciting or even proclaiming liturgical texts makes it a different experience. And I strongly agree that chanting the liturgical texts such that we’re supplementing rather than replacing the hymns, psalms and acclamations that already are commonly sung, is the right approach to take sung liturgy to the next level.

    I wouldn’t chant the readings except in particular circumstances. Let’s start by chanting the dialogues and the Eucharistic Prayer. And the final blessing?

    1. @Jim Pauwels:

      Let’s start by chanting the dialogues and the Eucharistic Prayer.

      Let’s not start by chanting the dialogues (although I admit that this has got a lot of priests singing since 2010 who weren’t singing before), not until we’ve asked ourselves the basic anthropological question.

      Which is: does chanting these very human interchanges introduce a barrier between the presider or deacon and the people. In other words, does “The Lord be with you” come across as artificial when chanted? In my experience the answer is usually, but not always, yes. It all depends on whether the minister realizes that there is a potential problem and acts to overcome it.

      Whereas chanting the EP is a different matter. Here, the problem is different. It is that the Missal tone is awful. There are other and better alternatives available, chants that bring out the structure of the text, unlike the Missal tone. If you’re going to sing it, sing it to something that sounds nice and not tedious. Two notes is really not very interesting, and can scarcely be said to give life to the text.

      So once again the answer is: if you’re chanting it just for the sake of chanting it, don’t bother. But if you can find a way of chanting it that enhances the prayer, or the dialogue, then go ahead.

  12. We have 3-4 hymns each week. The Minor Propers (as we call them) are chanted. Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Lord’s Prayer & Agnus Dei are invariably sung (we use several different settings depending on season & occasion). The Collects & Post-communions are chanted, as are the Gospel and the Dismissal (singing the Blessing is, I believe, reserved for those in episcopal orders). In addition, our choir will sing a Communion motet, and more often than not an anthem at the Offertory.

    I’m not sure what sort of barriers this sets up between the priest and the people, but perhaps I’m just not aware of what those barriers look like, and frankly, I’m not even sure why artificiality-vs-authenticity is even an issue. Priests are not, and should not attempt to be, method actors–pace James O’Regan.

    Less navel-gazing, more chant. Dignum et justum est!

  13. We sing/chant most of the Mass every Sunday, and on feast days, all of it. Some of our liturgy is sung/chanted in Spanish—part of the opening dialogue, the second reading, the song Tu Palabra before the gospel reading, the Lamb of God (Cordero de Dios), and the song after communion. In Advent this year, we will be singing Prayer C, dialogue style, from the 1979 Episcopal Book of Common Prayer (As an independent Old Catholic Community, we have almost unlimited liturgical and musical freedom). I regard the above stated arguments against singing the liturgy as nothing more than worthless political-ecclesiastical drivel. The Easterners and the Melkites have their act together on this one, for sure.

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