In our revised master’s degree in Liturgical Music at Saint John’s, the course formerly called “Psalmody and Hymnody” is now called “Liturgical Song,” and I’m teaching it this semester. It’s still the “hymnody” course, and much of the content carries over from before. But the revised title better reflects that we don’t just study psalmody and hymnody, although we do lots of that. We study all the songs and chants of the liturgy. That includes the responses and litanies and acclamations and service music, and so forth. And it all starts with the liturgy, for singing is not something added on to the liturgy, it is the liturgy.
We’re starting the course by reading Joseph Gelineau, Liturgical Song, Liturgical Assembly (Pastoral Press/OCP, 2002). Do you know this book? It’s a classic, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Joseph Gelineau (1920-2008), of “Gelineau psalms” fame, is a towering figure in the renewal of Catholic liturgy and music. He was involved in the drafting of the Vatican II liturgy constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium, and he was also involved in the development of the 1969 reformed rite of Mass. He is the go-to source for understanding the nature of the reformed liturgy and the role of music in each part of the liturgy. Not only does he “get” it theoretically, he also asks probing questions about what is working (or not) in the real world. His starting point is exactly right: What is the assembly, understood theologically, and what is its purpose?
Here’s a taste of Gelineau’s wisdom: he takes on the “right proportion” for the revealed word from which everything else flows (see pp. 41-42). He writes:
The choice and the ordering of the readings provided by the Lectionary for Sunday Mass constitute a remarkable treasure and give rich nourishment. Nevertheless, it is necessary in every individual case to ask if the quantity, and sometimes the choice, of the texts offered actually correspond to the ability of the listeners to assimilate them. Too many texts read out, but not understood and not explained, can overwhelm and engender fatigue and disinterest.
Gelineau dares to question whether there is too much text in the reformed liturgy because, as he notes,
…the rites do not exist for themselves and they do not give glory to God except through the human beings that are sanctified by them. We still need to remind ourselves of this, even after Vatican II, for ritualism incessantly rears its ugly head.
Gelineau names the ritualism as it sometimes plays out:
…it still happens that the readings are read too quickly and in a boring, humdrum tone.
This all seems right to me, across the board. The Liturgy of the Word is, for many people, something of a bore, and it’s just too much to take in. The Gospel readings probably go over the best. (You know what I mean.) But it’s all too easy to tune out the Old Testament reading, especially if it has difficult names of unknown people and places. Same with the epistle, which is sometimes rather abstract, and in the nature of things rarely preached on.
In all this, Gelineau has little or nothing in common with those who reject the reformed liturgy and want to go back to the pre-Vatican II one-year lectionary which had just two readings and a snippet of a psalm. His starting point is not the sacred cow (or to be more precise, idol) of a supposed “Mass of all times” that is supposedly untouchable. He knows that the lectionary needed reform, and he supports the call of the fathers of Vatican II for the lectionary to have a greater range of Scripture readings. He knows that this is all organically tied to the reform as a whole, which re-established the primacy of the assembly of the baptized who share in Christ’s priesthood in their worship of the Father.
But how to make that work? What to do with the lectionary readings?
I suppose one could talk about a two-year lectionary. I suppose there could be either an Old Testament reading or an epistle before the Gospel, with a Vatican II-type Responsorial Psalm in between the two readings. But frankly, I don’t think it’s constructive to float such proposals just now. Now is not the time for a “Reform of the Reform” – in any direction. Pope Benedict XVI succeeded, alas, in destabilizing and weakening the reformed liturgy, and it will be the work of at least another generation to solidify it and reestablish it as the rite for the entire Latin church. Pope Francis is reading the signs of the times rightly when he asks us not to speak of a “Reform of the Reform.” Only when we’re all reunited around the Church’s liturgy will we be in a position to talk about tweaking and improving it. (I don’t expect that in my lifetime.)
The reformed three-year lectionary, then, is a given. I see few possible paths forward.
- Better proclamation! Train the readers! Have fewer readers and make them learn how to read publicly.
- More Bible study. Promote more reading of the Bible, and especially of the lectionary readings.
- Promote lectio divina. Give people more assistance in learning how to pray with the Bible, especially the lectionary readings.
- Better preaching! Send every priest in the country to required, game-changing preaching instruction. Double – triple! – the amount of homiletics required in seminary. Make every seminarian and every priest attend 10 non-denominational or mega-church services at places known for attention-grabbing, life-changing preaching. Knock off already all this dull preaching that no one listens to that draws no one into the biblical Word.
- I have mixed feelings about this, but it is foreseen as an option in the official Roman documents: give short introductions that truly help people want to listen to the reading and get an important message from it. I personally think this needs to be done by the preacher, who knows best what needs to be said to drive things toward the homily. If someone else reads out what he wrote, we’re all too likely back to dull, routine reading of a required text, which would kill it.
- Do you think one could bend the rules and omit the second reading? Or – since we’re thinking outside the box, and willing to think daring thoughts in response to a real crisis – could one do the second reading, then the psalm, then the acclamation and Gospel? I know, the psalm is thematically a response to the Old Testament reading, so I suppose this doesn’t work. The most one could say is that the psalm has an indirect connection to the Gospel it precedes, since the psalm is related to the Old Testament reading and the Old Testament reading is related to the Gospel reading.
What do you folks think? I think Fr. Gelineau has raised a question we best not avoid.