Paragraph 112 of Sacrosanctum Concilium declares: “The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this preeminence is that, as sacred song united to the words, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy.”
Paragraph 23 of “Music in Catholic Worship,” originally issued by the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy in 1972, states that “among the many signs and symbols used by the Church to celebrate its faith, music is of preeminent importance.”
In paragraph 5 of their 1982 document “Liturgical Music Today,” the US bishops characterized the liturgy of the Catholic Church as “inherently musical.”
Paragraph 23 of the updated 1983 “Music in Catholic Worship” repeats the 1972 claim about the “preeminent importance” of music.
The bishops’ 2007 document “Sing to the Lord” states in paragraph 5 that the “common, sung expression of faith within liturgical celebrations strengthens our faith when it grows weak and draws us into the divinely inspired voice of the Church at prayer.”
Across the history of the church, one can find similar endorsements of music and / or singing in liturgy. Yet, as with many principles in theology and in liturgy, music comes with a “both / and.” For example, both versions of paragraph 23 in “Music in Catholic Worship” follow the claim about the preeminent importance of music with a caution that “the function of music is ministerial; it must serve and never dominate.” Each version advises in paragraph 35 that “there is no place in the liturgy for display of virtuosity for its own sake.” Both preeminent and ministerial. No. 68 of “Sing to the Lord” puts it this way: “The musical setting must allow the rite to unfold with the proper participation of the assembly and its ministers, without overshadowing the words and actions of the liturgy.”
Here, I would like to direct attention to the “both / and” of the duration of a song. For example, concerning the entrance song, the 2002 General Instruction of the Roman Missal notes that such a song is optional and in no. 47 states: “After the people have gathered, the Entrance chant begins as the priest enters with the deacon and ministers. The purpose of this chant is to open the celebration, foster the unity of those who have been gathered, introduce their thoughts to the mystery of the liturgical season or festivity, and accompany the procession of the priest and ministers.” Three paragraphs later, the GIRM directs that “when the Entrance chant is concluded, the priest stands at the chair and, together with the whole gathering, makes the Sign of the Cross.” Does the opening song end when the presider is ready to make this initial Sign of the Cross or does the presider make this initial Sign of the Cross when the opening song ends?
Consider paragraph 19 of “Liturgical Music Today”:
While the responsorial form of singing is especially suitable for processions, the metrical hymn can also fulfill the function of the entrance song. If, however, a metrical hymn with several verses is selected, its form should be respected. The progression of text and music must be allowed to play out its course and achieve its purpose musically and poetically. In other words, the hymn should not be ended indiscriminately at the end of the procession. For this same reason, metrical hymns may not be the most suitable choices to accompany the preparation of the gifts and altar at the Eucharist, since the music should not extend past the time necessary for the ritual.
And paragraph 143 of “Sing to the Lord:
Care must be taken in the treatment of the texts of psalms, hymns, and songs in the liturgy. Verses and stanzas should not be omitted arbitrarily in ways that risk distorting their content. While not all musical pieces require that all verses or stanzas be sung, verses should be omitted only if the text to be sung forms a coherent whole.
Apparently, if a “suitable” metrical hymn is employed, one makes the initial Sign of the Cross when the opening song has concluded. One must respect both the form of the musical composition and its musical and poetic progression and at the same time the principle that the music (and the choir and instrumentalists) are there to serve the liturgy, not to dominate it.
Although each version of “Music in Catholic Worship” asserts in paragraph 73 that a “recessional song has never been an official part of the rite” and paragraph 199 of “Sing to the Lord” explicitly states that “it is not necessary to sing a recessional hymn,” that same paragraph goes on to say that “when a closing song is used, the procession of ministers should be arranged in such a way that it finishes during the final stanza.”
Liturgical celebrations should never be long for the sake of being long, nor should they be short for the sake of being short. How (well) do parishes that you know balance the both / and of the integrity of musical compositions on the one hand and on the other hand the principle that music must serve the liturgy and not overshadow it?