In a comment for a post about a Mass in the Extraordinary Form in the fabled Northern Hinterland of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, Fr. Martin Fox, designated parochial vicar of St. Rose Church and archdiocesan Director of Priestly Formation, offers a thoughtful reflection on the much debated topic of music in the liturgy:

This is an area of confusion, for reasons I hope I can make clear below. But the short point to make is that when done properly, music is not “added” to the Mass, but simply a proper expression of the Mass.

This is not a new idea, but it is an area of development in the thought and practice of the Church during the last century or so. Way back with Pope St. Pius X we had teaching from him on this point. The Liturgical Movement, which is criticized for some things, nevertheless was very interested in the same thing as St. Pius: restoring chant to the Mass.

You mention the “4-hymn sandwich.” To be fair, this absolutely not a post-Vatican II thing (not that you said it was); it’s actually a “pre-Vatican II” phenomenon, a carry-over, one that is held on to with white knuckles in some (many?) places.

It’s origins–from memory, so take caution!–lay in Europe, sometime in the 1800s if not earlier, when the practice developed of using hymns in place of the proper chants. My understanding is that this was practiced in the U.S. right up until the Council–and it continued right after.

Indeed, what you often hear is not a protest against using hymns at all, but which hymns. Many will think they are being “traditional” when they want to bring back “O Sacrament Most Holy” as the opening hymn, instead of, say, “Gather Us In.”

Well, allow me to join the chorus of those who do not like “Gather Us In” (we’ve hardly heard it in Piqua these seven years); but what the liturgy actually calls for is to sing the proper chants assigned to the Mass. Singing a hymn is allowed, but it’s the last option.

Also — and this is my choir director speaking through me — the role for the congregation is more to sing the ordinary parts than to sing the variable parts. Not that anyone objects to the assembly singing the opening or offertory chant, but it makes more sense to focus the assembly’s attention on singing those parts that are invariable, and allow a choir to sing the parts that vary. Of course, for many parishes, listening to the choir sing the Introit takes some getting used to.

There are those who will object that using the proper chants is “going backward”–because it’s all chanty and so forth–yet it can be done in English; and in any case, it is in fact a feature of the Mass as reformed after the Council, and while the Council didn’t specifically address it (aren’t you glad the world’s bishops did not spend time debating which hymns to sing at Mass?), it did say that much more Scripture should be included in Mass–and that is one of the benefits of singing the proper chants.

Also, while it’s easy to fault many trends after the Council, this is one area where there were attempts to carry out this vision. If you will recall, there was a collection of music that came out in the 70s associated with the St. Louis Jesuits. If you look, you can see how they were making the attempt to provide a “modern” version of Scripture-based chants. And while not much of their work has stood the test of time, even now, there are some of their hymns that would be better–in terms of Scripture and theological content–then other hymns, old and new, that are used simply because they are more familiar.

When you consider the times, it’s not so terribly hard to see why this part of the Council’s vision was not promptly implemented. For one, a lot of material needed for choirs to sing the propers wasn’t translated right away. For another, everyone had a lot of change to handle; it’s understandable that some things were kept as they were.

Finally–and at the moment, I can’t recall what to cite from the Council, so I’ll simply say…since the Council (and I think based on the Council but can’t say where), there has been a strong emphasis on the Mass properly and ideally being sung. This has taken a long time to percolate through the Church, but the new Missal goes a long way: it is actually set up for this and makes it much more likely to happen.

All that said…I understand that many people’s experience with music at/in Mass is not edifying. And given the most likely options, a “no-music” Mass becomes rather appealing.

Moreover, it needs to be recognized that some people profit from a “low” Mass because of their own make-up; it seems both providential and wise to continue to have the sort of spectrum from “low” to “high,” as before the Council. So while there was a kind of idealistic enthusiasm–again, drawing from the Council–to aim always for the fullest expression of the Mass (that is, a sung Mass), these 50 years later, the old way has proven wise. What I think we should take from the Council is not the doing away with the old “low” Mass; but seeking the fuller form to a significant degree, recognizing it is the fuller expression of the Mass.