How Many Verses Should We Sing?

Believe it or not, I was actually at a Mass once where we sang just two verses of Frank Andersen’s “Trinity Song”. Lopping off the verse to the Holy Spirit and thereby violating one of Christianity’s principal beliefs was apparently considered a minor matter in comparison with the crime of continuing to sing after the procession of gifts had finished!
Moral #1: Liturgical musicians need to understand theology as well as music.
On another occasion, the 3-verse song finished while those bringing forward the bread and wine were half-way up the aisle. The procession continued in silence.
Moral #2: Music ministers need to understand the liturgy which they serve.
How could both problems have been avoided?
Using instrumental music instead of a song would have been more in keeping with the secondary nature of the rite and would also have offered greater flexibility regarding duration.
If it was decided to have a hymn, then it needed to have sufficient verses to last at least until the end of the procession and a text which could be interrupted if needed (at the Prayer over the Gifts) without violating the sense.
In addition, it is not necessary to stop singing as soon as the procession of gifts finishes. The song can continue during the placing of gifts on the altar and the prayers of preparation.
Music ministers often raise questions about the duration of another piece of music – the entrance hymn. The answer is based on the principle that music must serve the liturgy. Despite what some cantors indicate when they invite the assembly to “stand and greet Father XYZ by singing hymn number 999”, the entrance song does not have the sole aim of accompanying the priest’s procession. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal says that the purpose of the entrance song is to open the celebration, intensify the unity of those who have assembled, lead their thoughts to the mystery of the liturgical season or feast day, andaccompany the procession of the priest and ministers (GIRM 1975 #25 or GIRM 2000 #47).
A judgement needs to be made, perhaps “on the run”, about the point at which the people are no longer individuals but constitute a worshipping assembly. The song may well need to continue after the presider has arrived at the chair. The music functions for the sake of the assembly, not the presider.
Singing all 8 long verses of an entrance hymn, however, could never be justified, as this would cause the sense of unity and focus to disintegrate. Also the Introductory Rite, of which the song is the first element, is one of the secondary rites of the Mass. As such it should never take more time than either of the two central components – the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
Having considered how many verses to sing, the next question to ask might be: which verses? There are some wonderful words at the end of longer hymns that we never sing because we always use the first few verses only. At Mass recently, it was clear that a particular hymn had been chosen because it referred to the Body and Blood of Christ – but that was in verse 5 and we sang verses 1,2 and 3!
All this demonstrates the importance of music leaders knowing the liturgy well, being alert to what is happening during worship and flexible enough to adapt accordingly.
Liturgists and musicians need to work hand in hand to provide music which will serve the liturgy and ensure the full, conscious and active participation of all the faithful.


Elizabeth Harrington