Singing the Mass

What Do We Sing?

When congregational singing became part of liturgical celebrations after Vatican II, there was a tendency to fall prey to the “4-hymn syndrome”. Perhaps because musical resources for the assembly were limited, the common pattern was to sing entrance, offertory, communion and recessional hymns – and nothing else.

The nature of the liturgy, however, calls for a variety of musical forms to reflect the different parts and rhythms of the Mass. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy from the Vatican Council suggests priorities and possibilities: “To promote active participation, the people should be encouraged to take part by means of acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons and song…” (#30). The General Instruction on the Roman Missal says that: “In choosing the parts to be sung, preference should be given to those to be sung by the priest with the congregation responding…” (#19). This indicates clearly that acclamations and responses have priority when it comes to deciding what parts of the Mass to sing.

There are four acclamations that should be sung at Mass even if there is no other singing. We stand and sing the Gospel Acclamation in anticipation of the Good News of Christ. To speak these alleluias is like reciting the words of “Happy Birthday”. In fact, the General Instruction says that the Gospel Acclamation may be omitted if it is not sung (#39). During the Eucharistic Prayer, three acclamations mark special moments and allow the people’s active participation – the “Holy, Holy” (Sanctus), the Memorial Acclamation and the Great Amen.

Musical settings of these acclamations should enable people to sing them from memory and to join in these songs of the whole assembly without great difficulty.

The psalms are a form of sung prayer of great importance in our liturgical tradition. Generally the psalms of the Mass are linked to the first reading, but the option exists of using the one psalm throughout a liturgical season. This enables assemblies to sing the responsorial psalm every Sunday without people having to learn a new one each week.

Litanies such as the Lamb of God and the penitential rite lend themselves to singing because of their invocation – response form.

At times in the liturgy, music serves the purpose of accompanying a ritual. The entrance hymn accompanies the entrance procession. It also serves the purpose of expressing the unity of the assembly as it gathers for worship and of setting the tone for the particular season or feast being celebrated. The communion song, which accompanies the communion procession, expresses our thanksgiving and our unity with one another in Christ.

A hymn may be sung during the preparation of gifts, but since this is a secondary rite in the Mass it may be preferable to have instrumental music, or even silence, at this time. Many communities customarily sing a hymn at the end of Mass to give a strong conclusion to the celebration.

With a rich offering of singable Mass settings now available to music ministers, parishes are increasingly proving the adage that in Catholic worship we sing the Mass rather than sing at Mass.


Elizabeth Harrington