The Long and the Short of Hymn Singing

The Long and the Short of Hymn Singing
I was actually at a Mass once where we sang just two verses of Frank Andersen’s “Trinity Song” as an entrance hymn. 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 priest had reached the chair!
On another occasion, the last verse of the song chosen to accompany the Procession of Gifts finished while those bringing forward the bread and wine were only half-way up the aisle. The musicians stopped playing and the procession continued in silence.
These two instances demonstrate the importance of music ministers’ being skilled in more than only music. They need to know the liturgy and the role that music plays in the liturgy.
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal says that the purpose of the entrance song 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 (# 47). Stopping the entrance song as soon as the procession finishes suggests that no heed has been paid to three of the four roles that it fills.
A judgement needs to be made, perhaps “on the run”, about the point at which a sense of unity has been established among those gathered for worship. The song may well need to continue after the celebrant has arrived at the chair. The music functions for the sake of the assembly, not the celebrant.
Singing all eight long verses of an entrance hymn, however, could never be justified. Because the Introductory Rite, of which the song is the first element, is one of the secondary rites of the Mass, it should never take more time than either of the two central components – the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
Using instrumental music instead of a song during the Procession of Gifts is more in keeping with the secondary nature of the rite and also offers greater flexibility regarding duration.
If a hymn is used, it needs 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. A shorter hymn is fine, but the musicians need to be prepared to repeat verses if necessary until the ritual action is complete.
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.
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 hear because only the first few verses are ever sung. If a hymn is chosen because it includes a relevant scriptural or theological reference, there is no point in singing verses 1, 2 and 3 if the reference is in verse 5!
Liturgical music ministers need to know the liturgy well, understand that music always serves the liturgy (not the other way around!), be alert to what is happening during worship and be flexible enough to adapt accordingly.

Elizabeth Harrington