Would it be proper?

This month marks the first anniversary of the men’s Gregorian chant schola I founded. They have made what I consider to be astonishing progress, to the point where we have sung at diocesan Masses with bishops and nationally known visiting speakers, and to the point that our guys can learn difficult propers without too much trouble.

And now, I am especially pleased to say that we’re preparing for our first Missa Cantata – the Traditional Latin Mass – singing all of the Gregorian propers and responses and so on.

Preparing for this has touched my heart.

I wonder how many Catholics who might stumble across this blog post know what “propers” are. If you don’t, they are liturgical texts that go along with the readings and prayers of the day’s Mass, meant to be sung in places where in a typical parish we sing things like the opening hymn, responsorial psalm, offertory hymn and Communion hymn.

No doubt upon hearing of their existence, many people immediately think they must be something jettisoned by the Church in Vatican II’s liturgical reforms. But that isn’t the case. Our schola has sung many propers at Masses, and all of them up until this point have been at Novus Ordo Masses. If you look in the current General Instruction on the Roman Missal, which gives norms for celebrating Mass, the Gregorian chant propers are listed as the first option for every Mass in every Catholic parish in America.

But rather than go on a rant about Vatican II Myths, I just wanted to share what has moved me about preparing for this Mass.

As I have improved at learning and singing and teaching chant, one of the things I have done a better is getting into these texts. I think it’s important that the guys in the schola know what they’re singing. It’s important that they can say the text before they sing the text. And it’s most important that by the time they sing at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, they be able to pray those texts.

Many of them are amazing and beautiful prayers. Typically they are taken right from Scripture, often from the Psalms but sometimes from the readings for the day, especially from the Gospel.

In the Mass we’re preparing, three of the five propers come from the day’s Gospel reading. The last, the Communion antiphon, is where the Lord tells St. Thomas to put forth his hand and touch the place of the nails, and doubt no more but believe.

One could meditate for a very long time on that scene and not exhaust it, I think. And imagine – people will be receiving that same Jesus in faith at that very moment. “Doubt no more, but believe.” They will have just heard the blessing Thomas got for us who have not seen but believe.

The whole Mass, with these texts, forms a beautiful, integrated whole. And that is true not only of the Traditional Latin Mass but of the Paul VI missal prayed in most parishes around the world. In fact, that particular Sunday in the new calendar has exactly the same propers as Mass in the old calendar, although the readings are different.

Yet these proper texts are largely lost to us.

I could not help contrasting the great difference in preparing musically for a Mass this way and how it is normally done by a conscientious music minister in a normal parish. He or she will prayerfully examine the readings and seek in the hymnal and other resources for music that relates to those passages of Scripture or at least to the themes in it.

This is worthy work and a good thing. But it may or may not be successful, as anyone who has sought to find, for instance, pentitential hymns in the Gather hymnal can attest. I’m looking at it right now, and it’s almost a cruel practical joke. Look under “Repentance” and the topical index says “see Forgiveness, Penance.” But there is no entry under Penance. Under Forgiveness there are quite a few entries, but many are responsorial Psalm settings, and many of them (cf. “Joyful, Joyful We Adore You”) are anything but penitential.

How different it is to be focused not on finding something more or less fitting but on proclaiming a prayer from Scripture chosen precisely for that Mass, and how to sing it to a melody that has been used for that prayer for centuries.

The more I think about it, the more deeply I come to think that the almost complete loss of these liturgical texts hurts the Church and the faithful. Here we are, 40 years later, and we still don’t even have official translations of some of these texts, let alone musical settings. Sad.

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2 thoughts on “Would it be proper?

  1. Such a gift to pray THE Mass, as opposed to praying at Mass. A gift lying dormant for the last few decades, just waiting to be opened and enjoyed once again!

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  2. I seem to pay more attention to the text of traditional chant in Latin than most modern music in the vernacular used at Mass. It seems an ironic twist. Perhaps it has something to do with the repetitive rhythm and meter as well as the harmonic setting of the more recent pieces. Thanks for this post and for starting the schola, Kyle!

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