Music Planning for Lent: the Roman Catholic Perspective (by Don Fellows)

Music Planning for Lent

So, here’s the question: How do you choose music for the season of Lent?

As soon as this question is asked, I immediately think of the following principals and issues:
1- The Roman Rite already gives us changes which make certain decisions inevitable, for example; the singing (and reciting) of the Gloria is omitted (okay, there are two exceptions on the Solemnities of St. Joseph (March 19th) and the Annunciation(March 26th).
2- We cannot sing ‘Alleluias’ during Lenten-tide (since most R.C. churches sing Gospel Acclamations, we must insert the approved text in place of the Alleluia and its verse).
3- Every church at which I have served rightly expects to see, hear, and feel a change in sensory perception when we come to church during Lent. The vestments change, the liturgical colors change, flowers are removed, etc. The choice of music that is sung can also contribute to this transition.

Noting the three items above, we move forward to find more guidance about what to do next. First, check the Ordo (this is the book which contains the liturgical ‘calendar’ of the Church).It shows you the details of celebration for each day of the year. There you will find the citations for the scripture readings and psalmody; whether or not the Gloria is sung or omitted; and it will also give you guidance if you are praying Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer. The Ordo also contains many helpful and succinct reminders of the elements of the Seasons, Solemnities, Feasts, and Memorials which occur throughout the year. The Sunday Lectionary contains the scripture readings, and the Gospel Verse (an element of the Gospel Acclamation) for the day. The Roman Missal contains the Antiphons for the Entrance, Offertory, and Communion of the Mass. Finally, you will need your parish’s hymnal (or Worship Aid, or Missalette, or whatever book, pamphlet, sheet, they will hold in their hands).

Generally speaking, at each and every Mass that includes singing, we do our best to ‘sing the Mass’, which is to say that we sing a Kyrie, Gloria (if prescribed), Gospel Acclamation(Alleluia, unless during Lent), Holy, Acclamation, Amen, and Lamb of God. These are the ‘Ordinary’ parts of the Mass, which is to say that the words are always the same. In addition to the Ordinary, the ‘Proper’ parts of the Mass are revealed in the Psalmody, Gospel Verse, and Antiphons which are specifically assigned to the Mass of the day.

At Saint Paul Cathedral, we are mostly focused on the Lectionary, therefore, the themes contained in the ‘readings of the day’ tend to guide my music decision-making. If there is a well-known hymn which reflects the ‘Gospel of the Day’, we will sing that hymn at some point in the liturgy (….perhaps that sounds quite obvious, however, our congregation is a transient one, and maintaining a core repertoire of hymnody can rely partially on the music that is sung in other parishes of the diocese!). For example, we have found that the ‘Passion Chorale’ (O Sacred Head, Surrounded’) is no longer a staple in the R.C. national hymnody repertoire,or at least it is not in the collective memory of local Catholics. Of course I could be wrong! In the mid-eighties, S. Delores Dufner, O.S.B. composed a text entitled “Lenten Prayer” which contains six stanzas, one for each Sunday in Lent, and Passion Sunday. The meter for her text is 7676D, and she intended that it be sung to the tune of the Passion Chorale. For several years now during Lent, we have sung the prescribed verse for each Sunday as the recessional hymn. For us, the practice is a sound one. Rather than singing a substantial and festive hymn (which is our typical practice) to conclude Mass,on the Sundays of Lent we sing a single stanza of “Lenten Prayer” – the text summarizes the Gospel of the Day,maintains the hymn-tune in the collective memory, and provides a moody ‘change of pace’ for Lent, a mood changer which is very different from our typical routine. For us, the small change is noteworthy and helpful in conveying the sense of the Lenten ‘journey’. For you well-read Catholics out there…….yes…..I know that the Missal never mentions a ‘closing’ or ‘recessional’ hymn at Mass. In our case, it is most helpful in preventing our celebrants from being trampled by the congregation……for us, it is an agreed-upon pastoral practice. If you find this practice offensive……mea maxima culpa!

In my situation I am most fortunate to be able to utilize resources from a variety of publishers. Since we have purchased several copyright reprint licenses we are able to look beyond our hymnal. On Sundays, and major we Feasts, we print a worship aid containing much(if not all) of the music which the assembly sings. With this in mind, let’s use the example of the Second Sunday of Lent. The gospel that day tells the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration. As Mass begins, we will sing a hymn entitled “Transform Us”, sung to the tune PICARDY. The Kyrie will be chanted; the appointed psalm (Psalm 116) is sung in responsorial format; the Gospel Acclamation (not alleluia – ‘Praise and honor to you, Lord Jesus Christ’)is sung with its prescribed verse. The Communion Antiphon in the Roman Missalis identical to this gospel verse. Our cantors will chant these words (This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.) as the Book of the Gospels is processed to the Ambo. At the Preparation of the Gifts we will sing “’Tis Good Lord to be Here”, contained in our hymnal and easily found by comparing the gospel citation with the various indexes in the hymnal. The Eucharistic Acclamations have been chosen to reflect the more subdued and ascetic mood of Lent, and include Sanctus from Mass XVIII, Acclamation and Amen from the German Mass of Schubert, and a simple Lamb of God setting by L. Deiss. For music during the Communion procession, I’ve ‘borrowed’ the remaining texts from the Roman Missal for the second Sunday of Lent. The Missal gives us many options regarding the singing during the Communion procession. We always (almost) prefer to sing anantiphon – not ‘the’ antiphon from the Roman Missal, but a variation of its text, simplified, and in a way that the assembly is able to sing it without carrying a hymnal or worship leaflet. We have embarked on a slow, lengthy, and patient process attempting to develop a repertoire of Communion antiphons that lead to healthy singing, with sound theological expression. Thus, on the second Sunday of Lent, during Communion we will sing ‘Grant To Us” by the Spiritan priest, Fr. Lucien Deiss. His verse text reflects the themes that are given within the Missal’s Entrance Antiphon and Offertory Antiphon: seek the Lord,repentance and forgiveness, and renewal. Finally, at the conclusion of mass we will sing the single stanza of Dufner’s “Lenten Prayer” which summarizes the Gospel story.

Of course, there is more than one way to go about this process, and, depending on the direction your parish is moving, the path to walk down may be crystal clear, or it may be filled with mystery. Each one of us needs to have some sort of understanding about the liturgical considerations of your pastor. You may have complete freedom, or you may be wrapped tightly in a narrow approach, you may have an inadequate hymnal(or instrument), or you may work with a team of ‘worship volunteers’ who push you on irrelevant matters. Whatever your case, may your own Lenten journey, and those with whom you worship, be filled with renewal and transformation!

“The Son of God most holy, In whom He found delight
Stood radiant on the mountain Transfigured by His light.
Beloved of the Father And brother of our race,
O touch our hearts and heal them,Transform us by your grace.”

“Lenten Prayer” by S. Delores Duffner, O.S.B., Copyright 1982, 1983 by Sisters of the Order of St. Benedict, St. Joseph, MN. 56374

-Don Fellows, Director of Music/Organist, Saint Paul Cathedral


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