Christmas is notorious for inappropriate song choices for mass. In the Parish of the Holy Sacrifice in the University of the Philippines, we were aghast when a choir sang, “Silver Bells” for communion, or “We, Three Kings” during the Season of Advent. In a remote island in Quezon Province, a Jesuit volunteer said that the locals sang “White Christmas” for the Preparation of the Gifts, while offering vegetables and a live goat for the holidays.
In sophisticated parishes, choirs perform Handel’s “For Unto Us A Child Is Born” from his famous opus, The Messiah, to an admiring crowd. During the singing of the Pater Noster, they sang Albert Malotte’s “The Lord’s Prayer” a cappella while the people stood quietly until the song ended.
How do we choose songs that are appropriate for a mass in a particular time and a particular place?
There are three judgments to follow, but one evaluation. Songs should pass the three judgments, not just one or two of them.
First, the Musical Judgment. Do you like the music? This is simple: why would you sing a song that does not speak to you, or a song you don’t like?
However, the music should be worthy of the mass. But artistic expression is not the same as musical style. Artistic expression is about quality. Musical styles are about genre. And “the Church has not adopted any particular style of art as her own. She has admitted styles from every period, in keeping with the natural characteristics and conditions of people and the needs of the various rites” (Sacrosanctum Concilium no. 123). That means the Church takes into consideration the congregation and the type of music that they can identify with; the type of music that would lead them to pray and worship the Lord. Here is one example from Himig Heswita that articulates the aspirations of people. Click this.
In recent times, the Church has welcomed different musical forms for liturgical worship. One hears rock music in masses with the young. Many Catholic charismatic communities use the songs of Don Moen and songs from the Hillsong Church in Australia. Don Moen and Hillsong are not Catholics. Albert Hay Malotte is an Episcopalian.
Choosing songs for the liturgy does not depend on the composer. We can use songs from a different faith tradition as long as they pass these three judgments. More importantly, the liturgical judgment. The lyrics should fit the Catholic faith.
Second, the Liturgical Judgment. Is the song right for the liturgy? To answer this question, you have to consider the following.
1. The Structure of the Mass. Every part of the mass has a corresponding function. The Entrance Song should be a song about gathering at the altar of the Lord. It should enhance the atmosphere of welcome and worship. The Psalms are sung prayers found in Scripture and they should foster meditation on the Word of God. Songs should meet the structural requirements of the mass.
2. The Liturgical Books. There are two main books in the liturgy. The Sacramentary gives you the present liturgical Season and the celebration of the day. It tells you whether the mass is a Solemnity, in which case, the Gloria will be recited or sung. It also indicates the saint of the day. In the Lectionary, you will find the readings of the mass.
The songs should fit the text of the liturgical books for a particular rite, in a particular season. For example, if we are celebrating Good Shepherd Sunday in the Easter Season, and the readings are about it, then it is proper to sing Psalm 23, The Lord is my Shepherd especially if it is the Responsorial Psalm.
If the reading is from 1 Corinthians 13 especially in weddings, then this song from the Jesuit Music Ministry will be right. Click this.
Finally, the Pastoral Judgment. Can the congregation sing the songs? We want a congregation who actively and consciously participates at mass. In other words, they respond to the dialogues and they sing the songs. The pastoral judgment takes into consideration the actual community gathered to celebrate in a particular place, at a particular time. Thus, we consider factors like age, culture, education, and language. This is the mandate of the 2nd Vatican Council.
So, we evaluate songs using these three judgments.
Silver Bells will not be acceptable liturgically, but favorable musically and pastorally. We, Three Kings, however, will be acceptable in all three judgments when sung on the Epiphany of the Lord — never on the Season of Advent!
Handel’s Messiah and Malotte’s The Lord’s Prayer are all liturgically and musically excellent. But ordinary churchgoers will not be able to sing them well. Unless, of course, it is a mass of the Philippine Madrigal Singers or the UP Concert Chorus.
However, this music from the Jesuit Music Ministry will pass these three judgments for the Preparation of the Gifts. And to say that it will pass with flying colors is an understatement. Enjoy Christify!