Marian Hymns at Offertory

And More on Inaudible Prayers

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ROME, JUNE 16, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: Recently, one musician has told us during the class that Marian songs should not be sung during the offertory of a Mass. Is this true? Why so? -- D.Z., Beijing

A: I have often heard this particular "norm" bandied about but have yet to find an authoritative source for it.

The 2007 guidelines on liturgical music, "Sing to the Lord," published by the U.S. bishops' conference, give only general criteria regarding hymns. To wit:

"A hymn is sung at each Office of the Liturgy of the Hours, which is the original place for strophic hymnody in the Liturgy. At Mass, in addition to the Gloria and a small number of strophic hymns in the Roman Missal and Graduale Romanum, congregational hymns of a particular nation or group that have been judged appropriate by the competent authorities mentioned in the GIRM, nos. 48, 74, and 87, may be admitted to the Sacred Liturgy. Church legislation today permits as an option the use of vernacular hymns at the Entrance, Preparation of the Gifts, Communion, and Recessional. Because these popular hymns are fulfilling a properly liturgical role, it is especially important that they be appropriate to the liturgical action. In accord with an uninterrupted history of nearly five centuries, nothing prevents the use of some congregational hymns coming from other Christian traditions, provided that their texts are in conformity with Catholic teaching and they are appropriate to the Catholic Liturgy (no. 115)."

It is sometimes difficult to find specific "appropriate" hymns for the preparation of gifts as this moment of the rite has received less attention from modern composers than the entrance and communion.

Since this is a new requirement in the liturgy, there are few older vernacular hymns for the offertory. This is probably also due to the fact that a hymn is only one of several options at this moment. Apart from a hymn it is possible to use the traditional Latin chant for the day; a polyphonic piece by the choir; purely instrumental music (outside of Lent); and even no music at all.

The question here is: whether Marian hymns should be judged as "inappropriate" for the presentation of gifts.

I believe we can be guided here by the extraordinary form of the Roman rite. In this rite the offertory chant is not an optional text but is proper and specific to each particular day or season. A glance at the liturgical calendar shows that the prescribed text for the offertory on Marian feasts usually refers to Mary. In many cases the offertory chant is taken from the first part of the Hail Mary, or a psalm verse applicable to Mary and occasionally is an original composition such as on the feasts of the Queenship of Mary and the Assumption.

Thus I think it is clear that Church tradition validates the use of Marian texts at least on her feast days. There are also some oblique references to Mary in the offertory chants on other occasions, such as the feasts of saints noted for Marian devotion. For example, on the memorial of St. Gabriel of the Sorrowful Mother (Feb. 27), the chant is taken from Psalm 115:16-17: "O Lord, I am your servant, the son of thy handmaid. You have loosed my bonds and I will offer you a sacrifice of praise."

With this in mind it would appear that there is no reason to ban Marian songs for the gifts, if there is a good reason for having one. They are certainly justified on Marian feasts and probably also during the Marian months of May and October.

They could also be used on other occasions, but I believe that the criterion of their being "appropriate" is important. They should not just be used as fillers because nothing else is available. The lyrics should also in some way relate to the feast or to the mystery being celebrated, especially those texts which bring out Mary's relationship with Christ.

Insofar as possible, just as all hymns used in the liturgy intended for community use, the text should preferably express an ecclesial profession of faith and not just a personal and individual devotion.

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Follow-up: Prayers Recited Quietly

In the wake of our June 2 comments on the priest's quiet prayers, a U.S. reader remarked:

"Here in Boston I've often wondered why the Missal instruction to pray certain prayers 'inaudibly' is not only ignored, but the prayers themselves are changed, presumably to include the congregation. I refer specifically to two instances:

"The prayer during the washing of the hands is often audible and one hears: 'Lord, wash away our iniquities, cleanse us of our sins.' I'm assuming the celebrant is not using the 'royal we' here, and while I appreciate the sentiment, it's disconcerting, because precisely at this time I'm praying (silently) to the Lord to purify the priest!

"Prior to their reception of Communion, I often hear priests pray, loudly: "May the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ bring us ALL (that's not my emphasis ... that's the priests') to everlasting life." (To which the congregation invariably responds, understandably I suppose, with a hearty "Amen!") Again, I appreciate the sentiment, but it is while the priest communicates that I try to (silently) pray for his eternal glory. This sort of interrupts my prayer for him.

"I already know that these (and, alas, too many other) instances aren't in the missal. What I'm wondering is simply why do priests do this?"

Why indeed? I can think of many reasons, but in the end they will be merely speculative. I can only put it down to inadequate liturgical formation and a consequent lack of understanding of the inner dynamics of the celebration. Such acts betray a deficient grasp of how these personal prayers address the priest's specific need for purification in virtue of his unique role within the celebration.

The fact that the priest says these prayers quietly can also be a teaching moment in which he, through his devout attitude, teaches the faithful how to prepare for Communion. Saying this prayer aloud turns it into another vocal prayer, thus depriving it of its proper liturgical function.

This goes to show that fidelity to the missal, and not our personal ideas regarding community involvement, is actually the most integrally pastoral attitude we can have.

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Readers may send questions to liturgy@zenit.org. Please put the word "Liturgy" in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.