Out of Place Hymns: Considering the Four-Hymn Sandwich & the Ontological Nature of the Mass

medieval singers

Have you ever felt that the hymns we sing at Mass* seem out of place?

Catholics love to argue about which hymns are good and which are bad. Even lists have been compiled ranking the worst Catholic hymns. And yes, there are some awful hymns that, for some mysterious reason, continue to be “favorites” at Mass. But, if you sense that the real issue might be something more than merely poor song writing and poor taste, then I think you might be right.

Music is appropriate for Mass, of course, but Mass is fundamentally an act of worship and prayer. Therefore, if a hymn is not specifically an act of worship or prayer then it feels out of place regardless of how good it is. Given the nature of the Mass, it makes sense that if we are going to sing then we are to sing the Mass itself, not merely sing at Mass. The Mass itself is the act of worship. Anything else is just that, something else.

Most hymns are not prayers, and not truly or fully acts of worship either, even though the music team is often called the “worship team” in many Protestant churches.

Consider that hymns are common for Protestants precisely because Protestants lack the Real Presence in their church services. They have hymn singing (most often modern “worship style” songs designed to manipulate the emotions, which is what many Christians actually want to happen) and preaching. Hymns are an attempt by Protestants to make the Real Presence present — to ascend to Heaven or to bring Heaven down. The emotions are often there, but any knowledgeable Catholic knows it’s not the same thing, not by a mile. That’s why there has been such a push by Protestants to make church like a mini concert designed to hype, often at the cost of other qualities, the emotional aspects of music. I like concerts, but that’s not what Mass is, or should be.

The thing about most hymns is this: they are about us, about how we feel and especially how we want to think about ourselves. A really effective modern hymn is like a pat on the back. Of course they can also be about God, the gospel, the Christian life, etc, but usually we Catholics, with the “Catholic” hymn fed typically to us, get rather bland verbiage wrapped within saccharine music (or was that saccharine verbiage within bland music?). None of these things are necessarily bad in themselves (though bland and saccharine are not true forms of beauty). Singing is a good and very human thing. Emotions are good too. Rather, the issue is they don’t fit within a Mass because of what a Mass is.

If Christ is truly present then it does not make sense to sing most of the hymns we do at Mass, rather we should be silent or praying. Prayers can, and often should, be sung. Gregorian chant is singing prayers — and very beautiful. Traditional polyphony is also singing prayers — and very beautiful. The prayers are part of Mass. They are us, or the priest, talking directly to God.

If the Mass on earth is a reflection of the Mass being celebrated at all times in Heaven are they in Heaven too singing Gather Us In? or On Eagles’ Wings? or The King of Glory? or I Am the Bread of Life? etc. etc.

Honestly, I cannot imagine they are. I even think they see us and weep. Perhaps I’m being too dramatic.

Regardless, it seems true that the four hymns at a Novus Ordo Mass, sometimes called the “four-hymn sandwich,” jar us because they are not prayers, they are not actually part of the Mass at all. In fact, they actually break up the flow of the Mass. They pull us out of the forward action of Mass calling us to worship. They keep us distracted, like how sporting events now have rock music and jumbotrons blasting continuously lest anyone should have a moment of reflection or personal thought. With the new Mass there is now very little opportunity for the laity to actually pray at Mass. These hymns are like obstacles on our ascent to the heavenly liturgy, pulling us aside just when our focus on God was beginning to crystalize. We sing hymns mostly to fill in the “gaps” so we stay “engaged.” Why?! The sad truth is that most of the time they do exactly the opposite.

Debating which hymns to sing at Mass becomes pointless if they should not be there in the first place.

This is one of the reasons I believe so many Catholics do not sing at Mass. Not because of a conscious protest, or because they do not like singing, or because the Novus Ordo Mass just needs more time to get more firmly established, or because the hymns are generally so terrible (which they often are), but because at some inarticulate level it doesn’t feel right to sing hymns at Mass the way Protestants sing hymns.

Mass is something fundamentally and radically different than a Protestant church service. Ontologically they are entirely different species. Many have argued that the “spirit of Vatican II” is, in large part, about denying and abandoning much of what the Catholic Church actually is and becoming more modern like the Protestants, and thus they made the Mass to be more like a Protestant church service and less like a Mass. I would hold up as evidence the way hymns have been inserted into the new Mass as one piece of a larger puzzle that strongly suggests this perspective is true. It would seem that far too many Catholics in the 1960’s and 1970’s, especially bishops and priests, became deeply embarrassed about Catholicism and its so-called “trappings” and thus felt impelled to change it.

So much for the spirit of the council, if not the council itself.

Strangely, the switch to singing at Mass from singing the Mass seems to have been anticipated, and in the same year the Novus Ordo Missae was promulgated no less:

Query: Many have inquired whether the rule still applies that appears in the Instruction on sacred music and the liturgy, 3 Sept. 1958, no. 33: “In low Masses religious songs of the people may be sung by the congregation, without prejudice, however, to the principle that they be entirely consistent with the particular parts of the Mass.”

Reply: That rule has been superseded. What must be sung is the Mass, its Ordinary and Proper, not “something,” no matter how consistent, that is imposed on the Mass. Because the liturgical service is one, it has only one countenance, one motif, one voice, the voice of the Church. To continue to replace the texts of the Mass being celebrated with motets that are reverent and devout, yet out of keeping with the Mass of the day (for example, the Lauda Sion on a saint’s feast) amounts to continuing an unacceptable ambiguity: it is to cheat the people. Liturgical song involves not mere melody, but words, text, thought, and the sentiments that the poetry and music contain. Thus texts must be those of the Mass, not others, and singing means singing the Mass not just singing at Mass. [Notitiae 5 (1969) 406. Emphasis added]

Singing means singing the Mass not just singing at Mass.

So… if we find ourselves arguing that the hymns are so bad, are we saying they should be better quality so us Catholics can finally be just like the Protestants? Or are we saying, perhaps without fully grasping what we mean, that we should give up the new Mass for a more appropriate Mass where music exists to serve our praying and our true worship of the Real Presence rather than to fill in gaps? In other words, when we say the hymns are bad, are we actually meaning the Novus Ordo Mass is bad?

At least let’s try to be clear what it is we are arguing for, and against.


*Of course, I’m referring to the Ordinary Form of the Mass.

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