Musical Corruptions Continue Despite Recent Vatican Interventions

The Vatican has intervened in the guidelines on Catholic liturgical music in the U.S. It has sent a message to U.S. publishers that it objects to extending the official text of the Agnus Dei to add additional text. The practice is called “troping” but that’s using a rather high-minded and deeply historical term for what is actually just pop-music riffing. Further, the Congregation for Divine Worship has asked the USCCB for a change in its musical guidelines to reflect this.

As the blog Gotta Sing reports, one publisher received the following note:

In response to a request from the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, the USCCB Administrative Committee adopted a change on September 12, 2012 to the U.S. Bishops’ 2007 guidelines on liturgical music, Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship. Number 188 of the document has been altered to remove any further permission for the use of Christological tropes or other adaptations to the text of the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God).

This is a good development. Too little, too late, but still good. Sing to the Lord is vastly better than the barely Catholic predecessor document called Music in Catholic Worship that had sent two generations of musicians off course (MCW, for example, said that music of the past is not a good model of music for the future).

Still, the new document has problems, such as claiming that the style of music used at liturgy is not a relevant consideration, as well as open contradiction of official documents that the Agnus Dei cannot be troped.

In many ways, this issue should be a non-issue. It is pretty well established that when you are singing the liturgical text…you should sing the liturgical text. Otherwise you are just inventing stuff on your own. Why would anyone think that musicians can do such things? Well, there is a very long precedent for doing so. That’s what’s going on in your parish every week, most likely, unless you have a choir director who knows what’s what.

And yet, one wonders if this intervention will make any difference. Note that it removes “further permission” but says nothing about the settings already published and already in use. Another issue is that any choir director could easily sing the real Agnus Dei text and then continue singing tropes, calling the extension an example of “other appropriate music.” People who don’t have the desire to follow the spirit of legislation will always find ways around the text of the legislation.

In general, however, as annoying as the troped Agnus Dei is, it is hardly the main problem of Catholic music today. A much more troubling issue concerns the USCCB’s permission to composers and publishers to completely mangle the text and structure of the Gloria itself. It is intended to be sung straight through, obviously. This is how it has been sung from the earliest years of the Church. This is how it is structured in the whole of the Graduale Romanum’s Kyriale, the official songbook of the Roman Rite.

One of the major purposes and intentions behind the text revision of the Gloria was to revive the chanted structure of the Gloria or, at least, remove what amounted to a rhythmic occasion of sin: it put the first line in a clear triple meter. Thank goodness that is now ended. But, again, people who ignore the spirit of the law will find a way around the law.

I was astonished when publishers, after the approval of the Roman Missal 3rd edition, started pouring out new floods of bowdlerized Glorias that mangle the whole structure. They have continued to turn the opening phrase into an antiphon, and treat the remainder of the text as a response. Thus do people sing “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will” again and again. Each phrase is separated with a fancy passage from the text sung by the choir alone. This contradicts the whole of the history of the Roman Rite. It is a wholly unwarranted corruption.

How could this be happening? Well, my inquiries led me to an extraordinary revelation. The U.S. Bishops approved it. And that’s that. The publishers begged and the USCCB complied. They unleashed all the publishers to put out these versions of the Gloria that continue the very problems that the new translation was supposed to stop. I have no idea how the Vatican allowed this to happen or whether anyone knew it was happening.

But it seems rather obvious to me that no matter how much autonomy that national conferences have, or believe they have, they should never be permitted to grant permission to fundamentally alter the text and structure of the liturgy itself, especially not concerning such a historically crucial part of the liturgy as the Gloria.

My question: why hasn’t the Vatican intervened here? It would take only one note to three people, the heads of the big three publishers. One quick fax or email. That’s all it would take to save the Gloria (The Gloria!) from this continued corruption of its structure and text. In addition, the antiphon-response artificiality here unleashes the choirs to turn a solemn celebratory text into a show-tune performance in which the people merely play a bit part of repeating the same line over and over again. It is contrary to the liturgical goal and patronizing to boot.

To be sure, the publishers are of the opinion that the people are too incompetent to actually manage more than one little line. If you want people to sing, they say, you have to give them easy stuff to sing over and over like songs on the radio. Whether that line is “I’m at a payphone, trying to call home,” or “Glory to God…” they think that the people need short catchy things to say or they won’t sing, and “getting the people to sing” is pretty much the sum total of the perceived goal of publishers and musicians today.

If you provide no challenges whatsoever to people, it is hardly surprising that they get bored of the whole project and enter protest mode. This probably accounts for 90% of the silence of Catholic congregations. But instead of embracing the actual liturgical text and structure, the publishers keep going further, making music ever sillier and the structure ever more simple. It’s just not working. But even if it did work, it shouldn’t be done.

When it is time to sing the Gloria, sing the Gloria. It’s not rocket science. Here’s to hoping for another intervention from Rome, this time without the proviso that grandfathers in non-liturgical renderings immediately insist upon the sung liturgy.

After that, we need an open discussion on the major problem that afflicts Catholic music today: the substitution of newly composed text for the given propers of the Mass. To repeat what I said above, when you are singing the liturgical text…you should sing the liturgical text. Otherwise you are just inventing stuff on your own. Why would anyone think that musicians can do such things?

It is the right of the community of Christ’s faithful that, especially in the Sunday celebration there should customarily be true and suitable sacred music (Redemptionis Sacramentum).

Jeffrey Tucker


Jeffrey Tucker is managing editor of Sacred Music and publications editor of the Church Music Association of America. He writes a bi-weekly column on sacred music and liturgy for Crisis Magazine and also runs the Chant Cafe Blog.

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  • CharlesCulbreth

    Never let it be said that Jeffrey minces his thoughts. Nor do I for that matter.
    But allow me two observations that we two have personally discussed pertinent to two major points in this article that, to me, are glaringly obvious by their omission here.
    One, on the brick by brick road to liturgical OZ, Jeffrey himself endorsed an erstwhile quick fix to engaging congregational participation in the Latin chanting of the De Angelis Gloria as arranged by our mutual friend and chant expert, Aristotle Esquerra. This arrangement employs the same antiphonal “refrain” by relegating the congregation to cadentially inserted repetitions of the famed 5-5–3-2-1 incipit intoned by the celebrant. This was circa 2005-2006. This came to my attention via Jeffrey’s mention of it at Musica Sacra or NLM. There’s nothing wrong with his now revised opinion. But to not own up to that accomodation then, and to launch a serious salvo towards other composers and their publishers without that disclosure damages credibility somewhat. And while we’re on the Missa de Angelis…
    Two, is not the interpolation of polyphonic portions that are poorly invented by local Roman composers into the de Angelis Gloria as “performed” by the Sistine (Screamers) Choir and which otherwise mangle a noble and simple rendition by the people’s choir and all other congregants at Papal Masses in St. Peter’s an “occasion of liturgical sin” (?) much more magnified and deliterious to worldwide sensibilities than the local singing of the incipit as refrain Jeffrey so villifies? IMO, what happens at St. Peter’s to this day also, ironically functions as musical, not textual , troping. Oops.
    Troping, if only understood by novice liturgists or musicians from the content of Jeffrey’s article, would seem a modern invention, doubtless led by the apostate Haugen! Nothing could be further than the historical truth of the acccretion of tropes to emerging liturgical texts in the first centuries. One of the undergraduate level examples is the obvious approbation of the sometimes secular use, sometimes pagan use of “Kyrie eleison.” That one form of the Penitential Rite still prefaces that with an invocation is a result of troping the Kyrie. This is old news and basic.
    We just need to paint our opinions with less broader and more intellectually honest strokes.

    • Jeffrey Tucker

      Dear Charles, my point in recommending that IN LATIN was for choirs in a pinch to make progress toward LATIN. The idea is to head in the right direction toward change. Why is that so difficult to understand?

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  • hombre111

    I guess Jeffrey believes in the principle of subsidiarity everywhere but in the Church. Some fogey in the Vatican knows what should be sung in my little parish tucked away in the far away hills? One size fits all, I guess.

    • MarkRutledge

      The principle of subsidiarity applies to political structures, not ecclesial structures. As to the latter, in matters of Truth one size does indeed fit all.

      • hombre111

        Mmm. Maybe according to whom? We are not talking about Truth here, unless the dogma of musical correctness has been infalliblly defined by some pope or council. It was this kind of attitude that cause the irreparable division between the Eastern Church and the Western Church.

        • MarkRutledge

          I merely pointed out your misuse of subsidiarity. The Church has magisterial authority, which comes from He who is Truth. Like it or not, the Vatican does indeed have authority in these matters.

          • hombre111

            Some Italian who was never really involved in parish work telling me in my northwest parish full of tough loggers who put their lives on the line in the forest every day seems a little shaky to me. Authoryity? Oh, he could put pressure on my bishop to kick me out of my job but there is nobody to replace me unless the Italian wants to come over, learn English, learn Logger, and then run the parish in my place.

        • Matthew Arnold

          According to Vatican II. It would be nice if people actually read it. Even nicer if they followed it. How the loggers must have suffered before all the bad music and bad palaver took off.

          • hombre111

            I read the Vatican II stuff on music the way conservatives read the Church’s teaching about social justice: “This is what they are saying, but I will make my own prudential judgment and mostly ignore the thing.”
            Truth be told, the loggers did suffer under Gregorian Chant. It is extremely difficult music to sing, as I discovered during ten years in the seminary. When the loggers tried Gregorian Chant, the choir left the people gasping and some looked for lightning bolts from heaven. After all the years, our default hymns were Holy God, we praise thy name, Come Holy Ghost, Kyrie Eleison,and a few others. I begged the choir to choose hymns that were theologically accurate and singable. And I told them to learn only one hymn a month, rather than subject the people to one new song after another.
            After retirement, I left the forested hinterland and came to the See City, with some really big churches with numerous Masses. Again, the several choirs that serve the parishes are a mixed bag. Some of them, skilled in music and well practiced, have lifted the whole congregation to prayer. Others would butcher music written by angels. I plan on visiting each parish and attending all the Masses. I will then write a summary about what I experienced there and try to publish the article somewhere.

            • Matthew Arnold

              Interesting, Father. Not sure what mostly ignoring the Council means, on music or on any other matter, or that prudential judgment trumps the Magisterium, but hey, what do I know as a mere Catholic? I will look for your article.

              • hombre111

                Priests of my generation were astonished by the sight of 2500 bishops gathered together around our Pope for the Vatican Council. Surely, it was a thunderous manifestation of the Spirit. What followed was an amazing failure of leadership. My own bishop came home and made no concerted effort to help his diocese understand what had happened. Maybe he did not understand himself. Young priests, like myself, read everything they could get their hands on and attended summer courses, but the pastors who set the agendas for their parishes were buried in the worries of administration and tended to their golf games. But the leader who failed the most was the Pope. He did not call for a church-wide understanding of what had happened. When the new liturgical changes came out, they were implicated by decree at every level, with little explanation to anybody. Along the way, the pope divided the Church with his Humanae Vitae.
                Then came Pope John Paul II, who immediately began to dismantle the Council. This is what set the dilemma for me. Was the Spirit with the Council, with its 2500 bishops gathered around the pope? Or was it just with the Pope, who was free to pick and choose as he pleased.
                In my mind, Pope John Paul II was the first cafateria Catholic.

                • Matthew Arnold

                  Thank you, Father, for your testimony. It is a Council I am studying from the point of view of one of its Fathers. I am gathering what evidence I can. I see what fix you we’re put in. I trust the present Pope knows well such things and is striving to set things right. God bless.

                • Matthew Arnold

                  P.S. please forgive my tone, too terse and too proud, in my emails from past days. I was rushing to conclusions without hearing your side of those days. I apologize, Father, most sincerely. God bless.

                  • hombre111

                    Thanks, Matthew. I think you understand the anguish felt by so many of my generation. We saw this spectacular Spirit-filled gathering of the whole Church, and waited for it to bear fruit, only to watch it disappear, slice by slice. Now we look back at a ghost and try to maintain our respect for the teaching authority of the Church. My basic question: Who was guided by the Spirit? The Council? The Pope? Am I forced to choose? If I feel forced to choose, I begin to doubt the whole idea of a church with teaching authority.

                    • Matthew Arnold

                      Do not doubt, Father. It is the one true Church. I have no doubt. I can read Latin, and read the Council in light of earlier Councils, e. g., Trent, and I see no rupture. I am referring to the Documents. I see, studying the Council historically, that its implementation was much, albeit not only, as you have mentioned. But all that is being addressed. I remember the New Msss in my parishes as reverent, and there was no interpolation, etc. So I have much hope. God bless.

                    • hombre111

                      Thanks, Matthew. My advice to smug young priests is that life is very, very long, and wherever we are, it is only a bend in the river and not the river arriving at the sea. I think of the changes in my lifetime. I was trained in Latin and learned to say Mass according to the strict rubrics of the old Latin Mass. We did not read the Fathers, or Augustine, or Aquinas, or any of the great moral theologians. My theology training consisted in memorizing a series of “manuals” which gave us a second hand, safe portrayal of the Faith which we could then hand on to the faithful.
                      Then came Vatican II, which was a thunderbolt. But as I said, looking back, I can see that our leaders let us down from top to bottom. Everything was done in a lackluster, piecemeal fashion. Many chose to ignore the Council completely. The only ones who took the Council seriously and tried to apply it to their lives were the nuns.
                      But suddenly I found myself celebrating Mass in English, trying to understand and live an entirely new ecclesiology. Believing that this was of the Spirit, I did my best.
                      Then came the long reaction to the Council and its virtual rejection by many young priests. I watch the Council fade over the horizon.
                      I tell young priests about the changes that took place, assuring them that, when they reach my age, they will also look back to great changes they did not see coming.

                    • Matthew Arnold

                      Thank you again, Father. Yes, I think that tradition is bigger than the manuals, of course, and that those who call themselves traditionalists, too, have much to learn, as you understandably say we all do. I would mention the one rite, two forms of the Motu proprio of five years back. That is the future of the past, the one true faith from Our Lord, in the Mass. So the Council should continue to make its presence known–the Council Father I am studying is near and dear to my heart–and in light of the very tradition you mentioned was kept from you. I really do think we can trust that the Pope is a man of catholic AND Catholic interests. If the free-form liturgists and the so-call traditionalists would just listen to what he has to say, we would all be better off. I salute your faithful ministry, and I pray for you. God bless you, Father.

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  • CharlesCulbreth

    Jeffrey, I hesitated to emphasize the point of inconsistency could be very neatly illustrated by the refrain of Mike Joncas’ “Mass (in honor of) St. John Carroll,” wherein the refrain antiphon IS in Latin: “Gloria in excelsis Deo, gloria, gloria….etc.”
    This reality, which was sung in my parish for years (!), is not inconsonant with your your defense of Ari’s refrain. So, therefore, where is your “beef” of contention? With the setting, the form, or the permutation of the text?
    If you’re going to insisit upon enforcing strictures, then you’d better have a good bead on all the topography and geography of real politik. Just saying.

  • Jeannine

    I just want to mention that in my parish we often sing the Haugen Mass of Creation, which does have the antiphonal Gloria. But when the new translation came in, and the congregation had the little printed card with the whole new Gloria in it, EVERYBODY started to sing the WHOLE Gloria–antiphons and all! I’ve started to wonder if we could just take out the antiphons–would anyone even notice?

  • Great piece, Jeff. Thank you. I’m sure you’ve written about the liberties parishes are taking with the Responsorial Psalm? If so, point me in that direction, please? I’m also looking for more on when/how the common psalm should be used, particularly on Sundays. I see so many parishes take these common psalms (and use hymns, not the chanted psalms) and set them on perpetual repeat. I want to make the point that we shouldn’t be substituting as a default but I’m finding this hard to defend. Am I out of order? Thanks!