Why do we sing the hymns that we do at Mass? Does the choir just arbitrarily pick the songs that we do? Sometimes I like a different song better than the song they pick.
Perhaps it can appear as though the music selections for Mass are left to the whims and preferences of those who lead music. However, there is both a proper place for music and singing within Mass and a proper hierarchy for choices of liturgical music. Liturgical music is primarily to be the singing of the Mass itself, left neither to arbitrary selection nor based upon individual preferences.
On the most basic level, it is important to begin with this statement: music is inherent to the liturgy. Said another way, music is not an “add-on” to the liturgy, but the prayers of the Mass are meant to be sung – we are to “sing the Mass;” not merely “sing at Mass.” Practically speaking, consider first that some of the regular prayer texts of Mass (such as the “Holy, Holy, Holy,” or the “Lamb of God,” etc.) are often sung. The rule for choosing what is to be sung at Mass is given in the Church’s own directives in the Roman Missal (based on the “Instruction on Sacred Music,” issued in 1967 by the Vatican Congregation of Rites, Musicam sacram) that “preference is to be given to those [parts] that are of greater importance and especially to those which are to be sung by the Priest or the Deacon or a reader, with the people replying, or by the Priest and the people together” (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, paragraph 40). It is important to note that these words are speaking of actual Mass parts. Thus, what is sung is not at all arbitrary in this context, as that which is sung is meant to be first and foremost the very parts of the Mass that are to be found at every, or nearly every, offering of Mass.
Acknowledging that the questions given here are meant in regard to hymn selections rather than Mass parts, might I address the place of hymns. Granting once again that we are meant to sing the Mass (and not simply sing at Mass,)
might I tease out the four main times when hymns are often sung: the Entrance, the Offertory, during Holy Communion, and after the Dismissal. For the Entrance and for Holy Communion, the prayer settings for each Mass provide us with “antiphons” that are intended for singing (or at least to be recited). If you have attended a weekday Mass, you can hopefully recall how the priest says a short verse before Mass begins and another short verse before he distributes Holy Communion. Normally, these
verses are Scripture quotes or expressions based upon the Scriptures. It is these “antiphons,” as they are called, that are the first option for what is sung in these
moments. As you know, we at St. Ben’s have the custom of using the Communion
Antiphon each Sunday, with a hymn following as a “meditation hymn.” That hymns can be placed in these times is truly the fourth option – and thus, as the fourth option, a hymn is not as preferable as the three options which precede it. As far as the Offertory goes, while our current missal does not give an antiphon, some collections contain the antiphons from previous use (at the time of Vatican II, and prior) that can be used at this moment in the same manner as in the Entrance or at Communion – thus, making the use of a hymn a secondary option once again. Finally, at the conclusion of Mass, there is no expectation for singing whatsoever –as the dismissal by the deacon (or priest) to “go” is the last act of the Mass – and the priest can depart in silence, (or perhaps to the joyful noise of a pipe organ fugue J.
Thus, while the use of hymns is legitimate at four different times of Mass, hymns are not a requirement, nor even the primary option in any of these moments. That hymns are commonly (and often exclusively) used in these moments, however, leads to the real question – who chooses them and why? The choice of hymns lies within the responsibility of each parish priest, even though he frequently delegates such to parish musicians and others. Whoever makes these choices should always take into account the particular liturgical season or feast being celebrated, the part of Mass where it will be used (e.g. using a Eucharistic hymn during Communion, etc.) and in the case of the music for the Entrance and Communion, the primary texts given by the antiphons. Likewise, the message of the readings should be kept in mind in making these selections. This way, the choice will always reflect the message of the given texts of the Mass – making them less likely to seem as though they are added on, and more as an integral part – that we might seek to “sing the Mass,” and not simply sing at Mass.