Thursday, July 5, 2012
Hymns, Psalms, Spiritual Songs
Let me say from the start that, moving from one church to another, I have learned to dial down my expectations when it comes to parish liturgies. One shouldn't expect a choir (especially in the summertime), nor a lot of fancy organ work. But surely, a simple mass that utilizes good responses, well-composed parts for the assembly and a singing congregation ... Is this too much to expect from a parish?
So we were very pleased to come across this Sunday gathering of the faithful outside of Nice. The organ playing was just superb; his registrations were full and joyful, yet they were also sensitive and didn't overwhelm the congregation. There was a cantor with a beautiful voice, with a clear sense of direction and invitation. And much of the music was material that Michele and I could join in on, even as pilgrims who were given only the lyrics to sing, and who don't have a solid grasp of the French language.
As we in America were beginning to grapple with the changes in the liturgical texts last year, one of my good friends, Alan Hommerding, was talking about a part of the mass that we don't normally give much attention: the dialogs throughout our worship. These would include simple greetings like "The Lord be with you." "And with your spirit." But it includes others as well, such as the greeting before the gospel, the Preface dialog, the Dismissal and Blessing.
I can honestly say that I've never heard these done better – not only by the Presider, but responded to by the entire assembly as well. And especially with the Presider, who must have had a great sense of pitch. He anticipated many of the cue notes given by the organist, and was spot on for every one of them.
The liturgy itself was an illustration of the Pauline exhortation to sing "hymns and psalms and spiritual songs." This parish used every device possible to bring together the hearts and voices of her faithful: well-known hymn tunes (the Old 100th was used to modified words of the Gloria, and a well-known Lutheran tune was used for the backdrop of the Anamnesis); psalm tones (so familiar that the parishioners even sang the verses to the psalm along with the cantor, since the words were included in the program). And there were a few uniquely French tunes: simple, dignified, and obviously owned by the entire assembly.
What a beautiful model of how a Mass can be offered with limited resources and yet with a marvelous, prayerful dignity! After the liturgy, we had a few moments to speak with the cantor and with the organist. Even with our linguistic barriers, we were able to converse for many minutes about the work of Sunday celebrations, and I was glad to complement them on work that was clearly a labor of love.
What I find remarkable as we travel is how unoccupied Europeans are with exact translations. When I brought this up with friends in Trastevere a few weeks ago, they commented on how uptight Americans were in regards to the letter of the law. What I have experienced over here, almost without exception, is that few musicians or clerics are concerned with these things. They have more pressing concerns – like the very survival of their Catholic tradition.
At the end of the liturgy, I waited for the woman who was cantoring, to speak a few words of thanks. She was quietly looking up at the crucifix, praying while the organist concluded his work upstairs. When I finally was able to share a few words and thank her (in my best, broken French), she smiled and looked up to ceiling of the church. "C'est tout pour Dieu," she said.
And it is, isn't it? All. For. God.
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