A ZENIT DAILY DISPATCH
Songs With God in First Person

ROME, OCT. 9, 2012 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: I have a question about the use of music in liturgy. A priest has stated that we should not be singing songs where we sing as if it were God speaking: "I, the Lord of sea and sky, I have heard my people cry …" or "I am the bread of life .…" What is the norm on this? I did a little research but could not find an answer. — D.E., San Jose, California

A: Although there is a widely held opinion that these songs should not be used, there is in fact no norm that expressly prohibits them.

Some argue that the texts of such hymns do not form part of Catholic liturgical tradition. In this there is a valid argument, as songs of this kind are fairly novel in the repertoire. It is not a very strong argument, however, because the practice of integrating hymns into the Mass is itself a post-conciliar novelty in the Church, so there is not much tradition to go on.

It is true that in some cultures the faithful did sing hymns while Mass was going on. But these hymns were, in a way, tangential to and not integrated into the Mass itself. I think it is fair to say that outside of the Liturgy of the Hours, Catholics before the Second Vatican Council sang hymns principally as part of popular piety and not at Mass.

It is also important to remember that even today these hymns are considered as substitutes for singing official texts such as the entrance and communion antiphons. The four-hymn model that is now typical at Mass in the ordinary form developed because vernacular musical versions of these official texts were almost nonexistent and the legitimate possibility of using existing Gregorian chants remained unused.

In recent years quite a few composers have started to produce music for the proper texts at Mass in the vernacular. It is to be hoped that this movement will continue to flourish and eventually supplant the four-song model.

Let's return to the question about texts that use God in the first person. In order to reach a judgment I think we could for the moment leave out any discussion of the musical quality of these hymns, which goes from quite decent to drivel.

I also think it is also fair to say that nobody really thinks they are speaking as God when they sing these songs. Rather, they are aware that this is Scripture and the message is addressed to them as much as to others. Certainly, scriptural based texts are part of both Catholic tradition and the recommendations of the Church for hymns.

I would say that the question as to the legitimacy and convenience of these texts largely boils down to whether we can find any foundation for them in traditional and official liturgical sources.

We do find occasional texts in which the choir or assembly sing or recite texts in which God speaks in the first person. The clearest example is the reproaches of Good Friday: "My people, what have I done to you? Or how have I grieved you? Answer me! … I fed you with manna in the desert, and on me you rained blows and lashes. My people .…"

Occasionally the communion antiphons use texts in the first person although usually inserting a phrase such as "says the Lord" which eliminates any suspicion about who is speaking. Thus, Monday of the first week of Lent: "Amen, I say to you: Whatever you did for one of the least of my brethren, you did it to me, says the Lord. Come you blessed of my Father, receive the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world."

There are times, however, when this addition is omitted. For example, the communion antiphon of the second Sunday of Lent: "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased." And that of Palm Sunday: "Father, if this chalice cannot pass without my drinking it, your will be done." Also, Thursday after the second Sunday of Easter: "Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age, alleluia."

The Gregorian chant repertoire also has a few examples of compositions with God speaking in the first person. For example, the Alleluia of the feast of the Sacred Heart, "Tollite iugum meum … [Take up my yoke]" is taken from Matthew 11:29. An offertory antiphon used on this feast, "Improperium expectavit cor meum … [Insults have broken my heart]," is a text of Psalm 69:20 but which the liturgy places in the mouth of the Sacred Heart.

In conclusion, any new composition that truly identified the singer with God would induce into doctrinal error and should never be used.

However, if a composition is made up of Scriptural texts, or very closely tied to scriptural contexts, so that there is no danger of any doctrinal confusion, I would say that their use cannot be excluded as a matter of principle. It is necessary to examine each song in particular and judge it on its doctrinal, literary and musical merits.

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