A few weeks ago on this page, in the Isaiah musing, I stated a disdain for choir chanting, Latin, violins, and other complex music settings at Mass. More generally, I prefer a service style that tends toward “low” church. When I use this, it’s relative in contrast to “high” church. It’s not in the strict Anglican sense, or the articles of faith sense, described in this Catholic Encyclopedia piece. High and Low Masses are an old Catholic term, so I thought I’d start with some history.
Up until just before my birth, the Tridentine Mass was the standard worship form of Roman Catholicism. Introduced after the Council of Trent, in 1570, it served until the Novus Ordo Missae was introduced in 1969. There were various forms. A Pontificial High Mass was one sung by a bishop and choir. When the Bishop was unavailable, but a priest, choir, and deacon could serve, the High Mass was celebrated with chant and incense. Poorer churches, who could not afford or staff fully, had a spoken or Low Mass. As with any change, the Novus Ordo caused a lot of controversy. Some people objected to the loss of mandatory Latin. I have read complaints about vestments, direction, simplicity, communion in the hand, communion under both kinds, women near the altar, lack of Gregorian chant, and the disadvantage of laity understanding things. A simple Google search will find many defenders of the Trent service. It is not the point of this article to argue fully on this subject. Briefly, the change to Latin (from Greek) was primarily political in the fourth century. Later, Trent never dogmatically condemned the vernacular, rather preferring Latin and standardization as a means to counteract challenges of Protestantism. The so-called “uniformity” had exceptions in the Ambrosian and Mozarabic Rites, as well as various religious orders.
After three weeks more thought on this issue, I realize it comes down to two concepts, tempo and participation. For those of you who don’t play competitive bridge, the term tempo is used to describe the speed at which one makes bids and plays. To quote from the Laws of Bridge, “Calls and plays should be made without special emphasis, mannerism or inflection, and without undue hesitation or haste.” There’s a natural pace, and breaking that pace has consequences; it’s improper, and can be considered cheating. Tempo is one of the reasons I don’t play serious bridge, actually; I greatly prefer collectible card games, where the bluff of tempo is rather important. I generally play quickly, and like when other people play quickly. A slow player frustrates me, or one that stutters and constantly changes tempo.
I also like that tempo in my worship. It’s not that I want a shorter service; the daily Mass often feels too rushed for my tastes. It’s about flow. Even cadence, keeping a pace, keeping the air alive with words – that’s what I want. Slow tempo is fine, as long as things keep the speed. I grimace when someone talks about bells during the Consecration, because to me they’re like slaps to the head of the flow of the Eucharistic prayer. (Actually, I suggested to one such supporter that I would just slap them instead of bells. Well, to me it’s the same result.) When an organist takes four or five warmup notes before a Great Amen, I cringe; the beauty of a chanted doxology, ruined. Too frequently, when the musicians get hold of a liturgy, it becomes a series of stops and starts, like a beginning card player. Spoken Masses, the “Low” form, hold their tempo tighter, and so I prefer them.
Back to the musicians, and the second point, participation. In my mind, the Mass is the expression of the people of God. To do that, the people need to express. The General Instruction states the role of a choir in number 103, including “fostering the active participation of the faithful through the singing.” Additionally, the 50-70 minutes within a Mass is the primary worship of many parishioners. While everyone spending more spiritual time would be nice, a realist cannot understate the importance of activity in the limited time frame. I understand that my background in American evangelicalism markedly colours this area. So it does. I find Mass more praiseworthy when I hear my neighbor in the responses and songs, when the priest avoids unwarranted attention by steering clear of big fancy chants, when the organ and choir do not overpower any attempts at singing.
Too often I see a Mass choir acting like a Gospel choir. Instead of a worship aid, they become the worship, choosing a difficult song, like Latin when few people understand (except at Calvert), or multipart harmony, or range outside the average one octave. I really like Gospel music, and Gospel choirs; I spent a good deal of Easter Sunday watching and listening to Gospel Challenge on TV One, sort of a low-budget AME American Idol. That’s not Mass music, though, and I don’t want it there. Mass music should foster the goal of the service – commemoration of the life, sacrifice, and renewal of our Lord. “Low” Masses, with less complex pieces or even spoken parts, allow people to have greater confidence and better entry into the commemoration. If you’re not sure about this point, experiment. At a typical parish Mass, compare the proportion of people who say a response against the proportion that sing. I have, and the spoken word triumphs. That gets people involved, and draws them actively to the path of transformation, where I want to walk.