What Questions to Ask in Choosing Liturgical Songs

There is a knock on the door of my office. Two campus ministers want me to check the list of songs for the Mass of the Holy Spirit. TJ Sunga, our campus minister, hands me the list of songs.

I scan the list thoroughly. I have to be sure that each song fulfils its “ministerial function” in the liturgy and in the people. The size of the congregation is around 2,450 adolescent boys, their families and the rest of the faculty and staff of the high school.

The expression “ministerial function” is a translation of the Latin munus ministeriale. Munus means duty or function; and the adjective ministeriale means service. Thus the munus ministeriale in liturgy is the specific service that a person or a thing (like a song) does to the community in the celebration of the liturgy.

For example, the ministerial function of the choir is to lead the community in the singing while the reader is to proclaim the Word of God. Similarly, the munus ministeriale of the lectionary is to contain all the Scriptural readings of the mass while the paten holds the bread for consecration into the Body of Christ.

The Sacramentary. Photo: Fr. Jboy Gonzales SJ

The Sacramentary. Photo: Fr. Jboy Gonzales SJ

In choosing songs for the mass, it is important to ask WHY we want a particular song to be sung. By doing this, our choices for a repertoire becomes reasonable because the ministerial function constantly challenges us to consider the reason for the existence or use of that song in that particular liturgy like the Mass of the Holy Spirit.

What then do I check in a repertoire for mass?

So the first thing I consider in the repertoire is its appropriateness to the liturgy. The entrance songs are Veni Sancte Spiritus for the procession of the seven banners of the gifts of the Holy Spirit; and Bayan Magsiawit Na for the entrance procession of the various ministers of the Eucharist. So the lyrics of these songs are liturgically fitting for the entrance procession. These songs 1) invoke the Holy Spirit (Veni Sancte Spiritus); and 2) gather the community (Bayan Magsiawit Na).

Then, I ask the question: Will the community of the Ateneo High School sing these songs during the Mass of the Holy Spirit? The community of the Ateneo High School is the specific people the songs will minister to; and the Mass of the Holy Spirit is the specific liturgy the songs will serve.

TJ Sunga (read TJ’s story here) replies that Veni Sancte Spiritus has been sung in the Holy Spirit masses in the past, and Bayan Magsiawit Na has been a favorite in daily masses.

So I approve of the songs because the whole community, not just our students, can and will sing these songs.

But I have another reason. The Mass of the Holy Spirit happens once: it starts and sets the tone of the school year (education is the work of the Spirit). Thus, it is imperative that everyone sings (and our boys do sing!).

It is not a time to introduce new songs. To me, a new song is introduced, repeatedly practiced and sung in daily masses. When the song is mastered, then it can be included in the repertoire of special masses.

In fact, the daily mass is the crucible for the inclusion or rejection of a certain song. If the community sings the song with delight, then use it; if not, then discard.

Maximum participation is therefore the norm. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of Vatican II highlights the importance of the active participation of the people:

“By way of promoting active participation, the people should be encouraged to take part by means of acclamation, responses, psalmody, antiphons, and songs, as well as by actions, gestures and bodily attitudes. And at the proper times, all should observe a reverent silence” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Art. 30).

If we ask these questions: What is the munus ministeriale of each song both 1) in the liturgy and b) in the people, then we can be assured that the faithful will worship the Lord consciously, actively, and fully well.

Asking these questions can also help us correct any form of neurotic rigidity. Lucien Deiss, CSSP has this to say:

“In fact, even to ask such a question about ministerial function is to begin a permanent inquiry into the very heart of the liturgy, confronting “head on” every kind of formalism, rubricism, and traditionalism. Not that the ministerial function is opposed to rubrics; rather it accepts only those forms which actually fulfill their intended purpose. It does not rise up against tradition, but it will accept only what serves the present-day community” (Lucien Deiss, CSSP. Spirit and Song of the New Liturgy).

Two questions therefore matter in the choice of a song at mass:

  1. Will the song serve the liturgy?
  2. Will the song serve the people?

If the answer to both questions is a YES, then use. If both is a NO, or only one is a YES, then replace.

There is always another song.

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