Thursday, September 21, 2006

Music Ministry - Tip #3: Be Silent or Sing with the Assembly after Communion

Here is one simple thing you can do to make your parish’s celebration of Mass even better: Don’t do a meditation song after Communion. Instead, observe silence or sing a communal song of praise.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingI already know that some of you will not like me for saying this. So I won’t even try to sugarcoat it. The “mediation song” is the bane of good music ministry. Until we stop doing it, music will always be seen as a nice-but-not-necessary element of liturgy, and liturgical musicians will continue to be regarded as entertainers instead of ministers of sung prayer.

To explain, let’s start with what the Church documents say about this.

General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 88:
“When the distribution of Communion is finished, as circumstances suggest, the priest and faithful spend some time praying privately. If desired, a psalm or other canticle of praise or a hymn may also be sung by the entire congregation.”

Music in Catholic Worship, 72:
“The singing of a psalm or hymn of praise after the distribution of communion is optional. If the organ is played or the choir sings during the distribution of communion, a congregational song may well provide a fitting expression of oneness in the Eucharistic Lord. Since no particular text is specified, there is ample room for creativity.”

Liturgical Music Today, 10:
“At other places in the liturgical action the sung prayer itself is a constituent element of the rite. While it is being prayed, no other ritual action is being performed. Such would be: the song of praise, which may be sung after communion....”

The GIRM and Music in Catholic Worship are very clear: The optional song after Communion is sung by the entire assembly. Further, the song is one of praise. Liturgical Music Today, which footnotes the GIRM, explains that when it is sung, the song after Communion is itself the assembly’s prayer; it is not background music to accompany another action. It is the action.

Okay, confession time: I am a product of the 12:00p Mass Contemporary Choir meditation song. Some weeks, I lived just for that moment when our choir could perform that one piece we had been working on for weeks, or when I could sing a duet with my friend, or when we could do a really heart-breaking rendition of “By My Side,” “Do They Know It’s Christmastime?” or “Let It Be.” No offense to Godspell, Bob Geldof’s BandAid, or the Beatles, but, “mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.”

Now, I know that the meditation song has come a long way since the early 80s when I was doing them. Many mediation songs I hear today have something to do with the day’s readings, many of the texts are Scriptural, and most are done well. Some of them are even great works from our Catholic music tradition. Don’t think that meditation songs only come from folk/contemporary choir-types. I’ve heard and done meditation songs such as “Ave Maria,” “Panis Angelicus,” and “Locus Iste.” But do these songs fit the criteria for the song after Communion?

If we follow the documents cited above, the criteria for the song after Communion are:

  • it is a psalm or canticle or hymn

  • that speaks of praising God

  • that is sung by the entire assembly

  • and serves as the primary and only action of the assembly (sung prayer) at that time in the rite.
If we look at the meditation songs I mentioned above, none of them really fulfill all these criteria. “Ave Maria” and “Let It Be” are addressed to Mary. We should sing songs to Mary, but not after Communion. What about “Panis Angelicus”? C’mon, “bread from heaven.” It’s perfect! Yes, perhaps. But unless you have the whole assembly singing it, it’s not perfect for after Communion. Same for the other songs I mentioned.

The point is, if we are to be assembly members first, music ministers second, and never entertainers who make the purpose of the rite secondary, then we have to select music that fits the criteria outlined by the documents.

First step is to practice silence (and stillness) after Communion. The norm after Communion is silent prayer by the assembly. The option is to sing a communal song of praise together.

Second step is to stop calling it a “meditation song.” There is no meditation song in the Roman Rite. Also, the term suggests that the assembly is to meditate while the choir or soloist sings. The documents are clear: if a song is sung, it is to be the assembly’s prayer of praise to God for the sacrament they have just shared together. If you sing after Communion, call it a “song of praise.”

Third step is to use the song of praise sparingly. Every week is too much. Perhaps just use it on all the Sundays of Easter or maybe just on very solemn feasts during the year. Remember, the song of praise is optional. (You might even consider omitting the closing song if you do a song of praise. We’ll talk about this in another Music Ministry Tip.)

Last step is to go over the criteria again and make sure that the song fits all of them, especially the criteria that it be one of praise to God (not supplication, not petition, not to Mary, not to the saints, not a song about the Gospel reading) sung by the entire assembly. The psalms and canticles from the Bible work very well and can be done in responsorial fashion. Also litanies of thanksgiving are very good. Finally, this is the perfect place for hymns since the assembly is not distracted by walking or watching a procession at this time. Save the songs that don't fit the criteria for preludes, postludes, or perhaps the song during the preparation of gifts.

'Worship Leader' Used with permission of

So why did I do a meditation song all those years? Probably the same reason you might do it—because it works. It gets to people. It moves them. Sometimes they cry (hopefully in a good way). And they will probably compliment you and remember that song for a long time as a highlight of the Mass, because, honestly, there is so much emotion in the choir and in the assembly whenever the meditation song hits just the right spot.

But is this what the liturgy and liturgical music are about? Feelings? I stopped doing the meditation song because, first, I learned the documents, and second, because I learned that feelings are not enough. And besides, there is enough emotion already in a well-celebrated Mass without my trying to elicit more of it in an inappropriate place in the ritual.

I’ll end this tip/exhortation/rant with two quotes which speak about the power of good ritual, Sunday after Sunday, year after year. It’s a power more potent than feelings. Feelings are necessary, but they do not ultimately serve the purpose of liturgy which is action—praising God and doing the work of Christ in the world, not by myself, but together as the Church.

Feelings are great liars. If Christians only worshiped when they felt like it, there would be precious little worship that went on. Feelings are important in many areas, but completely unreliable in matters of faith…. We think that if we don’t FEEL something there can be no authenticity in DOING it. But the wisdom of God says something different, namely, that we can ACT ourselves into a new way feeling much quicker than we can FEEL ourselves into a new way of acting. Worship is an ACT which develops feelings for God, not a feeling for God which is expressed in an act of worship. When we obey the command to praise God in worship, our deep, essential need to be in relationship with God is nurtured.
--A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society, Eugene Peterson


Liturgy is not about how we feel. It is about who we are and whose we are. Much is made today of feelings and of the individual’s great importance. When Christians enter upon their liturgy, however, all of that must be balanced with something else. The liturgy is what the church does. If I do the liturgy, I do it as a baptized member of this community of baptized persons. In a sense, I play a role that is only partly mine now, the role of a member of God’s reign. The liturgy does not exist so that I can get my feelings expressed. Rather, it rehearses me in the feelings I ought to have.

We speak of folded hands, peace greetings, loud acclamations, gestures of penance like kneeling, and all such things. It is never a matter of: Do this if you feel like it. Hard as it may be for persons of this culture to accept, the liturgy would have us do things whether we feel like it or not. At liturgy, we play like we are in God’s reign, as we are but only a little. This is true not only of the Eucharist, but of Morning and Evening Prayer, the seasons, the sacraments. When we praise God in the morning it’s not because we feel that praise but because we are baptized people, and in the name of all creation we are here to praise God.

All that being said, we can begin to glimpse how the liturgy is filled not simply with emotion but with passion. Look at the words we sing in the psalms and hear in the scripture, look at the lives we celebrate on feasts, look hardest at the very core of the Eucharist. In the Eucharistic Prayer we speak as passionate people about creation and sin and God’s relentless love. The climax of Catholic liturgy is the eating and drinking of Christ’s body and blood, a deed that holds and little by little reveals a multitude of human passions.
--Hymnal for Catholic Students: Leader’s Manual, ed. Gabe Huck, LTP and GIA.

Hopefully, to all this, we can sing Amen!--“let it be, let it be...” but just not after Communion.