Does it matter what we sing at Mass?

News: Liturgy

The cover of the first Source and Summit Missal, designed for use at parish liturgies, is a beautiful gold etching of the archangel Gabriel. Holding a trumpet and a banner proclaiming Christ, the angel on the cover is meant to convey the unity of the Church with angelic choirs during the Mass, and the power of God's own revelation.

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The cover is also something of an inside joke.

It is a tongue-in-cheek nod to another angel, on the cover of another missal, at a place where one of the Source and Summit missal producers once worked.

Jethro Higgins, marketing director at Source and Summit, the liturgical music publisher which produces the Source and Summit Missal, used to work for another liturgical publishing house: Oregon Catholic Press, which prints the majority of the missals used in the pews of Catholic parishes in the United States.

In fact, Higgins worked at Oregon Catholic Press (OCP) during a 2020 incident, when one of the company’s Catholic pew missals was printed with an image of the Mormon angel Moroni on the cover. When it released a preview of its cover art, the Moroni cover prompted a lot of blowback. 

The company initially denied it had put a Mormon figure, not a part of the Catholic cosmology, on its cover. But it eventually conceded that had happened, apologized, and promised to pull the missals and change the cover.

The incident got a lot of attention on social media, but most Catholics who knew about it probably quickly moved on. However, Higgins told The Pillar the incident was kind of a turning point for him — a moment when he decided he wanted to work with liturgical music in a way that seemed to draw more concretely, and deliberately, from the riches of the Church.  

Higgins knew about Source and Summit from a webinar he’d attended. He was impressed by what he saw: he believed the company was blending some very cool technology with a perspective formed from the heart of the Church. 

He reached out to Adam Bartlett, Source and Summit’s founder. 

“I fired off an email to Adam saying, ‘Hey, you guys aren't hiring, are you?’ And it turned out that very day, Adam had decided that he needed to hire somebody for marketing. Two or three hours later, my email showed up in his inbox,” Higgins said.

It was a match; Higgins had a new job. 

Although he had worked for years in the liturgical music field, Higgins said working for Source and Summit has caused “a fundamental paradigm shift” in the way he views music and liturgy.

He’s grown in appreciation for “what the Church provides for us for the liturgy, so that we unite ourselves with that prayer of Christ towards the Father, rather than bringing in our own creative concepts and trying to make the liturgy our own.”

Higgins told The Pillar that when he and Bartlett discussed what to put on the cover of the new pew missal launched by the company, they joked about putting an angel on it, as a nod to the OCP snafu. 

On second thought, they realized it might not be such a bad idea. 

They chose the archangel Gabriel, who holds a banner that reads “Be not afraid, the Lord is with you.”

The backstory makes the cover kind of fun, Higgins thinks. But the content inside is what really matters, he said.

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Music with a purpose

Why does it matter what songs are used at Mass? We should be reverent, but isn’t music mostly just a matter of personal taste? Does someone determine whether certain hymns are appropriate?

Bartlett, founder of Source and Summit, acknowledged that it’s natural people have their own musical preferences when it comes to prayer. 

More contemporary styles of music — such as music by Matt Maher, Ike Ndolo, or the St. Louis Jesuits — are considered devotional music, he told The Pillar, and “when it comes to devotional music, the Church welcomes all kinds of different styles, because the purpose of the devotional life is growing in our relationship with Christ, and growing in our faith.”

There are many appropriate opportunities to use devotional music, Bartlett added, mentioning praise and worship nights, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, personal prayer, or faith conferences. He noted that his own reversion to the faith was aided by praise and worship music, which he sees as a big help in evangelization.

But while devotional music is also what most people are used to singing at Mass for the past 50 years, Bartlett said, it is not the most fitting choice for liturgical music.

“Really, what the Second Vatican Council asks us to do is to participate fully and actively in the liturgy itself, not to be doing devotional activities while the Mass is going on.”

When it comes to the liturgy — which includes the celebration of Mass, the Sacraments, and the prayer of the Divine Office (Liturgy of the Hours) — the Church has a different purpose, and so there is a particular kind of music meant to fulfill that purpose, Bartlett said. 

“And that purpose is the glory of God in the sanctification of the faithful. It's about drawing us into the prayer of Christ, who prays and offers the perfect act of worship to the Father that draws us into a participation of the heavenly liturgy and helps us join the song of the angels and saints and the Church.”

The Church actually gives guidance on what specific kinds of music are best suited to use at Mass, Bartlett said, and it’s his project to help parishes follow that guidance. He says that kind of help, which he calls liturgical renewal, is meant to glorify God.

Bartlett’s mission with Source and Summit is to “engage as many parishes as possible in the task of authentic liturgical renewal, particularly along the path of sacred music.”

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What does that look like in practice? Bartlett said it means to “sing the Mass,” and to prioritize the chants, texts and music that the Church has given as an official part of the liturgy.

“What that means is to sing the very text that the Church presents, which is found in the Order of Mass, which is the dialogue and responses, the unchanging structure of the Mass. And also in the Ordinary of the Mass, which are commonly called Mass parts (such as the Kyrie and the Gloria). The Church gives us a number of beautiful settings there, and we provide all of those in addition to accessible, simple chant settings in English and Spanish.”

“And then we have the proper of the Mass, which are the antiphons and the psalms at the entrance, offertory, and communion in addition to the responsorial Psalm and the Alleluia. Like the lectionary readings, these are unique to every day, so there are thousands of settings.”

Bartlett acknowledged that his — or really, the Second Vatican Council’s —  approach to liturgy might seem like a radical change in some parishes. 

He recommends introducing new things — like chants, antiphons, and different Mass parts — slowly and steadily, so as not to overwhelm the congregation. 

“We realize that it is a slow and steady, gradual process. It's not something that you can, or want, to do overnight. So we really seek to partner with parishes and help them in that path,” he said.  

The recently published Source and Summit missal is a tool for parishes wanting to move in this direction. The missal features antiphons, Psalms, and Mass parts, as well as more than 400 hymns — it will eventually include hymn translations from a new edition of the Liturgy of the Hours not yet available for publication. 

“We're talking about hymns from St. Ambrose, St. Gregory the Great, and St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and saints in every age. And those are hymns that are very rich in theological concepts, but they also align perfectly with the liturgical year,” Bartlett said. 

The hymns included in the Source and Summit missal are those considered part of the “core repertoire” of Catholic hymnody because they have “withstood the test of time, endure because of their beauty, both in music and in text, and also express the truth of the Catholic faith,” he said.

And they take into account guidance from the U.S. bishops. Last year, the United States bishops conference released “Catholic Hymnody at the Service of the Church: An Aid for Evaluating Hymn Lyrics” which detailed why some hymns that had been commonly used in the Mass in the U.S. were not recommended by the bishop from future use, because they expressed ideas contrary to, or not in harmony with, Catholic teaching. The Source and Summit missal heeds that advice. 

A new digital platform is also available, allowing parish music directors to customize the accompaniments, harmonizations, verses, and even musical notation used (chant is traditionally sung using square notations; the platform would allow directors to change these back to the typical round notation).

Essentially, the digital platform provides parishes with “the ability to give your parishioners exactly what they need…(in a) multi-format delivery,” Bartlett said.

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A broad impact

Being attentive to how we celebrate the liturgy can have a profound impact on how we live our Catholic faith more broadly, Higgins told The Pillar.

The phrase “source and summit” is often used in many Catholic circles to refer to the Eucharist alone, he noted. “But when you read the texts of the Sacrosanctum concilium (the constitution on the liturgy from the Second Vatican Council), [the phrase] actually refers to the liturgy as the source and summit of our faith, with the celebration of the Eucharist being the pinnacle of that.”

This means that when the liturgy is celebrated well, and in its proper context as the summit of the faith, the rest of the Catholic life and mission — from evangelization and catechesis to the devotional life — can “flow from that,” Higgins said. 

“When we do liturgy correctly — as joining Christ in his prayer to the Father rather than something that we bring from our own perspective, then conform ourselves to Christ...​​we join him and become like him and we go out into the world from that experience, and it improves everything about our mission.”

Bartlett was intentional in choosing the name “Source and Summit” for his company. He said has done an extended study on the use of the phrase “source and summit” in Church documents, ​​”and whenever the Church refers to the Eucharist being the source and summit of the faith, it's always connected to the celebration of the Eucharist, not merely the Eucharistic species.”

“Certainly, the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ that's really and truly present in the species of the Eucharist is within this, but really, the Church's life is directed toward a participation in the life of Christ, which is expressed and realized in the prayer of the liturgy, as a whole, which the Eucharist is at the pinnacle of.” 

Using the music that the Church prescribes for the liturgy is not about the so-called “liturgy wars” common to some Catholic arenas, Higgins stressed. Instead, it’s about trying to “be authentic to what the Church is teaching, and really follow her guidance.”

“I think we can all agree that there's been conflict in the Church for decades if not centuries,” he said. “There's no perfect time in the past that we're going to go back to, and we don't want to do that. We want to push forward, being guided by the Church.”

Authentic liturgical renewal “is really about understanding the Second Vatican Council rightly in continuity with tradition...It's not about going backwards. It's about celebrating the liturgy in a faithful and beautiful way, in line with what the Second Vatican Council really called us to.”

Source and Summit offers the ability for parishes to sing the Mass entirely in English, Bartlett said, something that’s in line with what the Second Vatican Council had in mind.

“That wasn't possible in the pre-conciliar liturgy; that's not a problem that has been solved before. So, we’re helping bring the riches of the liturgy and of our musical tradition in contact with parishes today.”

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An authentic archangel

Higgins told The Pillar that there is a serious meaning to the archangel on the Source and Summit missal’s cover.

“Adam and I were brainstorming what we wanted to put on the cover of this missal,” Higgins said. 

“We wanted it to be very memorable, we wanted it to speak to the authenticity that we want to convey in the content that we provide for liturgy, we wanted to also convey a sense of positive orthodoxy, where we're not trying to judge, or come down on the way that people are celebrating the liturgy, but provide a positive path forward.”

“That’s what the angel Gabriel says at the Annunciation,” Higgins added, “and that's an important message for our times right now, especially with all the uncertainty that we've all been dealing with over the past two years. We wanted to show what an authentic Archangel Gabriel on a missal cover could look like.”

Higgins noted that everything about the image recalls the Annunciation from the banner to the trumpet Gabriel holds, to the white color of the missal and the lilies at Gabriel’s feet, which symbolize the purity of Mary as the Mother of God. 

“Every Catholic image has iconography, has symbolism that means something,” he added. “So when you show a picture in the Catholic world, you're saying something, you're not just seeing something, and you need to know what it is you're saying.”

Editor’s note: This story initially said that new Liturgy of the Hours hymn translations were already available in the Source and Summit missal. If fact, they are not yet available, but will feature in the missals after they are made available for publication. The error has been corrected.