O come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the Rock of our salvation!
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!
— Psalm 95:1-2
The opening words of this Psalm, with which Catholics have begun Morning Prayer for centuries, take on renewed meaning as the English-speaking world soon begins to sing the words of the new translation of the Roman Missal.
This long-anticipated translation of the Mass will replace the one that we have been using for nearly 40 years. It is the fruit of the intense labor of hundreds of bishops, scholars, translators and two popes — within a sometimes tangled and confusing vineyard.
In the United States and several other English-speaking countries, the introduction to the new translation will begin with "a joyful noise" — the singing of the new texts of the Mass — this month.
At their spring meeting in Seattle in June, the U.S. bishops authorized the early introduction of the sung parts of the Mass in Catholic parishes before the full implementation of the new Missal on the First Sunday of Advent, Nov. 27.
This musical introduction of the third edition of the English Missal in itself represents a new approach to the celebration of the Mass — by singing the actual words of the Mass, not only a few hymns during the Mass.
It is one of the signals of a new era of liturgical renewal — a renewal grounded firmly in the Second Vatican Council's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, which said, "The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art," and it described the true "purpose of sacred music" as "the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful" (112).
First, the accurate translation of the words of the Mass will lead to a deeper and fuller understanding of its meaning by revealing more clearly the link to sacred Scripture and ancient prayers of the Church.
Second, the "re-sacralizing" of the music of Catholic worship is imminent: The new far more reverent-sounding words are now joined to a new chant-based musical setting.
The effort to recover the Church's musical heritage was begun in earnest early in the 20th century by Pope Pius X, who sought to restore Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony, as well as to engage the active participation of all Catholics in worship.
In the decades following, this effort of liturgical renewal was carried on persistently by the "Liturgical Movement," with the active support of 20th-century popes, in particular, Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul II. But the social and cultural upheavals that followed the Second Vatican Council sidetracked these efforts and impeded the genuine liturgical reform intended by the Council fathers — and the popes.
The "cultural revolution" also inspired a misguided "popularization" of music for Mass. The sound of church music often became indistinguishable from the sound of secular music. Innovation trumped genuine renovation in the final decades of the 20th century.
At the outset of the 21st century, "a new era of liturgical renewal" began.
In 2000, Pope John Paul II announced a new edition of the Roman Missal, the third "typical edition." (We have been using the revised "General Instruction" from this edition since 2003, though the English translation is ready to be implemented only now, a decade later.)
In 2001, the Holy See issued Liturgiam Authenticam (Authentic Liturgy), the "Fifth Instruction" implementing the Council's liturgical constitution, Sacrosanctum Concilium. And, after nearly a decade of intense labor by bishops, scholars, translators (including the reorganized translating group, International Commission for English in the Liturgy), the new English translation has arrived.
It is a great gift to the Church — to Catholics of our time. Words and expressions missing from the 1974 translation that the English-speaking Church has been using for more than three decades are now translated faithfully.
The new translation of the Missal has also re-ignited the sometimes flickering flame of the renewal of sacred music begun so long ago.
For the past several years, there has been a remarkable rekindling of activity in recovering the Church's most noble musical heritage. Sacred music organizations, the Church Music Association of America, for example, are revivified, after languishing for years.
A new edition of The Adoremus Hymnal is another example of the encouraging renewal in progress. Other promising initiatives have appeared, and many new local groups are now being formed. Catholic musicians are composing and publishing new chant-based and choral settings for the Mass — and are making good use of the Internet to distribute this music widely (e.g., Cantica Nova: CanticaNova.com; Corpus Christi Watershed: CCWatershed.org; CMAA: MusicaSacra.com) and to encourage each other's labors.
When we begin to sing the Gloria, the Sanctus, the Credo, the Lamb of God, in Latin or English — when we join our voices together in singing beautiful hymns from our vast treasury of sacred music — we will now be able to "sing with the angels" in offering praise and thanksgiving to God.
Let us join the heavenly chorus with joyful voices!
Helen Hull Hitchcock is co-founder of Adoremus (adoremus.org).