The opening hymn at a Mass is not a travelling music piece for the priest to make a grand entrance — and the closing music is optional. Internationally acclaimed liturgical composer David Haas made these clarifications in workshops he gave on October 13–14 in Wellington and October 15 in Auckland.
Mr Haas is also the author of several books including Music and the Mass and A Practical Guide for Ministers of Music. “We don’t sing at the liturgy, we sing the liturgy,” Mr Haas said, stressing that music in liturgy is communal prayer.
“The opening song gathers us together. You can say the opening song is the opening statement of faith,” he said.
“What the opening song [does is] . . . helps you focus [at] the beginning of the celebration. It does accompany a procession if there is one and it also helps coming together as a community. And it also helps them to listen well to the Word that follows soon after.“
This is why, he said, the singing shouldn’t stop at the third verse when the priest reaches the altar. Mr Haas, executive director of Music Ministry Alive, said there are many things music ministers should catechise people about.
The Penitential Act, or the Kyrie, need not be sung in a mournful or lugubrious way.
“It’s not ‘Oh, God, I’m awful.’ It’s a plea. [It is] an acclamation of praise to God who is mercy,” he explained.
“So, we begin the liturgy acknowledging, and this is the legacy of Francis, the God of abounding Mercy.”
He said there are parts of the Mass where the text is always sung: the blessing and sprinkling of water, the Gloria, Responsorial Psalm, Acclamation (Holy, Holy, Holy), Anamnesis and Offering, the Fraction Rite /Lamb of God, sharing of Communion, and a song of praise after Communion.
Mr Haas, though, was hesitant to put The Lord’s Prayer in the “must sing” category.
“As a composer, [I know] it’s very hard to sing . . . the way it’s set up in terms of syllables and metres makes it difficult to set the music to. I’ve tried four different times. It’s really, really difficult,” he said. “My default position is we recite it for that reason.”
He said the Gloria should be “a piece of music that can stick to people’s ribs and they can really sing it from the heart.” “The Psalm should be sung. Let me put it another way: the Psalm should be sung,” he said. Prayers of the faithful can be sung. “I hope we are moving towards that,” he noted.
Preparation of the gifts is the only time when the choir can sing by themselves “but Father should not be waiting for you to finish when he’s done. It should be short.”
The Sanctus should be sung. “Find something that works well,” he advised. “You might be tired of them but don’t change them a lot.” Communion songs are “tricky”, he said.
This is because most people think this is their “alone time” with Jesus. “The people should be singing with you. It’s their song. This is a shared meal. Some of the challenges around this come from the fact that people haven’t been catechised well,” he said.
He advised music ministers to pick a song that emphasises the gathering. He also said to choose only one Communion song.
“If you do two or three Communion songs in a row then what you’re doing is you are reducing the music to being filler. It’s one action. You need to find a piece that can be sustained over a period of time, a good refrain that people can sing and that speaks to them,” he said.
As for the closing song, Mr Haas observed that musicians tend to get upset when the priest bids the people to go and they go, leaving the church before the final hymn has finished. “The point is: liturgy is not meant to feel finished. It is to be sent. It’s not a destination, it’s a path,” he said, stressing though, that he is not proposing that parishes do away with closing songs. As an alternative, he suggested that a song of praise be sung after a moment of silence after Communion before the final blessing.
“Part of the thought here is to start teaching people that singing hymns is prayer,” he said.

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