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Form and function of liturgical music

As we prepare for weekend liturgies, it is important that we pay closer attention to our music selections. The following lets us look at music and its function in the celebration.

The concept of Ministerial Function (in Latin munus ministeriale) is a key one in Liturgy.  By it we recognise that the persons, elements, chant, words and movements in the Liturgy are all at the service (and therefore ministerial) of the Word of God and God’s saving action towards humankind.

We recognise also that each has its function which helps us to understand that we are all parts of the Body of Christ in celebrating the Liturgy; and, in a practical way, such recognition helps enormously in preparing liturgies without clutter or confusion.

How does the concept of Ministerial Function work in actual fact?

Ask yourself two questions: –

What function does any given person or element have in the liturgical celebration?

What form does such a function take?

Every piece of liturgical music has a function for the worshipping community and assumes a certain form in which it is executed. The varying rites of the celebration all have different functions.

Entrance Song: gathers the people and ministers celebrating into one whole in heart and mind.

Function: Those celebrating come from their various situations and are helped by the Entrance Song to focus on the mystery of God’s gathering of His people to worship Him. Note that it takes at least three stanzas or verses of a song to “gather” people together i.e. to put them in the frame of mind or help them focus on who they are (People of God) and what they are about to celebrate.

Form: This is a processional song i.e. the ministers process to the altar while the song is being sung. Either the whole assembly sings together, or else the assembly sings a refrain while the cantor or the choir sings the verses. Full active and conscious participation of all present is required.

Penitential Rite

Function: This is a stylised examination of conscience.

Form: Either all sing “Lord have mercy” or the celebrant or cantor sings petitions while all respond with “Lord, have mercy” or some similar litany-style chant.

Glory to God in the Highest

Function: This is a hymn of praise to God, echoing the song of the angels in Luke 2:14. Notice the praise-petition-praise structure of the song, which lends itself to variation in mood and key in the musical treatment.

Form: possibilities of being sung by the entire assembly; or else the assembly sings the refrain (Glory to God in the highest and peace etc.) while the cantor or choir sings the body of the hymn treated as 3 verses.

Responsorial Psalm

The name indicates the form of this psalm. The function is to recall to mind some aspect of the First Reading, but in a lyrical form which is more easily remembered. The psalm can be sung from the Ambo or another suitable place. The text must be clearly proclaimed.

Gospel Acclamation

Throughout the year (except for Lent), Alleluia is sung; in Lent, various other acclamations of praise to Christ are sung as the procession is formed and is processing to the lectern for the proclamation of the Gospel (This is the function).

Form: This acclamation may be first intoned by a cantor or by the choir and then taken up by the congregation. Several versicles may be sung for as long as it takes for the procession to reach the lectern and then subside.

The Presentation of Gifts

[Note the change in terminology: many prominent liturgists insist that the only “Offertory” in the Mass takes place when all glory and honour is offered to the Father through Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Thus, the employment of a more accurate (and non-controversial) term.]

This moment requires a song to accompany the bringing of the gifts (bread, wine, money, gifts for the poor to be distributed during the week) to the altar.  There is no need to sing exclusively “bread and wine” songs; songs of praise, hymns based on the theme of the celebration, instrumental solos or ensembles are in place here.  Silence too, can be appropriate. —Music Team, Liturgical Commission