A discussion continues to take place in the Catholic Church following the Second Vatican Council, turning around the axiom of the interpretation of participatio actuoso and the implications this has for the substance and style of liturgical music. During the complex period since the Council, limited investment was made in Catholic music compared with other Christian denominations.
However there have been real signs of recovery in the United Kingdom. The Dioceses of Brentwood, Liverpool and Westminster have shown significant commitment to good liturgical music over many years. Other dioceses are following, sometimes leading from a cathedral music department, and sometimes from diocesan resources. The Bishop of Leeds has written of "the right of all Catholics to experience good music and liturgy in their own church." In recent years, his Diocese has taken a bold national lead in an ambitious renewal of liturgical music, working in conjunction with Catholic primary and secondary schools to develop strong foundations for the next generation. This work flows from the Cathedral into schools and over time into parishes. Three centres of regional excellence are now developing in West Yorkshire at Leeds Cathedral, St Joseph's in Bradford, and St Patrick's in Huddersfield.
Catholic liturgical music has a bright future, but it is contingent both on the resources for an educational programme to rebuild and reinvigorate and on faithfulness to what the church teaches about the place and purpose of music in the liturgy.
For Sunday Masses, the following is offered as some practical guidance for parish musicians:
The form of music requiring no instruments or specialist singers is both most easily obtainable and most important liturgically. It should take precedence over the requirement to sing Mass settings and hymns. This comprises the Gospel Acclamation (Alleluia except in Lent when Praise to thee ,O Christ is sung) and the dialogue between priest and people in the Eucharistic Prayer (Preface dialogue, Sanctus, Memorial Acclamation, Doxology and Amen). Practically speaking, if the priest does not sing then it is impossible to fulfil this primary role of liturgical music: attention and assistance must therefore be offered. A celebrant at Mass may sometimes try to sing too loudly in a well meaning attempt to energise his flock. A gentle dialogue with people is often the best way encourage a meaningful response.
If the ordinary of the Mass is to be sung, a good place to start is with an understanding of the teachings of the church in liturgical music.
The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services. (Sacrosanctum Concilium)
Chant is therefore something we are asked to take seriously and value in its distinctiveness to Catholicism. Some well intentioned attempts have been made to substitute vernacular words for the original text, both at the time of the reformation in Europe and more recently in the 1960s. By and large, these adaptations have not gained widespread use, many considering that the flow of the chant is dependant of the rhythms of the original text and that the transcendental nature of this distinctive Catholic music is lost in translation.
The responsorial psalm is usually sung at Mass as part of the Liturgy of the Word, in dialogue between a cantor and congregation. If a hymn or two is included at Mass, it should be chosen with reference to the appropriateness of the liturgical season, with a scriptural (or scripturally based) text and accompanied at a pitch and tempo designed to encourage singing. The Preparation of the Gifts is not usually an appropriate place for a hymn. A choir or instrumental piece is often used instead at this half way point in the Mass.