The Saint John's Gradual - Saint John's Seminary
Celebrating 140 Years of Mission!  

The Saint John's Gradual

April 14, 2021

The assertion, “Those who sing pray twice,” is widely attributed to St. Augustine. However, in all the volumes of his works the Church has preserved, it’s not clear that he actually said it. I think one of the reasons this statement circulates is because it expresses an intuitive truth.

The Christian is called to communion with the God who created him or her. And as we lift our hearts and minds to Almighty God, it is fitting not only to add our voice as well, but to impart every beauty we can in our public communal prayer. God’s voice creates everything out of nothing; our voice in return can echo back the wonder of creation with the added beauty of music. It is fitting to render back unto God those gifts He has bestowed upon us.

In the experience of the early days of the Coronavirus pandemic, many Catholics were deprived of opportunities for the graces through the sacraments, especially with the cessation of public Mass. In my diocese, this covered much of the Lenten and Easter seasons in 2020, and even delayed my ordination to the Diaconate.

The return to public celebrations of the Mass was a cause of great joy, one that almost demanded music to accompany it. Unfortunately, the public health directives cautioned that singing might help spread the disease, and so diocesan guidelines limited us to a single cantor. Since social distancing also suggested avoiding altar servers, the natural thing for me to do is return to the friendly confines of the choir loft. And so I did.

At Mass, the choir is responsible for two distinct types of music. The first are the “ordinary” texts that never change (texts like the Gloria / Glory to God in the Highest, Sanctus / Holy Holy Holy and Agnus Dei / Lamb of God). The other texts are those that are particular — or “proper” — to the Mass being celebrated. These are the Entrance Antiphon, Responsorial Psalm (or Gradual), Gospel Acclamation (Alleluia or Tract), Offertory Antiphon, and Communion Antiphon. In most parishes, selections for the Responsorial Psalm and Gospel Acclamation are taken from the Lectionary. There are fewer publishers who make options from other sources of the proper antiphons (also known as just the “propers”) available.

At Saint John’s Seminary, we had a custom of singing for most of our Masses. This included adaptations for the ancient proper antiphons of the Mass preserved in the Graduale Romanum (see General Instruction of the Roman Missal, #48, #61, #62, #74, #87; cf. Pope St. Paul VI, Apostolic Constitution Missale Romanum). We would frequently sing the Entrance Antiphon from the St. Michael Hymnal, Seminary musical arrangements of the Responsorial Psalm and Gospel Acclamation from the Lectionary, and Offertory and Communion Antiphons from collections by Fr. Samuel Weber, OSB (Proper of the Mass) or Adam Bartlett (Simple English Propers). Occasionally, especially Sundays and for more solemn occasions, we would substitute hymns sung by the entire congregation or sacred anthems from our rich choral tradition sung by the Seminary schola alone.

Taking this history and adapting it to the pandemic in the parish, what were the options? Singing the responsorial psalm seemed contrary to its purpose, as the people were asked not to sing in response on account of the pandemic. The ancient Gradual Antiphon from the Graduale Romanum was a suitable alternative. There were three obstacles: the texts were in Latin, with which my parish’s congregation was not familiar; and their length was not suited to the liturgical action at a daily Mass in the typical parish; and their difficulty was hard to sustain singing for daily Mass.

There are 125 Gradual Antiphons in the Graduale Romanum. Neither collection of propers used by the Seminary set them. One English collection of propers did set the Graduals, but its source of English translations focused on major celebrations that could occur on a Sunday, so it only contained about 70 of them. Largely missing were those antiphons appointed for use daily in Lent or for those proper to the celebration of the saints. The other difficulty is that this set of propers used the same music for every single proper it contained, which is bound to get tedious over time.

A similar difficulty exists with the Alleluia verses in the Graduale Romanum that precede the Gospel. The Alleluia portion of these traditional chants are often quite beautiful and easy to sing, and pair nicely with the corresponding simple psalm tone for the verse.

The most recent translation of the propers appears to be directly approved by the predecessor organization to the USCCB for use in the transitional 1965 Roman Missal. A 1955 collection of simplified Latin chants of the propers was published in France (Chants Abrégés des Graduels, des Alleluias, et des Traits) and made available online through the work of the Church Music Association of America. This is the model for the work that has yet to be completed in English: Take the most difficult chants in the Church, and set them to easier-to-sing psalm tones, as granted by permission of the Vatican (S.C.R. no 3697), all arranged according to the current liturgical calendar.

It is a gift to have the opportunity to work with a willing pastor to begin the process of learning and then producing musical scores of Gregorian Chant to dignify the Masses in time of pandemic, and then further actually singing them for the sacred liturgy. By the time I moved to serve in the sanctuary as a newly ordained Deacon, cantors from the parish (with the support of its music director) have continued singing these propers on Sundays. Upon return to the seminary, this work gained a second venue.

Both the parish and the Seminary are under the patronage of St. John the Evangelist, and thus the work of the “Saint John’s Gradual” has begun. It is my hope it can be completed, endorsed, and published as an ongoing means to enrich the celebration of Holy Mass for edification of the people and for the greater glory of God.

By: Dcn. Steven Lewis
Diocese of Rochester