Tinkering With the Texts of the Mass

Date: February 10, 2024
Author: Fr. Edward McNamara, LC

Question: I have questions related to an earlier column from January 2023. A youth ministry has successfully incorporated musical scores by noted authors for the entire Mass with the approval of the local bishop. However, these scores foresee the use of musical instruments during moments, such as the singing of the consecration, where the use of instruments is forbidden in the missal. Also, some of these scores are tied to the previous translation of the Roman Missal and have been mixed with the current texts; for example, singing the preface of the old translations and the rest of the Eucharistic Prayer from the new. Are these procedures correct? -- M.A.S., Philippines


Answer: To place the answer into context we must first note that we are dealing with texts from the ordinary of the Mass. Therefore, strictly speaking, the authority that can approve a text and music for liturgical use is not the individual diocesan bishop but the appropriate office of the national bishops’ conference.


Thus, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) clearly states:


“393. Bearing in mind the important place that singing has in a celebration as a necessary or integral part of the Liturgy, all musical settings of the texts for the people’s responses and acclamations in the Order of Mass and for special rites that occur in the course of the liturgical year must be submitted to the appropriate office of the Episcopal Conference for review and approval prior to publication. The Conference is likewise to judge which musical forms, melodies, and musical instruments may be admitted in divine worship, provided that these are truly suitable, or can be made suitable, for sacred use.”


In the case of countries that share a common liturgical text, as is the case of English, a local bishop could probably approve the use of a musical setting for the current translation which has already been approved by the bishops’ conference in which the text was first published.


Unfortunately, while the principles of who may approve a text are clear, in practice, not all bishops’ conferences have fully functioning offices to examine and approve proper texts. This may mean that texts and settings can sometimes slip through which do not correspond to sound liturgical criteria.


It must also be admitted that there is relatively little in the way of recent liturgical laws and guidelines regarding liturgical music both on the universal and national levels.


Among those who have produced policies and guidelines on liturgical music are the U.S. bishops’ conference office of liturgy and the Canadian bishops’ conference.


In 2005 the U.S. bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy (BCL) produced a policy statement, “Policy for Approval of Sung Settings of Liturgical Texts,” in Thirty-Five Years of the BCL Newsletter (Washington, DC: USCCB, 2004, 1527-1528):


“The USCCB Secretariat of Divine Worship has the mandate to review and approve musical settings of the people's parts in the Order of Mass (see General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 393). It reviews manuscripts for conformity to the liturgical texts, including their capitalization and punctuation. Minor repetitions in the text may be approved on a case-by-case basis, although substitutions, insertions, or re-arrangements of the text are not permitted. Depending on the number of other music settings and manuscripts that have been received, the review process can take six to eight weeks. In addition to the Secretariat's verification of the accuracy of the text before it can be used in the liturgy, manuscripts also require the permission of the copyright holder; when necessary, the Secretariat will refer the composer to the appropriate office, which is usually either the International Commission on English in the Liturgy or the USCCB permissions department.


“Musical settings of the Order of Mass must conform to the official text of the Roman Missal, and may contain any or all of the parts shown below. (Any musicians wishing to set other texts from the Order of Mass should contact the Secretariat to obtain the official text.)”


In 2007 the U.S. bishops voted their approval of “Sing to the Lord,” a set of guidelines that addressed many aspects of liturgical music. With respect to the ordinary of the Mass this document pointed out:


“E. Copyrights and Participation Aids


“105. Many published works are protected by national and international copyright laws, which are intended to ensure that composers, text writers, publishers, and their employees receive a fair return for their work. Churches and other institutions have a legal and moral obligation to seek proper permissions and to pay for reprinting of published works when required, even if copies are intended only for the use of the congregation.


“106. Many publishers provide licenses and other convenient ways for obtaining permission for reprinting texts and music for the use of a liturgical assembly. Pastors, directors of music ministries, and other pastoral musicians need to be informed about the legal requirements for copying printed and recorded music, and they should act with a sense of justice.


“107. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has delegated to the Committee on Divine Worship the responsibility of overseeing the publication of liturgical books that describe and guide the reformed rites developed in the years since the Second Vatican Council. In light of this responsibility, Guidelines for the Publication of Participation Aids has been developed for publishers of popular participation materials.


“108. Hymns, songs, and acclamations written for the liturgical assembly are approved for use in the Liturgy by the bishop of the diocese wherein they are published, in order to ensure that these texts truly express the faith of the Church with theological accuracy and are appropriate to the liturgical context.


“109. Composers who set liturgical texts to musical settings must respect the integrity of the approved text. Only with the approval of the USCCB Secretariat for Divine Worship may minor adaptations be made to approved liturgical texts .…


“182. It is likewise appropriate for priests to sing the entire Eucharistic Prayer, especially on solemn occasions. The chant setting provided in the Roman Missal or another composition approved by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops may be used. ‘While the Priest proclaims the Eucharistic Prayer “there should be no other prayers or singing, and the organ or other musical instruments should be silent,” except for the people’s acclamations.’”


The well-crafted guidelines of the Canadian bishops’ conference repeat the principle that the authority that approves the setting is at the level of the national conference. Its 2014 Guidelines for Composers of Liturgical Music says:


“Paraphrased Texts


“13 Paraphrases or versifications of the liturgical texts do not replace the approved texts of the Mass. Since the texts spoken or sung by the priest or assembly are ritual texts, they are never to be paraphrased.


“Adaptation of Texts


“14 Normally, texts are sung in their entirety without interruption. By way of exception, to facilitate participation, refrains or acclamations for the assembly, based on the existing text, may be added. For example, the Gloria and Creed may be set in this way. With the exception of ‘O’ (e.g. ‘O Lord’), no additions to the text are permitted. The repetition of words and phrases within a particular text is permissible, but it should neither unduly prolong the setting nor affect the structure or meaning of the text ….


“Eucharistic Prayer – Complete Setting


“29 The Roman Missal provides complete chant settings for Eucharistic Prayers I-IV. Though composers are free to provide alternate unaccompanied chant settings of these prayers, comparable to those in the Missal, care should be taken to respect the structure of the particular text. As with settings of scripture readings, the text should have primacy over the musical expression. In general, musical accompaniment is not permitted during the singing of the Eucharistic Prayer. However, a careful and minimal use of accompaniment to assist the presider in maintaining pitch may be necessary. New settings must be accessible to average presiders. Refer to the Roman Missal chant settings as models. These employ a simple tone which unifies the entire Eucharistic Prayer, with some variation for the Institution Narrative.”


Although the above documents would only be binding for the nations involved, they reflect sound liturgical principles and are based on universal documents and instructions.


This can help us to address some of the detailed questions posed by our reader.


The official texts of the ordinary of the Mass must be respected as they are. Except when the rubrics say to use “these or similar words” the official texts must be used in all circumstances.


Hence, there can be no mixing of the older translations with the new, nor may any personal modification of the current translations take place.


With respect to music composed for earlier translations, these may be adapted to the new texts by competent musicians. Legal advice should be obtained as to when permission is required from copyright holders to make these changes.


Some have argued that the older settings may be used because the old translation was not abrogated or invalidated, just improved with a newer and "better" translation.


This is not good liturgical reasoning. When a text is replaced by a newer text, then the Church’s intention is to replace it in public worship. The older text no longer represents the Church’s current public worship, which the priest is obliged to offer the faithful.


It is true that the older text is not invalidated. That is, should a priest find himself in an emergency in which the only translation available was the old one, he could use it in good conscience. But he should not do so deliberately.


Any minor adaptations to a liturgical text to facilitate singing, such as adding a refrain to the Gloria, must receive the approval of the respective bishops’ conference.


No changes may be made to the order of the prayers or acclamations. Even if a musical setting foresees such a change, those in charge of the celebration must make the necessary musical adaptations to respect the order of the Mass.


Our reader offered an example of a “minor” adaptation of the Our Father. Following the general criteria, and especially in such an important text as the Lord’s prayer, no modification must ever be made.


This text also added, "The kingdom, and the power, the glory are Yours forever, forever and ever. AMEN" to the text of the Our Father. While this form is in use among some Eastern Christians and Protestants, the Missal, in accordance with the Latin liturgical tradition, quite deliberately places this expression after the prayer “Deliver us Lord from every evil ….” This point was the subject of serious debate by English-speaking bishops’ conferences before deciding in the end to maintain the older translation and the separation of this concluding doxology.


Since there are plenty of chants that fit the approved text, I would say that if a chant requires a change to the Our Father in order to be sung, then it must be substituted for another.


With respect to singing the Eucharistic Prayer: This can be done but it should be without instrumental accompaniment except for that minimum needed for the celebrant to maintain the pitch.


Instruments may be used to support the people’s singing of the memorial acclamation and the great Amen.


The fact that renowned composers have produced Masses that foresee the use of instrumental music does not mean that they may be used liturgically. As we have seen from the above documents it is highly unlikely that an instrumental setting for the singing of the Eucharistic Prayer would have received approval from a bishops’ conference whose official documents repeat the law from the GIRM that no instruments may be used.


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Readers may send questions to Please put the word "Liturgy" in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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