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CNP Feedback -
Can I Use Organ Music during Lent?

Q. Dear CNP:

As far as I know, nobody in my diocese, including the cathedral parish, obeys the directive that the organ be silent during Lent. Neither have I, but this bothers me greatly. Any suggestions besides "Shut up and eat your peas"?

P. Eetter

A. Dear Mr. Eetter:

First, the organ need not be silent during Lent, it just can't be heard alone [e.g. playing a prelude or a communion piece].

But, the directive could not be clearer or more available. Near the front of the new Roman Missal, immediately prior to the section containing the prayers for the Season of Lent, there are four general rubrical statements, numbered one to four. Number 4 says:

4. During Lent it is not permitted to decorate the altar with flowers, and the use of musical instruments is allowed only so as to support the singing. Nevertheless, Laetare Sunday (the Fourth Sunday of Lent), Solemnities, and Feasts are exceptions to this rule.

It's printed there [in red] for everyone to see, and it calls itself a rule, not a suggestion. In essence what this means, in "normal" talk, is that the organ (or any other musical instrument) may not be heard alone. We may only use the organ (or any other musical instrument) if it is accompanying singing — like for congregational responses or for choir anthems. Incidentally, this also bans the "lovely flute piece" that Cindy Sue always plays during the distribution of ashes.

This is indeed radical, since you and I and the rest of the Catholic world in the U.S. have probably grown up never experiencing this. For decades we also ignored the rubric about bowing in the middle of the Creed. Parishes are just now "discovering" that one. One of our missions here at CNP is liturgical education. If people, including bishops, are made aware of the rubric against Lenten organ music, perhaps it will more likely be respected.

OK — so it's the rule. Should a bishop, can a bishop, not simply "dispense" the organist from it? Simply put, no. The GIRM (the introductory material and rubrics at the front of the Missal) lists at #390 what adaptations Bishops and Bishops' Conferences can make to the Roman Missal. For example, it is well within the authority of the USCCB to establish bodily posture for every part of the Mass. The manner of receiving Communion, the form of the gesture of peace, how chalices are made, and other liturgical details can be controlled by the bishops. Other than what's listed in #390, the texts and rubrics of the Mass may not be changed, even by a bishop or bishops' conference — at least not without approval (recognitio) of the Vatican. No "indult" has been requested or granted about using solo organ music during Lent.

Well, you might ponder, compared to regulating our gestures at Mass and how we receive the Holy Eucharist, isn't this a minor, petty thing? Perhaps … but if playing or not playing solo organ music is not that important, then for heaven's sake, just follow the rule and debate the more important issues that are being ignored [like churches built without kneelers, or clay and glass chalices, or unworthy receptions of Communion].

Pastors, perhaps even bishops, might invoke the ubiquitous "pastoral prerogative" and allow solo organ music during Lent. I would expect, if this be done, that a very compelling argument be put forward by the priest or bishop as to why hearing solo organ music during Lent [in direct contradiction to universal law] is so vitally important to the immortal souls of the faithful. If no such case can be made, then no exemption should be granted — nor is one necessary.

You mentioned in your question that "everybody's doing it" — which is perhaps a very juvenile and certainly uncompelling reason for one's own action. As might be obvious on reflection, just because Mr. A. Olian Schinner at the next church is pumping out the Lenten preludes doesn't mean I need to. I've never seen, nor can I really imagine, a diocesan Office of Worship publishing a mandate that organists must play preludes and postludes during Lent. I have heard of pastors who mention to the organist that they would prefer to always have [even during Lent] an organ prelude … to help keep the congregation quiet. This seems to me the ultimate cop-out. If a pastor's congregation is talking in church before the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, then he needs to address this lack of respect himself, and not use Band-aids (or "Organ-aids") to cover up the offense. If my pastor asked me to do this, I would make every effort to politely refuse, with the argument that he was asking me to violate my conscience. Since I know it's wrong to do this [even if he doesn't], he is perhaps being sinful [or at least a "near occasion of sin"] in asking me to do that. Whether I do so, if he insists, may ultimately depend on how much I love (or need) this job.

Suppose I do decide to put my conscience on hold, for the sake of the paycheck and my family's welfare, are there options open to me? Of course! Father Roman Schoffer might insist that I play a prelude every week, but he's not going to come up to the loft and put my music on the console — he really won't overstep that far and tell me exactly what to play. So I choose something that least offends my conscience. I can play through a Lenten chant [maybe "Ave verum"] quietly, once, in unison. Or perhaps a soothing Lenten hymn ["What Wondrous Love"]. I can be a minimalist. Even better, since I've got a voice, particularly if I have a spouse or offspring with a voice, I can do some chanting as the prelude. Why not sing the Introit — great, if I can sing it in Latin from the Graduale Romanum — great, too, in English from Simple English Propers. If that's too hard, I can get a copy or two of CNP's Mass Propers for Lent — they're downright simple to sing.

If a postlude is "required" during Lent, no reason it can't be just another quiet verse of the Closing Hymn.

Until our clergy are brought up to date on these rubrics — and really until they understand and accept the premise behind the rubrics — there still are ways to make our music sound like Lent. And isn't that just what the Church is looking for in the first place!

Other CNP articles on this topic:

Gary Penkala
CanticaNOVA Publications
Article written 25 January 2013

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