Tuesday, August 15


Purchasing a Parish Hymnal: Part I

One of the cornerstones of any good parish music program is the hymnal, or at least the sources from which congregational music is going to be drawn. Exactly how to do this is not always obvious, even for those looking to do the right thing and promote good music. There are so many hymnals, so many music companies, that the choice can seem overwhelming. With a nod to Aristotle Esguerra's Great Catholic Hymnal Replacement Debate of 2002, I set out here to provide some tips on how to start that process. We're going to presume for these purposes a fairly "normal" parish using the 1970 Missal, since indult parishes tend to have different musical needs, and also generally would be likely to have less internal disagreement about addressing them. The first thing to do, as a pastor, music director or parish council (probably all of the above, with the music director hopefully having the largest say, if not veto power) is to ask a few questions about the parish's needs.

1) What does the parish use music for? Is a hymnal necessary? This is a useful question, since frequency of music use is an important factor in terms of whether to buy a permanent hymnal. Caught up in this question is whether Sunday music comes out of the hymnal or out of a printed program/worship aid for each weekend (having a worship aid or at least publishing music information in the bulletin is important, at the very least as a guide, and one can have a part hymnal, part worship aid approach in order to increase repertoire by printing hymns on the sheet and yet keep weekly printing costs low by referencing the hymnal). Does the parish use music for daily Mass? If so, a permanent hymnal is probably a good idea. What sorts of choirs does the parish have? Are the choirs so different that they might require different books altogether? (Spanish Masses and Gospel choirs are a good example of groups that probably need their own book). Is the "contemporary" Mass, if it exists in the main church or a lower church/parish hall? Furthermore, does it use a "folk" style or more of a praise and worship/Christian rock style? (N.B. Don't take my mention of this as a personal endorsement, but rather as an acknowledgement that such pastoral situations legitimately exist and that such music can lead people closer to Christ, even if it is often less than ideal for liturgy). Can the parish afford to buy two or more books to fill different niches, or is budget a priority?

2) Is putting the Sunday readings in front of the congregation a priority? Again, opinions on this vary from place to place. For some, either way is effective, although those who do not supply the readings ought to emphasize good lectoring or the readings may be lost on the congregation altogether. If the answer to this question is "yes," then it's going to be necessary either to provide a permanent hymnal with the readings or a missalette.

3) The musical components of a hymnal. This is an important issue, and one that I think tends to get ignored somewhat. A Mass in the 1970 Missa Normativa is probably going to have three major musical components for the people in the pews (the sung propers, which I of course heartily endorse, being generally reserved to a choir or schola):
a) The Ordinary of the Mass (the Kyrie/Penitential Rite/Sprinking Rite, Gloria, Credo if you're lucky, Sanctus/Benedictus, and Agnus Dei)
b) The Responsorial Psalm (the set for the whole Church year generally being called "Lectionary Psalms") and Gospel Acclamation/Verse
c) Hymns, including proper hymns such as sequences
As we'll see, for a hymnal to ignore or deficiently deal with anyone of these is going to be a serious drawback, and will probably require further licensing and/or reprinting in order to provide the parish with an adequate repertoire.

4)How extensive is the parish choir program?
This question is important for several reasons, since it will affect how necessary some of the components listed above will be. For example, if a parish's life is centered around a solemn Mass with Ordinaries sung by the choir and anthems or the Propers instead of hymns at Offertory and Communion, reliance on the hymnal will be greatly reduced. Similarly in many such cases, a "house repertoire" of psalms and other service music often exists or builds up through the existence of a successful choir program.
On the other hand, a parish starting from scratch or building a choir program, or one too small to sustain such a program in terms of singers and/or budget, will need to rely much more on what is contained in the hymnal, especially since extra copying licenses may be too much of an expense in these cases.
A corollary to this question concerns the existence and maintenance of a parish organ. If a parish does not have an organ and does not anticipate acquiring a good one in the near future, this is not the death knell for a music program, but it does require certain concessions. A hymnal containing repertoire very much centered around the organ, especially elaborate organ parts, may not be a good idea for such a place - something more chant-based or allowing for a very unobtrusive piano to underlie singing may be a better choice.

As this series continues, I'll follow these questions through the other important issues of what's out there in print, who's making it, what the future holds and more. Commentary more than welcome.

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