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  • Writer's pictureChurch of St. Mark

The "Four Hymn" Sandwich

By Nathan Cicero

Music Director

Entrance hymn. Offertory hymn. Communion hymn. Recessional hymn.

Walk into any given Catholic church on a Sunday and you’ll likely hear some variation of the above. It is what we music directors somewhat pejoratively refer to as the “four-hymn sandwich,” the standard model of music for U.S. Catholic churches since Vatican II. Most may be surprised to learn, however, that the word “hymn” or “song” doesn’t even appear

in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM). In fact, the Church offers a wide variety of options singing during the Mass, and hymns are generally listed as the fourth (and the final!) option on this list: “another liturgical chant that is suited to the sacred action, the day, or the time of year…”

Liturgists debate whether this list is ranked in terms of preference, and the exact translation and meaning of “chant” leaves a bit of room for interpretation. But the Missal at least makes this clear: that there is a great deal of legitimate variety to be had when it comes to singing

at Mass.

For example, at any time we “normally” sing a hymn, the choir or cantor could sing alone, or sing in alternation with the congregation, as in a responsorial psalm. Although it’s become standard practice in most parishes, the Missal never actually mentions a closing or “recessional hymn.” Do I like singing a rousing hymn to accompany the priest out the door? Of course! Does it have to be done every weekend? No--a rousing organ piece might be a worthy substitute.

Perhaps some in the congregation would prefer to unite themselves interiorly with the liturgical action. A variety of music during the Mass--some in which the congregation sings, and some in which they do not--might invite those who prefer not to sing to participate in the Mass in their own way. (Although, for the record, you’re likely a better singer than you think you are, and singing at Mass is one of the best ways to participate in the liturgy!)

My music selection at St. Mark’s, sometimes regrettably, has generally conformed to this “four-hymn sandwich” model. It’s easy to plan, it’s familiar to the congregation, and it doesn’t challenge the status quo. But, according to our Parish’s mission statement, we are called to something higher than the status quo: to “reverent celebration of the sacred liturgy.” While hymn singing can be a reverent, prayerful, joyful experience (and an essential one I would argue) there are certainly other options to explore for singing at Mass, as well as singing the Mass, that can

awaken the congregation to the deeper realities of what is occurring at the Sacred Liturgy. It often seems to me that when we sing four, or even five songs per Mass, it diminishes the value of communal singing, and participation decreases with each subsequent hymn. I’d much rather have one or two well-known hymns sung heartily by all than five sung anemically.

So, don’t be surprised if you hear some more variety in musical options at St. Mark’s in the upcoming months. Perhaps in keeping with the food analogies (who doesn’t love food analogies?) we can move toward a “buffet” model of musical participation. Or is that too reminiscent of the less-desirable “cafeteria Catholicism?” Regardless of unintended similarities in the terms, the point remains: exercising the full variety of musical options available to us will lead to a deeper, more reverent, more worthy celebration of the Mass.

Each month, Music Director Nathan Cicero will use this column to

examine an aspect of music ministry at St. Mark’s.

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