ASK FATHER: Palm Sunday singing of Passion was long!

From a  reader…

I attend the extraordinary form of the Mass every 6-8 weeks. I’d attend more frequently, but my wife isn’t there yet. So I have a general appreciation for the usus antiquior.

That being said, at the Palm Sunday Mass I was struck by the reading of the Passion. The priest and two deacons chanted it. Slowly. In Latin of course. Facing north (toward a “choir” of altar servers). [No, they weren’t facing the servers except secondarily.] And it was inaudible to nearly everyone in the Church, so even if you could understand Latin (I can, enough), you couldn’t follow along because you couldn’t hear it. I read the Passion in my hand Missal, but the chanting was so slow that I had to wait another 20 minutes (NO exaggeration) for them to finish.  [What’s your hurry?]

So, what’s the point? I’m usually all about the older forms, but this just seemed downright silly to me. [?] Any thoughts on how chanting the Passion inaudibly in Latin toward the wall for nearly half and hour is a good thing? Perhaps this is a case where the liturgical reform was an unqualified improvement?

There are several issues to address.

First, that the chant was “inaudible” is an aberration.  Text is sung in sacred liturgy so that it can be more easily heard and so that the importance of the text can be underscored.  If at your Mass they were singing very softly… well… maybe they are timid.  That, however, isn’t the normal practice, as is the case at times with the Last Gospel.  The Passion wasn’t supposed to be “inaudible”.  Hence, there was either a flaw in their delivery or a flaw in your hearing… or maybe you were in an acoustical dead spot (churches have them).

It took an additional 20 minutes.  So?  I did a recording of all three parts of the Matthew Passion and it is posted on this blog.  It clips right along and it takes about 30 minutes.  So, what you heard is just about right.  That’s how long it takes, more or less.  The question to be asked is perhaps similar to the one Our Lord asked of His apostles in the garden, which you read yesterday: “What! Could you not watch one hour with me? Watch ye, and pray that ye enter not into temptation.”  On Palm Sunday we enter into the most important time of the Church’s liturgical year.  It is fitting that we hear the whole Passion on Palm Sunday.  Let’s not be in too much of a hurry.

The Passion was sung to the liturgical “north”, as you point out, which is a symbol of proclaiming the Gospel to the places where the light from the liturgical “east” has not yet penetrated.

“Silly”, you say?   Many who experience the older, traditional form are conditioned by the Novus Ordo to have everything immediately apprehensible without effort, swift, paired down, unchallenging.  They come to the traditional rites and they are conditioned to expect the same.  Not only that, we are people of our age, in which we have little screens and time savers.  Everything is NOW! NOW!! NOW!!!

“Unqualified improvement”?  No.  What you experienced was not as it should have been.

So, I reject the premises you offered.

There are hard elements of the older, traditional Rite which are necessary for establishing the grounds for an encounter with mystery.  The kneeling for long periods, staying still, not being able to see or hear everything… these are necessary elements in worship of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans.  When people chaff against these hard elements – understandable at first – their minds turn to distractions.  In a way, a parallel is found in kids, who have a hard time staying still for more than about 5 seconds.  That’s just the way they are.  But they eventually stop being wiggleworms and grow up.  Similarly, it takes some conditioning to shed distractions, to be still.  That’s really hard for us, in this age of convenience and immediate satisfaction.

As a matter of fact, at our Masses we have a lot of children who can stand still for the whole Passion and not fidget.

That said, it is possible that those who celebrate the older forms have learned a few good elements for our ars celebrandi from the “days (decades) in the wilderness”.   A greater awareness on the part of the sacred ministers that the are people out there is positive.  I take that as an element of the mutual enrichment that would naturally take place between the two forms.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Nathan says:

    Well said, Father. Perhaps I can add, as has been said many times on this blog before, that so many of the liturgical changes associated with the Novus Ordo were intentionally designed to bring God down to man, rather than lifting man to God (the intention in the organic development of the TLM). Most of us are accustomed to the former, which makes learning to worship Almighty God in the context of the TLM a long, sometimes uncomfortable process.

    Yesterday I went to both a Novus Ordo and TLM Holy Mass for Palm Sunday (ah, circumstances!), both done reverently and according to the rubrics. It stood out to me that the recitation of St Matthew’s Passion in the vernacular, with laypeople taking two of the parts and all facing the congregation, comes across as didactic in nature–the primary purpose seems to be the instruction of the Faithful, with offering it to God being secondary. That’s not a bad thing, but the TLM recitation of the Passion, in Latin and for 20-30 minutes, struck me first as offered to Almighty God, with a salutary second benefit of being edifying to the Faithful.

    Perhaps that’s becoming my issue now with the Novus Ordo. Even at its best, it does not offer to Almighty God the quality of worship that the TLM (or any of the ancient rites, particularly the Eastern Rites) does because it explicitly lowers the liturgy to man’s level in its praxis. As a matter of justice (under which I believe St Thomas Aquinas placed the virtue of religion), I am coming more and more to the conclusion is that the TLM is what we owe God.

    In Christ,

  2. frmh says:

    Yesterday I chanted the passion on monotone. It was the first year we tried a cantata and the schola had enough to learn. I made the English text available if people wanted it. I have no idea how long it took. I moved at a good pace.

  3. Imrahil says:

    It is true that in reading inaudibly we are very quick, without necessarily hurrying.

    What does seem downright, for not twas o say silly: inconclusive, to me, is when you stand for the Gospel the whole year, and then in the NO, for the most important Gospel or arguably the second most important one after the Resurrection Gospel, you sit most of the time, and in six cases out of ten someone mixes up the “get up” rubric, and you fall immediately on your knee for Christ’s death after sitting.

    There’s something interesting what happens when a couple of recruits solemnly pledge their allegiance to the flag. The whole company marches into a field where they have a place. Then the troop-color is escorted in their, while all remain standing and the Presenting March is played. After this, the bataillon’s march is played. After this, there’s a speech by one politician from around, and a speech by the commander. After this, another march is played. After this, there is maybe yet another speech, and after this, another march is played. After this, there is the actual pledge, and after this, the National Anthem is played. And through all these speeches and marches, the soldiers just stand there and nothing happens. It wasn’t a real pledge ceremony if not at least one soldier faints in the process. (Indeed, the verb “to stand” is used in the same manner as “to serve” for the military service.)

    At least one purpose of our hearing the Gospel is not that we get to know it; hopefully we don’t need to; but to give appropriate honor to His sacrifice. Standing an uncomfortable long time while his sacrifice is recounted seems a rather excellent manner of doing so; especially if it is at least somewhat uncomfortable. While it would have been better if the inquirer had heard the Passion, it seems that for the faithful attenders extra functionem, standing for some 25 minutes while there is sung what they know is the Passion is actually the chief part they have to play.

  4. Huber says:

    The High Mass yesterday at my parish ran about 2 and a half hours. It was wonderful. I admit I fidgeted against discomfort standing during the singing of the Passion, but I also had plenty of time to stop and meditate on certain parts that caught in my mind.

    Lately I always compare any present discomfort to a lesson I got a couple years ago on the Scala Sancta on a hot/humid Roman summer. I went to go up the Scala Sancta on my knees and ended up behind the most pious phalanx of nuns on God’s earth. I got to the top, soaking wet and barely able to stand, to find my wife waiting for me. She had attended a whole Mass in the chapel at the top in the hour I was on the stairs. My knees, to this day are not the same, but neither is the rest of me. I often tell my wife that my purgation will almost certainly be having to slowly climb hard and uneven wood-covered stairs in hellish heat.

    Perhaps we’re not supposed to feel comfortable at hearing Our Lord’s Passion. Perhaps Mother Church in Her great wisdom wants us to be physically discomforted at times to get the tiniest of glimpses so that we maybe can understand the cosmic scope of what Our Lord suffered for us.

  5. Ben Yanke says:

    Rejecting the core premises of arguments like these are really the only way to go.

    “What’s the point? We can’t hear it? We can’t understand it?”
    Reject the premise: the primary purposes is not for you to hear/understand it. It’s an act of worship. Those are secondary goods if you can, but not the primary purpose.

  6. Geoffrey says:

    Here is the solemn chanting of the Passion according to St John at the Vatican Basilica one Good Friday during the pontificate of Benedict XVI:

    It seems to move right along and takes 30 minutes. And of course, this is the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite!

  7. Mike says:

    The TLM I went to yesterday had a procession out of and back into the Church–which worked ok, but the mid-point of the procession back didn’t get to see or hear the choir–and the celebrant read the Passion in a clear, loud enough voice for all of us to hear. No homily. Which wasn’t bad, since so much of the liturgy “spoke” without…ah, words, words, words, necessary but often the bane of NO liturgies, in my opinion.

  8. APX says:

    I can empathize with the questioner, but I also understand what you’re saying. Every year I look forward to Palm Sunday, but dread the Gospel because the delivery gives me something to offer up and better unite myself with the Passion. I wish there was a way to improve the delivery of it. I finally got my dad to come to the Latin Mass yesterday and he had similar feelings. He also pointed out that for people who want to do things the way they were prior to Vatican II, Traditionalists aren’t doing how it was before (only Easter and Christmas were customarily sung Masses and palms weren’t distributed individually at the communion rail, but taken on the way in and blessed while being held).

    [That’s how he remembered it from where he grew up, I’m sure. There are options for the blessing of Palms. They can be distributed or they can be held. We had people hold them, to save time, since we had only 1.5 hours before the next Mass. However, don’t allow people to make judgments about the older rite because when they see it now it isn’t like the way old Fr. Sven O’Brien did it at St. Swithan by the Slough and they followed in their St. Joseph Hand Missal 60 years ago.]

  9. Jack in NH says:

    Yes, it is long, and worth every minute. Our Solemn High Mass was also about 2.5 hours, including the reading and the procession around a couple blocks. Priests and singing choir leading the way.
    Outstanding in all regards.
    I believe you’re correct, Father- the NO has conditioned people to get ‘er done, fast. [Not just the NO, but all of busy modern life as well.
    Although it seems to some that the NO was a reform intended to adapt to the busy modern world.]

  10. chantgirl says:

    I read the English version of the Passion yesterday while the priests were chanting, and was also probably done about 20 min before them. After reading the Passion in English, I made a mental note of a word in the Latin text that I could easily find if I heard it chanted- Barabbas- and waited til I heard the priest chant it. Then I knew exactly where the priests were and was able to follow the Latin with them until the end.

    Jesus hung on the cross for us for about 3 hours. This was after an exhausting night of no sleep, terror, heartbreak, interrogation, torture, drastic blood loss, and a trek up a steep hill bearing a heavy cross upon a shoulder and back which was one open wound. If we really do Holy week right, we should be exhausted by Saturday night and the victory on Sunday is all the more sweet. Holy week in the EF is a sort of Catholic boot camp, and a way to participate in the Passion of Christ.

  11. Phil_NL says:

    And don’t forget that the length – at least in this case – has very little to do with NO / EF; in the NO it also easily lasts 15 minutes or longer. Palm Sunday masses tend to take anywhere between 20 minutes and an hour longer at any parish I’ve attended them.

    One can debate if inaudible singing is on par with inaudible or poorly articulated speech, or worse. But look on the bright side: in the coming days you’ll get another shot at just about the entire contents.

  12. NomenDeiAdmirabileEst says:

    I went to Mass in the Ordinary Form yesterday Morning. In all it lasted 90 minutes, which at my OF parish isn’t that much longer than normal. Afterward I headed over to my other parish (I’m registered in two parishes), which is cared for by the FSSP. When I arrived, Mass had already been going on for nearly two hours (I had intended to crash coffee and donuts, you know, to contribute to the building up of the community there). I came in during the Gospel. in the end, Mass was almost three hours long.

  13. AMS says:

    Jack in NH and I attend the same parish*. Since my dad is elderly and wouldn’t be able to assist at a long Mass and procession, I decided to take him to St. Benedict’s Abbey, which has a Latin NO Mass. We had a procession and the Passion was chanted in Latin. Mass took about 2 hours. After many years of short 45 minute Masses, I have to admit I much prefer a longer Mass.

    * Jack, I don’t know if you were the one who first posted here about the FSSP parish starting in NH but if that was you, thank you! I don’t think I would have learned of the parish otherwise, and it has been a blessing.

  14. gsk says:

    Ok, a fence-sitter here, but one who sympathises deeply with your correspondent. He said he couldn’t hear the Gospel, and you said two contradictory things:

    1. “It is fitting that we hear the whole Passion on Palm Sunday. Let’s not be in too much of a hurry.”
    2. “The kneeling for long periods, staying still, not being able to see or hear everything… these are necessary elements in worship of the mysterium tremendum et fascinans.”

    In all fairness, the correspondent didn’t complain about the time, [Read it again.] but the inability to hear. He is not one of the impatient modernists who want the meat puréed and spoon-fed, but a man who has invested deeply into the mysterium qua mysterium. [When I respond to people – on my blog – I am aware of a wide readership.] And you yourself say that not only should we hear the whole Passion, but that the very chanting ought to facilitate understanding. But then you say not seeing/hearing is necessary. It’s arguments like these that make me grateful for the readings in the vernacular (hoping only with great fervour that the altar is reoriented in the NO). [Nice try.]

  15. Ave Crux says:

    Oh my goodness, dear Reader…..Our Lord Jesus Christ hung on the Cross for three (3!) long hours slowly suffocating to death and you whine about standing to honor his Passion and Death for you for a mere 20 minutes?

    How many people stand 5 times that long at a rock concert or to buy an iPhone?

    Did you watch the military men who stood for longer than that in the rain at the Inauguration to honor an earthly President, or the soldiers who stand guard in all kinds of weather at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier….all of them honoring mere mortals?

    It’s one thing to suffer it interiorly; it’s another thing to go so far as to actually complain about it.

    Dear God, please help and forgive us! We’ve become a race of wimps and snowflakes….come soon…..please.

  16. wolfeken says:

    I’m guessing the reader is Irish.

  17. Sword40 says:

    We were Blessed to have a Solemn High Mass yesterday (Palm Sunday). I had forgotten about the vestment color change after the Blessing of the Palms and Procession. (Red to Violet).

    The Gospel of the Passion was sung in Latin and VERY audible. Most of us were able to follow along quite easily. Some of the children got a little noisy but Hey, they are the future of the Church. Our Mass ended right at noon so we sung the Angelus in Latin. Beautiful!!!!!

  18. Marion Ancilla Mariae says:

    Well, some of us have fibromyalgia or arthritis (or both). We may look OK, and may appear to be moving OK, but inwardly, we are stiff and sore almost all of the time. And it’s discouraging, too, to hear one’s knees, hips, ankles, or shoulders rattling like castanets when we move them. At any given moment, at least two muscles / joints are signalling to the brain a low-level: “ow-ow-ow-ow-OW!” And it just goes on and on . . . and on, without let up, without relief. Until bedtime. (Bedtime can become the highlight of our day!)

    We’ve learned to more or less ignore all this, unless it gets really bad. There’s an old Grateful Dead song in which the lyricist characterizes his nutritional intake as: “living on reds, vitamin C, and cocaine!” Well, those of us with fibro and / or arthritis are “living on Aspirin, Tylenol, and Advil!” because so many parts of us hurt. And if we stand or kneel for a long time, what happens is that the joints stiffen up, and as the stiffening progresses, the joint begins to feel almost as if it has been immersed in freezing water. Which, as you know, if you have immersed part of yourself in freezing water for a while, really, really hurts . . . to the point of torture. To the point of not being able to walk at all when one tries to move. To the point of not being able to focus on the readings and the prayers, but instead to have to concentrate on not wincing or groaning. Which, I submit, is not the point of attending Mass.

    If you see someone sitting or kneel-sitting during any Mass, please, won’t you assume that they are doing so in order to enable themselves to concentrate on the readings and the prayers, because the correct posture(s) would be true torture for them? Thanks for your consideration.

  19. When I emceed for a TLM at a diocesan parish for years, it was disheartening to notice people actually get up and leave during the reading of the Passion. I wouldn’t mind if the Epistle and Gospel were licitly chanted in a suitable vernacular at some point in the future (if nothing else in the Mass), but until then, the use of a hand missal to follow along wouldn’t be too inconvenient.

  20. joekstl says:

    Wow! I agree with Fr. Z! Passion Sunday is the beginning of the holiest week in our liturgical cycle. We need to spend the time in prayerful worship. This year as our pastor read the Matthew Passion he stopped three times and our congregation sang the appropriate verses from the African-American hymn “Were you there when…..”. [NOOOO! FAIL!] This extended our Mass to over 90 minutes and no one complained. And we do this every year.

  21. Chris Garton-Zavesky says:

    To the original questioner, I would ask the following: what is the purpose of liturgy? It’s not to instruct, although it does that, and it’s not to impress the congregation, who aren’t the primary audience; rather, it is to please God by rightly worshipping Him. Therefore, nothing should be done in a slipshod or hurried fashion, but neither should any portion be needlessly prolonged. Chants should (reasonably) be audible, because singing inaudibly defeats the purpose of singing, so that is a portion of the praxis which should be addressed in this situation, not a fault in the rite itself. If you are blessed with reasonably musical priests, as I have been for all 8 years here, following the Gospel and Epistle is as easy as listening to the cadence of the chanting.

    While I am saddened to hear that the Passion was chanted nearly inaudibly, I implore the questioner to understand what should have happened.

    Now, as to the “wasn’t done that way in the 1950s” argument… our goal as Catholics isn’t to recapture our own childhood memories, or to isolate the 1950s in amber or any such thing. Rather, it is to worship God and be transformed by the liturgy (including the Divine Office), and to enter into eternity in the here and now.

  22. Henry Edwards says:

    It’s good to emphasize–as Nathan reminded us well at the top of this thread–that the Epistle and Gospel are not chanted in the TLM primarily for the edification or elucidation of the faithful, but rather for the glorification of God in His own revealed words of Holy Scripture. Thus the main purpose of the chanted scriptural readings is liturgical rather than didactic. Hence I prefer personally that Holy Mass not be interrupted for vernacular readings or commentary (as our Sacred Triduum Masses here this year will not be). And can’t most or all of those who wish to follow the readings can read the vernacular in their hand missals or propers leaflets while the Latin texts are chanted?

  23. gloriainexcelsis says:

    We are a small parish with one priest. God bless him. He chanted the whole Passion of Matthew, even changing his voice tone for the parts. Having once been in a large parish with three priests, Solemn High Mass with three chanting voices, I was pleasantly surprised at his effort – which was good! He has a fine voice, so we are blessed. I can’t wait for the Solemn Liturgy of Good Friday. St. John’s Passion, at the end, always moves me to tears for the beauty of it.

  24. gloriainexcelsis says:

    Just a p.s. Our parish is FSSP, traditional all the way.

  25. Stephen Matthew says:

    I attended an ordinary form mass, and frankly I just wanted the passion reading to be over sooner, too. I could hear it just fine, but it was proclaimed without any excellence, and the sound system was doing something funny in the section I was sitting in. I ended up just stairing at the floor and hoping it would end soon. It has been many years since the proclamation of the Passion was in any way edifying, and I can’t imagine it would have been any improvement to hear it the way the OP did, either.

    Can we please just manage at least competence in liturgy? Excellence is obviously not on the table, but must every liturgy in either form be a goof up of one form or another? Liturgy is increasingly unedifying to me, and Holy Week becomes a sort of perfect storm of everything that is wrong with liturgy. I find more and more that I do not pray at mass, I just hope to survive it. The same is true be it at my ordinary form home parish or the local extraordinary form.

  26. truthfinder says:

    I had mis-remembered how long it had taken in the past to chant the Gospel – thought it was usually 40 minutes, so was surprised when it was 20. The narrator started out loud, and somehow, after 20 minutes got louder. Mass was 2 hours in total – but there wasn’t the distribution of the palms, except to the servers, and fortunately, other priests come out for the distribution of communion. Even in the OF, I would be completely thrown off if the Mass were less than 1.5 hours, and typically 2-3.

  27. joekstl says:

    I expected the FAIL. However, there comes a point, especially with our growing African-American congregation that we need to beyond a Pharisee/Saducee emphasis on the letter of the law.

    [“Pharisee/Saducee emphasis on the letter of the law” Okay. That’s it. You are just being insulting. CU.]

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