Tuesday, 4 July 2006

The Singing Priest

Here at Willesden (sadly not the church in the picture above!) the priest does quite a bit of singing at the main Mass - a minimum of sung Collect and Preface, and (if vocal chords are on form) the Eucharistic Prayer as well. Though I'm not a trained singer, I can normally manage it, unless I'm suffering from hayfever or a coarse throat. I learnt from my previous Parish Priest always to have a glass of water at hand when saying Mass - especially in this disgracefully hot weather.

But for many priests singing at Mass is a true ordeal. Nowadays most musically shy priests just don't sing, but in the pre-Conciliar days there was little you could do to escape singing if you were 'on' at High Mass or a Missa Cantata.

Mgr Ronald Knox used to say that a good time for a priest to drop dead would be while celebrating Mass, just before he is due to sing the Preface. I must look up the exact reference - I think it's in The Mass in Slow Motion.

A priest doesn't have to be Pavarotti in order to sing liturgically - it's not the performance that matters but rather the act of praise, the words rather than the notes. With this in mind, I stumbled across the following tribute to Bishop William Weathers, a Westminster Auxiliary (1872-95) and titular bishop of Amycla. They were written by Fr Philip Fletcher, founder of the Guild of Our Lady of Ransom (Pastoralia: A Monthly Journal for Priests, 30 June 1895, p124):
He had not a commanding presence, a rich voice, nor oratorical skills. Once I thought he had at least one of these characteristics. I was a simple-minded Anglican when I first began to take peeps into Catholic newspapers. I was struck by the frequency with which a certain Bishop of Amycla was chosen to sing High Mass on great occasions; and I jumped at the very ritualistic conclusion that he must be a grand singer, and was therefore selected to fit in well with the swell of the organ or the beauties of the Messe Solennelle. Those who love him best will hardly class him as a grand singer, and yet - in those later years, when that gentle voice began to quaver and falter as time began to tell, could any singing of the Sursum Corda and its old-word sequence of praise, touch you more tenderly than that of Dr Weathers? 'Will he get through it?' one used to fear. 'Will he reach the top notes all the way?' one used to wonder. He always did; and one felt when the Sanctus bell rang, that none, though he might have the voice of an Edward Lloyd, could better have ushered in the Trisagion of the Seraphim.

However, there are occasions when perhaps it's best for a priest not to sing:


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