Sebastian Temple’s “Prayer of St. Francis”

This weekend, we hear readings from Scripture that scream “peace,” “forgiveness,” and “mercy.” We hear these themes in our First Reading from Leviticus, our Responsorial Psalm, our Second Reading from Corinthians, an elusion to this in the Gospel Acclamation verse, and Matthew’s Gospel.

That is why our musical selections, from the prescribed antiphons to the hymns chosen by me, this weekend reflect these themes. As I’ve written previously, the music we sing at Mass is not, and should not, be the favorites of the pastor, music director, or parish. The lyrics are not always going to “lift” our moods. Like the readings and homily, the lyrics sometimes require us to meditate on our lives, faith, and spirituality – in ways that challenge us.

Our opening hymn is St. Francis’ Prayer for Peace. As you can imagine, just like the Ave Maria or the Magnificat, there are a lot of musical settings. The one that we are most familiar with, and the one that we sing this weekend, is by Sebastian Temple.

Mr. Temple was one of the most influential composers of the era immediately after Vatican II. To put things in context, before Vatican II, there was no option to celebrate the Mass in the local language – all Masses were celebrated in Latin. While Vatican II never intended to do away with Latin in the way that we have now become accustomed to, it did present a significant challenge: What music will we sing? As you can imagine, it takes a long time to create a catalog of solid music that is theologically sound and singable. (It’s only now, about fifty years later, that the Church is finally settling on musical selections, having eliminated many of the pieces of music that included questionable to schismatic/heretical lyrics or were musically too challenging with difficult rhythms, great range of pitch, and in keys too high for people sing.)

Sebastian Temple grew up in South Africa and settled in Los Angeles in 1958. As a convert to the Catholic faith, he was drawn to Franciscan spirituality. His most remembered piece is our opening hymn this weekend. The universal nature of St. Francis’ prayer resonates with Catholics and non-Catholics alike. This was one of the pieces sung at Princess Diana’s (an Anglican) funeral. Our offertory hymn, using the same melody as the Tantum Ergo, follows the same pattern as Lord of All Nations, Grant Me Grace, which we sang at the offertory over the past two weeks. It’s a call for peace, forgiveness, and mercy. The final verse begins, “You, creator God, have written Your great name on humankind,” which is a poignant text that directly correlates to our Second Reading and Gospel Acclamation verse.

At communion, we sing Bread of Life from Heaven. This is the only Argentinian song in our parish’s repertoire and is regularly published in American Catholic hymnals. With our Supreme Pontiff, His Holiness Pope Francis, coming from Argentina, this hymn has a unique and special connection. It represents the truly universal nature of the Catholic Church and the Eucharist. We close out our weekend singing Alleluia! Sing to Jesus. This will be the last time we sing or say Alleluia in the church until the Easter Vigil, just under two months from today.

The antiphons that we sing this weekend are English translations from the Graduale and represent the same texts that Catholics have sung for over 1600 years. The Church prescribes these, and like the readings and Responsorial Psalm, can’t be changed by an eager church musician (unfortunately, this is all too often the case).

The Introit this weekend is “I have placed my trust in your merciful love.” Again, there’s the mercy theme. At the offertory, we will sing, “Hearken to the voice of my prayer,” and at Communion, “I will tell of all your wondrous deeds.” The antiphons, based on Sacred Scripture and their verses from the Book of Psalms, connect us to nearly every Catholic that has come before us and those around the globe. This is why the Church, in the Roman Missal, prescribes antiphones as three of the four options we sing at the opening, offertory, and Communion as antiphons. The last choice, “other suitable hymn,” is now what most Catholics in the United States hear. This means the average Catholic attending Mass is exposed to only about 80 or so Psalms. (If you think about it, those who attend Christmas, Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, and Easter only hear four different Psalms.)

As we end this season of Ordinary Time, join us in lifting your voices to God in sung prayer. If you are like me and do not fancy yourself a singer (there’s a reason why my mom signed me up for organ lessons), join us in praying and meditating on the music that we are singing during Mass: Your prayers and meditations are just as valuable and valid!