The Great Amen

I badly need to get back to my grading. I still have 23 exams to go before tomorrow, and I have RCIA in four hours — but allow me to nerd for a few minutes about liturgy. I don’t know much about liturgy. I had no liturgical background at all where I’m coming from. So I’m fascinated to learn about it and love it oh-so-much.

A few weeks ago, our diocese undertook new musical settings of several sections of the Mass, to begin our transition to the new English translation of the Roman Missal this Advent. I haven’t wanted to criticize it, not wanting to be a complainer, not feeling it was my place (being, as I am, yet a foreigner), wanting to be obedient to my bishop, and being eternally grateful to be a part of the Mass at all — but today I decided to post about it, and came home to google something.

I was looking for the quote from St. Jerome that Scott Hahn refers to in The Lamb’s Supper: “Our ‘Amen!’ here should be resounding; it is traditionally called the ‘The Great Amen.’ In the fourth century, St. Jerome reported that, in Rome, when the Great Amen was proclaimed, all the pagan temples trembled” (54-55).

Pope Benedict at Mass

Pope Benedict at Mass.

The “Great Amen” has always been one of my favorite parts of the Mass. We used to chant it simply, but vociferously; it seemed so guttural, so desperate, so hungry — as if this were the moment in the Mass we had all been waiting for; as if we were crying out in our need for Christ, and finally He was arriving. Scott’s quote from St. Jerome underscored everything I was feeling: when we cry our “Amen,” every fortress of the Enemy shakes. It resonated with my evangelical roots: I wanted to shout “Amen!” to the coming of my Lord in the Eucharist.

In the new Mass settings, they have us singing the “Great Amen” — and well, it feels wimpy. Not only do we pause a few seconds after the final doxology for our cantor and organist to get on cue, thus losing the urgency of the moment; but the music itself is neither forceful nor resounding.

Imagine my surprise to learn that there’s apparently no such thing as the “Great Amen” at all.

According to these good folks at the MusicaSacra forum (which is awesome, and I’m glad to have discovered it), the “Great Amen” being sung is a newfangled addition, not prescribed in the GIRM or rubics of the Mass, and is disagreeable to a lot of them (purists, no doubt). And I have to say I agree.

As Gavin here recommends, “Ditch the ‘Great Amen'”:

When your priest sings “Through him, with him, in him” to the simple tone, just respond on the same note he used as the reciting tone: “Amen.” If he uses the solemn tone (with the slurs on some syllables), respond according to the pitch he ends on “A-me-” and then move up a whole tone “-en.” It’s all so simple, no one can object to it if it’s done routinely, and it makes SUCH a difference in how the Mass is perceived by the congregation.

St. Gregory the Great

St. Gregory the Great, who instituted Gregorian chant, and has always been one of my favorite saints. (Studio of Carlo Saraceni.)

And here I learned new terms! Father Joe has always sung, “Through him, with him, in him” so powerfully and stirringly — and I now learn that this is called the “final doxology” of the Mass, and that this style of singing is called “simple tone,” part of the grand tradition of Gregorian chant. “Solemn tone” is something I don’t know if I’ve encountered. ::listens to clips:: Okay, maybe I have. I have been listening to, and loving, liturgical music for a lot longer than I’ve been pretending to be Catholic. The way we used to chant it sounds like the way Gavin describes the “solemn tone” response above.

I have much to learn, and will love learning it. As I commented recently to my dear friend Audrey, there are limitless opportunities in Catholicism to be a nerd; a limitless capacity for nerditude.

Oh! More nerditude! I did look up that quote from St. Jerome. It seems Scott Hahn, annoyingly, took it out of context:

St. Jerome

St. Jerome, another of my favorite saints. (Caravaggio.)

Do you wish to know, O Paula and Eustochium, how the Apostle has noted each province with its own particular characteristic? Even till our own day the vestiges of the same virtues or faults may be traced. It is the faith of the Roman people which he praises. And where else can we see so fervid a concourse to the churches and the tombs of the martyrs? Where does the “amen” thus resound like the thunder of heaven, and shake the temples of the idols? Not that the Romans hold another faith than that of all the Churches of Christ, but that they have a greater devotion and simplicity in believing.

—St. Jerome, Commentary on Galatians II, vol. 7, 427 (A.D. 381)
(English translation from John Chapman, O.S.B., “St. Jerome and Rome,” The Dublin Review CXXII: 42-73, at 62)

I also found a really sweet site that apparently has all of the volumes of J.P. Migne’s Patrologia Latina and Patrologia Graeca — the massive collections of the writings of the Latin and Greek Church Fathers — scanned and online! I may never be wanting for a text again! (Our university library does have the PL but not the PG.)

2 thoughts on “The Great Amen

  1. Pingback: Traditional Latin Mass « The Lonely Pilgrim

  2. Pingback: Advent, and the New English Translation of the Missal | The Lonely Pilgrim

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