Her basic argument is that all the other songs in the liturgy (excluding the singing of the responsorial Psalm which is a separate category) a company a liturgical action from the beginning to the end of that action. And so, she says, it should be with the Communion hymn: "According to the liturgy documents [GIRM #86], the communion song begins while the priest is receiving the Sacrament, and continues for as long as the Sacrament is being administered to the faithful." She then raises the question of why this is not the practice in most parishes. "Delaying the song," she asserts, "encourages people to adopt an attitude of individual quiet reflection at this point rather than the union of spirit and joy of heart appropriate to this rite." The place for silence is after communion, when the people "pray to God in their hearts" [GIRM # 45].
Things are awfully confused with regard to GIRM at the moment. Bishop Kevin Manning has been doing a series on the National Council of Priests website on the newly promulgated 2000 GIRM, but as he notes we are awaiting upon the American ICEL translation being accepted before the Australian adaptions can be made. The fact that the 2003 ICEL translation wasn't accepted has been holding up the works.
Nevertheless, as far as I can gather, it is to this version that Elizabeth is referring in her quotations. There we read:
45. Sacred silence also, as part of the celebration, is to be observed at the designated times. ...After Communion, they praise and pray to God in their hearts.But we continue to read:
86. While the priest is receiving the Sacrament, the Communion chant is begun. Its purpose is to express the communicants’ union in spirit by means of the unity of their voices, to show joy of heart, and to highlight more clearly the “communitarian” nature of the procession to receive Communion. The singing is continued for as long as the Sacrament is being administered to the faithful.
If, however, there is to be a hymn after Communion, the Communion chant should be ended in a timely manner. Care should be taken that singers, too, can receive Communion with ease.
So what to make of this?
There is some confusion in the practice of the church between the singing of the Communion "chant" in the singing of the Communion hymn. Paragraphs 86 seems to bear out that there is a distinction to be made. (Latin: Si tamen hymnus post Communionem habetur, cantus ad Communionem tempestive claudatur.)
In our missals we can all see something called a "communion antiphon". From my understanding this is the response or antiphon to what should be a Communion psalm. It is similar to the "entrance antiphon", and to the response in the responsorial Psalm. This is what I believe is referred to in GIRM 86 as the Communion chant. Unfortunately it is hardly ever sung, mainly because we have never been given any way of singing at as a congregation. Because we do not sing the antiphon, we tend to replace it with a hymn. Then it becomes confused with what in paragraph 86 is called "a hymn after Communion".
Contrary to what Elizabeth writes, GIRM is therefore quite happy for there to be a hymn after communion instead of the period of silence. This is one way in which people can " praise and pray to God" not only in their hearts but also with their voices.
So to answer the question why we do not always begin the Communion hymn at the moment of the priest's communion, we can give the number of decent and respectable answers:
1) Most practically, because often the musicians commune first before beginning a lengthy song. The new GIRM permits this when it says "Care should be taken that singers, too, can receive Communion with ease". They could indeed commune at the end of the Communion, but this would necessitate the Communion singing to end before the procession had ended--which is also contrary to paragraph 86 if you want to read it strictly.
2) Elizabeth quite rightly identifies the other main reason for not having a Communion hymn start right at the beginning of the Communion procession: the fact that it is difficult for people to both sing and move at the same time if they required the words of the song in front of them. Her suggestions of singing a well-known hymn or a song with an easily memorised response are sensible. But it does seem to me that GIRM does not insist on singing to take place at Communion (cf our weekday masses), and the same time to allow singing to take place after everybody has completed communion.
May be the happiest solution to all of this is that we simply find an easy way of singing the communion antiphon. Here I have some suggestions:
1) Just about every antiphon can be sung to the tune of "Make Me a Channel of Your Peace". I know it sounds silly but try it actually works. We do this occasionally in the Cathedral. The Cantor sings it through once at the priests communion, the people then repeat it. They can usually do this before getting out of their seats to get into the Communion procession. This can be done unaccompanied.
2) The musicians can then be the first in the line for communion, and be back at their places to lead the singing of the Communion hymn as the communion procession gets going. The Communion hymn could be a simple psalm with the response, or a Taize chant, or even one of the many simple chants by Michael Herry, or Iona Community, or what not.
3) on the other hand, once the antiphon has been sung, the Communion could take place in silence and a more substantial eucharistic him to be sung at the end of communion.
My final beef with Elizabeth's column is her suggestion that "Songs that focus on adoration or 'me' are not appropriate." I fully agree with her that songs that focus on "me" are never appropriate in the liturgy, but are not quite sure why she wants to cut out songs that are "adoration" (ie. Songs that focus on God!) unless she means more specifically those songs that are more suitable for benediction and eucharistic exposition. The only other alternative would seem to be songs that focus on "US". And this we want to avoid at all costs: we have more than enough songs already in the liturgy that sing about what we are doing rather than what God is doing.
It's about time that we had some really decent Communion songs to sing during the procession, songs that focus not on me or us, but upon the body and blood of the Lord which we are receiving as we sing.