It should first be noted that the closing song, unlike the opening (cf. General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 47), is not actually a part of the Mass, so there is no prohibition against omitting it.
The recent document of the Committee on Divine Worship of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Sing to the Lord: Music in Catholic Worship, says of the concluding song, “Other options include a choral or instrumental piece or, particularly during Lent, silence” (199).
This document contains guidelines and suggestions for the Mass and this particular suggestion is one suggestion with which I respectfully disagree (and you may disagree with me), the reason of which I will discuss shortly.
Turning first, though, to the concluding rites, the GIRM says that these consist of:
a. Brief announcements, if they are necessary;What we do not find in the concluding rites is any mention whatever of a closing chant/hymn/song.
b. The priest’s greeting and blessing, which on certain days and occasions is enriched and expressed in the prayer over the People or another more solemn
c. The dismissal of the people by the deacon or the priest, so that each may go out and do good works, praising and blessing God;
d. The kissing of the altar by the priest and the deacon, followed by a profound bow to the altar by the priest, the deacon, and the other ministers (90).
When it is done, therefore, its primary – and perhaps only real and significant - purpose is simply to get the priest out of the sanctuary; it is a bit of “traveling music,” as it were (which I greatly appreciate, presuming the song is good).
(I tell my high school students that they can tell how well I like the closing song – normally speaking – by how long I remain at the presidential chair before reverencing the altar.)
But even if the closing song is only travelling music, it has been so frequently used that many Catholics do not have any idea what to do when it is not done and begin chatting away, silence being something of an enemy in contemporary culture. Especially in groups, people seem unable to remain silent for more than fifteen seconds (that’s about as long as it takes for someone to cough).
Some will complain that people begin leaving before the priest if a song is not sung. Technically, there is nothing wrong with this. When you are dismissed, you are dismissed. The deacon does not say, for example, “Go in the peace of Christ, once Father has left.”
But if people are so used to - and comfortable with - a closing song, why do some parishes remove it during the season of Lent and let the priest process out in silence?
Most will do so to highlight the penitential character of the Lenten season. Highlighting this aspect of Lent is, of course, praiseworthy but there are other and more effective ways to do so (through simpler music, not less [cf. GIRM, 313]; through preaching on prayer, fasting and almsgiving; by draping the statues, etc.). I would question the usefulness of seeking to do so by removing a closing song.
Even if the purpose of removing it – and the reminder that it isn’t actually part of the Mass – is well explained, the point rarely seems to hit home in a typical parish setting.
The absence of the closing song seems to make people more uncomfortable than anything else, priest and ministers included, which may or may not help them recognizing the penitential nature of the season (for the some, the song would be more helpful!).
As a priest I can tell you that there are few things more uncomfortable than having to walk by crowds of people unaccompanied by anything (because they simply stare at you), except incensing the altar unaccompanied because the musicians aren’t paying attention (because everybody wonders what’s taking the priest so long).
My experience has shown that silent recessions do not have the desired effect very often. Besides, the Liturgy is not so much about changing people’s moods – it welcomes the faithful in whatever mood (which is why a proper celebration of the Liturgy is rather sober) - as it is about the encounter with Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. Even if it is Lent, it is still Sunday and is therefore still a celebration of the Lord’s Resurrection, even if not to the fullest extent possible.
If a parish does not use a closing song on Sunday’s during Lent a closing song should not be used during the weekdays of Lent, either, even if the Mass is for the grade school.
I would be very happy if a congregation could appreciate the beauty – even if uncomfortable – of a silent recession. But let us be honest: most congregations are not ready yet. Before we try this we should try to help people listen more attentively to the Scriptures and to appreciate silence within the Mass more than outside of it.
We ought to remember that traveling music is very important and should not be neglected, especially considering society today. Even if the closing chant/hymn/song is not technically a part of the Liturgy, it is very useful and practical and of benefit most everywhere (though I will naturally admit exceptions).