What’s With The Propers?

It seems as if everybody’s home from the CMAA Colloquium and suddenly Jeffrey Tucker and the reform2 folks are all over the overthrow of the current Roman Catholic repertoire at Entrance, Communion, and preparation. I guess when you can’t eject a body of music for quality (or lack thereof) you can make the attempt based on the liturgy itself. I don’t think the argument for the propers-only holds water, and I’d like to offer a serious push-back on the misguided idea that a collection of Gregorian chant is the 0nly way, or even always the best way to sing at these moments of the Mass.

First, a Roman Catholic musician has to look at two sources before anything else. The Order of Mass. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM). For this discussion, the GIRM is key, and sections 47 and 48 describe “The Entrance.”


47. After the people have gathered, the Entrance chant begins as the priest enters with the deacon and ministers. The purpose of this chant is to open the celebration, foster the unity of those who have been gathered, introduce their thoughts to the mystery of the liturgical season or festivity, and accompany the procession of the priest and ministers.

To start with, church musicians must be aware of what is hoped to be accomplished by the Entrance chant. There are three purposes, aside from the obvious accompaniment of a procession. This music “opens” the Mass. It is intended to foster unity. And the intent is to introduce to all either the particular day or the liturgical season.

Because of this, music ministers often program seasonal music. Psalm 51 and David’s profound repentance for Lent. Psalm 85’s longing for God’s restorative justice for Advent. Or even seasonal hymns and songs suggestive of Christmas or Easter festivity.

Let’s keep reading in the GIRM, mindful that this is a Roman document, and as such adheres to a specific tradition. Choices are given because Rome realizes that in faith communities different opti0ns will help more impoverished communities establish a minimum standard for good liturgy. And places more enriched with gifts in the arts and liturgical theology can aim for a higher plateau:

48. The singing at this time is done either alternately by the choir and the people or in a similar way by the cantor and the people, or entirely by the people, or by the choir alone.

The Church first addresses who does the singing. The Church sees this question as more important that what is sung. This sentence is very illustrative. A musical dialogue is favored over either through-sung pieces by the people or choir. A choir is a higher priority than a cantor. A piece sung by the choir alone is the last choice, and just the next level of improvement over the spoken option.

How should this get applied in practice? The aim is a ritual interaction between music leadership (preferably a choir) and the people. This style echoes much of the experience of the Mass: dialogues between people and priest, the Psalm and Gospel Acclamation in the Liturgy of the Word, as well as various litanies. The Church advises that this liturgical “conversation” is an excellent model. Lacking the ability or repertoire to carry out that dialogue, the GIRM instructs that it’s better for the people to sing the entire entrance. That would presumably take place if there is no organ or cantor to lead. The last choice would be the choir singing alone, presumably when the dialogue cannot take place, or the people are unable or unwilling to sing.

The US has additional instruction with regard to the repertoire of this Entrance chant:

In the dioceses of the United States of America there are four options for the Entrance Chant:

(1) the antiphon from the Roman Missal

or the Psalm from the Roman Gradual as set to music there

or in another musical setting;

(2) the seasonal antiphon and Psalm of the Simple Gradual;

(3) a song from another collection of psalms and antiphons, approved by the Conference of Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop, including psalms arranged in responsorial or metrical forms;

(4) a suitable liturgical song similarly approved by the Conference of Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop.

There are actually six options. The US bishops suggest the antiphon from the Missal. Or the psalm from the Roman Gradual. Or the psalm of the day from the Roman Gradual set to other music.

I’ve used the first option during certain liturgical seasons in my parishes. We might select a brief refrain by the people, and have the choir or cantor chant the antiphon (as a “verse”) followed by a repeat of the refrain from our hymnal. Sometimes I will program another setting of the Psalm given in the Gradual. An example of this might be on the First Sunday of Advent assigns Psalm 25 for entrance, and I (or another music director) might program Huub Oosterhuis’ “Hold Me In Life.” All of these fall under the USCCB’s first choice.

Choice number two is a “seasonal antiphon and Psalm” from the Simple Gradual. Why might this be chosen? Maybe a parish prefers not to sing a new piece of music every week of a liturgical season. You can program the same piece through all the Sundays, and ease the impact on the people. Or maybe there’s a good liturgical reason for adhering to the same psalm–the preacher might preach on it, for example.

Coming in at number three is another psalm setting. Aside from the fact that the US Bishops have no “approved collection,” I use this option frequently. Last weekend I programmed “Sing to the Lord a New Song,” a metrical hymn based on Psalm 98. My intent is to lean less to non-Biblical texts and more to Scripture-based texts for songs and hymns, especially those based on the psalms.

And then we have option #4, a “suitable liturgical song,” which is a wide enough piece of leeway to drive a pipe organ through. This weekend at my parish, I confess we are singing “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say,” which while it picks up a few hints of Jesus’s healing and invitatory words in the Gospel, is not a psalm setting.

I find that sometimes the given antiphons and psalms are an aid to selecting music. But sometimes not. There is a one-year cycle for most of them and the Lectionary is arranged in a three-year cycle. Some bishops at the 2008 Synod on the Word advocated for a better connection and harmonization between the Word and the Eucharist at Mass. This would be an important step for the fourth edition of the Roman Missal–an expanded offering of antiphon texts and accompanying psalms. I would even suggest that canticles from both the Old and New Testaments be mined for appropriate texts. And some of the more lyrical passages from the prophets and apostles.

Liam has suggested on this blog that parishes should not find the antiphon-plus psalm format alien if it is used. I would agree. But the notion that the Catholic Church is in a good position to be dogmatic about the sung texts of the Mass–this is misguided. The propers should guide intelligent music programming. But not dictate it.

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Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
This entry was posted in GIRM, Liturgical Music, Liturgy, post-conciliar liturgy documents. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to What’s With The Propers?

  1. David D. says:

    It doesn’t appear obvious to me that GIRM 48 necessarily expresses a preference for who does the singing simply by the order in which the options are given. A preference for what is to be sung at the entrance seems more evident given the use of numbers (ordinals?) in the text of GIRM 48. Thus, if “the Psalm from the Roman Gradual as set to music there” is among the GIRM’s top preferences, it could hardly be concluded that a “piece sung by the choir alone is the last choice.” To the extent that GIRM 48 does express the preference you assert, I note that I have never once heard an antiphonal entrance song. Similarly, I have never once heard a sung Missal antiphon or, at an OF Mass, any setting of the Psalm from the Gradual. The entrance hymn, unfortunately, is firmly entrenched as the one and only option in many parishes.

    With respect to unity, although the text of GIRM 47 speaks of “the unity of those who have been gathered,” I think it’s reasonable to conceive of this unity not simply as binding the members of the congregation to one another but also to the Church as a whole. Perhaps this broader sense of unity would be better served if all members of the Church were singing from a common text, i.e., the Propers.

    Finally, one pastoral benefit arising from the exclusive use of Propers is that the congregation knows what to expect. As an aid to understanding, many of us like to review the variable parts of the Mass beforehand. In many parishes, one doesn’t know what the entrance hymn might be until it is announced by the cantor just as Mass begins.

    • Liam says:

      Since the antiphon in the missals are the ones assigned for recitation, you wouldn’t know the ones assigned for singing unless you had Gradual with you (though it should be noted that among the postconciliar versions of the Gradual is one that provided for seasonal antiphons, et cet. – Rome was actually thoughtful about this, but the production of the Gradual books post-dated the roll-out of the Missal, with obvious results; yet work remains to be done).

  2. Todd says:

    “It doesn’t appear obvious to me that GIRM 48 necessarily expresses a preference for who does the singing simply by the order in which the options are given.”

    That is how I was schooled in reading Roman documents. It is the only basis in liturgical law for promoting the propers as a first choice among the many options given.

  3. Todd, for clarification’s sake, would it be accurate to say that you state the IGRM (Rome) heirarchy of options (48) regarding the “performers” of the Introit does not necessarily transfer a similar heirarchy for music repertoire choice likewise to the USCCB edition? I’m really not sure about that point.

    • Todd says:

      I think it does, to a degree. The model, at least in my mind, and I hope in the Church’s, would be the Liturgy of the Hours. I know the whole psalm was once sung. The antiphons were attached to give a focus to the sung psalm text.

      Instead of antiphonal singing (two equal/complementary halves) in the Office, the choir leads its “little” brothers and sisters in the pews with a different sort of dialogue.

      That GIRM 48 lists the choir/people dialogue first seems to be a confirmation of the antiphon + psalm as the first choice for repertoire.

      My sense is that these two “hierarchies” are flexibly independent when pastoral needs calls for it, but also mirror each other. Why else would metrical psalms (assume these to be hymn settings) be so far down the repertoire list?

  4. What would be your thoughts on singing a hymn, followed by the antiphon from the Missal at the Entrance (reversed order for Communion)? The hymn could be sung by all, the antiphon by the choir. For the setting of these antiphons, I particularly have Fr. Kelly’s in mind.

    The idea would encourage both exterior and interior participation by the people, keep open the treasury of hymns, and recover a greater use of the Psalter. It also doesn’t seem to be forbidden by the rubrics.

  5. jeffrey says:

    In some ways, I see the emphasis on the propers as a much-need corrective to a default convention, but I seriously doubt that we will be experiencing a sweeping movement in that direction anytime soon. The good aspect of the new emphasis is to impress upon musicians a heightened sense of responsibility, which I know you favor too.

    I think I’ve too often presented the case for propers as an either/or situation, e.g. if propers come, hymns must go. That really is not the case. Just this past week, we sang a post communion hymn in English and it was incredibly moving and effective – and one of the reasons it was so had to do with our diligence in singing the propers (I think). Maybe our hymns will also find a happier home in a proper-singing parish environment.

    • Todd says:

      Jeffrey, I think many professional music directors “corrected” from the four-hymn sandwich a generation ago. I know that I’ve never felt the need to slot four open spaces every week.

      More so, I think the shift from hymn texts to psalms and other responsorial formats at Communion has been in place for thirty years.

      Mr Tucker and other promoters of propers are many years behind those who first saw the need to sing the Mass as opposed to singing at the Mass. And what’s more, I’m alarmed at their casual approach to congregational singing.

      • jeffrey says:

        I’ve long wondered if we are really arguing about empirical reality. I’ve considered for years whether you are correct and tried my best to attend Mass in random places, and I’ve conducted workshops for many years now and spoken to many hundreds of musicians. What I find, nearly without fail, is what most people find in parish life today: four metric songs per Mass, text and music composed in our lifetimes, that people do not sing but endure.

        I think we really do see different things, which is why I suspect we often seem to be talking past each other.

      • Liam says:

        I do feel compelled here, as I think I once did elsewhere, to clarify the proper usage of the phrase four-hymn sandwich, since it’s a term I’ve been using on discussion boards since the mid-90s and I think I was one of the earliest popularizers of it, for good and ill.

        Properly speaking, it’s best used to describe a Mass where four (in reality, sometimes three, with an instrumental displacement) hymns are sung, but almost the entire rest of the Mass is not sung. Where *the* music is the hymns, as it were.

        A Mass where there’s an entrance hymn, but the Gloria and most else is simply recited….

        This reality is the one that is much more pressing than a choice among licit options for the various antiphons in a Mass that is otherwise largely sung.

        Let’s not confuse cart and horse….

  6. Todd says:

    Jeffrey, I’ll happily concede that my sample is biased. I live in the midwest. Places that hire me are committed to good liturgy. My diocesan colleagues are in the same boat. I don’t get to small parishes that often.

    So are there several thousand parishes still in the 1950’s singing the four-hymn sandwich religiously? I’m sure there are. But they are dying out. And they’re not influencing anyone. No parish, I’m sure, is shifting from good music to the four-hymn palette.

    And as for myself, “singing the Mass” has been part of my formation since 1984. One music director I worked with 1982-88 generally programmed “responsorial” songs during Communion so people would sing at least the refrain. I will admit to programming congregational music during preparation during Lent and Advent, but mainly because we sing psalms or the proper texts at entrance, and people expect their seasonal repertoire.

    What’s the point? I don’t think progressive parishes or publishers are stuck in a rut. While there’s certainly real work to be done out there, I think the reform2 crowd aims poorly to attack any of their common bugaboos: publishers, pianists, and progressives.

    I do music workshops still, but rarely. When I go to a parish, I promote sensible, Scripture-based songs, and an emphasis on singing the Mass: psalms, litanies, dialogues, and the Mass ordinary. I sleep well at night.

    • jeffrey says:

      It seems like we argue often about history. We have two different narratives in mind. In the end I’m not sure it matters all that much. Still, I think I’ll post a book that is not yet online, called Church Music Transgressed by Msgr. Schmitt. I’ve avoided doing this because it is so depressing. Maybe with so much progress being made, we are better able to deal with his message.

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