GIRM 86-87: Singing During Communion

Singing during Communion takes up two sections, the first of which is the universal guidance for the whole Church:

86. While the Priest is receiving the Sacrament, the Communion Chant is begun, its purpose being to express the spiritual union of the communicants by means of the unity of their voices, to show gladness of heart, and to bring out more clearly the “communitarian” character of the procession to receive the Eucharist. The singing is prolonged for as long as the Sacrament is being administered to the faithful.[cf. Inestimabile Donum 17] However, if 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.


It’s a difficult practice to initiate in many parishes, beginning the music while the priest receives. But the GIRM doesn’t call for a pause while the Communion ministers receive. How does your parish fare with this? Over the past several years with the implementation of Redemptionis Sacramentum, I’ve found that the congregation will easily sing the Communion song while they are waiting for those who serve them to receive and get organized. This is a laudable development.

The purpose of the Communion Chant is explicit:

  • to express the spiritual union of the communicants by means of the unity of their voices
  • to show gladness of heart
  • to bring out more clearly the “communitarian” character of the procession to receive the Eucharist.

Unity of voice, not unity of ear. Gladness of heart of the communicants, probably not just the choir alone. An expression of community.

My own sense is that the insistence on communicants standing as a unified posture before, during, and after receiving Communion is a non-starter. But this unity can be well, if not better expressed by the shared singing of the assembly.

The last sentence about singers is rendered “cantors” in the 2000 translation. The whole sentence is an addition from the 1975 edition of the GIRM.

The American bishops have added this:

87. In the Dioceses of the United States of America, there are four options for singing at Communion:

  • (1) the antiphon from the Missal or the antiphon with its Psalm from the Graduale Romanum, as set to music there or in another musical setting;
  • (2) the antiphon with Psalm from the Graduale Simplex of the liturgical time;
  • (3) a chant 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) some other suitable liturgical chant (cf. no. 86) approved by the Conference of Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop. This is sung either by the choir alone or by the choir or a cantor with the people.

The universal legislation on GIRM 87 is as follows:

An antiphon from the Graduale Romanum may also be used for the communion song, with or without the psalm, or an antiphon with psalm from the Graduale Simplex or another suitable liturgical song approved by the Conference of Bishops may be used.

GIRM 87 is a favorite section of many traditionalist American musicians. It’s important to realize that four-options as given above are an American practice, not Roman or universal. I’m unconvinced the matter of repertoire it discusses overrides the prescription of GIRM 86. I’m also unconvinced by the claim that option four is the overwhelming choice of parish musicians today. In the days of singing at Low Masses, yes: option four would have included Eucharistic hymnody like Panis Angelicus, or catechetical Eucharistic songs, like “At That First Eucharist.” These would be examples of option four.

You could program a song like Bob Hurd’s “I Am The Light of the World.” If you did it during Communion on January 22nd next month, you would be squarely within the so-called option one. The antiphon is John 8:12, and qualifies as “another musical setting.” Since bishops have not really approved alternate collections of music, if you programmed it the following week, an argument could be made that it falls within option three. Unless it happens to be a text in the Graduale Simplex. And then we would have option two.

In my thinking, the last line of this section is troubling, the legislation that the Communion song may be done by the choir alone. I do think that some singing by the people is important, at the very least, as a song of praise after Communion, so as to satisfy the prescriptions and ideal of GIRM 86. People who are sticklers for going “by the book” may note that no provision is given for solo singing at Communion. If you have a cantor, it would seem that a shared song with the people is prescribed.

We wrap up with the least-desired situation.

However, if there is no singing, the antiphon given in the Missal may be recited either by the faithful, or by some of them, or by a reader; otherwise, it is recited by the Priest himself after he has received Communion and before he distributes Communion to the faithful.

Whew! A lot of words from the CDWDS, the bishops, and me. How about some from you?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
This entry was posted in GIRM, post-conciliar liturgy documents. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to GIRM 86-87: Singing During Communion

  1. Pingback: GIRM 88-89: After The Distribution of Communion « Catholic Sensibility

  2. joseph says:

    Is it appropriate to include a marian song for communion during Sept 8 Holy Eucharist or any other celebration with Mary?

  3. Felipe says:

    The possessive in the English phrase “unity of their voices” has no antecedent in the Latin, which reads merely “per unitatem vocum”: “by unity of voices”.

    There is thus no implication that it be the communicants who sing.

    Note that the Spanish and French translations do not make this error.

    • Todd says:

      Thanks for commenting. I don’t believe Latin as used in the GIRM would have a “their” in the phrase, but it would be understood in context from earlier prescriptions about the role of the assembly in worship (the “full” participation of GIRM 18) and the role of the choir to assist the assembly in its singing (the “active” participation mentioned in GIRM 103, which is footnoted from Musicam Sacram 19). As an approved translation–approved by both the US bishops and the CDWDS, it isn’t an error. It is important to read widely to discern what the church legislates or recommends or to what it aspires. This is why many church musicians make the common error of misinterpreting who can or should sing at Mass.

  4. Mary Anne Gladfelter says:

    I have been a cantor for many years and usually begin the communion chant as Father receives communion. Recently I was told at a parish that I must go receive communion first before I can start singing. I found that situation to be very awkward. I felt very uncomfortable standing alone waiting for communion when we could have all been singing. It holds up the singing. I wasn’t able to swallow quickly. Why can’t there just be one protocol for every Catholic Church to follow?

    • Good question. The protocol is stated in the Roman Missal, but not every pastor is attentive to the directions, and not every bishop chooses to enforce what seem to be small items of less importance.

      • Liam says:

        Also, many choristers do not like to have to sing immediately after receiving Communion while there still may be aspirable particles in their mouths; consequently, in my experience, it’s more common that singers receive after the bulk of the procession has taken place.

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