Have You Been Missing Out on a Centuries-Old Catholic Musical Tradition?
Some of the most divisive conversations amongst Catholics today arise over music at Mass. Most arguments revolve around the style of music or the instrumentation. However, these arguments generally don’t focus much on the texts of the music. The majority of us have grown up in parishes that are unaware of or lacking an essential part of Church’s musical heritage: The Propers. We should stop asking “Is the music religious?” but rather, “Is the music (and its text) liturgical?” The Church assigns specific chants/texts to each day of the liturgical year, just as she assigns certain readings & psalms to each day of the year. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal says that these scriptural, liturgical texts (called “the Propers”) are the ideal and most desirable thing to be sung at Mass (see GIRM 48, 74, 86-87).
When Propers are sung at Mass
We are accustomed to the readings, responsorial psalm, and Alleluia verse changing each week in the Missalette. The scriptural texts of the Mass Propers also change daily and allow us to more fully participate in the liturgical day being celebrated. There are three times when the Propers are sung at a Novus Ordo Mass:
Introit: scriptural text with its antiphon sung while the celebrant and ministers enter the Church and approach the altar. “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.” (GIRM 47)
Offertory: sung scriptural text accompanying the procession and preparation of the gifts. “The procession bringing the gifts is accompanied by the Offertory chant (cf. no. 37b), which continues at least until the gifts have been placed on the altar. The norms on the manner of singing are the same as for the Entrance chant (cf. no. 48). Singing may always accompany the rite at the offertory, even when there is no procession with the gifts.” (GIRM 74)
Communion: scriptural text sung beginning with the Priest’s reception of Communion and continued through the faithful’s reception. “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.” (GIRM 86)
Each liturgical day has its own special text and melody assigned to each of these three times of the Mass. The text of each Proper expands and reflects on the readings of the day and contains deep scriptural theology which helps us more fully contemplate the specific liturgical feast.
History of the Mass Propers
The Propers of the Mass are scriptural texts, with accompanying chant melodies, that are carefully assigned to each day of the liturgical calendar. Some of the Mass Propers we use today can be found in Sacramentaries (liturgical books) dating back to the 5th century A.D. There is also written evidence that refers to their existence in the earliest days of the Church. These prayers/chants/texts have been developed and perfected throughout the centuries by the Catholic Church. Musical notation was in fact invented for the sole purpose of recording Catholic liturgical chants. From a historical perspective, the schola cantorum or choir has sung the propers. The reason for this is that the texts and melodies are difficult and change on a daily basis. Until Vatican II, the Mass Propers were printed and sung in Latin. There has been a recent liturgical movement to translate these texts into English so that they may be more accessible to amateur choirs.
An example of the texts changing for each liturgical day is the Introit for Christmas – Mass at Dawn (notice the English translation of the Latin below the chant).
Here is the same chant from a centuries old manuscript. Both the saints and everyday Catholics throughout history would have heard these same melodies and texts sung at Mass on Christmas morning.
Another example of the text changing for the liturgical feast is the Communion for the vigil Mass of the Assumption of the Blessed Mother.
One can see that each text can help us more fully contemplate the specific liturgical feast. The beauty of the Mass Propers is that they allow us to sing the Mass, rather to sing at Mass.
Did Vatican II do away with the Propers?
I had been leading music at Masses for about five years before anyone ever introduced me to singing the Propers. I had studied them in Music History in college, but thought they must not apply to Novus Ordo Masses because I had never heard them in any parish or been asked to sing them. I had tried to prepare choirs with “sacred” or “traditional” music and hymns, but I felt like I had been cheated out of a great musical tradition that had been present in past centuries of the Church.
“What must be sung is the Mass, its Ordinary and Proper, not “something”, no matter how consistent, that is imposed on the Mass. Because the liturgical service is one, it has only one countenance, one motif, one voice, the voice of the Church. To continue to replace the texts of the Mass being celebrated with motets that are reverent and devout, yet out of keeping with the Mass of the day amounts to continuing an unacceptable ambiguity: it is to cheat the people. Liturgical song involves not mere melody, but words, text, thought and the sentiments that the poetry and music contain. Thus texts must be those of the Mass, not others, and singing means singing the Mass not just singing during Mass.”
– 1969 response to an inquiry by the the Consilium (group of bishops and experts set up by Pope Paul VI to implement the Constitution on the Liturgy).
What about other music at Mass?
Other music can be still be a part of Mass. Many parishes have time after both the offertory chant & the communion chant for other hymns or motets. There is no liturgical proper assigned during the recession at Mass, so that is another time when other music may be chosen.
Want to sing the Propers?
The digital age has brought a wonderful community of sacred musicians together online. People have been working tirelessly over the past ten years or so to provide resources for people interested in carrying on the musical traditions of the Church. Here are some resources – free to print directly from PDFs, or for purchase in book form – for any musicians willing to learn the Propers.
I. The Gregorian Missal: This is the official Vatican edition of the sung Propers of the Mass, with English translations, and their original Latin chant melodies. It would be difficult for most Church choirs to learn and sing all three Gregorian Propers every Sunday, and the melodies can be difficult. The Communion Proper is usually the simplest and shortest, and would be a good place for choirs interested in singing Gregorian Propers to begin (here is a book with the psalm verses notated under each antiphon). Practice videos can be found on youtube through a simple search.
II. The Simple English Propers: This is a new book of the English translations of the Propers set to simple chant melodies. It is a great place to begin for less experienced choirs. There are practice videos for every SEP chant on youtube.
III. Other resources: This page provides links to other settings of the texts of the Propers, both in choral and plainchant forms.
Thanks for reading!