Hymns have a centuries-old tradition in the Roman Rite — but not in the Mass itself. Rather, the Liturgy of the Hours — prayed by clergy, religious and faithful at particular intervals throughout the day — has sung “hymns of praise” to God from at least the time of St. Ambrose (d.397).
The place of hymns at Mass — at the entrance, offertory, Communion and close — is a relatively recent innovation. In the decades prior to the Second Vatican Council, if the priest was reciting much of the liturgy in silence or in dialogue with only his servers, the faithful often sang devotional hymns during the Mass.
Ideally, the people are meant not simply to sing at Mass, but to sing the Mass’s own proper texts. This direction is given by Pope St. Pius X (1903), confirmed by the Second Vatican Council and contained in today’s legislation on liturgical music.
While hymns are undeniably allowed by current norms, they are also considered the last of a parish’s available options. (see General Instruction of the Roman Missal 48, 74, 87; also “Sing to the Lord” 76, 117, 144, 190) The first-mentioned options consist of scriptural antiphons, or “refrains,” sung along with psalms, much like the responsorial psalm sung between the readings.
If we consider the purpose of the entrance chant or (in Latin) Introit, for example, we see that it serves a variety of purposes: “to open the celebration, foster the unity of those who have gathered, introduce their thoughts to the mystery of the liturgical time or festivity, and accompany the procession of the priest and ministers” (GIRM 47). While a hymn may do these things, the Church’s given chants are designed exactly for these reasons, thus giving from the start a sound entry into the eucharistic mystery.
Also important is that the processional chants allow the praying church to sing the actual Scriptures, thus echoing the teaching not only of the council’s Constitution on the Liturgy, but also of its Constitution on Divine Revelation.
The entrance chant has given much to our liturgical tradition. Gaudete Sunday on the Third Sunday of Advent is named from the first word of the entrance antiphon: Gaudete in Domino semper, “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil 4:4). The Introit for the Second Sunday of Easter begins Quasimodo geniti infantes, “Like newborn infants.” Care to guess on which day Notre Dame’s famous hunchback was found on the cathedral’s steps?
But the processional chants need not be sung in Latin. Today, many settings exist in English and are used regularly throughout the diocese, including annual clergy gatherings, the monthly Lay Formation Institute and in an increasing number of parishes.
Scriptural in origin, encouraged by the magisterium and ancient in their use, these musical gems are a worthy supplement to any parish’s hymns and music program today.
By Christopher Carstens
Director of the Office for Sacred Worship