When the Mass Officially Begins

Author: Father Edward McNamara


When the Mass Officially Begins

ROME, 1 SEPT. 2009 (ZENIT)

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: What is the official beginning of the Mass? Is it the introit, or is it the sign of the cross, as it is in the celebration of a Mass without a congregation? In the case of retired priests, it is understood that when the priest celebrates Mass alone, he starts with the sign of the cross, then reads the introit antiphon. Also, the reason to ask the question is that all Masses need to begin with music, albeit, when there is no music, the introit antiphon is to be said, but not the entire psalm. The problem also arises when the choir is singing either the introit with all of the psalm verses, or a hymn that uses many verses, and the celebrant is left standing at the chair waiting for this music to finish. Please quote Church documents or give references to them, to satisfy those who will not merely go on opinion. — F.G., Denver, Colorado

A: According to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), Nos. 47-50, the Mass can begin in any of several ways:

"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.

"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. 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. If there is no singing at the entrance, the antiphon in the Missal is recited either by the faithful, or by some of them, or by a lector; otherwise, it is recited by the priest himself, who may even adapt it as an introductory explanation […].

"50. When the Entrance Chant is concluded, the priest stands at the chair and, together with the whole gathering, makes the Sign of the Cross. Then he signifies the presence of the Lord to the community gathered there by means of the Greeting. By this Greeting and the people's response, the mystery of the Church gathered together is made manifest. After the greeting of the people, the priest, the deacon, or a lay minister may very briefly introduce the faithful to the Mass of the day."

Therefore, if there is no music, the entrance antiphon is recited before making the sign of the cross. In this case no psalm is used.

As seen above, in the United States four options are offered. This is a slight variation on the universal norms which logically does not include the possibility of metrical psalms since these are not found in Latin but are quite common in English.

The introit or entrance chant is sung to a prescribed text that is thematically linked to the liturgical season. The earliest evidence we have of the introit is from the "Ordo Romanus Primus," a directory that describes the ceremonies of papal Masses. It was written between the years 692 and 731 but probably reflects traditions already established beforehand.

It would appear that originally the psalms attached to the antiphons were sung in their entirety. Over time, however, the Gregorian chant settings became ever more musically elaborate and it became common to sing only one verse of the psalm, along with the Glory be to the Father, and then repeat the antiphon.

Taking these diverse traditions into account, I would say that although GIRM No. 50 says that the priest begins Mass when "the entrance chant has finished," I do not believe that this requires that all verses of a psalm must necessarily be sung. It would require, however, a certain internal coherence; the psalm should reach a logical conclusion and not be truncated in its meaning.

This opinion is corroborated by the guidelines on liturgical music published by the U.S. bishops, "Sing to the Lord." Regarding the entrance chant or song, this document says:

"142. After the entire liturgical assembly has been gathered, an Entrance chant or song is sung as the procession with the priest, deacon, and ministers enters the church. '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.'

"143. Care must be taken in the treatment of the texts of psalms, hymns, and songs in the Liturgy. Verses and stanzas should not be omitted arbitrarily in ways that risk distorting their content. While not all musical pieces require that all verses or stanzas be sung, verses should be omitted only if the text to be sung forms a coherent whole."

Therefore a balance must be struck between allowing the entrance chant to fulfill its proper liturgical purpose while not causing excessive delay to the initial rites. In such cases musical directors and priests must cooperate. One should be willing to take the initiative in making coherent cuts if necessary, the other should be willing to participate in singing the entrance chant even after arriving at the chair.

In this way the exercise of patience and charity will contribute overall to a better celebration.

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