The Propers of the Mass, Then and Now

H Mass MIniatureI wrote this essay in 2011 and delivered it at a symposium on the s0–called interim Missals held in Phoenix, Arizona. At that time, I concluded that, “that a wider use of the Missal of 1962, and a retrieval of the so–called interim Missals published prior to 1969, in whole or in part, would be among the most effective means to the rehabilitation and reappropriation of the Proper Chants as indispensable theological and structural elements of the Mass of the Roman Rite.”

I would argue today that the 1962 and 1965 Missals, being structurally sound, and maintaining the Propers of the Mass as integral supporting elements — rather than as mere decorative bits to be moved about or even cast aside — constitute the correct point of departure for the organic development of what the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council really envisaged in Sacrosanctum Concilium.

The Propers of the Mass, Then and Now


Until the approval of The New Roman Missal by Pope Paul VI on 3 April 1969, there existed a substantial unity between the texts of the Proper of the Mass contained in the Graduale Romanum and those contained in the Roman Missal.  The Missal, in effect, provided the complete texts of those sung parts of the Mass that in the Graduale Romanum are fully notated.

The Missal takes the text of the Chants of the Proper of the Mass from the Graduale Romanum, and not the Graduale Romanum from the Missal.  The Missal, in fact, contains the very same texts found in the Graduale, but in the Missal they are shorn of the musical notation that allows them to be brought to life in song and, in a certain sense, interprets them in the context of the liturgy.

Originally Mass was always sung.  Not until the eighth or ninth century did the so called Low Mass or missa privata come to be celebrated at the lateral altars and private chapels of abbatial and collegiate churches. The Chants of the Proper of the Mass were not omitted at these Low Masses; they were recited by the priest alone.  This fact, of itself, suggests that well before the eighth century, the Proper Chants were, in effect, considered to be constitutive elements of the Mass, deemed indispensable to the very shape of the liturgy.

What are the Propers?

Let us, then, review what the Proper Chants of the Mass are:


Were one to open the Roman Missal at the first page, finding there the Mass of the First Sunday of Advent, the very first element proper to that Mass, and to all others, is the Introit.

The Introit is composed of an antiphon, a verse taken from the psalm corresponding to the antiphon or, occasionally, from another, the Gloria Patri, and the repetition of the antiphon.

The Introit as presented in the Roman Missal appears in a somewhat truncated form, though all the essential elements — antiphon, psalmody, and doxology — are present.  Until about the eighth century the entire psalm would have been chanted, or at least the greater part of it, with the antiphon repeated after every verse, and this until the celebrant reached the altar, at which point the cantors would intone the Gloria Patri, and after the final repetition of the antiphon, end the Introit.

The purpose of the Introit in the tradition of the Roman Rite is not didactic; it is contemplative.  The Introit ushers the soul into the mystery of the day not by explaining it, but by opening the Mass with a word uttered from above.  The text of the Introit signifies that, in every celebration, the initiative is divine, not human; it is a word received that quickens the Church–at–Prayer, and awakens a response within her.

Concerning the Introit, Maurice Zundel writes:

 [The soul] has but to listen, her sole preparation an eager desire for light, to catch the interior music of the words, and understand that Someone is speaking to her who was waiting for her.

He calls the Introit,

. . . a triumphal arch at the head of a Roman road, a porch through which we approach the Mystery, a hand outstretched to a crying child, a beloved companion in the sorrow of exile.  The Liturgy is not a formula. It is One who comes to meet us.[1]


The Gradual received its name from the Latin word gradus, meaning a step, because a cantor would sing it, standing on a step leading up to ambo.  The structure of the Gradual is an initial text, nearly always from the Psalter, followed by a verse entrusted to one or several cantors.  The first part may be repeated.

The musical treatment of the Gradual is melismatic, that is to say, lavish and characterized by great flights and cascades of notes that stretch and embellish the sacred text.

Maurice Zundel writes:

What really matters about words is not their strictly defined meanings which we find in the dictionary, but the imponderable aura wherein the unutterable Presence in which all things are steeped, is faintly perceptible. It is in the silent spaces which poetry and music open within us that the doctrinal formulae can be heard with their amplest resonance. It was therefore natural to invoke their aid after the reading of the Epistle.  For its message must be allowed to bear fruit in our personal meditation until we make contact with the Presence with which the texts are filled.  We must hear this single Word which is their true meaning and which no human word can express. The chanting of the Gradual provides this interval of silence and this time of rest in which the teaching just received can unfold in prayer, in the sweet movement of the Cantilena distilling in neums of light a divine dew.[2]


The Alleluia, a cry of jubilation at the approach of the Bridegroom King who will arrive in the proclamation of the Holy Gospel, is a chant full of mystery, in that it quits the zone of mere concepts and words, and takes flight to soar into the ecstatic vocalisations of one seized by an ineffable mystery.

Saint John relates that the Alleluia is a heavenly hymn.  It is the song of the saints in praise of God and of the Lamb.  The Alleluia is universal; it is found in all the liturgies of East and West.  This universal presence of the Alleluia in Christian worship attests to its great antiquity.

A verse or phrase, generally, but not always, from the Psalter, follows the Alleluia.  After the verse, the Alleluia is repeated.


The sequence prolongs the jubilation of the Alleluia, by gathering up the neums that cascade from it to organize them into a syllabic melody, and by giving free reign to a poetic expression of the mystery being celebrated.

Five sequences remain in the Roman Missal: the Victimae Paschali Laudes of Easter; the Veni Sancte Spiritus of Pentecost, the Lauda Sion Salvatorem of Corpus Domini; the Stabat Mater of September 15th; and the Dies Irae of the Requiem Mass.[3]


Whereas the Alleluia is the expression of a joy defying all expression, the Tract is characteristic of a liturgy marked by godly sorrow and compunction.  It is found in the Mass, notably, from Septuagesima until Easter. Originally the Tract was sung by the deacon from the ambo, in the manner of a lesson.  It was rendered from beginning to end without the interjection of a refrain by the choir; it is from this mode of execution that its name appears to be derived.

The Tract prepares the congregation for the hearing of the Gospel, not by inviting it to stand on tip–toe, as it were, at the arrival of the Bridegroom, but by inviting to a profound recollection.  The Tract, more than any other Chant of the Proper of the Mass, illustrates that the Roman Rite is a school of audientes, a school forming listeners to the Word.


The Offertory Antiphon, already at the time of Saint Augustine, was sung to accompany the offering of bread and wine by the faithful and clergy.  Pope Saint Gregory the Great gave to the chant at the Offertory a form not unlike that of the Introit: an antiphon and several verses from the Psalter.  The antiphon was repeated before each verse; the singing lasted until the priest signaled to the cantors that they should stop, after which he would turn to the faithful for the Orate Fratres.

Even after the Offertory procession, as such, fell into disuse, the Offertory Antiphon continued to be sung, shorn of its verses.  The Offertory Antiphon is, as a rule, taken from the Psalter, although occasionally it is taken from other Books of Sacred Scripture.  In a few cases as, for instance, in the Requiem Mass, it is an ecclesiastical composition.

As for its musical characteristics, the Offertory is one of the richest and most expressive pieces in the Gregorian repetoire.  Dom Eugène Vandeur, a Benedictine monk of the first half of the last century writes:

More mystical and profound than either the Introit or the Gradual, it disposes our souls to recollection that thus they may fittingly assist at the Adorable Sacrifice about to be renewed.  The Offertory [Antiphon], then, more than any other part of the Mass, is a sublime and inspired prayer rising to the throne of God.[4]


The Communion Antiphon with its psalm, structured like the Introit, accompanies the distribution of Holy Communion.  The communion of the faithful ended, the Gloria Patri is sung, after which the antiphon is repeated.

While the greater part of Communion Antiphons are drawn from the Psalter, a certain number are taken from the Gospel of the day.  These particular Communion Antiphons, sung especially during Lent and Paschaltide, signify that the same Lord Jesus Christ who speaks and acts in the power of the Holy Ghost in the Gospel of the Mass, gives Himself to the communicants to fulfill in them what the Gospel proclaimed and announced.

The 1965 Missale Romanum

The 1965 revision of the Roman Missal maintained the Chants of the Proper in their integrity as found in the Graduale Romanum.  Even as The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council, Sacrosanctum Concilium, was being implemented, the place of the Propers was not called into question.  They remained constitutive elements of the Mass, having a structural and theological rather than a merely decorative or didactic function within the overall architecture of the Mass.

The Missal of 1969

Four years later however, the fate of the Chants of the Proper of the Mass appears signed and sealed.  Concerning the Proper Chants, the Apostolic Constitution of Pope Paul VI, Missale Romanum (3 April 1969) is curiously misleading.  It says;

The text of the Graduale Romanum has not been changed as far as the music is concerned.  In the interest of their being more readily understood, however, the responsorial psalm (which St Augustine and St Leo the Great often mention) as well as the entrance and communion antiphons have been revised for use in Masses that are not sung.[5]

What the Apostolic Constitution neglects to say is:

1.  that the very form of the Introit has been changed to correspond to the Opening Sentence common in Protestant orders of worship;

2.  that the text itself of the revised Entrance Antiphon will no longer correspond to the text of the Graduale Romanum and, in some instances, will be an entirely new text susceptible of being integrated into the didactic opening remarks that, in the new Ordo Missae, may follow the salutation.

3.  That even the vestigial psalmody of the traditional Introit will disappear entirely from the reformed Missale Romanum;

3.  that the traditional texts of the Gradual, Tract, and Alleluiatic verses will be found henceforth only in the Graduale Romanum and will disappear completely from the reformed Lectionary;

4.  that the Offertory Antiphon will disappear entirely from the new Roman Missal entirely, and will be found henceforth only in the Graduale Romanum;

5.  that the Communion Antiphon will, like the Entrance Antiphon, become something akin to a Communion Sentence, and often will no longer correspond to the text of the Graduale Romanum.

Thus began the radical deconstruction of the Mass of the Roman Rite.  If one posits that the Chants of the Proper of the Mass are not merely decorative, but constitutive of its architecture, then one must admit that by tinkering with them, or removing them altogether, one is weakening or removing supporting beams of the entire edifice, and risking its collapse.

The General Instruction on the Roman Missal, also promulgated in April 1969, in a single phrase —sive alius cantus— effectively invited the termites to come in and finish the job.  Jesting aside, the Latin text of the General Instruction provided three options for the Chants of the Proper of the Mass.[6] These are:

1.  The antiphon with its psalm as given in the Graduale Romanum.

2.  The antiphon with its psalm as given in the Graduale Simplex.

3.  Another chant (alius cantus) suited to the sacred action and to the character of the day or season, the text of which is approved by the Conference of Bishops.

The 2002 American Adaptation of the GIRM

The 2002 American adaptation of the same General Instruction on the Roman Missal broadened the options and, in so doing, caused the text of the Proper Chants of the Roman Mass to appear as remote accessories that are, in any case, not indispensable to the architecture of the celebration.

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.

The choices are given in order of preference.  The Roman Gradual, which hitherto was the primary reference, falls into second place. The first choice is the text of the antiphon given in the revised Roman Missal; the American “adaptors” were assuming that these texts will have been put to music.

The second choice is the antiphon and psalm in the Roman Gradual; the American adaptation adds, rather tellingly, either in the chant setting or in another musical setting.[7]

The third choice is the Simple Gradual.  The Council Fathers had, in fact, in Sacrosanctum Concilium, article 117,[8] mandated the preparation of a Simple Gradual, better suited to use in smaller churches.

The fourth choice, a collection of psalms and antiphons approved by the Conference of Bishops or by the Diocesan Bishop, does not, to my knowledge, exist anywhere in the U.S. or elsewhere in the English–speaking world.

The fifth choice — clearly the last resort — is a suitable liturgical song (here, there is a departure from the psalms and antiphons found in choices 1 through 4) similarly approved by the Conference of Bishops or by the Diocesan Bishop.

The General Instruction on the Roman Missal continues:

48. 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 (cf. above, no. 31).

Article 48, by suggesting five different ways of reciting the antiphon in the Missal, including its mutation by the priest into an introductory explanation — note here the primacy of the didactic — puts the final touches on a insidious operation by which the Proper Chants of the Mass, even in the minimalistic form of texts recited by the celebrant, routinely came to be omitted altogether.  The Proper Chants, that in 1964 were still considered to be constitutive elements of the Mass, deemed indispensable to the very shape of the liturgy, were, by 1969, well on their way to being replaced by other compositions alien to the Roman Rite, and erased from the collective liturgical memory.


Allow me to formulate a principle, perhaps even a law of liturgical evolution.  It is this: elements of the rite tend to be neglected and, in the end, disappear altogether, in direct proportion to the number of options by virtue of which they may be replaced or modified.

To my mind, one of the most urgent tasks of what has been called The Reform of the Reform is the suppression of the provision for an alius cantus aptus, and the restoration of the traditional texts of the Proper of the Mass, taking care, at the same time, that the texts given in the Missale Romanum correspond to those in the Graduale Romanum. (I would also argue for the restoration of the text of the Offertorium [Offertory Antiphon] to the editio typica of the reformed Missale Romanum.)  The replacement, in the current Missale Romanum of the venerable sung texts of the Graduale Romanum with texts destined to be read, was an innovation without precedent, and a mistake with far reaching and deleterious consequences for the Roman Rite.

In conclusion, I would further argue that a wider use of the Missal of 1962, and a retrieval of the so–called interim Missals published prior to 1969, in whole or in part, would be among the most effective means to the rehabilitation and reappropriation of the Proper Chants as indispensable theological and structural elements of the Mass of the Roman Rite.


[1] Maurice Zundel, The Splendour of the Liturgy, New York: Sheed and Ward, 1939, pp. 43–44.

[2] Maurice Zundel, ibid. pp. 77–78.

[3] The Roman Missal of 1969 retains only four of these; the Dies Irae having been removed to the Liturgy of the Hours where it serves as a hymn for the last two weeks per annum.

[4] Eugène Vandeur, The Holy Mass, London: Burnes, Oates & Washbourne, 1923, p. 74.

[5] Documents on the Liturgy, 1963–1979, Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1982, p.460.

[6] 48. Peragitur autem a schola et populo alternatim, vel simili modo a cantore et populo, vel totus a populo vel a schola sola. Adhiberi potest (1) sive antiphona cum suo psalmo in Graduali romano (2) vel in Graduali simplici exstans, (3) sive alius cantus, actioni sacræ, diei vel temporis indoli congruus,cuius textus a Conferentia Episcoporum sit approbatus.

Si ad introitum non habetur cantus, antiphona in Missali proposita recitatur sive a fidelibus, sive ab aliquibus ex ipsis, sive a lectore, sin aliter ab ipso sacerdote, qui potest etiam in modum monitionis initialis (cf. n. 31) eam aptare.  (Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani 2002, art. 47–48)

[7] To my mind this option within an option only serves to weaken the rightful primacy of Gregorian Chant as the musical expression proper to the Roman Rite.

[8] “The typical edition of the books of Gregorian chant is to be completed; and a more critical edition is to be prepared of those books already published since the restoration by St. Pius X.  It is desirable also that an edition be prepared containing simpler melodies, for use in small churches.”

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