This weekend, you will notice something a little different about the entrance procession of the cross, altar servers, and priest at the beginning of Mass. We will all be singing a chant (either in Latin, English, or Spanish, depending on your preferred Mass time) during the procession, instead of a hymn. What is the reason for this, and why do we need to change our normal practice of the opening hymn? In this article, I hope to shed some light on the Church’s intention behind the practice of Entrance Chants during the procession.
The idea of a procession (or, Entrance) of servers and ministers into the church to begin the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is something to which the Church gives special importance. The Church groups the acts of the Entrance, the Greeting, and the Act of Penitence together under the name “Introductory Rites,” with the purpose of ensuring ” that the faithful, who come together as one, establish communion and dispose themselves properly to listen to the Word of God and to celebrate the Eucharist worthily.” (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 46) As God’s faithful and as imperfect human beings, we need these Introductory Rites to help us assume a prayerful disposition, and to orient ourselves toward the Mysteries of the Mass.
For this purpose, the Church in Her wisdom assigns texts to accompany the Entrance of the ministers, for every single Sunday, Feast Day, and weekday of the year! In the Traditional Latin Mass, this text is called the “Introit”, which we now translate into “Entrance Antiphon.” The texts of these Antiphons are usually Psalms or some other part of Scripture that are related to the day’s celebration or readings. These texts are carefully set out in a book called the Graduale Romanum (or the “Roman Gradual”), which assigns specific Scriptural texts during the Entrance and other parts of the Mass for every day, and sets them to ancient Gregorian chant melodies.
Entrance Antiphons are meant play a particular role in accompanying the Entrance Procession. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) says this about the Entrance Antiphon’s role in the Mass:
“Its purpose is to open the celebration, foster the unity of those who have been gathered, introduce their thoughts to the mystery of the liturgical time or festivity, and accompany the procession of the Priest and ministers.” (GIRM, 47)
In other words, the role of the Entrance Antiphon is to set the tone1 for that day’s celebration, while the ministers are entering the church. The specific text of the Entrance Antiphon is meant to allow us to begin the Mass with the precise sentiment the Church wants us to have for that day. Since it is scriptural, it reminds us that this is something “from the heart of God”, as it were.
This is all excellent information, but why can’t we just use a regular hymn to set the tone for the Mass and accompany the procession? This is an excellent question, and technically, this is allowed by the GIRM. However, the Church lists the options for the Entrance Antiphon in order of preference. Here are the options which GIRM provides concerning Entrance Antiphons:
“In the Dioceses of the United States of America, there are four options for the Entrance Chant:
(1) the antiphon from the Missal or the antiphon with its Psalm from the Graduale Romanum, as set to music there or in another setting; [note: the Graduale Romanum is the Church’s book of all the Antiphons of the year set to the original Gregorian chant melodies]
(2) the antiphon and Psalm of the Graduale Simplex for the liturgical time; [note: this is a book containing Antiphons with simplified chant melodies]
(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) another liturgical chant that is suited to the sacred action, the day, or the time of year, similarly approved by the Conference of Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop.” (GIRM 48)
What does this mean? Well, the common practice of using a hymn instead of the Entrance Chant to accompany the Procession falls under the fourth option, and technically the least preferable to the Church because it is only meant to be used when none of the other options are possible. It was never meant to be the standard. When the resources are available, why use a standard hymn when we could sing the Antiphon text specifically prescribed by the Church for the celebration of that day?
Further, the document “Sacrosanctum Concillium,” published by the Second Vatican Council states that the text for any music during Mass “must always be in conformity with Catholic doctrine; indeed they should be drawn chiefly from holy scripture and from liturgical sources.” (S.C., 121) Since the texts of the Entrance Antiphons come directly from divinely inspired scripture, they are best suited for use during Mass. Hymns, on the other hand, can not always claim freedom from doctrinal error, much less an origin in scripture.
Finally, Entrance Antiphons have historically been sung to chant melodies. In the four options above, the GIRM strongly suggests chant as the preferred setting for the Entrance Antiphon. Whole books have been written on the integrality of chant in the Mass,2 and chant works particularly well for processions. Dr. William Mahrt, a chant scholar at Stanford University, writes,
“The music of the chant extends the performance of the text substantially, and upon reflection, one must conclude that something more solemn and important is happening at this point in the liturgy than during the psalm antiphon. Indeed, the introit chant accompanies the entrance of the ministers into the church, their approach to the altar as the place of the Mass, the central liturgical act of the day, and the marking of the altar as a sacred place by incensing it. This processional act consists of purposeful motions, and the music itself projects a sense of motion. The neumatic style [of chant] is best suited to this: the accentuation of the text is heightened by neumatic motion, but the text moves continually through its syllables, at a solemn, but motion-filled pace.” (Mahrt, The Musical Shape of the Liturgy¸ pg. 124)
What an appropriate musical setting for the solemnity and restrained joy of the procession!
Surely, the Church’s specificity of the Antiphon texts; their guaranteed doctrinal soundness; and the clothing of the text in majestic chant are very appropriate (and in fact desirable) for “the dignity of the temple, and…the edification of the faithful.” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 120)
1. Sometimes, we can see that the first word of the Entrance Antiphon has come to name the entire feast. One example of this is Laetare Sunday: in the original Latin Introit, the first words of the text (also called the “incipit”) are “Laetare, Jerusalem,” which means, “Rejoice, Jerusalem.” Eventually, the entire feast came to be known as Laetare Sunday, because we are rejoicing for coming of Easter and the end of the Lenten fast.
2. The Second Vatican Council acknowledges Gregorian chant as “specially suited to the Roman Liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services.” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 116)
General Instruction of the Roman Missal
The Musical Shape of the Liturgy by Dr. William Mahrt