The Propers of the Mass (May 28, 2017)
A few months ago, after the 6 pm Mass, one of our parish lectors shared with me that he had been struck by the text of the Communion antiphon that had been sung by the cantor that evening. This was music to my ears – it was delightful to hear how this individual had found new insight into the Gospel through the liturgical texts appointed by the Church for that particular Sunday.
Over the past year, our new music program has placed special emphasis on the “Propers” of the Mass – the antiphons and verses selected by the Church to harmonize with the readings and themes of the liturgical year. In this case, the lector was responding not to a brilliant insight from the preacher or a moving improvisation on the organ – he was responding to the liturgical synthesis offered by the Church herself.
Through the Propers of the Mass, the Church enriches our encounter with Christ and the Word of God by synthesizing themes and texts from through the Scriptures into a harmony of word and melody. Following the principle of using scripture to interpret scripture, the Propers draw principally on the Psalms, revealing the ways in which the mysteries of Christ fulfill the Law and the Prophets. When sung, the Propers extend our meditation on these scriptural texts, enabling us to find further insights into their meaning revealed by the melodic settings.
There are five parts of the liturgy that call for the use of the Propers: the Entrance Rite, the Psalm after the first reading, the Alleluia verse or Verse before the Gospel, the Offertory Rites, and the Communion Rites. Chants are provided for each of these parts in the Graduale, the Church’s book of chants for the Mass, and some of them are also found in alternate versions in the Lectionary, the book of readings used at Mass. Each Sunday and Feast Day of the Liturgical Year has its own chants that have been carefully chosen to provide text and music that enriches these liturgical moments.
In our Parish, we draw on the Propers in a variety of modes: at our Solemn Masses (12 noon at St. Vincent), the Propers are sung in Latin by the Schola (with the Responsorial Psalm in English); at our Sung Masses (6 pm at St. Vincent; 10 am and 5:15 pm at St. Catherine), they are sung in English by the Cantor; at our Low Masses (4 pm at St. Catherine and 8 am at St. Vincent) they are spoken by the Lector. This variety is based on the dual principles that 1) the Propers are privileged texts of the Church 2) that our parishioners have a diversity of responses to the variety of languages and musical styles that make up the our liturgical and musical patrimony.
During the Entrance Rites, the Introit (known in the Dominican tradition as the Officium) antiphon and verse serve 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” (General Instruction of the Roman Missal §47). For instance, the Introit Viri Galilaei (Men of Galilee) of the Ascension draws on the Acts of the Apostles in order to begin the celebration of that feast with the invitation of the angels to look forward to the triumphant return of Christ at the end of time. The Introit of the Seventh Sunday of Easter, Exaudi, Domine (Hear, O Lord) draws on Psalm 26 to capture the longing of the Apostles after the Ascension of Christ: “Hear, O Lord, my voice with which I have cried to You, alleluia. My heart has said to You, ‘I have sought Your face, Your face, O Lord, I will seek; turn not away Your face from me,’ alleluia, alleluia.” Jesus Christ, the Visible Face of the Invisible Father, has departed from their midst, and yet they still joyfully seek to see the Face of God. Next Sunday, for Pentecost, the Introit Spiritus Domini (The Spirit of the Lord) will describe the mystery of the ever-expanding presence of the Spirit, drawing on the Book of Wisdom: “The Spirit of the Lord has filled the whole earth, alleluia, and that which contains all things has knowledge of the voice, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”
In the case of the Psalm after the first reading, our Parish usually uses the Responsorial Psalm appointed in the Lectionary. These psalms are chosen by the Church to be linked thematically with the readings for the individual day, often constituting a reflection on the passage that has just been proclaimed.
After the second reading, the Alleluia verse (or the Verse before the Gospel during Lent) prepares us for the Gospel. At Low Masses and Sung Masses, we draw this verse from the Lectionary, while at the Solemn Masses we use the version found in the Graduale.
During the Preparation of the Gifts following the Prayer of the Faithful, the Offertory chant provides a further scriptural context for the offering that is being prepared. Compared to the Introit, the Offertory chants tend to be more ornate, giving a meditative exposition of the scriptural text that accompanies the gestures of offering.
During the distribution of Communion, the Communion antiphon gives a further reflection on the theme of the day. Sometimes the Communion antiphon is drawn from the Psalms, but occasionally it is drawn from the Gospel that was proclaimed that day.
In addition to the Propers, which are appointed by the Church in her official liturgical books, we also have other songs and hymns that are chosen by the Director of Music for each individual liturgy. At the Solemn Mass, we often have motets sung by the choir after the Offertory and Communion chants. At the Solemn and Sung Masses, we sing a congregational Post-Communion Hymn (and on occasion an additional hymn after the Offertory chant). These motets and hymns harmonize with the other elements of the liturgy, drawing on the Church’s wonderful patrimony of choral music and hymnody.
The Propers of the Mass are a wonderful treasure provided by the Church for our spiritual enrichment. As we enter into the second year of our new music program, we will begin to encounter anew the same cycle of chants and texts we have been hearing for the past year. I hope that this letter helps you to continue to enter into these parts of the Mass more deeply.
Yours in Christ,
Fr. Innocent Smith, op