Can Hymns replace the Propers during Mass?
A common question today concerns the 2011 GIRM (General Instruction of the Roman Missal), which says (for the Introit and Communion Propers):
This chant is sung alternately by the choir and the people or similarly by a 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 Missal or the antiphon with its Psalm from the Graduale Romanum, as set to music there or in another setting; (2) the antiphon and Psalm of the Graduale Simplex for the liturgical time; (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.
There are no references to “song” or “hymn,” but only to a “liturgical chant.” People are asking if hymns or songs are still allowed to replace the Propers. The January 2012 Newsletter of the USCCB Secretariat of Divine Worship addresses this question. As László Dobszay has explained in his 2003 article, the phrase “vel alius cantus aptus” means “or anything else which is appropriate.” In other words, hymns have always been considered to be allowed to replace the Propers, and this is why we included close to 200 hymns in the Vatican II Hymnal.
Many have found it troubling that the author of the USCCB newsletter “justified” the answer by a bogus argument [source]:
“Chant” (the translation of the Latin cantus) is intended here to refer not to a particular musical form (e.g., Gregorian chant), but as a general title for any musical piece. This is seen most clearly in the Missal itself. During the Good Friday celebration, the Missal has as a heading for one section, “Chants to Be Sung during the Adoration of the Holy Cross.” The “Chants” that follow include antiphons, the Reproaches, and a hymn. Similarly, in Appendix II, the Rite for the Blessing and Sprinkling of Water, a rubric states, “one of the following chants… is sung.” There follows antiphons and a hymn. From these examples, it is clear that the Missal in no way forbids the use of hymns or songs for the Entrance and Communion processions.
The problem with this statement is that everything referenced by the newsletter is, in fact, Gregorian chant! For instance, the “hymn” that is referenced during Good Friday is the Crux Fidelis:
The statement in the USCCB newsletter, then, is sadly open to severe criticism. After all, the mere fact that a baseball “bat” shares the same name as the mammal “bat” does not mean that your baseball bat will start eating bugs! Nor does it “prove” that you can go into the forest, catch a bat (mammal), and use it during a baseball game! At the risk of repeating myself, Gregorian hymns have very little to do with common-practice hymn tunes: one is metrical and tonal, the other rhythmically free and modal. For more on this subject, please see Adrian Fortescue.
So, with regard to whether hymns are allowed to replace the Propers, there is absolutely no controversy: everyone has always agreed that current legislation allows for this. However, what must be addressed is the more important question: should we be replacing Propers with hymns? Is this truly the best choice? It has been suggested that certain quarters have tried to avoid this question “at all costs.” This is why all the recent attention has been placed on “proving” that hymns can replace propers (which everyone has agreed on for thirty years). By the way, let me be clear that I am not implicating the USCCB. To put it another way, if certain quarters can keep the main focus on “is it allowed” (and everyone without exception agrees it is), they hope people will not start asking the real question: “Should we be replacing the Propers with hymns?”
I will not here enumerate the numerous reasons Catholics ought to sing the Mass Propers, as these are treated in depth by so many others. However, I would like to include one quote from Professor Dobszay’s 2003 article, which seems to me a very unique insight:
Neither can we disregard the form of the texts. The Introit of the Ascension begins thus: “Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into Heaven?” Whom do we hear speaking in this chant? It is the speech of God, of course, and then of the Church—but in the words of the angels. This is a chant of representation. And we have already seen Christ speaking in the Easter Introit, “I am risen and am still with thee . . .” This, too, is the language of representation. The Introit of the second Sunday in Advent proclaims, “People of Zion, behold the Lord shall come to save the nations . . .” And who is speaking here? It is the Church as herald of the Good News who begins to speak in this chant. It is a chant of announcement. Or the words of the Introit for the third Sunday in Lent, beginning “Mine eyes are ever looking unto the Lord; for He shall pluck my feet out of the net . . .” Who is speaking now? God puts these words on the lips of the whole Church and the souls who make up the Church. This is a chant of imploring . . . .
All these examples have one thing in common. In them, someone speaks. Now, when we listen to a strophic hymn, this precise effect of locutio directa is diminished, indeed disappears completely. When we sing even the finest hymns, we feel they are the compositions of a poet—it is the poet who speaks in these chants. And that difference is a consequence of the form. There, the flow of thoughts, the length and linkage of phrases, the selection of words is defined and determined by the poetic form, by its rhythmic structure and rhyme . . . .
Which Propers should we sing? Missal or Gradual?
Why the Missal antiphons do not always match those in the Roman Gradual has been explained at length by myself and many others in articles like this, but let us review this topic, since it can be confusing.
Based on the results of a 1968 questionnaire, Pope Paul VI decided to revise the Introit and Communion antiphons for Masses without music. Here is what Pope Paul VI said in 1969:
As for what remains, although the text of the Graduale Romanum, at least what pertains to the music, has not been changed, for the sake of easier understanding, both the well-known responsorial psalm, which Saint Leo the Great and Saint Augustine often mention, and the antiphons for the Entrance and for Communion, to be employed in Masses without singing, have been restored. [source]
The 1975 GIRM (“universal version”) said clearly:
[§26] If there is no singing at the Entrance, the antiphon given in the Missal is recited.
[§26] Si ad introitum non habetur cantus, antiphona in Missali proposita recitatur.
[§56] If there is no singing, the communion antiphon in the Missal is recited.
[§56] Si autem non habetur cantus, antiphona in MissaIi proposita recitatur.
The American Bishops, in their 1975 “USA adaptation” of the GIRM, emphasized that the Entrance and Communion antiphons in the Missal were only to be used if there was no singing:
ENTRANCE CHANT: Only if none of the above alternatives is employed and there is no entrance song, is the antiphon in the Missal recited.  
COMMUNION CHANT: Only if none of the above alternatives is employed and there is no Communion song, is the antiphon in the “Missal” recited. 
[§48] If there is no singing at the entrance, the antiphon in the Missal is recited.
[§87] If there is no singing, the communion antiphon in the Missal is recited.
In terms of the choices for Entrance, Offertory, and Communion antiphon, the “universal version” of the GIRM has remained constant and without change since it was first published in the 1970’s:
48. The chant is sung alternatively between the schola and the people, or the cantor and the people, or entirely by all, or entirely by the schola alone. One could use either the antiphon with its psalm as found in the Roman Gradual or in the Simple Gradual, or another chant, congruent with the theme of the sacred action, day or time, whose text has been approved by the Conference of Bishops.   
On 14 November 2001, however, the Bishops of the United States requested a rather curious insertion (approved by Rome on 25 April 2002):
ENTRANCE CHANT This adaptation will take the place of the third sentence in paragraph 48: 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.
COMMUNION CHANT This adaptation will take the place of the first sentence of number 87: In the dioceses of the United States of America there are four options for the Communion Chant: (1) the antiphon from the Roman Missal and 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 United States Conference of Catholic Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop, including psalms arranged in responsorial or metrical forms; (4) a suitable liturgical song chosen in accordance with no.86 above.  
This adaptation was kept for the 2011 “USA version” of the GIRM:
ENTRANCE CHANT 48. 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; (2) the antiphon and Psalm of the Graduale Simplex for the liturgical time; (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.
COMMUNION CHANT 87. In the Dioceses of the United States of America, there are four options for singing at Communion: (1) the antiphon from the Missal or the antiphon with its Psalm from the Graduale Romanum, as set to music there or in another musical setting; (2) the antiphon with Psalm from the Graduale Simplex of the liturgical time; (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) some other suitable liturgical chant (cf. no. 86) approved by the Conference of Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop.
In 2011, the Secretariat of Divine Worship stated that the 2003 translation was “provisional”:
The final text of the Roman Missal, Third Edition, for use in the Dioceses of the United States and approved in 2010, includes a new translation of the GIRM. The 2003 text was intended as a provisional translation, and in subsequent years other English-language Conferences of Bishops issued their own translations of the GIRM. The translation contained here and also in the ritual edition of the Roman Missal, Third Edition, is now the single official translation for the English-speaking world. [PDF]
Incidentally, this statement as written is not exactly correct, being that the GIRM translation cited (and published on the USCCB website) contains the USA “adaptations,” while no other English translation does (for instance, the Canadian includes their own special Canadian adaptations, etc.). As others have noted, it would have, perhaps, been clearer if the adaptations were placed in an appendix (as they did in the 1975 version).
Does any of this matter?
The reader might be asking, “Why does any of this matter?” After all, the mere fact that the USCCB wanted an American adaptation of the GIRM is nothing new: as we have seen, they had one in 1975, too. Furthermore, the fact that, starting in 2002, American composers could set the “spoken” antiphons from the Missal under “option 1” does not seem significant, being that it was possible to do this under “option 4” with the express permission of the diocesan bishop (prior to 2002). However, I would suggest that the USA adaptation of moving the “spoken” Entrance and Communion Propers is unfortunate for the following reasons:
1. The Missal Propers are not traditional, whereas the Gradual Propers go back more than 15 centuries.
2. The Missal Propers were never meant to be sung, but were intended for Masses “without singing” (see the quote by Pope Paul VI).
3. It causes confusion, since the “spoken” Propers from the Missal do not always match the “sung” Propers in the Roman Gradual.
4. The Missal Propers are under copyright. Composers who set them are forced to pay royalties to the copyright holder.
Except for the United States, no one else elevates the “spoken” antiphons in the Missal to “option 1.” Neither the British nor Canadian adaptations of the GIRM do this [source]. This adaptation also does not make sense, since section 74 says “the norms on the manner of singing [the Offertory Chant] are the same as for the Entrance Chant,” but there is no “spoken” version of the Offertory chant included in the Roman Missal (it is omitted if not sung, since the priest is busy receiving the bread and wine).
Christoph Tietze (in his 2006 article) has given evidence that the American adaptation was the result of a misunderstanding. In an early draft of the adaptation, the following wording was used:
Cantus ad introitum: This adaptation will take the place of the third sentence in number 48: In the dioceses of the United States of America there are four options for the cantus ad introitum: (1) the antiphon and Psalm from the Roman Missal as set to music by the Roman Gradual 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 USCCB or the Diocesan Bishop, including psalms arranged in responsorial or metrical forms; (4) a suitable liturgical song chosen in accordance with GIRM, no. 48.
Cantus ad Communionem This adaptation will take the place of the first sentence of number 87: In the dioceses of the United States of America there are four options for the Cantus ad Communionem: (1) the antiphon and Psalm from the Roman Missal as set to music in the Roman Gradual 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 USCCB or the Diocesan Bishop, including psalms arranged in responsorial or metrical forms; (4) a suitable liturgical song chosen in accordance with GIRM, no. 86. [source]
This statement shows that the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy assumed that the MR and GR antiphons were identical. Moreover, it assumed that the MR contains proper psalms to accompany the antiphons, which it does not. Apparently, somebody must have pointed out to them this error, but the result in the final version of the translated GIRM is even worse:
“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 . . .”
Does the author mean that the antiphon from the GR does not apply here, but only the psalm verse? This statement does not make any sense at all, but it is the text which went to print. [source]
Paul Monachino, chair of the Conference of Roman Catholic Cathedral Musicians, stressed that this wording of the 2003 “American adaptation” to the GIRM is unintelligible and inscrutable in a letter (3 March 2009) to the Chairman of the Committee on Divine Worship. We can be grateful that the statement was corrected somewhat in the 2011 GIRM (perhaps thanks to efforts like those of Monachino) and, as a result, makes more sense. However, as explained above, the consequences of this adaptation do not seem positive, and the reason behind the change remains a mystery. In January of 2011, I put out a call [source] for any documentation regarding this subject, but none has been forthcoming.
Propers based on Readings?
Thus far, we have established that the the first choice for the Mass Propers should be the ancient versions found in the Graduale Romanum (if you do not know what the Roman Gradual is, please see this article or this series). We also have noted that the universal GIRM (not just the USA version) allows for a hymn to replace the Proper (for the Introit, Offertory, or Communion) so long as it is “appropriate” and is not written in a secular style.
Since the Second Vatican Council, the norm has become to replace 100% of the Propers 100% of the time. This is nothing short of inexplicable, especially since the Council intended to “restore” the more ancient practices of the liturgy (unfortunately, sometimes to the point of embracing antiquarianism). It is, quite literally, a case of “throwing out the baby with the bath water.” Until the Mass Propers are restored, it would be impossible to say the reforms of the Council have been successful. However, for the time being, most parishes replace the Propers with hymns, and many Catholic directors choose the hymns “based on the readings.”
Let me say clearly that I have no problem with directors choosing the hymns based on the readings, but I would like to offer some reflections in this regard:
1. Both the Mass readings and Mass Propers are an important part of the post-conciliar liturgy.
2. Care should be taken that the readings are not thought of as “more important” than the Propers, which (indeed) are often more ancient and more in continuity with what has come down to us.
3. It goes without saying that the Propers should never be replaced “in order to better match the readings,” since the Propers are the special, ancient, carefully-chosen prayers of the Church for each feast and are an essential part of the Roman liturgy.
4. The Propers were often chosen specifically to fit the feast, whereas the readings were often more “random” (in the sense that they were the result of continuous readings of the Bible, especially in very ancient times).
5. It is an oversimplification and misunderstanding of the liturgy itself to think of all Masses as having a “theme” dictated by the readings. The legitimate liturgist understands that the liturgy has incredible depth.
6. I and many others believe that the liturgy was inspired by God and we cannot always understand it perfectly. Neither can we always perfectly “understand” Scripture.
7. The sacred liturgy is not to be understood purely in “archaeological” or “pastoral” terms, but rather, according to organic development. Another way to express this idea is that we ought not “make up” or “actively create” the liturgy.
The following excerpts come from one of the greatest books ever written: The Mass: A Study of the Roman Liturgy (1912) by Adrian Fortescue. Fr. Fortescue was a brilliant scholar and holy priest. To be clear, I realize Fortescue is writing about the pre-conciliar Mass. However, this does not matter, unless one subscribes to the idea that the post-conciliar liturgy is so different and such a rupture with liturgical tradition that we cannot learn anything about it by studying the history of the Roman Rite. The author does not subscribe to this view.
(220) We must leave the question of who chose our old propers as one of the many unknown details of the origin of our rite. The new ones are arranged by someone appointed by the Congregation of Rites and approved by it. As for why certain verses were chosen for certain days, that question too is full of difficulty. On many days the reason is obvious. When a feast has a marked character and a verse can be found that suits it, it is chosen, often with great skill. A glance through the old propria will be a new revelation of how well our fathers knew their Bibles. The finding of texts, often in remote places, that fit the occasion so perfectly argues that they must almost have known the Bible by heart.
(221) The propers of Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, Commons of Saints, the Requiem and so on are quite obvious. But the ordinary Sunday Masses? Why, for instance, is the Introit for the first Sunday after Pentecost Ps. xii, 6? The question will occur again even more insistently when we come to the lessons (pp. 257-261). In no case does there seem to be any particular reason. One cannot really see any special connection between a Sunday that has no marked character and texts of the psalter that express sentiments equally suitable for any day. Sometimes there seems to be an effort to maintain a sequence of idea throughout the Proper. The Introit, Gradual, Tract, Offertory and Communion of the first Sunday in Lent, for instance, all express trust in God’s protection, suiting the Gospel, in which our Lord, having rejected the devil, is served by angels. But in most cases not even a sequence of definite idea is apparent. Mystic interpreters who find a logical idea running through every office do so only by emphasizing the harmony that must exist in any series of Christian prayers. You may say that a Sunday office breathes love of God, sorrow for sin, faith and hope—any collection of prayers does so, of course. So in many cases all one can say candidly is that the unknown early compiler of the proper had to choose some texts; as a matter of fact he chose these. Each of them is certainly an excellent prayer, its idea is most appropriate for any day, therefore also for this. And the Catholic who reverences our past, who values the corporate life of the Church, cannot do better on any given day than join in the sentiments expressed by the Church for so many centuries on this day and join the vast number of his fellow Latins who are singing these venerable texts all over the world.
(262) It is better perhaps to realize that attempts to explain why certain lessons are read on certain Sundays by reasons of inner appropriateness, such as the mediæval liturgiologists loved, though often ingenious, are really vain. As in the case of all the Proper, we cannot as a rule find even a definite special idea running through the whole Mass. There does not generally seem a connection between the Epistle and Gospel, except always on the feasts. It remains, of course, true that any part of Scripture may be read with profit on any day. The preacher must be content with that.
(260) The most difficult Sundays to explain are those after Pentecost. The Masses for these are late; they are not provided even in the Gregorian Sacramentary. Their Gospels seem to be meant to fill up what has not yet been told of our Lord’s life. But even so their arrangement is hard to understand . . . It has been thought that they are suggested by the lessons of Matins. In some cases such a comparison is certainly tempting . . .
(261) Our conclusion as to the Roman Pericopes then must be that whatever old system there may have been is now so overlain as to be really unrecognizable. Only here and there we seem to see traces of a definite idea in their order; but the choice of those for feasts is generally obvious enough. Perhaps our present arrangement represents the fusion of various systems. It is certainly very old.
(258) Originally it seems clear that the books were read in continuous order, as they still are (with considerable abbreviations) at Matins.
(259) We can find in our Missal hardly a trace of any system at all. The idea of continuous readings has become so overlain that there is nothing left of it.
(257) The chief question about the lessons, and the most impossible to answer satisfactorily, is on what system, if any, the Pericopes for each Mass have been chosen.
Again: why does this matter?
The reason I brought up all these quotes was to give some background for my suggestion. Where it is pastorally necessary to replace the Propers with hymns, I would suggest that the primary emphasis need not be fitting the readings. In my view, the following two criteria should be applied:
1. As much as possible, the hymn should match the feast, if there be a marked character.
2. The melody should be well known and loved by the congregation.
While the first is obvious, some may question the second. However, let us think about what is happening: we are replacing the text and music the Church has assigned over centuries with a hymn. Why? Is it not to encourage more participation? Is it not to allow the congregation to sing a melody they know and works well with a group? If so, then the second reason becomes very important. If not, then why are we replacing the Proper in the first place? As a reminder, this replacement must always be within in the confines established by the Church (mentioned above): no secular styles, no raucous music, etc.
A possible solution: the Vatican II Hymnal
With the publication of the Vatican II Hymnal, a possible solution is now available. 750 pages long, it contains the complete readings for all Sundays and feasts (Years A, B, and C) and is the first hymnal ever printed for the Ordinary form to contain complete texts for the Gradual Propers (with Latin incipit). No matter which version of the Propers your Schola Cantorum sings—the full Gregorian Propers, the Chants Abrégés, the Simple English Propers, the Simple English Psalm Tones, and so forth—the congregation can follow along. It also contains more than a hundred pages of Mass Settings (Roman Missal, 3rd Edition), as well as the complete Mass Ordinary (in Latin and English) for Ordinary & Extraordinary Forms of the Mass. We realize that sometimes a Schola Cantorum cannot be present, so we have included beautiful hymns, including 100+ pages of Communion hymns. Additionally, there are two versions of the complete Responsorial Psalms for Years ABC, Alleluias, Motets, and much more.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Vatican II Hymnal is the availability of free resources online, including 100% of the organ harmonizations. One can access all these accompaniments, practice videos, indices, the Foreword by Bishop René H. Gracida, and much more by visiting the Vatican II Hymnal Website.
Click here to read “Part 1” of this article.