HE SINGING of antiphons at Mass has sufficiently come to the fore in the liturgical landscape that it is receiving notable pushback as a consequence. A few years ago, singing the propers, whether from the Graduale Romanum in Latin or translations in the vernacular or from the Roman Missal, was easily disregarded as fringe. Perhaps it is still viewed as such and not without cause. However, such notice and subsequent objection has been a catalyst for healthy, respectful, and overdue conversation. This development is hopeful. The liturgy wars have been destructive; much of the Church has descended into poisonous tribalism. We are all children of God. (I write this to remind myself!) Here is an opportunity to objectively examine, learn, and look inside at our own egos, wants, and desires. Furthermore, some may agree or disagree with my recommendations. This I respect, as I have much to learn from others.
(Full disclosure: I have musical settings of both antiphons and hymns published with GIA Publications as well as hymn settings in the Saint John de Brébeuf Hymnal, Sophia Press Institute.)
MOST RECENTLY THE USE of prescribed antiphons — and their psalms — was highlighted in a pastoral letter from Bishop Carl A. Kemme, Bishop of Wichita, Kansas called On Sacred Music: Let Us Sing with the Lord. Not without precedent, Archbishop Alexander K. Sample also released pastoral letters on sacred music in 2013 while bishop of Marquette, Michigan: Rejoice In The Lord Always and in 2019 for the Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon: Sing to the Lord a New Song.
In all three instances, nothing deviating from Church documents was cited. In Bishop Kremme’s letter, he does emphasize singing the antiphons and their psalms at Mass in place of hymns and songs. He acknowledges the difficulty of such a change, however citing the similarity in structure to the Responsorial Psalm:
“At first, singing the antiphons may seem like a significant shift; however, it is a form of singing that we are already familiar with since singing the antiphons with their Psalm verses resembles the singing of the Responsorial Psalm. The antiphons, with their Psalm verses, are a part of Christ’s prayer to the Father, and when we sing them in the liturgy, we unite our voice to the voice of Christ.”
This analogy works if all things are equal and the antiphon is singable. The lengths of antiphons vary widely with longer texts posing greater challenge to congregational singing. This requires some compositional skill to repeat or develop themes within an antiphon to connect long or multiple phrases and aid the congregation.
HOW MIGHT one approach this in a practical manner in most parishes? Such an overnight switch might cause rebellion in many parishes depending on the settings used and how skillfully they are sung. Having served as music director for decades in a parish with a diverse music program, I greatly encourage a both/and approach. This is a more pastoral response which can be implemented in varying ways. A common practice is to sing an antiphon (with or without verses pending time) followed or proceeded by a hymn (GIRM 86 aside). Translations, texts or music for the congregation provided in a worship guide are a must. Even now as I direct in a cathedral parish where the Entrance, Offertory, and Communion chants are sung at most liturgies, if robust hymns are not also offered, the Cathedral Rector and the Cardinal Archbishop will certainly not be amused!
In a parish in which antiphons have never been sung, the communion antiphons are often the easiest “gateway” to singing the propers given the familiar refrain/verse/refrain structure. Likewise, the Introit Hymns for the Church Year by Christoph Tietze and Hymn Tune Introits: Singing the Sundays of the Liturgical Year by Kathleen Pluth provide seamless entry to singing entrance antiphons as they set versified texts to commonly known hymn tunes. One may also consider Charles Thatcher’s very singable entrance and communion antiphons with English translations of the Graduale Simplex. These are all exceptionally fine ways to introduce the antiphons to congregations without overt stylistic disruption.
One must grasp that there has been such an explosion of compositional output in the last fifteen years especially, that today there exists a vast variety of styles in antiphon settings just as there are in hymns and songs. Styles of new works range from chant-based works in the vernacular to metered hymn-style settings, to simple and accessible choral works, to those leaning towards popular styles. One cannot generalize.
Much of this creative eruption was on display at National Pastoral Musicians (NPM) National Conference in Reno, Nevada in July, 2023 which included a presentation called “Communion Antiphons: Ever Ancient, Ever New.” This was presented by Matthew Gray, Director of Music Ministries, Mission Basilica of San Juan Capistrano, along with Patricia Lamb, and Michael Upward. They offered a brief historical overview and touched upon settings that ranged from the Graduale Romanum to chant-based and contemporary settings in English and Spanish. Their research was quite thorough including comprehensive knowledge on each composer’s work. Attendees sang through the vast array of presented works gaining hands-on experience of how well suited each antiphon was to singing.
Stylistic diversity aside, antiphons and hymns may accomplish different things well. The prescribed texts (which vary to some degree between the Graduale Romanum and the Roman Missal) infuse the Mass with scripture, especially with the inclusion of the psalms prescribed by the Graduale Romanum. Over time, one may find a spiritual blessing from meditating upon the richness of these texts especially if singing the psalms in their greater fullness. The Responsorial psalms are generally abbreviated to only a few verses. Like the Liturgy of the Hours, the psalms sung with the antiphons can be experienced in their greater totality. An inspiring example is the singing of nearly all of Psalm 22 on Palm Sunday with the communion antiphon, Pater, si non potest — “Father, if this chalice cannot pass without my drinking it, your will be done.” Psalm 22 begins with a lament upon abandonment and recounts horrific suffering. Several verses later, it inexplicably concludes as a song of praise looking toward the generations to come who will also praise the Lord. This is salvation!
Conversely, hymns and songs — speaking broadly — more expediently unify and energize a congregation if a melody is crafted with “goodness of form” and with text that is sacred, rich in theology, and artistically beautiful — and in metered form no less. This isn’t an easy task! I have the greatest respect for such hymn writers as this requires a lifetime of study, practice, and prayer. Some gifted hymn writers may take offense to the assertion that hymns cannot express the ineffable mystery captured in scripture, and rightly so in many cases! Countless hymns contain extraordinary richness of theology and at times great deal of salvation history all in a few verses. This too, is remarkable!
Another generalization: antiphons, especially those composed in a chant style, tend to accommodate longer texts well. Furthermore, they may do well in nurturing internal participation. Likewise, well crafted hymns and songs can excel in fostering external participation. Both are important for full and active participation of the faithful. A mutual enrichment is gained from including both approaches.
Most Important Consideration
More important than attempting to please everyone is to focus on what is truly important. Christopher Ferraro, Director of Music and Liturgy at The Parish of Saint Patrick in Bay Shore, New York, brilliantly crystallizes what is truly at stake:
“…. Having used both the propers and hymns, I have always struggled with their use vis-à-vis SC, 14: ‘In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else[.]’ (Sacrosanctum Concilium §14) At the end of the day, I think the primordial question is centered on how the hymn or antiphon will help the assembly enter more deeply into the mystery being celebrated.”
Amen. There may be myriad answers for his question. But the proposition Ferraro poses is a critical reminder.
Pushback and Conversation
A CHALLENGE sometimes posed regarding the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) is to question whether the options listed for the Entrance and Communion Chants in numbers 48 and 87 are hierarchical or not. It’s a fascinating question as there is no explicit indication offered. Common sense might indicate that they are hierarchical considering that both lists begin citing the official texts of the Church with the Graduale Romanum (and the Roman Missal in the United States). They descend in order from these to broader choices. One can conceivably argue the case either way. Let’s remember, all choices offered in the GIRM are permissible.
Interestingly, the U.S. bishop’s 2007 document Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship is clear on its hierarchy of preference as indicated in Nr. 115, (evoking GIRM Nr. 40): “Singing by the gathered assembly and ministers is important at all celebrations. Not every part that can be sung should necessarily be sung at every celebration; rather “preference should be given to those [parts] that are of greater importance.” (SttL §115)
Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship then lists its preference of importance as follows:
1) Dialogues and acclamations 2) Antiphons and Psalms 3) Refrains and Repeated Responses 4) Hymns
An important distinction is that Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship does not carry the weight of liturgical law as does the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. However, the order of this list is noteworthy.
Some also rightfully point out the incongruity of the Communion Antiphons especially in Ordinary Time in the Roman Missal. Two are offered for each Sunday regardless of the three-year cycle. Rubrics indicate:
6. Two antiphons are provided for Communion, the first from the Psalms, and the second for the most part from the Gospel. One or the other may be selected, as circumstances suggest, but preference should be given to an antiphon that is in harmony with the Gospel of the Mass.
Roman Missal Antiphons from solemnities and other seasons such as Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter tend to more closely align with the season and Gospel despite the three-year cycle, and there are occasional alternate antiphons during Lent in particular for the Scrutinies and for the third Sunday of Easter. However, the Gregorian Missal for Sundays, which aligns the Gregorian propers with the Novus Ordo, offers additional antiphons that align with the three-year cycle. (It also includes translations for every chant!) As such, collections utilizing translations of the Graduale Romanum share this advantage. Examples include Jeff Ostrowski’s Lalement Propers, Andrew Motyka’s Laudate Dominum Communion Antiphons, and Adam Bartlett’s Simple English Propers.
Challenging the Roman Missal Antiphons
An important voice regarding the Roman Missal antiphons comes from internationally acclaimed composer, clinician, organist, and author, Paul Inwood in his article Singing — or not singing — the antiphons of the Roman Missal. He correctly asserts that the antiphons of the Roman Missal were not initially intended to be sung, but recited. For example, the end of GIRM 87 calls for its recitation if nothing else is sung or there is no music:
“However, if there is no singing, the antiphon given in the Missal may be recited either by the faithful, or by some of them, or by a reader; otherwise, it is recited by the Priest himself after he has received Communion and before he distributes Communion to the faithful.” (GIRM §87)
However, the point is moot in the United States as the GIRM puts the Roman Missal chants on par with the antiphons of the Graduale Romanum. Furthermore, the Roman Missal Antiphonary clearly refutes the assertion that the Roman Missal antiphons should not be sung. The Foreword alone provides two pages of instruction for musicians and composers including:
“The Entrance or Communion Antiphon may serve as a refrain to be sung after one or more verses of a psalm or of a biblical canticle and after the Gloria Patri (Glory to the Father) during the Entrance or Communion Procession, as illustrated in both the Graduale Romanum and the Graduale Simplex. The alternation of antiphon and psalm or canticle verses may go on as long as is necessary to accompany the Entrance and Communion Processions…Furthermore, when the procession is short, only one verse is sung, or even the antiphon alone without a verse.
“In order to assist composers, psalms or biblical canticles have been assigned to those Entrance and Communion Antiphons in the Missal that are used on Sundays and major feasts and solemnities of the liturgical year.”(Antiphonary, Excerpted from the Roman Missal, pg. iv)
Perhaps outside of the United States, it’s a fair question with regards to the GIRM. Interestingly, the Liturgy Office of England and Wales provides the Antiphonary on their website, and they also produced a volume called The Processional — “a compilation of antiphon texts for use on Sundays and major feasts drawn from various sources including the [Roman] Missal and the Simple Gradual. The purpose of the volume is to provide composers with a resource and to encourage setting of these texts.” Also consider that many of the Roman Missal texts are congruent with the Graduale Romanum. However, Paul Inwood suggests that, “the use of the antiphons in the Roman Missal should rarely be encountered.” He builds a compelling case at least regarding the initial intention.
To begin his article, Maestro Inwood gives us this fascinating and colorful historical fact regarding the near non-inclusion of the antiphons in the 1969/70 Missale Romanum. Considering the omission of the Offertory antiphons, this near development seems quite plausible:
“Fr. Pierre Jounel, the French liturgist and teacher who was a member of a number of the working groups of the Consilium in the years following Sacrosanctum Concilium, said in the course of a lecture in 1977 that those responsible for the liturgical reforms seriously contemplated omitting the antiphons from the 1969/70 Missale Romanum altogether. He said the only reason they retained the antiphons was so that those who wanted to continue to use the Latin chants of the Graduale could do so. The phrase he used was ‘to placate the Gregorianists’”.
Inwood bolsters his case citing more fascinating inner workings of the English translation of the Third Edition of the Roman Missal. This includes a project with the International Committee on English in the Liturgy to create a less literal and perhaps more singable version of the antiphons. This project was withdrawn resulting in an arguably less singer-friendly antiphonary that was never approved by any Episcopal Conference.
To what degree the current Roman Missal antiphons are unsuitable for singing is debatable. This is perhaps mitigated by the output of many skilled composers who have crafted beautiful settings despite some clunky texts — some with more success than others. I am sure those same composers might have preferred more poetic texts; the fruit of their craft may reveal itself in time.
I recommend you read the details in Paul Inwood’s article along with the totality of his case. What is important is that Paul Inwood’s voice is a catalyst for very useful examination and intelligent discussion that I hope will continue among thoughtful and faithful pastoral musicians and pastors. I’m grateful to him for elevating interest in the subject and sparking further discussion.
SPEAKING BROADLY, I respectfully disagree that only the antiphons should be sung without including worthy hymns and songs at least in most cases. Likewise, I respectfully disagree that antiphons and psalms should be rare in parish life. We must embrace both as each has its own charism. To what degree is a pastoral decision for each community. And that pastoral evaluation can change over time as a community develops.
I respect that many may not agree with my views of a both/and approach, only offered here as a starting point. Of course, one must dig more deeply and examine the worthiness of options on a case by base basis. This is the hard work of pastoral musicians and of pastors who are the ultimate authority in each parish. Beyond legalistic views — which are important for our edification and conversation — sacred song imbued with the Spirit is transformative.
The Mass is our greatest prayer. As Pope Saint Pius X described the purpose of the Mass — and therefore sacred music — as “the glory of God and the sanctification and edification of the faithful” the Word of God is preeminent in all that we sing.
Repleatur os meam lauda tua
Let my mouth be filled with Thy praise