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Liturgy Corner September 5 2021: The Antiphons

You have probably noticed that we have been singing the Entrance and Communion Antiphons at each Mass (that phrase that the cantor sings before the Entrance hymn and the Communion hymn.) You may be wondering why. Answer is simple: it is the way that we are instructed to do it by the GIRM, or General Instruction of the Roman Missal, which is the official resource for how to properly execute the Roman Rite of the Mass. The main reason we do most of the things we do in the Liturgy is that they are in the GIRM.

But let’s backup just a little bit and talk about two different types of elements in the Mass. 1) the Mass Ordinary and 2) the Mass Propers. The Ordinary includes things that remain unchanged each and every week. It includes the Kyrie (Lord have Mercy), Gloria, Creed, Sanctus (Holy Holy Holy), Memorial Acclamation, and Agnus Dei (Lamb of God). In all of these prayers, the texts don't change. Every time we attend Mass, we can count on the words to each one of those prayers to be the same as the week or day before.

The Propers, on the other hand, are the liturgical texts that change from day to day, including the presidential prayers (the prayers by the priest right after the Gloria, at the Offertory, and after Communion) and the chants or songs for the Entrance, Psalm, Gospel Acclamation verse, Offertory, and Communion. We are all used to the Responsorial Psalm (which is like an antiphon) changing. But what we may not realize is that there are also specific antiphons for these other parts of the Mass. If you were to open up the Roman Missal (the big red book you see at Mass) and flip to the section with the proper prayers for each Mass, you would see the texts prayed by the priest for that specific day or week, but you would also see listed some proper antiphons.

So, what is an antiphon? The short answer is that an antiphon is another psalm paired with a repeated phrase that is connected with the readings. These texts are arranged into verses and refrains, just like the Responsorial Psalm, but they are referred to as “antiphons” because traditionally, two choirs would sing the verse and antiphon, each singing one of them creating what is known as an antiphonal effect.

So, what does the Church, through the instructional text of the GIRM, tell us about the antiphons?

…there are four options for the Entrance Chant (or Offertory or Communion 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.” (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, no. 48)

The first three preferences outlined in the Roman Missal are antiphons and psalms. Option four says we can use “another liturgical chant” which can also be seen to include many of the hymns we now often hear at Mass. Option number four became so popular after the Second Vatican Council that we forgot about the first three options, which was never the intent of the council. How do we know? Long explanation short, when the Council documents list a few different options, they always put the most appropriate and preferable options first.

Hence, the use of the proper antiphon is the most preferable and appropriate.

So, to restore some balance, we have begun singing the antiphons before the hymns at the Entrance and Communion. The reason that using the proper antiphons is more preferable is that they are directly tied to the readings of the day. Sometimes we can find appropriate hymns that tie directly to the Scriptural readings for the day, but often we cannot. But also, the use of the proper antiphons connects us more deeply to the historical celebration of Liturgy. When we understand that each Mass is deeply connected to every other Mass that has ever been celebrated (since each celebration essentially ‘makes present again’ the singular work of Christ himself), it makes sense to ‘experience’ the connection through texts and even melodies that have been used for a long time in the Church. Antiphons are beautiful texts, connected to historical celebrations, and backed by the instructions of the Church, which are ultimately the primary things we should consider when we make any decision about the Liturgy.

So, next time you hear the antiphons, think about the words for a bit. These antiphons are meant to help draw you deeper into contemplation of the readings and into a deeper relationship with Christ through the Word of God. I would also encourage you to go online and listen to the Monks of St. Meinrad (the order of Monks that ran my seminary) and hear how they chant these antiphons. You can easily find videos through google, but you can also go online to the Liturgy Blog on our website where I will include links to videos.


Further Resources

Here is a special Mass from St. Meinrad Archabbey (this is a celebration of Solemn Vows of a Monk.) The audio is not as good but notice the use of the antiphon response and verses during the opening procession


Here is an album of Chanted antiphons and hymns from the Advent season



The Document "Musicam Sacram" which followed directly after the Secon Vatican Council. 




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