When the Mass Officially Begins

And More on Funerals

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ROME, SEPT. 1, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: What is the official beginning of the Mass? Is it the introit, or is it the sign of the cross, as it is in the celebration of a Mass without a congregation? In the case of retired priests, it is understood that when the priest celebrates Mass alone, he starts with the sign of the cross, then reads the introit antiphon. Also, the reason to ask the question is that all Masses need to begin with music, albeit, when there is no music, the introit antiphon is to be said, but not the entire psalm. The problem also arises when the choir is singing either the introit with all of the psalm verses, or a hymn that uses many verses, and the celebrant is left standing at the chair waiting for this music to finish. Please quote Church documents or give references to them, to satisfy those who will not merely go on opinion. — F.G., Denver, Colorado

A: According to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), Nos. 47-50, the Mass can begin in any of several ways:

«47. After the people have gathered, the Entrance chant begins as the priest enters with the deacon and ministers. The purpose of this chant is to open the celebration, foster the unity of those who have been gathered, introduce their thoughts to the mystery of the liturgical season or festivity, and accompany the procession of the priest and ministers.

«48. The singing at this time is done either alternately by the choir and the people or in a similar way by the 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 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. If there is no singing at the entrance, the antiphon in the Missal is recited either by the faithful, or by some of them, or by a lector; otherwise, it is recited by the priest himself, who may even adapt it as an introductory explanation […].

«50. When the Entrance chant is concluded, the priest stands at the chair and, together with the whole gathering, makes the Sign of the Cross. Then he signifies the presence of the Lord to the community gathered there by means of the Greeting. By this Greeting and the people’s response, the mystery of the Church gathered together is made manifest. After the greeting of the people, the priest, the deacon, or a lay minister may very briefly introduce the faithful to the Mass of the day.»

Therefore, if there is no music, the entrance antiphon is recited before making the sign of the cross. In this case no psalm is used.

As seen above, in the United States four options are offered. This is a slight variation on the universal norms which logically does not include the possibility of metrical psalms since these are not found in Latin but are quite common in English.

The introit or entrance chant is sung to a prescribed text that is thematically linked to the liturgical season. The earliest evidence we have of the introit is from the «Ordo Romanus Primus,» a directory that describes the ceremonies of papal Masses. It was written between the years 692 and 731 but probably reflects traditions already established beforehand.

It would appear that originally the psalms attached to the antiphons were sung in their entirety. Over time, however, the Gregorian chant settings became ever more musically elaborate and it became common to sing only one verse of the psalm, along with the Glory be to the Father, and then repeat the antiphon.

Taking these diverse traditions into account, I would say that although GIRM No. 50 says that the priest begins Mass when «the entrance chant has finished,» I do not believe that this requires that all verses of a psalm must necessarily be sung. It would require, however, a certain internal coherence; the psalm should reach a logical conclusion and not be truncated in its meaning.

This opinion is corroborated by the guidelines on liturgical music published by the U.S. bishops, «Sing to the Lord.» Regarding the entrance chant or song, this document says:

«142. After the entire liturgical assembly has been gathered, an Entrance chant or song is sung as the procession with the priest, deacon, and ministers enters the church. ‘The purpose of this chant is to open the celebration, foster the unity of those who have been gathered, introduce their thoughts to the mystery of the liturgical season or festivity, and accompany the procession of the priest and ministers.’

«143. Care must be taken in the treatment of the texts of psalms, hymns, and songs in the Liturgy. Verses and stanzas should not be omitted arbitrarily in ways that risk distorting their content. While not all musical pieces require that all verses or stanzas be sung, verses should be omitted only if the text to be sung forms a coherent whole.»

Therefore a balance must be struck between allowing the entrance chant to fulfill its proper liturgical purpose while not causing excessive delay to the initial rites. In such cases musical directors and priests must cooperate. One should be willing to take the initiative in making coherent cuts if necessary, the other should be willing to participate in singing the entrance chant even after arriving at the chair.

In this way the exercise of patience and charity will contribute overall to a better celebration.

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Follow-up: Funeral Masses

In connection with our Aug. 18 piece on funeral Masses, a reader from the Marshall Islands wrote: «There was a time in the past that in funeral Masses, the ‘Exchange of Peace’ (before the Lamb of God) was omitted. The reason for it is that the exchange of peace is a joyful expression of greeting one another but somehow discordant in the time of death, the loss of someone so dear to the family.»

First, I would say that the reason behind the exchange of peace is above all to share the peace of Christ which we are about to receive from the altar in Communion. It is true that in some places it has become a joyful free-for-all, but this is not its true meaning or the correct way of carrying out this rite.

If properly understood, therefore, not only is there no contradiction between the rite of peace and a funeral, but a dignified and composed sharing of Christ’s peace can actually be a source of spiritual consolation to the bereaved family.

This is one reason why the Holy See approved the exemption, proposed by the U.S. bishops, to the general rule that the priest not leave the sanctuary during the sign of peace. Thus the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 154, says:

«The priest may give the sign of peace to the ministers but always remains within the sanctuary, so as not to disturb the celebration. In the dioceses of the United States of America, for a good reason, on special occasions (for example, in the case of a funeral, a wedding, or when civic leaders are present) the priest may offer the sign of peace to a few of the faithful near the sanctuary. At the same time, in accord with the decisions of the Conference of Bishops, all offer one another a sign that expresses peace, communion, and charity. While the sign of peace is being given, one may say, Pax Domini sit semper vobiscum (The peace of the Lord be with you always), to which the response is Amen.»

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Readers may send questions to liturgy@zenit.org. Please put the word «Liturgy» in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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