Have You Been Missing Out on a Centuries-Old Catholic Musical Tradition?

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Some of the most divisive conversations amongst Catholics today arise over music at Mass. Most arguments revolve around the style of music or the instrumentation. However, these arguments generally don’t focus much on the texts of the music. The majority of us have grown up in parishes that are unaware of or lacking an essential part of Church’s musical heritage: The Propers. We should stop asking “Is the music religious?” but rather, “Is the music (and its text) liturgical?” The Church assigns specific chants/texts to each day of the liturgical year, just as she assigns certain readings & psalms to each day of the year. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal says that these scriptural, liturgical texts (called “the Propers”) are the ideal and most desirable thing to be sung at Mass (see GIRM 48, 74, 86-87).

When Propers are sung at Mass

We are accustomed to the readings, responsorial psalm, and Alleluia verse changing each week in the Missalette. The scriptural texts of the Mass Propers also change daily and allow us to more fully participate in the liturgical day being celebrated. There are three times when the Propers are sung at a Novus Ordo Mass:

Introit: scriptural text with its antiphon sung while the celebrant and ministers enter the Church and approach the altar. “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.” (GIRM 47)

Offertory: sung scriptural text accompanying the procession and preparation of the gifts. “The procession bringing the gifts is accompanied by the Offertory chant (cf. no. 37b), which continues at least until the gifts have been placed on the altar. The norms on the manner of singing are the same as for the Entrance chant (cf. no. 48). Singing may always accompany the rite at the offertory, even when there is no procession with the gifts.” (GIRM 74)

Communion: scriptural text sung beginning with the Priest’s reception of Communion and continued through the faithful’s reception. “While the priest is receiving the Sacrament, the Communion chant is begun. Its purpose is to express the communicants’ union in spirit by means of the unity of their voices, to show joy of heart, and to highlight more clearly the “communitarian” nature of the procession to receive Communion. The singing is continued for as long as the Sacrament is being administered to the faithful. If, however, there is to be a hymn after Communion, the Communion chant should be ended in a timely manner.” (GIRM 86)

Each liturgical day has its own special text and melody assigned to each of these three times of the Mass. The text of each Proper expands and reflects on the readings of the day and contains deep scriptural theology which helps us more fully contemplate the specific liturgical feast.

History of the Mass Propers

The Propers of the Mass are scriptural texts, with accompanying chant melodies, that are carefully assigned to each day of the liturgical calendar. Some of the Mass Propers we use today can be found in Sacramentaries (liturgical books) dating back to the 5th century A.D. There is also written evidence that refers to their existence in the earliest days of the Church. These prayers/chants/texts have been developed and perfected throughout the centuries by the Catholic Church. Musical notation was casino in fact invented for the sole purpose of recording Catholic liturgical chants. From a historical perspective, the schola cantorum or choir has sung the propers. The reason for this is that the texts and melodies are difficult and change on a daily basis. Until Vatican II, the Mass Propers were printed and sung in Latin. There has been a recent liturgical movement to translate these texts into English so that they may be more accessible to amateur choirs.

An example of the texts changing for each liturgical day is the Introit for Christmas – Mass at Dawn (notice the English translation of the Latin below the chant).


Here is the same chant from a centuries old manuscript. Both the saints and everyday Catholics throughout history would have heard these same melodies and texts sung at Mass on Christmas morning.


Another example of the text changing for the liturgical feast is the Communion for the vigil Mass of the Assumption of the Blessed Mother.


One can see that each text can help us more fully contemplate the specific liturgical feast. The beauty of the Mass Propers is that they allow us to sing the Mass, rather to sing at Mass.

Did Vatican II do away with the Propers?

I had been leading music at Masses for about five years before anyone ever introduced me to singing the Propers. I had studied them in Music History in college, but thought they must not apply to Novus Ordo Masses because I had never heard them in any parish or been asked to sing them. I had tried to prepare choirs with “sacred” or “traditional” music and hymns, but I felt like I had been cheated out of a great musical tradition that had been present in past centuries of the Church.

“What must be sung is the Mass, its Ordinary and Proper, not “something”, no matter how consistent, that is imposed on the Mass. Because the liturgical service is one, it has only one countenance, one motif, one voice, the voice of the Church. To continue to replace the texts of the Mass being celebrated with motets that are reverent and devout, yet out of keeping with the Mass of the day amounts to continuing an unacceptable ambiguity: it is to cheat the people. Liturgical song involves not mere melody, but words, text, thought and the sentiments that the poetry and music contain. Thus texts must be those of the Mass, not others, and singing means singing the Mass not just singing during Mass.”
– 1969 response to an inquiry by the the Consilium (group of bishops and experts set up by Pope Paul VI to implement the Constitution on the Liturgy).

What about other music at Mass?

Other music can be still be a part of Mass. Many parishes have time after both the offertory chant & the communion chant for other hymns or motets. There is no liturgical proper assigned during the recession at Mass, so that is another time when other music may be chosen.

Want to sing the Propers?

The digital age has brought a wonderful community of sacred musicians together online. People have been working tirelessly over the past ten years or so to provide resources for people interested in carrying on the musical traditions of the Church. Here are some resources – free to print directly from PDFs, or for purchase in book form – for any musicians willing to learn the Propers.

I. The Gregorian Missal: This is the official Vatican edition of the sung Propers of the Mass, with English translations, and their original Latin chant melodies. It would be difficult for most Church choirs to learn and sing all three Gregorian Propers every Sunday, and the melodies can be difficult. The Communion Proper is usually the simplest and shortest, and would be a good place for choirs interested in singing Gregorian Propers to begin (here is a book with the psalm verses notated under each antiphon). Practice videos can be found on youtube through a simple search.

II. The Simple English Propers: This is a new book of the English translations of the Propers set to simple chant melodies. It is a great place to begin for less experienced choirs. There are practice videos for every SEP chant on youtube.

III. Other resources: This page provides links to other settings of the texts of the Propers, both in choral and plainchant forms.

Thanks for reading!

Other Sacred Music Resources:
How to Start Your Own Garage Schola
CMAA Website
Musica Sacra: Forum
Incredible Conference for Sacred Musicians – Sacred Music Colloquium

Hilary Cesare

Hilary Cesare

Hilary blogs at https://sacredmusicfortreblevoices.wordpress.com.

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21 thoughts on “Have You Been Missing Out on a Centuries-Old Catholic Musical Tradition?”

  1. Avatar

    While I enjoy learning the propers in advance, I must admit that I’ve yet to see any congregation, traditional or otherwise, know how to sight-sing the propers as written in the Roman Gradual. That’s tough stuff (but beautiful). Most congregants choose to be silent in this time (not that they aren’t worshiping/participating-interiorly).

    If it weren’t for the Google Translate, the iChant app, and the voice memo device on my iPhone, I’d be totally lost.

    1. Avatar

      They can be quite difficult. We sing the Communio each week, but learning the Latin introit and Offertory would take a good bit of practicing. We sing the SEP English versions for the Introit and Offertory. Glad to hear you sing them too, Nick!

    2. Avatar

      When the liturgical reformers speak of congregations singing the propers, it seems that is only possible if simplified melodies are used. But then Gregorian chant wouldn’t truly have pride of place, because the textual, musical, and liturgical development of the Roman Rite go together.

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        I almost wonder if there is a third way, a way to encourage the congregation to sing along the propers as written. Perhaps a sing-and-response approach, used at many secular venues, where a cantor sings a portion of the chant, and the congregation returns the chant with the exact same melody.

        Otherwise, this disconnect between an ideal and harsh reality seem to be what’s at stake. No wonder the four-hymn sandwich has become commonplace.

      2. Avatar

        That undos the historic structure of the chant as we have received it. It also affects how the prayer is prayed, both in the singing and listening.

        The Gregorian ordinary belongs to the people. That is what they ought to sing. Anybody can sing chant, and the vast majority of people can sing the propers. But I don’t think whole congregations should be expected to do so, nor do I think it possible for whole congregations to be trained to do so. Singing at the responsorial psalm is already lackluster…

        The four hymn sandwich came because we treat Low Mass without chanted Mass texts as the norm.

      3. Avatar

        As it currently stands, the congregation’s general ignorance of Latin means that the prayer cannot be “listened” to, and the general ignorance of reading the neumes (let alone standard music notation) means that the prayer cannot be “sung.”

        In light of this, how can “the Gregorian ordinary” belong to the people? It can’t! (To which you will reply, well, they should be taught–the Bible belongs to the people, but it doesn’t do much good to an illiterate). (To which I will reply, if I as a musician struggle to learn the “simple” Gregorian chant as written in the Roman Gradual–and I’m empathetic–then how much worse will it be to an average congregant?

        And in light of these times, which is more important–preserving a historic structure as to how it is received, or teaching newbies to pray in a vastly-different approach?

      4. Avatar

        I have only had one semester of Latin. I don’t understand most of the prayers without having learned them from someone else’s side-by-side translation. But, I can listen and be driven to contemplation. The chant is beautiful. And that contemplation is deeper when someone gives me the text in the vernacular as well as in Latin. You should always be given the text, even if it is a vernacular hymn (a huge complaint of mine is when music directors don’t do that).

        Chant was learned by rote at first. The neumes were an aid to remember the melody. One can easily learn a Gregorian ordinary by rote after a few weeks of introduction by the schola. And the director should try to teach the basics of neumes.

        Preserving the historic structure must take the upper hand. We are the servants of the liturgy.

      5. Avatar

        How do you propose to teach an entire congregation by rote, since there is no time to actually do this during the context of the liturgy, and since the average congregant is not going to take a course in Latin during the liturgy?

        >Preserving the historic structure must take the upper hand.

        I don’t think this is possible.

      6. Avatar

        With the exception of the sixth (or ninth…) phrase, the melody of the Kyrie repeats itself. An advantage of the EF is that the ninefold Kyrie gives the congregation one time to listen to the melody, a second time to attempt to sing it, and a third time to sing it confidently. And if you hear something over and over again, you will learn it and can repeat it.

        I think it does take some practice and instruction before Mass with the music director from the pulpit. It also takes encouragement to sing. This takes the form of catechesis outside the Mass, as well as the priest and ministers singing their parts per Musicam sacram. And you can only switch out one part at a time.

        The Latin provides an additional mental hurdle, but considering the amount of fudging done the first time one hears a new Mass setting in English and the relative ease with which one learns it over the following weeks, I can’t understand how hard it can be to learn the melody.

        As far as the structure goes: why is it impossible to preserve?

        This discussion does remind me why I support doing things the traditional way in the Novus Ordo, but that given the problems of text and ritual, I vastly prefer the usus antiquior.

      7. Avatar

        That can only work for mass parts. The propers are too complicated to accomplish with a one-time practice run-through before mass. Only an accomplished cantor with days of practice can get the propers just right, but while singing them that cantor will have a hard time praying the words, as his focus would (rightly) be on the proper performance, breathing, etc. The congregation will benefit from silent meditation on the (translated) words, but they will not be singing the text.

        The liturgy is not a constant; it grows over time, as circumstances change. I would think that if the desire is to preserve the Gregorian propers and have them retain pride of place, AND have the congregation sing them outright–and I don’t see this as an impossibility–but something different needs to be done as it currently stands. As there seems to be no such congregation that is succeeding in this (or if they are, they are silent on this comment board), then new ground must be broken. Otherwise, the Gregorian propers will be long forgotten.

      8. Avatar

        Hi Nick!

        I highly recommend reading Professor William Mahrt’s book “The Musical Shape of the Liturgy.” It has really clarified and deepened my understanding of Catholic musical tradition. It is scholarly and insightful!

        Here is an except from another article he wrote:

        “II. Propers are More Well-suited to the Various Liturgical Actions and Roles

        Current Church guidelines dictate that each person in the liturgy is to fulfill all of the duties pertaining to his office and no more. With respect to singing, we might look at it this way: The priest sings the various dialogues with the congregation, the presidential prayers, etc. The deacon sings the gospel, the Mysterium fidei, the Ite Missa est, etc. The lector sings the readings, the congregation sings its parts, and the choir sings the parts which have traditionally belonged exclusively to it.

        The choir’s role, however, has been usurped in most places, reducing the musicians to mere leaders of a congregation which is now expected to sing nearly all of the music at Mass. This practice is not in keeping with Catholic tradition. This doesn’t mean that the congregation should be drastically marginalized, as in some Anglican churches, but it does mean that the choir’s role should be preserved.

        Having the choir and cantors sing the propers allows the congregation to take in, to receive, other aspects of the liturgy. Oftentimes, by the way, congregations sing better when they aren’t asked to sing so often in the Mass. Some examples follow:2


        Having been freed from reading words in a hymnal, the faithful can watch the opening procession as it makes its pilgrimage to the high altar, the new Jerusalem which we anticipate at each Mass. They can observe the thurible swinging and the smell of the incense, the crucifix being carried high, the flowing robes and the colorful vestments — and the sound of the choir, singing the introit, which in its neumatic style (several, but not too many notes to a syllable) suggests the movement of a procession. When the pew-dweller is given too much to do, this cannot all be accomplished, and often the same members of the congregation simply put down the hymnal so that they can take everything in more effectively.

        Interlectionary Chants (Gradual, Alleluia, Tract)

        While these texts are not replaced with hymns, at least licitly, it is worthwhile to compare the responsorial pieces in the present lectionary with the traditional chants in the Graduale Romanum.

        Traditionally, the interlectionary chants are to be listened to, meditated upon, just like the readings and the gospel. But with the responsorial psalm in particular, are people able to receive the text efficaciously while simultaneously trying to sing a refrain that they’re hearing for the first time? Moreover, the gradual and alleluia as they appear in the Graduale Romanum are highly melismatic, with many notes to each syllable. This slows down the rate at which the text is sung, allowing the listener to absorb it more completely.


        The offertory chants could well be said to occupy a stylistic place somewhere between the introit and the interelectionary chants.3 While they do convey some sense of motion as the introit does, they are also more melismatic than the introits, though not as melismatic as the interlectionary chants. This is a musical way of matching the liturgical action: While there is a small procession here, it is also a solemn moment of anticipation of the most important part of the Mass.

        Hymns, which are essentially syllabic (one note per syllable), tell us little about their liturgical function. Indeed, they can be used interchangeably at any of the processions. Furthermore, in this age, much music used in church struggles even to communicate the fact that a sacred action is being performed. The Gregorian chant antiphons, however, communicate quite clearly (1) that we are truly performing a sacred action and (2) what the features of each particular action are.”


      9. Avatar


        Thank you for this. I do have the book and have read much of it.

        However, it pains me to say this, but either the congregation are to sing the propers, or not. Vatican II indicates that they can (and most definitely should). To say that they can, and then say, well, no, they really can’t… that them there’s a bait-and-switch.

  2. Avatar

    The lections are also a part of the proper, so that includes the Psalm and Alleluia verse as are normally heard in American parish chruches (given that they are in the lectionary and not the Graduale Romanum). Musically, they ought to conform to the chant as much as possible, i.e. using Psalm tones.

    On the other hand, there is a great genius in the Gregorian Gradual and Alleluia that is excluded even in parishes that use the three more commonly sung propers (the processional ones in the article). One just wants to sit forever and meditate upon the text and melody given by the schola cantorum. In particular, the Alleluia is a wonderful preparation for the Gospel. One sits until after the jubilus, and then the ministers can rise to prepare for the full Gospel procession. By the repeat of the jubilus at the end, the ministers are in place for the Gospel. And the Gospel, particularly the ancient solemn tone, is so radically simple following the most complex chant of the entire liturgy. It signifies the simplicity of Christ in the Incarnation.

    1. Avatar

      But in most American Catholic parishes, the psalm is replaced by the same boring old “seasonal psalm” every Sunday, and the Alleluia verse is usually replaced by “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening” or (in Lent or Advent) from the A readings from Sunday in the first week.

      We do cheat the people, every Sunday.

      The Vatican II documents do give leeway on the style of musical settings (although obviously chant was envisioned as the default, and as having the most honored place), or of just reading this stuff. Nobody envisioned just skipping and replacing everything.

      1. Avatar

        Not sure what (or where) your frame of reference is, but I have not at all found your observation to be the case in “most” parish music programs I am familiar with; I honestly can’t think of *any* such generic cases. I’m in Atlanta, if that matters…

  3. Avatar

    Hilary, I got SUPER EXCITED when I received the e-mail stating that you joined the IT team to write about Sacred Music!!! This is a great, simple, understandable write-up about the Propers. Thank you for doing this!

  4. Avatar

    I would love to see polyphonic chant make a come back in the liturgy. Don’t quote me but I feel like we have neglected the greatness of this style for a long time. As for modern Christian music I would wish the church would eliminate guitar based music in the liturgy ( and I’m a guitar player saying that).

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