This is a revised and much-expanded version of comments made in several previous threads.
Purpose of the antiphons
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”.
According to Jounel, the antiphons in the new Missale Romanum were never intended to be sung in the vernacular as they stand, and indeed GIRM still tells us that the antiphons are only there for recitation when nothing else has been sung, is being sung, or will be sung at those points — current paragraphs 48 and 87, final sentences.
The antiphons, Jounel said, were retained in order to remind us that we should be singing something at those points in the rite, but not necessarily those actual texts. (Elsewhere I have used the word “placeholder” to describe this function of the antiphon, a term which is disliked by some who have a different agenda.) Despite this, an increasing number of composers have spent many hours of time setting to music the actual vernacular antiphon texts verbatim, and publishers have expended much investment in order to issue these settings. I believe that they have based their work on a misunderstanding of what the reformers intended. When GIRM tells us that the antiphons should be recited if there is no other singing, this is demonstrating the real purpose of the antiphon texts as envisaged by the reformers.
It is to be noted that Annibale Bugnini, in his magnum opus The Reform of the Liturgy, 1948-1975, confirms Jounel’s view when he says (page 891): “The entrance and communion antiphons were intended to be recited, not sung, and to inspire the creation of suitable songs in the vernacular.”
Issues with singing musical settings of the Missal antiphons
In addition to being unaware of Fr Jounel’s and Fr Bugnini’s testimony, an important additional reason why composers and publishers, especially in North America, have been misled in this regard is those same paras 48 and 87 of GIRM, where the current US version of GIRM is different from the text issued to the rest of the universal Church.
At the request of the USCCB’s BCL (Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy, today renamed the Bishops’ Committee on Divine Worship, or BCDW), the Congregation for Divine Worship in Rome allowed an extra provision in the 2003 US version of those GIRM paragraphs, saying that one of the options for singing at those points in the rite is the antiphon from the Missal. Other countries do not have this extra provision, but only allow for the singing of chants from the Graduale Romanum, or the Graduale Simplex, or another collection approved by the bishops’ conference (the US version helpfully adds “or the Diocesan Bishop”). In other countries, singing the antiphons verbatim as in the Missal is simply not an option. One wonders if BCL simply misunderstood the purpose of the antiphons when they petitioned for this change in GIRM.
There is more. When the English translation of the Third Edition of the Roman Missal was in progress, ICEL (the International Commission on English in the Liturgy) had set up a special working group for the Antiphonary. That working group obtained permission from Rome to use a slightly freer translation of the antiphons than the author of Liturgiam Authenticam would have approved of, specifically with the aim of making the translation more suitable for the purpose of setting to music. (They, too, were apparently unaware of Jounel’s and Bugnini’s testimony, as were those officials in the Congregation for Divine Worship who gave them this permission.) The group finished their work, and very good it was, too; but before it could go through the approval process with episcopal conferences it was suddenly withdrawn.
What happened was that Monsignor James Moroney, at that time secretary of the US Bishops’ BCDW and a member of Vox Clara, belatedly became aware of the testimony of Fr Jounel (it is not known if he also knew of Fr Bugnini’s statement) indicating that the present antiphons were never originally intended for singing in the vernacular. He immediately pulled the Antiphonary from the approval process, and Vox Clara itself then commissioned a completely new Liturgiam Authenticam-style translation of the antiphons, independently of ICEL. This new translation was intended not to be music-friendly at all, perhaps to discourage composers from setting the antiphons to music.
This new, non-music-friendly Antiphonary was then incorporated into the final text of the Roman Missal at the last minute, without ever going through a formal approval process by bishops’ conferences as the other fascicles of the Missal had done. This means that in the English-speaking world we now have the following totally bizarre situation:
(a) the antiphons of the Roman Missal were never intended to be sung in the vernacular as they stand;
(b) the vernacular translation of those same antiphons was specifically designed not to be music-friendly;
(c) that translation of those antiphons was also never formally approved by any episcopal conference;
(d) composers and publishers have been busily producing music settings of those same non-music-friendly antiphons in different idioms, ranging from chant through choral to contemporary;
(e) some bishops, pastors and musicians are insisting that these settings, especially the chant-style settings, be sung, as if they were somehow the traditional music of the Church that all should use in preference to other hymns and songs.
Worse still, a number of comments on Facebook in 2022 indicated that some uninformed pastors are insisting that the text of the antiphons be sung in addition to whatever other hymns or songs are selected for these points in the rite. The 1967 instruction Musicam Sacram, however, makes it plain that those other hymns or songs are substitutes for the antiphons, not additional to them (para 32).
There is also a substantial quantity of antiphon settings available online. Here we have a new phenomenon where anyone can set up a website and self-publish, entirely unregulated unlike a conventional publisher. The quality may be good or not so good, but the underlying question of whether these antiphons should even be sung at all remains.
Reciting the Antiphons?
In regular parish practice, one frequently finds that the purpose of the antiphons as described above — to be recited only when there is no singing — is misunderstood, or people are simply unaware of it.
Pastors can be found reciting the text of the entrance antiphon when the music has stopped, both before and after the opening Sign of the Cross. Another occasional phenomenon is pastors who go to some lengths to incorporate the words of the entrance antiphon into their introductory remarks.
Similarly, you will fairly frequently encounter pastors who recite the Communion antiphon just before they move to distribute Communion, even when singing is about to commence. Sometimes it is well-meaning but uninformed lay people who do this from the pews. Of course, if the musicians were to follow the stipulation of GIRM 86 — “While the Priest is receiving the Sacrament, the Communion Chant is begun” — none of this would be an issue!
I believe that much of this confusion has arisen because people have generally been thinking of these moments in the rite primarily as texts, when they should actually have been thinking of them in terms of movement. In other words, it’s not so much about words on a page as about the very nature of the processional moment itself and what is needed to accompany that movement.
We know that liturgy is action and not words in a book, and yet there is still a mindset around that thinks that it is somehow sinful if every single word of the rite has not been uttered. This may have been true in preconciliar times, but it is certainly not the case today, when things can be omitted, or substituted for, and pastoral provisions such as “if appropriate”, “in these or similar words”, “at the discretion of the priest”, and so on, provide a good deal of flexibility.
In our weekend parish practice, the use of the antiphons in the Roman Missal should rarely be encountered.