Singing — or not singing — the antiphons of the Roman Missal

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;

and yet

(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.

25 thoughts on “Singing — or not singing — the antiphons of the Roman Missal

  1. ” Another occasional phenomenon is pastors who go to some lengths to incorporate the words of the entrance antiphon into their introductory remarks. ”
    GIRM 33 gives explicit approval to that practice.a

  2. Singing the missal antiphons has become a legitimate development that has been blessed at least in the US version of the missal, where in many places that ship appears to now have sailed pretty smoothly.

  3. I am somewhat at a loss to understand the objection of the author to the singing of musical settings of the missal antiphon texts.

    The antiphon texts are a permitted option to be sung at least in the US. Elsewhere, I cannot see the objection to singing them. From a merely textual standpoint, they are already approved texts for use in the liturgy. Most are taken directly from scripture. So even outside the US, a musical setting of the missal antiphon texts would certainly be an alius cantus aptus. Indeed, setting an approved translation of a missal antiphon text is much less likely to create theological or other problems than setting a newly invented text.

    As far as singing the texts to Gregorian or Gregorian-like melodies, the church teaches that the the more closely a musical form adheres to the model of Gregorian chant, the more likely it is to be fitting for the liturgy. So compositions setting texts to Gregorian or Gregorian-like melodies is exactly what the church wishes us to do.

    1. Can you please cite where, exactly, it is stated that “singing the texts to Gregorian or Gregorian-like melodies, the church teaches that the more closely a musical form adheres to the model of Gregorian chant, the more likely it is to be fitting for the liturgy.”? I have never heard or read of anything like this.

      1. Pius X:
        “On these grounds Gregorian Chant has always been regarded as the supreme model for sacred music, so that it is fully legitimate to lay down the following rule: the more closely a composition for church approaches in its movement, inspiration and savor the Gregorian form, the more sacred and liturgical it becomes; and the more out of harmony it is with that supreme model, the less worthy it is of the temple.”

        Moto Proprio Tra le Sollecitudini, para. 3

        This was cited by St. John Paul II in his “Chirograph for the Centenary of the Motu Proprio “Tra le Sollecitudini on Sacred Music.” at para. 12.

    2. I think there are problems with the antiphonary, and I say that as a liturgist who often looks to them for limited inspiration. I do think this “book” has significant flaws.

      1. For starters, it was never reformed with an eye to the Lectionary and Missal prayers.

      2. The content, especially in Ordinary Time, has been lazily assembled.
      a. The lack of more christological antiphons and texts from the New Testament for Communion antiphons is one glaring weakness.
      b. The haphazard assigning of Psalms without regard for their genre and connected to the Lectionary of the Sunday.

      3. If the Church had a real desire to assemble texts, authorized, recommended, or even designated, a better practice would have been to assemble from a variety of sources. Psalms are the primary “stuff” of the Office. That doesn’t mean they should be excluded from Mass, but a more generous offering of Biblical canticles and the more lyrical texts of the Bible would have been a welcome start. Some of these could have been adaptations composed by poets in various vernaculars, copyrights purchased by bishops’ conferences and left open to be set to music.

      As far as the preference for singing plainchant, the reason is simple: to keep the text word-for-word, no matter how poor the translation is, and to permit no adaptation for music. I think such a policy is sound for the Mass Ordinary. As an exclusive way to sing the texts of the Bible, perhaps not.

      One of the most significant objections is that the singing of antiphons harkens back to one of the worst excesses of the music of the immediate post-conciliar period: new “songs” every week, and not much attention to developing and stabilizing a manageable repertoire that the assembly would learn and sing well.

      I think the whole affair might have been a worthy project post-Vatican I, if the Church had been at all atuned to the need. As it is, we’ve had two generations of congregational singing, and in sound liturgical parishes, much more of it since 1965. The antiphon crowd…

      1. … has simply missed the boat, despite publisher interest in a profitable new area.

  4. This would be a moot point if the intention of Vatican II had been respected and Gregorian chant had pride of place. This also highlights that the intentions of the post-conciliar reform are not the same as those of Vatican II itself.

  5. Practically speaking….In our Diocese of Detroit during Covid-19, a group of composers set these Antiphon texts to music (as a means of minimizing the singing of the assembly as instructed during the pandemic). Although the health crisis is behind us, some parishes have retained the use of the antiphons for various reasons and practical purposes.
    Although our parish has primarily returned to using familiar hymns to support full, active participation, we occasionally will sing an Antiphon on feasts or solemnities when useful for that particular celebration, I.e. for extended processions for which these compositions may be coupled together with a familiar hymn.
    Some larger parishes with long Communion distribution times use the Communion Antiphon (now after 3 years becoming familiar) with a direct segue into a familiar Communion song which in itself would not cover the entire time from Presider reception to the last person in the assembly. Whether the singing of antiphons is right or wrong, the sacred texts are part of out history and are certainly more scripturally sound than some of the more recently written texts composed as sacred music.

  6. “the current US version of GIRM is different from the text issued to the rest of the universal Church.”

    Isn’t the only sui juris church in the Catholic communion that uses the Roman rite and the Roman missal the Latin church? It seems odd that the GIRM would be issued to the universal church as a whole.

  7. The peculiarity of the spoken antiphons for Entrance and Communion was mentioned even in the dicastery’s own journal, Notitiae:
    FRANQUESA A., «Les antifonas del Introito y de la Comunión en las Misas sin canto», Notitiae 59 (1970) 213- 221;
    and in Ephemerides liturgicae:
    BRANDOLINI L., «L’Ordo Antiphonarum del nuovo messale», EL 84 (1970) 342-350.

  8. I really do not understand the point of most of the antiphons – even if used only when there is no singing.
    Perhaps I’m just an old fuddy-duddy: The gathering song should, firstly, unite the assembly in song and, equally firstly, tell is something about what we’re celebrating today. Few of those antiphons do the job.
    So, taking this coming Sunday as an example, the Gospel reading is reflected in Bernadette Farrell’s “Unless a grain of wheat” and in John Bell’s “Will you come and follow me?” The antiphon in the missal is: “Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I cry to you all the day long. O Lord, you are good and forgiving, full of mercy to all who call to you.”
    Which of the above will best lead your assembly into the message they are about to hear?

    1. You assume that the mass must have a theme centered around the Gospel reading. I don’t believe that to be the case, especially in ordinary time. Those who assembled the lectionary did chose the Old Testament reading based on the content of the Gospel reading. However, for much of ordinary time, the New Testament reading is merely part of a continuous reading from the chosen book. If it does have a relationship with the Gospel reading, it is merely a matter of chance.

      The Council fathers wanted to open up more widely the richness of scripture. As a matter of personal opinion, those who attempt to program around a single theme restrict rather than open up the contents of scripture.

      1. I agree with you about the NT readings. But I always look to the Gospel and the OT reading when preparing music. If the overall theme is about healing or forgiveness then, yes, we’ll start with an item which links with those themes. And, as much in our repertoire is psalm-based, then we are sharing even more scripture.

      2. A misunderstanding here, I think. Most people who prep musical repertoire are looking for harmonization, if you will. Not slavish adherence to a theme–which, by the way, is the way most VNO Masses are designed. Alignment to that theme is a part of many liturgies in the Roman Missal, particularly Masses for conferring sacraments. Ordinary Sundays, not really.

      3. Trying to reply Todd but not sure where this will land – apologies! Not suggesting “slavish adherence” but a reflection of, or synergy to, what is happening. And most Sundays on Ordinary Time definitely have a specific theme.

  9. Ultimately, how long and how widely and frequently the use of this development endures will depend on prudence and wisdom and deciding when and how to use the option, the quality of the musical setting and offering with the particular community of people and in their particular space. I’ve certainly experienced it done well and received well, but do not consider it any panacea that I would vault in the triage list. We’re still in – will likely remain in – a period of sifting out less durable hymnody and hymn texts, too, and it’s not as if there is a duty to anyone to maintain such in active repertoire. I don’t believe the major publishers who dominate the Catholic parish music market in the USA have distinguished themselves in glory in repertoire.

    I do admire the servant leadership of some composers of the missal antiphons in making their work available to parishes under Creative Commons copyright licenses; this is in stark contrast to the graspiness of the annual music issue model of major publisher(s) that peremptorily declares continued use past the end of the given liturgical year is unlawful. Part of what is going on the development here is that newer, younger generations are succeeding to pastorship and directorships, and they do not feel as beholden to maintaining those publication structures as default models.

    1. This is an accurate assessment. I also think the Propers movement is hamstrung by its own structural deficiencies. Priests in Ordinary Time, for example, have a small-ish number of prefaces from which to choose. Adopting this for Sunday Communion processions, for example: trimming 34 antiphons to perhaps a dozen at most. The default texts, I suppose: Psalm 23 and 34. The Magnificat, certainly. A handful of the New Testament canticles. Perhaps a few Old Testament texts such as Isaiah 25:1-9, Proverbs 9:1-6, etc.

      My objection to the antiphons and the Gradual as they are currently confected is that this is careless, incurious work.

      1. I’ve witnessed some lovely antiphon work that congregations that I would not consider very intrepid will take to sing. I would take each antiphon on its own merits or demerits as a text – just like any hymn text – some work way better than others. I’ve been surprised by the willingness of congregations, particularly younger adults, to engage them; the experience violated “rules of thumb” I had taken for granted when I was active in ministry. Then again, the times and people have changed from those times. After many years when it felt like the dial in many parish music ministries was ruddered by early 1990s consensus practice (towards the middle of the era I was active 1981-2012; now I am a pewsitter and have a different perspective), the pandemic pretty much shattered it (along with the erasure of music of David Haas – a full reckoning of others who enabled him has yet to be fully engaged, but if anyone assumes that is never coming, I wouldn’t be too sure about that – and the spaces left are being filled by others – the industrial model of music publication made for certain composers to become like Microsoft operating systems with advantages of inertia – until a more powerful force disrupts).

  10. Paul Inwood is certainly entirely correct in all of his information here including that the RM antiphons were never intended to be sung despite its allowance by the U. S. GIRM.

    There is much excellent conversation to be had here.

    In my own experience, when composing settings of the antiphons in the vernacular, I began with translations of the Graduale Romanum texts for for this reason.

    However, my publisher asked me to conform to the Roman Missal –(initially not difficult Eg. In Advent where they are nearly identical — but substantially different in many other places.) I used verses as prescribed by the GR as the RM of course doesn’t prescribe them.

    Regardless of various opinions and approaches, I will attest to the spiritual blessing of meditating upon the richness of these texts (regardless of some translation clunkiness which had me scratching my head from time to time). It is a composers job to make a text work. Sometimes it’s a challenge, but a joyful blessing to compose upon the scriptures.

    Indeed there are both congruencies and inconsistencies between the GR and RM antiphons and myriad imperfections. Despite this, I find them fascinating and enriching.

    Many thanks for a great topic and great conversation.

    Oremus pro invicem
    Let us pray for each other.

  11. As a member of the congregation, I really enjoy singing hymns including opening hymns, but I also really like the idea of also singing the Sunday introit and having it be the same for everyone. And I also would rather each Sunday’s stay the same every year regardless of the A,B,C cycles in the Lectionary. In this way, it could add some of the annual continuity that builds a common experience and was lost in the very positive reform of adding more texts as readings.

    If you have ever read Agatha Christie’s novels, there is, in more than one book (I think), a character saying how all the children in church knew it was time to make the puddings for Christmas because they heard the Introit starting Stir Up.

    I think the search for this common experience is perhaps one reason why there has been more of a push to add the antiphons back in the United States.

    Having an introit would also make it much easier to build a connection to older church music and offer opportunities for people to slot it into the current experience of mass. For example, if everyone was used to hearing the introit briefly in English for a while, then it wouldn’t be weird to occasionally hear it in Latin Gregorian chant. That’s why I think having the introit plus a hymn works, even if it is unorthodox. The other antiphons could be switched up much more with other hymns and music.

    As it stands now, though, the introits in the Gradual and the Missal are different on some days — even for Gaudete Sunday, and it creates a lot of confusion, especially since worship books often print the Missal antiphons. Perhaps that is why the U.S. Church approved the missal antiphons for singing. Maybe, someday there can be a consolidation or at least a putting together of everything in one place for the congregation to experience.

  12. The problem with the “prescribed” chants of the Mass is that there is an option to replace these with a hymn, some other chant or simply omit these in a spoken Mass. Just think if the Roman Missal’s instruction about the lectionary stated that these or some other suitable readings made be used. The liturgy of the Word would devolve into the “planners’” choices, be it the priest, a layperson or a committee.
    For the most part, the Introit, Offertory and Communion antiphons are Scripture verses or stanzas. In the TLM, these are required to be chanted in a Sung Mass or spoken in a Low Mass.
    Vatican II asked for more Scripture to be added, not to eliminate what was already in place! In the modern vernacular Mass, you never know what you will get because it is left to an authority or authoritarian figure to decide to keep the Scriptural chants or to substitute them with something else, or to use a metrical hymn or motet. Again, just think of what would happen to the lectionary if the same thing was allowed.

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