Liturgical Renewal: Mass Propers

In the Roman Use

One of the major emphases in the current Roman “Reform of the Reform” is the move to replace the Chant Propers into their correct place. A quick review is in order here. Following the handy “Division of the Mass” in my (1962) Roman Missal, there are nine variable parts or propers in the Mass:

  1. The Introit
  2. The Collects
  3. The Epistle
  4. The Gradual
  5. The Gospel
  6. The Offertory Verse
  7. The Secrets (offering prayers over the gifts just before the Canon)
  8. The Communion Verse
  9. The Postcommunion prayers

I’ve bolded the sungpropers. Note: there are no hymns in this line-up. Classically, hymns weren’t sung at Mass—they belonged in the Office. Thus, the items sung at Mass were the chant propers. After Vatican II, the use of the chant propers diminished and vernacular hymnody was introduced. The Roman Gradual (where these propers are found) was never officially translated into vernaculars that I know of. Certainly, there has never been an authorized English translation. This was a kiss of death in the post-conciliar years. As a result, many Roman Catholics today don’t know that these exist and are the normative forms of music to be used at Mass. Hence the efforts by the Reform of the Reform.

I want to make two points here:

  • The Chant Propers have always been and are now part of the historic Western liturgy.
  • The Chant Propers for the Temporal cycle are all drawn exclusively from Scripture.   (I don’t know if that’s the case for the Sanctoral cycle)

In the Anglican Use

Clearly the early BCPs simplified the Roman Mass. However, of these four sung propers, only one—the Gradual—was dropped by the 1549 BCP. The others were transformed:

  1. The Introit was a whole or a section of a psalm (rather than the Antiphon/Ps Verse/Antiphon/Gloria Patria/Antiphon pattern of the Roamn Rite) appointed for all Sundays and major days along with the Collect, Epistle, and Gospel.
  2. The Offertory was no longer “proper” and a list from which one to be chosen was given. These were now exhortations to give money, rather then Scriptures for meditation tying in with the meaning of the season or mass.
  3. The Communion also became a list of Scriptural sentences from which one was to be chosen. These too tended towards moral exhortation.

The 1552 book dropped all but the Offertory sentence. While Elizabeth’s 1559 book allowed the rite to start with a hymn or metrical psalm, none were appointed. The concept of the introit was preserved; the texts were not.

The High Church party would sometimes smuggle the chant propers back in when they could and, sure enough, inclusion of the chant propers, is one of the key points of the Anglican Missal and its relatives.

The American BCPs and the current book do not include these propers. However:

  1. We have a “hymn, psalm, or anthem” opening the service
  2. The Psalm in the RCL and the “Psalm, hymn or anthem [which] may follow each Reading” serve as the Gradual and the Alleluia with verse/Sequence
  3. The Offertory sentence is retained and the option given of “some other sentence of Scripture.” Furthermore, “During the Offertory, a hymn, psalm, or anthem may be sung”
  4. “During the  ministration of Communion, hymns, psalms, or anthems may be sung”

In short, then, the rubrics of the BCP give space for the retention of these classic parts of the historic Western liturgy that would give our congregations yet more exposure to Scripture…

Points to Ponder

  • If many of our great liturgical stride over the past decades have been ecumenical in nature, isn’t this something to keep our eyes on?
  • It’s permitted, it’s classical, and it’s Scriptural; what’s not to like?

A few of my scattered thoughts:


  • See bullets one and two above
  • Furthermore, it opens more (and more interesting) musical options
  • I know of at least one Chant Gradual (Fr. John-Julian’s) that uses the RCL psalms for precisely this purpose


  • Yes, it’s historical and all—but how much of this is about recovery and revitalization and how much of it is Romish affectation?
  • Using the Roman cycle raises exactly the the same problem that we currently have with the collects. What is the true shape of the Temporal cycle: is it a one-year cycle or a three-year cycle? Given the rotation of readings it seems to be three; reintroducing another one year pattern would reshape the answer. Not necessarily a bad thing, but one to be intentional on.
  • Hymns are part of our heritage. Granted, most English language hymnody is not strictly Anglican, but hymns at Mass are what American Episcopalians are familiar and comfortable with. Where would this scheme leave room for hymns?

Obviously, I’m not in any way suggesting that chant propers be made mandatory. I don’t even see them being included in the next BCP. Rather, I’m offering food for thought. Is a recovery of the sung propers even something to be interested in?

19 thoughts on “Liturgical Renewal: Mass Propers

  1. Scott

    Thanks for another great post. Our parish (Ascension, Chicago) keeps both hymns and chanted Graduale Romanum propers in a way that I find works very well:

    Opening Hymn: covers entrance of ministers and sprinkling of altar, ministers, and people (at main Mass on most Sundays)
    Introit: chanted by schola as ministers return to sanctuary, “make incense,” and cense altar
    Gradual: chanted by schola after first lesson (personally I’d prefer use of the appointed psalm); covers movement of MC and subdeacon to get in place for Epistle
    Alleluia/Tract: chanted by schola after Epistle; covers deacon’s retrieval of Gospel book from altar, blessing by celebrant, formation of procession, and procession to midnave
    Offertory: chanted by schola after The Peace; covers preparation of altar
    Offertory Hymn: covers censing of gifts, cross, altar, ministers, and people, and presentation and blessing of almsbasins
    Communion: chanted by schola as administration of Holy Communion is winding down
    Communion Hymn: covers ablutions
    Closing Hymn: covers exit of ministers

    This works because there are things going on during each: there’s no feeling of “this is an extra text that we have to get through before we can move on.” Mostly it seems organic to the ceremonial and pacing.

  2. Jason Wells

    Fantastic post, Derek! Thank you! A few observations from my perspective:

    Hymns do have a part in the present and traditional Roman Rites in the form of the Sequence Hymns. The current Rite has at least three Sequences for Easter, Pentecost and Corpus Christi. The Tridentine had more and the medieval uses more still. While it isn’t “hymn singing” as Westerners think of it today, the place for metered hymns has a traditional place in the Roman Rites.

    Also, I would place under your first “con” point that not only are the antiphons historical, they appeal to a particular slice of history. I may well be wrong, but I believe the pattern of antiphon, verse, antiphon and gloria is an abridgment of older practice. (In my office I might cite Hatchett.) The older practice was to use the entire psalm in place of the single verse. Over time, the abridgment to the single verse came about.

    I haven’t got all of the textual evidence here, sadly. I think the appeal to the late medieval pattern of antiphon-verse-antiphon-gloria is fine, but it does appeal to a particular slice of the history of the rite and not to the rite’s universal character.

  3. Derek the Ænglican

    Scott, this method really is organic and fits some of the original functions of these places in the first place. IIRC, Smokey Mary uses the Propers in a similar way.

    But what about a smaller place with different ceremonial? Is this an aspect that just makes sense within classic Anglo-Catholic worship patterns?

    For instance–when y’all do weekday low masses (assuming you do) do the propers appear then, either chanted or spoken? (They don’t at StMV…)

  4. Derek the Ænglican


    You’re right that the use of the antiphns and the reduction to a limited set of verses was a “later” adaption. However, that “later” is the majority of recorded Western liturgy. Of all of the Roman liturgical books, the Gradual was/is the most stable. The question then becomes, what’s the standard:
    * The “original” intent of using a whole psalm?
    * The more consistent practice of the Western Church?
    * Or the ecumenical approach—do what the Romans are doing?

  5. Scott

    At our church, it’s up to the celebrant whether to incorporate “minor propers” into Low Mass. There’s a copy of the Daily Roman Missal on the celebrant’s lectern, marked for optional use, and it mainly gets used on holy days. The texts (and, optionally, some of the prayers) are simply spoken by the celebrant:

    Entrance Antiphon: as an introit before the opening versicle
    RC Collect: as the concluding collect of the Prayers of the People
    Responsorial Psalm refrain: before and after the unison recitation of the BCP/LFF appointed psalm
    Alleluia or Verse: before the Gospel
    Prayer over the Gifts: just before the Sursum corda
    Communion Antiphon: just before the postcommunion prayer
    RC Prayer After Communion: just after the BCP postcommunion prayer

    These are used in various combinations depending on the celebrant. On ferial days, typically none of the RC material will be used. Sometimes the BCP/LFF appointed psalm is skipped and the celebrant simply recites the RC alleluia or verse.

    At a sung Mass (no deacon or subdeacon), the organist typically chants the propers from The English Gradual at the appropriate times, except recently the introit chant has not been done, as everyone is in place and ready to continue by the end of the opening hymn.

  6. bls

    Hymns are part of our heritage. Granted, most English language hymnody is not strictly Anglican, but hymns at Mass are what American Episcopalians are familiar and comfortable with. Where would this scheme leave room for hymns?

    They sing all, or most, of the propers – and several hymns (three at least, and more usually four) – every Sunday at STMV.

  7. bls

    (It’s pretty much as Scott describes above, BTW – but there is no opening hymn, just the Introit.)

  8. gerry hough

    But what about a smaller place with different ceremonial? Is this an aspect that just makes sense within classic Anglo-Catholic worship patterns?

    Not at all.

    At our parish, Trinity Memorial in Binghamton, NY, we are a Prayer Book Church, yet we follow much the same pattern as Ascension musically.

    Depending on the day and feast, if there is an Introit it is chanted a cappella from the Narthex.

    The entrance hymn if used is a Processional for the chancel party to reach their places.
    Gradual: after first lesson (often the appointed psalm) in Anglican Chant with the Choir leading the congregation;
    Alleluia/Tract: we refer to it as a Sequence and is usually metrical by choir and congreagation after Epistle; covers retrieval of Gospel book from altar, formation of procession, and procession to midnave
    Offertory: sung/chanted by either Treble or Mixed Choir after The Peace; covers preparation of altar and presentation of the gifts
    Offertory Hymn: covers presentation and blessing of almsbasins
    Communion: chanted by choir as administration of Holy Communion begins
    Communion Hymn: covers completion of Holy Communion and ablutions
    Closing Hymn: covers exit of ministers.

    We never use Incense and don’t own a Thurible; If the Bishop is celebrating, we do the Asperges, but that is the only time.

    When we do a spoken Eucharist, what you call low Mass, either the first one on Sunday or on a weekday; the Introit, Gloria, Te Deum, Great Litany, etc. that would be sung normally are spoken by celebrant and congregation

  9. bls

    As you probably know from our discussions about this over the past few years, I can say for sure that I’ve learned more from reading – and talking about, with you and others – the texts of the mass propers on the day than almost anything else that happens during the year. There is just a lot of stuff there to draw from.

    It does help, I have to add, to talk about these things afterwards, though. I remember a few years back seeing one of the propers – at the Presentation, it must have been, given the text – and asking you about it because in fact it was extra-Biblical and I wondered where it came from:

    Senex puerum portabat:
    puer autem senem regebat:
    quem virgo peperit,
    et post partum virgo permansit:
    ipsum quem genuit, adoravit.

    An old man carried the child,
    yet the child ruled the old man.
    Him whom the virgin had borne
    – after which she remained for ever a virgin –
    she herself worshipped.

    And then we talked for quite awhile about “Christ sanctifying the waters” – the Epiphany Office text – and where that had come from. So these texts and the discussions around them have been very, very valuable to me.

    But of course, I have to say – as somebody who was completely outside the church for most of my life – that an interest in religion, and investigation of same, is an entree into many other very interesting topics – art, history, music, culture – since religion is absolutely central to human history. When I started getting curious about this idea or that one, I found I had to do all kinds of research in order to understand more deeply. And this, to me, is one of the very valuable things about religion, to be honest! You learn a lot because you have to – and things you wouldn’t ordinarily investigate, probably.

    So it seems to me to be the same with the chant propers – there’s just a lot there that’s really fascinating, and you have to keep learning things to understand more deeply what’s being said.

    Long-winded, sorry!

  10. John-Julian, OJN

    The thing about the “traditional” Lesser Propers is that they are designed to call one back over and over again to the primary idea behind the Greater Propers — to the “theme” (if you will) of the Mass Propers.

    And, IMHO, the use of hymns in these places tends to divert or mis-direct the attention from what is happening.

    Notice that in almost every comment above, people note that a hymn (or chanted proper) “covers” some liturgical action. The word “covers” is the point! These liturgical actions (e.g., especially at the Offertory) then simply “disappear” from the consciousness of the worshipper. They are merely fussy things that odd ordained people do at a considerable physical distance from the worshipper who with head bowed is busy following words in a hymnal. ” Covering” liturgical actions should be the LAST thing we want — UN-covering them is far more to the point.

    Singing anything other than theme-oriented lesser propers (chanted always in unobtrusive and meaning-oriented plainchant) makes a wreck of the liturgy, and tosses it back to a private (secret) performance behind-the-scenes on the part of the set-apart and separated ordained types.

    Example 1: The Offertory is an absolutely central and primary aspect of the Eucharist. Everyone in the congregation should be as fully engaged with the Offertory as possible. They should be watching every movement at the altar closely (and responding verbally if the [RC] offertory prayers over the gifts are used — that response to these is why we have included those prayers in our customary). But put a hymn there and the true Offertory evaporates.

    Example 2: The proclamation of the Gospel is equally central to our pattern of Eucharistic liturgy: and the congregation should be able to participate in all the pomp of its preparation, incense blessing, procession, and introduction with all their attention — again, not ducking into some hymn book.

    Hymns have long been part of the liturgy of the Offices — because there is nothing “happening” liturgically in the Office from which the hymns would divert attention. But the 19th century invention of hymns at Mass is a whole different thing, and tends to work AGAINST an assembly’s understanding of and participation in the liturgy.

    We’ve retrieved Gradual, Sequence/Tract, and Offertory. We don’t do the Introit because we think that the salutation and responses (we use the so-called Penitential Office before EVERY Mass) make a better “preparation” and “orientation” than the Introit — for us the Collect is the first Proper.

    And, if you add the tri-fold seasonal blessing at the end of Mass, the Post-Communion Lesser Proper is only redundant.

    [My sister and her husband recently transferred to another parish — primarily because of the useless SEVEN (count ’em) hymns at each Sunday Mass.]

    I Don’t suppose any of my prejudices show in this posting, do they?

  11. Christopher

    One of the things I’m reminded of in reading this is that liturgy is not merely words on the page, but is an event and experience. I’ve never experienced the Holy Communion in this way, and so, while it seems sensible, I cannot honestly say, except what is on the page, if this would make sense, and in which contexts.

    I would say it would make sense to publish a supplement for this BCP that provides these as an option alongside our hymnals. Now, if my bias isn’t readily noticeable, emphasis should be placed on “this” in the first sentence. Given the overall direction, I don’t want to know about the “next”.

    I love hymns, and think we have many good ones with venerable histories and rich theologies. I was reminded of this as we prepared a baccalaureate liturgy. “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”…heaven! So I’m not one to think they don’t have a place in the Mass. And I don’t think of them as cover either at the convocation/gathering/opening nor at the offertory. They are response in praise and thanks, a preparing of hearts and minds for Holy Meeting.

    We’ve a mixed inheritance, and it seems to me, we would want to lift up the best of that mix.

  12. Christopher

    I would also hate to lose the resonance of our hymnody and scripture. The poetic resonance prevents fundamentalism. So both/and…

    What I would suggest is that we need to get over the one hour liturgy model. I often barely get into the mood and it’s over, and our liturgy is usually one and a half hours.

    Why not a chanted Gospel and Anaphora? Why not take a wonderful bit more time?

  13. Scott

    Great discussion! I had a feeling even when I was typing the word “covers” that I should find a better word. It was really shorthand for “happens at the same time as.” While I didn’t intend to mean “obscures or prevents participation in,” I appreciated the discussion of that angle. We, too, use the RC prayers over the gifts at the offertory except at solemn Mass. The people still get to give their assent by saying the response to the Ecce Agnus Dei: “May the Lord receive this sacrifice at your hands…”

    One thing I appreciate about the BCP 1979 is its scalability: a rite can have its “may” rubrics pared away and the remaining “will” items done contemplatively, or it can be scaled up to high solemnity, movement, and ornateness. I would hope a new BCP would be scalable that way, too.

  14. Vicki McGrath

    A few thoughts….

    The discussion about sung propers or hymn equivalents “covering” liturgical action or even occurring at the same time is probably better understood as illuminating or highlighting the action with music. It is demeaning both to the liturgical action and to the musicians’ offering (whether choral or congregational) if what is sung becomes the functional equivalent of elevator music, put there because we are uncomfortable with silence.

    The pattern at Gerry’s parish is similar to our own. All Saints’, Millington would probably best be categorized as Prayer Book Catholic – although the parishioners would just say that our liturgy is formal and traditional (of course that always begs the question – “Compared to what?”). So we do choral introits in the Narthex seasonally before the entrance hymn. The offertory sentence is always by the celebrant, sometimes changed seasonally, but always a verse of Scripture (and this is true for 8 am and weekdays, as well). We always do the whole psalm for the gradual, but it varies between being spoken by the whole congregation, sung to Anglican chant or plainsong by the choir, or using the Hymn-tune psalter with congregational refrain. The Sequence, Offertory and Communion are all textually appropriate hymns, and usually the adult choir sings an anthem at the Offertory (so the pattern is sentence-anthem-presentation hymn) and the junior choir sings an anthem at communion, before any hymns).

    I think Derek’s and Christopher’s point about the variety of parish resources and traditions, along with our own mixed heritage is important. The point about liturgical study and planning is to make the drama of the liturgy as clear and straight-forward as possible so that hearts, minds and souls can be open to the movement of the Spirit, and not get blocked in our worship of God by confusing or mixed messages (all the while maintaining the multivalence of worship). While we want to be faithful to the intent of the tradition, I think we also need to be aware of local needs, as well.

    And to the point about the “minor” propers being Scriptural – I agree, and I think it’s good to steep our people in Scripture as much as possible, I think we forget how much Scripture is woven all through Anglican worship. Much more than in the so-called “Bible churches”. And much more than in most mainline Protestants churches, also. I’m not just talking about having three Scriptural readings and a psalm at each Eucharist, and whichever of the minor propers we do, but also the very phrasing of the Collects, the Eucharistic prayers, etc. I think the more difficult question is: how do we help our people to become conscious and intentional about what they are hearing and praying so that it becomes active in their lives?


  15. Christopher


    I’m wondering about this some more. The Eastern Church has a rich hymnody tradition. I wonder if Arian controversies (which were often fought in liturgical modes–including composition of hymns), which hit the West harder and longer do not have something to do with a general move to use mostly Scriptural pieces–Psalms and Canticles.

  16. Steve Cavanaugh


    I think the Western preference for psalms and canticles is more likely due to the more primitive character of the Roman Rite, which is foundational for Rome, England and the countries evangelized by England. The other Western countries had other influences but those uses, except for Milan, are not widespread; and Milan is only a small regional variant.

  17. Vicki McGrath


    I’ve had another thought about this discussion. Yesterday afternoon I participated in a chant workshop offered through our local choral society (get Nick to tell you about Harmonium/Grace Church connection). The clinician was Susan Hellauer from Anonymous 4 (the early music group). We were really working on learning and singing by ear, rather than reading the transcribed notes on the page. Almost all of the chants we sang were antiphons for the Office for the feast of the BMV, but some others, as well. This was a group of skilled amateur choral singers, but not people with much liturgical training. So Susan was explaining some of the structure of the liturgy and was talk about the Mass propers (because we sang a Communion proper). And it made me think that having the same chants to look forward to every year on certain dates would really underscore the identity of that particular day, just as we now look forward to the Exsultet at the Vigil every year. Or, I suppose, just as people say it would be Christmas Eve without singing Silent Night, etc.

    I know your question about the propers was related to increasing the level of Scriptural familiarity in worshipping communities, but this other aspect of having unvarying assigned music to specific texts heightening the recognition and appreciation of the liturgical day or season also came to mind.

    Any thoughts?


  18. Scott

    Vicki+, yes! It isn’t fully Easter Day at our parish until the schola sings Resurrexi, or Christmas until we hear Dominus dixit ad me. And eventually parishioners recognize other days like Quasi modo geniti infantes for the Second Sunday of Easter, Gaudete and Laudate for the appropriate Sundays in Advent and Lent. The propers underscore the spiritual significance of the day very powerfully.

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