What are the propers?

Mary C. WeaverMusic and liturgy

Before there was a “gathering song,” there was the Introit.

Before ever a cantor intoned a responsorial psalm, there was the Gradual.

Before hymns were sung at Offertory and Communion, there were the Offertory and Communion chants.

In short, centuries before the Mass was put into what’s been called the “four-hymn sandwich,” the Church sang the propers. Before music directors and pastors asked us to sing at Mass, Catholic musicians sang the Mass—by singing settings of the specific liturgical texts known as the propers. These texts are taken directly from sacred Scripture, from both testaments.

You might think the concept of singing the propers was banished or discouraged by the Second Vatican Council simply because it’s so rare to hear propers these days. Yet the post–Vatican II Church’s official songbooks for choirs are the Graduale Romanum (Roman Gradual) and Gregorian Missal, both of which contain Gregorian chant settings of the propers for all Sundays and solemnities.

If the propers had no longer been part of the Mass, the Church wouldn’t have bothered commissioning these authoritative books and would instead have quietly retired them.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with singing hymns at Mass, and there’s plenty of room for us to sing both propers and congregational hymns at Mass. But how did hymns come to replace the propers entirely in so many parishes?

One big problem was the time it took the Church to prepare a new edition of the Roman Gradual after the Second Vatican Council. A new edition of the Gradual was essential because the Church went from a one-year cycle of Scripture readings to a three-year cycle. Thus, some of the proper chants had to be assigned to different Sundays, and in a few cases new chants had to be composed.

Vatican II ended in 1965, but the new Gradual wasn’t published until 1974. In that nine-year vacuum, some who wished to radically alter the music of the Mass had ample opportunity to do so. Admittedly, it’s a lot easier for a choir and congregation to learn and sing a handful of hymns than for a choir to learn propers that may be sung only once a year. And even in the pre–Vatican II Church, most congregations sang hymns at low Masses, reserving the propers for the high Mass.

Why sing the propers?

That said, why bother singing the propers? Why not stick with hymns and an occasional special piece for the choir? Here’s how the General Instruction of the Roman Missal expresses the Church’s intentions for the entrance chant (Introit) and Communion, for example, in order of preference:

48. 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.

87. In the dioceses of the United States of America there are four options for the Communion 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 United States Conference of Catholic Bishops or the Diocesan Bishop, including psalms arranged in responsorial or metrical forms; (4) a suitable liturgical song chosen in accordance with No. 86 above. This is sung either by the choir alone or by the choir or cantor with the people. If there is no singing, however, the Communion antiphon found in the Missal may be recited either by the faithful, or by some of them, or by a lector. Otherwise the priest himself says it after he has received Communion and before he distributes Communion to the faithful.

The Church’s ideal for sung Masses is expressed in the first option: the Introit or Communion proper, for example, from the Gradual. If this is too challenging, turn to the Graduale Simplex (Simple Gradual) or any of the less-complex settings of the proper texts—for example, any of the numerous English-language propers that are now readily available. (For example, English propers written by Father Samuel Weber, OSB. Father Weber composed most of the English propers we’re now singing at Holy Ghost with his permission.)

If this is not possible, another psalm may be substituted.

In last place is the ubiquitous “suitable liturgical song” (that is, hymn) that’s sung in most U.S. parishes 99 percent of the time.

A Church musician’s responsibility

The question for us, then, is not “why should we sing the propers?” but “what steps can we take to conform our music program more closely to the ideal outlined by the Catholic Church?”

All of us involved in Church music should begin laying the groundwork so we can begin learning to sing at least one of the propers, however simple, at each Mass and to strengthen our musical skills so we can someday aspire to sing from the Roman Gradual.

If we believe the Catholic Church teaches with authority—as Christ taught that she would—and we desire to be both good musicians and faithful Catholics, how can we ignore her directives?

If we have been given musical talents and the opportunities to use them in service to the Church, shouldn’t her magisterial documents on liturgy (e.g., Sacrosanctum Concilium, Musicam Sacram) be our guide?

Clearly it’s our duty to attempt restoration of the propers. I’ve said nothing about the spiritual, intellectual, and musical benefits of this music—but if you open your heart and mind to the Church’s musical treasury, you will experience them.

But why bother singing chant? Didn’t Vatican II “throw all that out,” as an uninformed chorister at another parish once asked me?

Absolutely not. The very first Vatican II constitution to be published, Sacrosanctum Concilium (“Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,” 1963), stated the Church’s intentions in the strongest possible language:

112. The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as sacred song united to the words, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy.

116. The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services. [emphasis added]

But other kinds of sacred music, especially polyphony, are by no means excluded from liturgical celebrations, so long as they accord with the spirit of the liturgical action, as laid down in Art. 30. [excerpted below]

[30. To promote active participation, the people should be encouraged to take part by means of acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons, and songs, as well as by actions, gestures, and bodily attitudes. And at the proper times all should observe a reverent silence.]

117. The typical edition of the books of Gregorian chant [that is, the Graduale Romanum, published in 1974] is to be completed; and a more critical edition is to be prepared of those books already published since the restoration by St. Pius X.

And what is “active participation,” a term some scholars have argued should have been translated “actual participation”?

Musicam Sacram (“Instruction on Music in the Liturgy,” 1967), promulgated by the Sacred Congregation of Rites, defines it thus:

15. The faithful fulfill their liturgical role by making that full, conscious, and active participation which is demanded by the nature of the Liturgy itself and which is, by reason of baptism, the right and duty of the Christian people. This participation

(a) Should be above all internal, in the sense that by it the faithful join their mind to what they pronounce or hear, and cooperate with heavenly grace,

(b) Must be, on the other hand, external also, that is, such as to show the internal participation by gestures and bodily attitudes, by the acclamations, responses and singing.

The faithful should also be taught to unite themselves interiorly to what the ministers or choir sing, so that by listening to them they may raise their minds to God.

In other words, the post–Vatican II Church imposes no obligation for the faithful to sing four hymns during Mass—or for the choir to sing nothing but congregational hymns accessible to everyone. The Church asks the clergy, choir or schola, and members of the congregation each to sing the parts of the Mass appropriate to them. In other words, we all play an indispensable role in singing the music of the liturgy, although different roles belong to different people (e.g., the priest, the deacon, the faithful, the choir).

The ordinary and the propers

Let me explain a few terms. The ordinary of the Mass consists of the “Mass parts” said or sung at Mass: the Kyrie, the Gloria, the Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy), and the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God). The texts never change unless the Church issues new translations, as we saw in 2011. These belong to all the people—the clergy, the choir, and the congregation. This does not mean settings for choir alone are forbidden, but in the normal course of things, the congregation sings the ordinary or at least part of the ordinary.

From Musicam Sacram:

34. The songs which are called the “Ordinary of the Mass,” if they are sung by musical settings written for several voices may be performed by the choir according to the customary norms, either a cappella, or with instrumental accompaniment, as long as the people are not completely excluded from taking part in the singing.

The propers (Introit, Offertory, Communion, and so on) are to be sung by the choir or schola, and the Gregorian chant settings found in the Graduale Romanum and the Gregorian Missal require greater musical skills than do most settings of the ordinary. That said, when less-complex propers are sung, the congregation can join the choir in singing them.


The Church Music Association of America
This site offers the most extensive collection of resources available for those interested in sacred music. Members receive its excellent quarterly journal, Sacred Music. Anyone may join its lively discussion forum.

Adoremus: Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy
Papal and Vatican documents on liturgy and sacred music may be found here. Members receive Adoremus Bulletin, published 10 times a year. Highly recommended.

—Mary C. Weaver, April 14, 2009; updated September 8, 2020