Disposition is crucially important if we are to avail ourselves of the riches that come from the liturgy. While the essential component here is the Penitential Rite, each element is linked to the rest as a whole. It follows the pattern found in the New Testament— “Repent and believe!” Penance makes possible the metanoia of mercy and begins the movement of grace so that in faith we might properly encounter the living Word.
The Introit Chant or Hymn & Procession
A thurifer with incense may lead the procession to the altar. Behind him walks the crucifer with the crucifix. Side by side two acolytes carry the processional candles. If there is a deacon, he may carry the Book of the Gospels. Other servers may accompany the procession, having duties around the altar. The celebrant or priest is the last in the line-up.
A hymn or prescribed antiphon or expanded Introit chant might accompany the procession to the altar at the beginning of Mass. If it is not recited or sung by the congregation then the priest will recite the antiphon verse at the altar, after the sign of the cross and greeting. The Introit opens the liturgical worship. The antiphon or hymn should at least promote congregational unity and turn minds to the celebrated mystery.
An example of such an Introit is the following prescribed for Trinity Sunday: “Blest be God the Father, and the Only Begotten Son of God, and also the Holy Spirit, for he has shown us his merciful love.” The antiphon for the Fifth Week in Ordinary time is as follows: “O come, let us worship God and bow low before the God who made us, for he is the Lord our God” (Psalm 95:6-7). As with psalms and chants used for the Offertory and Holy Communion, they might be expanded or sung antiphonally. The earliest liturgies do not use musical instruments but rely upon choruses of human voices. A trained schola becomes increasingly important. Today a hymn befitting the theme of the liturgy is often substituted on Sundays to allow for congregational singing during the processional from the church doors to the altar. There is an antiphon for Holy Communion that can similarly be replaced by a sung hymn. Although not in the Roman Missal, an antiphon might be chanted during the Offertory; but usually it is either omitted or replaced with a hymn. While not strictly mandated by the rubrics, solemn Masses as on Holy Days and Sundays, most often in practice conclude with a recessional hymn.
After the Last Supper the Scriptures tell us that the apostles go singing to the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:30). That which was celebrated in Passover celebration is now to be realized in time. The time of their redemption is at hand. They joyfully sing hymns of thanksgiving. What do they sing? No doubt they chant the great “Hallel” psalms (113-118). The Lord would bring light from the darkness. Our Lord would endure betrayal by Judas and his arrest by the high priest’s guard. He enters into his prophesied passion and death.
The Palm or Passion Sunday liturgy best illustrates what the entrance procession is about. While our Lord’s entry into the holy city is hailed with palm branches and cries of hosannas, every priest is aware that as “another Christ” he enters Jerusalem and approaches his altar to die. Shouts of joy will soon change to “Crucify him!” The doubled-edged sword of the Gospel and the paschal mystery will be realized. Extracted from the reformed liturgy, the priest once recited the Judica Me (Psalm 42) at the foot of the altar: “Judge me, O God, and discern my cause from the unholy nation, rescue me from the unjust and deceitful man.” I have known a few more traditional priests who still say it, albeit privately in the sacristy or quietly while in procession.
The Mass begins. The hymn (as already said) can induce an atmosphere conducive to worship, unifying in song the congregated people of faith. Some authorities argue that the lyrics of contemporary religious songs often stray from the parameters of sacred music. After the immediate transition of the Mass into the vernacular, I recall older parishioners either loving or hating the folk songs and guitars at Mass. My lament will always be the disappearance of a youth choir with its chants and hymns. Is it too harsh to label some of the music with the tag of banality? I figure that over time a new hymnody would evolve and grow that would fit the new liturgical reality. Over the years my most persistent criticism is that modern song seems to put the gravity on us and not toward almighty God. We come to praise the Lord, not ourselves.
All secular songs and many religious compositions work better on the radio and around the campfire than in the church. Similarly there was a historical dilemma with the Tridentine Mass from the other extreme, albeit when classical pieces composed for the liturgy became so elaborate that they overwhelmed the worship itself. Pope Pius X favored a restoration of simplified Gregorian chant over the polyphony and orchestration that would be more at home in a concert hall. Somewhat in contradiction, I read Pope Benedict XVI lamented that the works of Mozart, Bach and others fell from use in the liturgy given that the compositions so powerfully raised hearts and minds to God and represented the highest expressions of human genius and creativity to honor almighty God in music. Nevertheless, liturgical music should find its home in the Mass, not as a disjointed entertainment but as an integrated prayer. Appropriate liturgical song reflects its particular placement and functionality in the liturgy as well as the theme (in the readings) or season in the liturgical calendar.
When the processional reaches the altar, the priest and servers may bow. Given that the tabernacle may be situated behind the main altar, they often genuflect instead. There are many genuflections during Mass, directed to either the altar or tabernacle. Sometimes it is wondered why some priests only bow. Most of the time, this possible deviation from the norm simply has to do with aging ministers with bad knees and aching backs. But the clergy do what they can, trusting that both God and the Church understand accommodations for age and fragility.
(A traveling friend tells me of a priest who is pushed in a wheelchair to a small table in front of the main altar of his church. Two men assist him at Mass by raising his arms and manipulating his frail hands. The parish is poor and lacks professional musicians but as soon as he begins to sing with his weak and wavering voice he is immediately accompanied by the congregation. Conversing with a congregant after Mass, my friend observes, “It is too bad you do not have a healthy priest.” The parishioner sharply responds, “What do you mean? We have our priest and the Mass, what more could we want?” The solidarity with the old sick priest and the underlying truth of what she says brings me to tears. At a time when the liturgy wars in the Church fight over accidentals, here is a community that knows what it is all about.)
Returning to the procession, if there is a deacon he may carry the Book of the Gospels, placing it on the altar. At the time for the Gospel proclamation, he will process with it from the Altar to the Ambo, visually illustrating the link between the Table of the Eucharist and the Table of the Word.