More on the introductory rites of Mass

In the thread about irreverent worship about two weeks ago, Rita Ferrone said:

I found it difficult. I am an extrovert. Yet I do need and want a few minutes of quiet before Mass in order to settle down and become centered after the hectic drive there. Some quiet helps me to prepare to celebrate, and to let go of distractions I may have come in carrying with me. It’s a precious luxury to have a few moments of un-programmed quiet in a beautiful, sacred space, to become present to my own thoughts, and present to what the Spirit may be leading me to hear inwardly at this time. I love to listen to the prelude too — forget that when everybody is talking. It’s like a theater before the curtain.

It was suggested to me that I ought to elaborate my response to her into a separate thread. Here it is.

I said that I’d like to explore what lies behind what Rita says, as well as tackling the comments of others, and went on to say that surely it ought to be the function of the introductory rites to achieve the quietening down and focusing that Rita is looking for, rather than a private period of silence “before we all start”. It seems to me that the transition from the personal to the communal is something that needs to take place within the rite, not outside it.

This is the crux of the matter. The dichotomy we are faced with is this: a need to “gear ourselves up” to celebrate (truly celebrate) together v. a need to recollect ourselves so that we may focus on the word that will be proclaimed and truly receive it; and so questions we need to ask include “How can we achieve both of those?”, “Do they both need to achieved on the same occasion?”, “Can they be sequential, and if so in which order?”, and “Are there other ways of getting into the celebration, apart from these two?”.

Further questions include these: “Do we actually realize that the rite is a communal act, something that we do together and experience together?” “Can quiet, private recollection beforehand be in a sense a denial of that?” “Could it be better if we all recollected and focused ourselves together as part of the introductory rites?”

I find in fact that the “healthiest” (in the sense of “balanced”) parishes I come across are those where there is a variety of things that happen “before the bell”. Here are a few examples:

1) Silence in the church. Nothing is happening. No one is moving. Many people are kneeling. Anyone talking to anyone else is likely to be be told “Please be quiet. You’re interrupting my [sic] prayer.” This is the classic case of a number of individuals who are “doing their own thing” simultaneously. They all happen to be in the building together, and they all have the rite in view; but they have not all realized that the rite has already begun and the assembly has already been gathering for quite some time. For me, the challenge is to provide such a time of recollection, but perhaps at a different point in the rite, rather than “before” it starts.

I can feel introverts squirming as they read this. My father would have been one of them. He used to talk about “my” Mass, and the grace that “I” get out of it. I never discussed this with him, but if I had, I would have asked him to think instead about “our” Mass, and to contemplate what might be good ways of ensuring that everyone else got grace from the Mass, even if he didn’t himself.

2) Three minutes before the starting time, the cantor does a brief (one-minute) warm-up, preparing the assembly to celebrate, followed by silence for reflection. This practice annoys some people beyond belief ― yes, the introverts, but particularly those who don’t like music and singing in the liturgy. And yet it is an act of courtesy to the assembly. 99% of the time we fail to prepare the assembly to celebrate. This means we are treating them as passive spectators instead of active participants. To participate actively, you need to know what is going on. The brief “warm-up” (a better expression than “rehearsal”, which can imply an overemphasis on performance or a “teaching” environment”) tries to give people a simple way-in to the celebration by running through one or more of the items that will be sung during the liturgy, ensuring that there will be some familiarity when they actually encounter that singing later on.

There are two principal ways of ending the warm-up: either (a) inviting the people into a minute or two of silent recollection before the entrance procession, or (b) timing the warm-up so that the last thing to be run through is in fact the new entrance chant/song/refrain/hymn/etc that is going to be started immediately while it is fresh in people’s minds.

3) The presiding priest or pastor is out in the nave greeting people and catching up with them. He is finding out “where they are”, what their concerns are, what they have brought with them. This will assist him in pitching his presiding style at the right level, and will affect the kind of homily he will preach. Two or three minutes before starting-time, he disappears into the sacristy to vest. In some churches, this is the point at which the cantor will then do the warm-up.

4) The choir is quietly singing a Taizé or similar gathering chant. People coming into the chant are drawn into it, singing or humming along with it, or sit/kneel quietly “in the midst” of it. This is frequently met with in a true gathering rite, where not only does the music begin five or even ten minutes before the “starting time” and create an atmosphere of prayer, but there is no entrance procession as such. Anyone who needs to get to their place goes there quietly and unobtrusively when they are ready/when they are vested. Frequently in this scenario, the priest is already sitting, vested, in his chair, visible leading the people into prayer as the community gathers. He does not disappear into the sacristy only to process out again, but simply stands up when the next phase of the celebration is to begin.

5) Several minutes before Mass, the schola is singing a Gregorian introit or the choir is singing a polyphonic introit. When the bell goes, an entrance processional hymn begins.

6) The reverse sequence: a processional hymn, which may begin before the procession emerges, followed by a Gregorian or polyphonic introit, the latter being sung while the altar is being incensed.

7) In many churches, you can find the choir/schola/ensemble rehearsing, much too late, what they are going to be singing during Mass ― much too late because the time before the service is a time of preparation to celebrate, not one of learning/ironing out mistakes. Sometimes, it’s not the singers who are rehearsing but the organist, or the organist and cantor. If rehearsal in the church is a necessity, it should end a good twenty minutes to half an hour before the advertised starting time. Otherwise it’s a little bit like getting dressed in public. All the underpinning and adjusting should take place out of sight, not in public when people are already present.

8) An instrumental prelude. This can fulfil the same sort of function as the gathering chant: slowing/quietening people down, creating an atmosphere of prayer, perhaps familiarising people with something they will sing later on (some organists are able to improvise successfully on the psalm response or some other assembly music).

9) Perhaps a combination of more than one of the above. For example, a considerable number of parishes now have a gathering chant during the few minutes before the bell, and then move to an entrance hymn when the procession begins. Or the cantor’s warm-up may take place five or even ten minutes before the service “begins”, followed by a minute’s silence and then the gathering chant. Or many other possibilities.

The thing about nearly all of them, and many others too, is that they are equally valid ways of moving into the celebration, with the possible exception of (7) unless that has been deliberately designed as a familiarization process for the assembly. There is no “right or wrong”, or “only this is correct”. GIRM is only concerned with what happens after the bell. It does not give any clues as to how the assembly gathers and prepares itself to worship, primarily because those drafting it could not, and cannot, imagine anything other than scenario (1) above.

I do accept that some people are extrovert and some introvert, but the point is that liturgy is a communal activity, not a simultaneous occurrence of individual activities; and so even those who are more introverted need to let go of their personal needs and enter into the rite. That does not mean that those who are more extroverted can ignore the needs of those who are not. The answer lies in a realization that a diverse community is assembling to celebrate, and that we need to think carefully about what is the best way of enabling that to happen, the best way of drawing everyone in. If we get it wrong, the entire celebration is off to a bad start, sometimes such a bad start that things never recover. I firmly believe that what happens in those opening minutes is “make or break”, and that a decline in attendance may be largely attributable to getting it wrong at this early point in the rite. People easily switch off if they are not quickly engaged in what is happening.

If we can tune in to our assemblies, and use our imagination, we will realize that the process of gathering together to celebrate can be infinitely variable and yet infinitely sanctifying.


  1. Thank you. This was the subject of a recent staff meeting and a liturgy committee meeting (or has it been the subject of every liturgy committee meeting since the inception of the committee?). I’ll share it with all concerned.

  2. Then there is the part of the assembly that isn’t even “here” yet when the procession begins. (And priests who chronically delay the procession will find, at least in much but not all of Anglo-North America, people will delay further getting “here”. For a variety of reasons, not all logistical problems.

  3. Thanks for your thoughts here; much to consider.

    I have to quibble with your characterization of what you call ‘introverts’. You seem to have confused people who are quietly recollecting Christ as ‘me generation’ self-firsters. This is bizarre.

    I’ll just leave it at that.

  4. Our regular sequence is 7-3-8-2, followed by one you’ve missed, Paul. A minute or two before Mass begins, one of the readers says some words of welcome, and of introduction to the celebration (e.g. the nature of the feast or the leading themes of the readings). They then invite the assembly to stand and sing the opening song. We’ve been doing it for a year, and for a while at least it seemed to have a very good effect in gathering the assembly in preparation for gathering, so to speak. A year on, though, the chatter from the back goes on through this introduction, the way it has for years through my cantor’s warm-up… I guess people are glad to be among friends, and can’t help themselves.

  5. The architecture of the church plays a significant role in the perceived formality of the space and how people behave. The church where my family attends Mass is a monumental Roman basilica, very long nave and high ceilings, surfaces of stone/marble/ornate plaster. Soaring stained glass windows, frescoes, and marble statues abound. Even the smallest sound echoes throughout the room. No one has to explain to people to be quiet because it is implied by the formality of the space.

    Contrast that with the church where our kids attend PSR. It’s a 1970s church with a low ceiling, short aisles, surfaces of wood paneling/carpeting. Very little to look at, as everything is presented in shades of brown and beige. People here tend to act informally, letting their kids run around, lots of bustling conversation and activity, various disruptions during Mass in the back of church. Periodically someone in charge admonishes people for behaving badly which corrects the problem for only a few minutes. People act casually, because this space feels more like a den or family room than it does a temple of God.

  6. I remember growing up in Canada when I was very young the parish priest would begin Mass already seated at his chair during Lent. We didn’t go to Mass weekly and rarely were more than a few minutes early. Still to this day I wonder how long before Mass he would go to his chair.

  7. Even before the celebration itself, it is a praiseworthy practice for silence to be observed in the church, in the sacristy, in the vesting room, and in adjacent areas, so that all may dispose themselves to carry out the sacred celebration in a devout and fitting manner. (GIRM 45)

  8. @Bryan Walsh (#7): thank you for dispelling Mr Inwood’s notion that the GIRM “is only concerned with what happens after the bell”.

    It’s perhaps worth pointing out that paragraph 45 of the 2002 edition of the GIRM appears to be an extension of paragraph 23 of the earlier editions (1969/1975).

    Aside from this, I will say that most of the ideas in the main post are, in my opinion, terrible. For example, I am one of those people who detests the “warm-up”, not because I am an introvert or because I don’t like music in the liturgy, but because it’s frequently done in such a cringe-worthy and patronising way. In any case, the introvert/extrovert dichotomy that permeates the post is overly simplistic, and doesn’t at all map onto the individual/communal dichotomy.

    There’s precious little silence in the OF as it is generally practised – so what’s wrong with insisting on a little silence before the liturgy begins?

  9. I applaud every parish that treats the gathering time before mass as an integral part of celebration together. Brother Inwood is absolutely right that our prayer together succeeds and fails in large measure depending on what we do before we sign ourselves. He clearly knows of many that have succeeded in their own ways. I have heard that many parishes in Kenya and other countries in Africa have exuberant pre- and post-mass celebrations, and maybe we will see this for ourselves during the pope’s trip later this week.

    Silence during the liturgy accompanies words and actions that clearly witness to the divine presence among us. I incorporate pauses and silent reflection whenever I read there, always in relation to word(s) that are proclaimed.

    Silence before mass lacks these obvious relations; our Latin tradition links it to the Blessed Sacrament, which is certainly related to what the priest does during the mass but not to the communal prayer we engage in there. Though it may be a time of quiet, our culture treats it as dead or empty time. So of course those in charge of the mass fill in that time as they think best, lest any in the assembly revert to their default mode of greeting and chatting. Over the years I have seen and heard many kinds of fill-ins, none of them related to or contributing positively to the worship that follows. Inwood listed several. I’ll spare you my own catalog, since you have your own examples. But if anyone asked me how to do it right, I would lean toward chants that are familiar to the congregation and that lead into the themes of the day (Inwood’s #4).

  10. Surely the rite is, by its nature, public worship, but what Rita was writing about was *private* preparation, prior to the rite, to be able to properly join the public worship?

  11. Three minutes before the starting time, the cantor does a brief (one-minute) warm-up, preparing the assembly to celebrate, followed by silence for reflection. And yet it is an act of courtesy to the assembly. 99% of the time we fail to prepare the assembly to celebrate. This means we are treating them as passive spectators instead of active participants. To participate actively, you need to know what is going on.

    This edited portion of Paul’s screed is an exemplar of the ubiquitous condescension provided the PIPs (just a convenient term) that “progressive” liturgists troop out to aid and abet their provincial concept of FCAP. After fifty years, it should be reasonably expected that the faithful know that they are invited to assent vocally to FCAP without provocation. I knew it five decades ago.
    That said, if the repertoire is demonstrably inaccessible, whether hymnody, song, ordinary or chant, no amount of “warm up (how in-elegant)” will coerce, cajole or co-opt folks to risk raising their collective voice fully. A director ought to program anything so designated for congregation actual participation as being intrinsically accessible for such. And it must be qualified that the performance practice of choral or other leadership mitigates that accessibility.

    1. @Charles Culbreth:
      Funny, I have found the opposite to be true. When I was hired as music director in my parish a few years ago, vocal participation in the Mass was minimal at best. This was particularly evident at the weekday school Masses where only some of the youngest children sang while anyone in the upper grades stood there in silence. There was no perceived expectation that the students would sing, and no one made much effort to teach them.

      I made a few changes, including moving the pianist and cantor from the choir loft to the sanctuary and leading a rehearsal/warmup of the congregation before every school Mass. Since then, participation has significantly improved, sometimes now it’s even full-throated and robust. So, at least in this case, the methods of the “progressive liturgists” led to actual progress.

      To those who are arguing against these methods, are you speaking from personal experience as music directors who have successfully increased vocal participation in a parish? Or are you speaking from a theoretical framework colored by your personal preferences?

  12. Brain-storming thoughts:

    Could the Liturgy of the Hours be incorporated in some way, a communal celebration of Lauds before the first Sunday Mass, Midmorning Prayer before the second Mass? Or the Office of Readings/Matins with a sung Te Deum?

    Another oft-neglected aspect of how the Church invites us to prepare to celebrate together is the Eucharistic Fast. Perhaps each person takes up that obligation individually, but we are united in knowing that our brothers and sisters are doing it, too. The fast as it is now is so short as to be sort of a joke, but even it were three hours (for those able to do so), that could be a small and unifying sacrifice, a deep breath before the common song.

    I have also heard of supplementing other kinds of “fasting” with that pre-Mass preparation: no radio/music in the car, no social media during that time of preparation.

  13. As the one who started off this discussion (unintentionally, I might add) let me weigh in with one comment.

    I am astonished with how much programming people feel, or fear, or believe is needed beyond the ordo itself. My goodness. Leave people alone, for God’s sake. Doing something together never, NEVER, erases the inner subjectivity of the individual. The more we respect that fact and realize the limits of our ability to “program” what happens within people, the better off we will be.

    Warming up the assembly? Preparing them? It’s sounding more and more like choir rehearsal or the high school drama club — which are good things in their proper setting, but different from Mass.

    Treating people like adults means realizing there is a whole world there, that we cannot see, and need to respect.

  14. @Scott Pluff (#15): Since then, participation has significantly improved, sometimes now it’s even full-throated and robust.

    There is, however, a subtle difference between participatio actuosa and participatio activa.

    And what might “work” in a school does not necessarily translate well to other settings: in my experience, “warm-ups” annoy and alienate a significant number of people, and that’s not a great thing to have achieved before Mass has even begun.

    1. @Matthew Hazell:
      Yes, “actual and active,” or perhaps “interior and exterior” participation are two sides of a coin. Both serve to strengthen the other, and the absence of one -may- indicate an absence of the other. A matter near to my heart, this was the topic of my master’s thesis.

      I agree that rehearsal with a weekend congregation 52 weeks a year would be overkill. We do such a rehearsal perhaps once a month on the weekend.

  15. My goodness. Leave people alone, for God’s sake. Doing something together never, NEVER, erases the inner subjectivity of the individual.

    A most welcome voice crying in the wilderness, Rita, thank you. I wonder if you’ve ever spoken with Mary Jane Ballou of FL about such matters, she has such a good take?
    Scott, it’s always YMMV. Our parochial kids fill the church with their lovely treble sound to the rafters. That’s not done ten minutes before Mass, it’s done over some years with you and I teaching them consistently to be singing Catholics. In the classroom.
    And this year, to abet Matthew’s point, we shifted to the school Mass being the regular daily Mass. So our efforts to teach both etiquette and active participation to the kids also respects daily communicants. I make a point of not rehearsing the kids, they know what to do. And we don’t intrude with the daily people’s sensibilities. The fact that kids will lift their voices so fully is proof that it can also happen with adult congregations with competent leadership. Like the kids, they just have to want to.

  16. It is clear that the word “warm-up” is problematic for some. This is a shorthand expression for “preparing the assembly to celebrate”. If anyone can find a better one, please share it with us all.

    I maintain that preparing the assembly to celebrate is not only a valid way (one among many) of drawing people into the liturgy, it is a courtesy to the assembly and indeed more than that. Some may feel it obtrusive, and that they don’t need to be drawn in, and I ask them to remember how often we all bewail the fact that many people have no idea of much of what goes on at Mass, that it all goes past them in one vast blur with odd moments that they can remember, that instead of participation and engagement we have passivity and indifference.

    The French realized this long ago when they resurrected the ministry of the “commentator” (a bad word — “introducer” would be better), a role which later morphed into that of the cantor. They understood that people often need a helping hand to find their place in what is going on. To this day, the commentator role exists in many Hispanic celebrations in the USA.

    In recent times, with the change from the Tridentine Missal to the Missal of Paul VI, this role was valuable, and more recently in the change to the English translation of RM3. I reiterate that this way of gathering is only one possibility among eight that I enumerated (and others have mentioned still more). Anyone would think it was the only one I mentioned, judging from some of the comments so far. No one is trying to enforce it on people every blessed time, as indeed Scott Pluff pointed out.

    My post was about how we can help the introductory rites, and what happens immediately before them, to help form a celebrating community. None of the comments so far have tackled that particular issue. If we do not tackle it, then the introductory rites become nothing more then going through the motions, going through a sequence of words because they happen to be in a book.

    My interest is in people like Rita who say “I’m an individual. Leave me alone”. But we don’t want to leave you alone. We don’t want a celebration where several hundred individuals happen to be doing their own thing simultaneously in the same building. (That way, the Mass becomes a private devotion on the occasion of the Church’s liturgy instead of a rite celebrated communally.) We want a true celebrating body. We don’t want a church building full of silent, kneeling individuals who are reluctantly dragged into engagement with a liturgy which is participatory, any more than we want a noisy social gathering where all that anyone wants to do is “have a good time with their friends”.

    So, once again, the question is this: shouldn’t the introductory rites/gathering rites/call them what you will, themselves be able to provide the space for reflection that some are asking for and that in fact we all need? And that within the context of creating the celebrating body and bringing it to focus on receiving the Word together, giving thanks together, and being sent out into the world together? Instead of having quiet reflection time before the gathering rites, couldn’t this happen as part of the gathering rites? My numbers (4), (5) and (8) show ways in which this is already happening in the time immediately before “the bell goes”, and indeed spilling over into the introductory rites in the case of (4). How about thinking of ways that they and other similar prayerful times could be incorporated into the introductory rites, rather than having a sequence of events which often do not in fact do what GIRM 46 tells us is the purpose of these rites?

  17. From the colonies, Paul, I give thanks for you and your ministry, though you are far afield with these prescriptions.

    shouldn’t the introductory rites/gathering rites/call them what you will, themselves be able to provide the space for reflection that some are asking for and that in fact we all need?

    Your premise of a monolithic caricature of “a church building full of silent, kneeling individuals who are reluctantly dragged into engagement with a liturgy which is participatory,” is fallacious from the get go. That may be your experience, valid as it may be, as well of others, but it is hardly comprehensive. It is predictably progressive and in the lesser sense of the word, liberal, in that you want to legislate something you perceive as faulty, and legislation is the most expedient convenience to remedy that.
    Paul, we provided music for the Thanksgiving Mass today. Our church was full. We didn’t today, nor generally, rehearse jack. The only announcement was the number of the processional. Lots of folk were early and deeply engaged in personal prayer. When I announced the hymn number folks quietly got up to get hymnals. Among the selections was Bernadette’s “Love goes on” which is new for us, because the homily leaned more towards redemptive love than “thanks.” This ad hoc, substantial congregation sang a brand new song, in a daily Mass, as fully as they did Kremsmer and Nun danket. Paul, it’s not about welcoming, inviting or fostering per se, as those ought to be presumed. It is about intentionality. You cannot coerce free participatio active/actuoso through artifice. This communalism you demand, “together,” is a priori. Whether we acknowledge that manifestation or not is beside the point. And further tinkering with the explicit ritual action that is codified already is a counterproductive errand. Your mileage obviously varies.

  18. It is now quite clear to me that the purpose of this thread has been completely misunderstood. It’s not about stopping people praying in church. It’s about the possible future structure and implementation of the gathering rites. Anthony, if you are reading this, please close comments.

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