Unnecessary Impoverishments: The Psalter/Part 3 (The Communion Procession)

I once had a spiritual director who said that nobody knows a sin as well as the person who commits it.

In this series of “unnecessary impoverishments” (this is the third of five) that principle certainly holds true for me. I know these impoverishments intimately because I have—in the course of my ministry—unnecessarily impoverished God’s people through implementation of them. However, I likewise figure that if growing in wisdom was good enough for Jesus, I should do my best as a disciple to go and do likewise.

Being a “conciliar cusp” Roman Catholic, I did have an early experience of singing the proper communion antiphons. Through the late 1960s (including my debut on the organ bench in 1969) and into the early 1970s, we (I do mean the entire congregation) would chant the communion antiphon from the missalette—always to Gregorian tone VIII—during the priest’s communion, and then transition into a communion song. This was still our parish practice when I first began to accompany the Mass as an organist. (This experience turned me into one of those people who could literally chant the Sears-Roebuck catalog to tone VIII.)

I can’t chronologically locate precisely when we ceased chanting the proper antiphons and turned exclusively to a diet (pun somewhat intended) of communion songs that focused exclusively on the bread, wine, cup, Body, Blood, altar/table, meal, sacrifice, eating, drinking, and so on. Eventually, as was proposed with common responsorial psalms (covered in part one of this series), noted liturgical authors put forth the idea that a congregation needed only a handful of these communion songs to last the liturgical year.

To be completely honest, I didn’t miss the proper antiphons—largely because I didn’t miss tone VIII. In the ensuing years, as I pursued more formal theological/liturgical studies, the big Eucharistic focus was to emphasize the distinction between the active celebration of Eucharist at Mass, and passive adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. So the communion song texts that focused on the Eucharistic elements and actions were important in making and preserving that distinction.

When I began to encounter a resurgence of interest in the proper communion antiphons (from the Missal, but more often from the Graduale Romanum’s antiphons and psalms), I was dismayed by the generally combative tone of the discussion. This seemed to be generated by a misinterpretation of the word “proper” to mean “mandatory.” Of course, in this context, “proper” doesn’t mean that any more than “ordinary” (as in the Ordinary texts of the Mass) means “unremarkable.”

What did capture my attention and imagination was the degree to which the proper antiphons both in the Sacramentary and Graduale Romanum largely ignored all the bread, cup, Body, Blood, etc. language that was the near-exclusive focus of the communion song repertoire I knew and used. I noticed (and began to read about) the manner in which the proper antiphons and psalms looked back to the altar of the word even if, as with the proper entrance antiphons (see part two of this series), the revision of the Lectionary and Graduals wasn’t terribly well coordinated. A post-conciliar desire to connect the tables of Word and Sacrament, however, was preserved in the General Instruction, at #6 in the rubrics about Ordinary Time:

“Two antiphons are provided for Communion, the first from the Psalms, and the second for the most part from the Gospel. One or the other may be selected, as circumstances suggest, but preference should be given to an antiphon that is in harmony with the Gospel of the Mass.”

It was at this point that I began to realize how well I had come to know both the sin of omission in ignoring the precious treasure of the body of texts the Church had prepared for us to sing as we came to the supper of the Lamb; and my sin of commission in selecting a paltry, barely surface-scratching body of communion songs for the faithful’s reception of the deepest and richest mystery they are to become.

I’ve come to wonder if the object-focus of many communion songs was a curious manifestation of the inheritance of objectification received via Eucharistic adoration. For centuries, the faithful’s main participation in the Eucharist was through adoration (ocular communion) of the consecrated host, usually in a gold monstrance. Though a focus on eating/drinking was a corrective to the passivity of adoration, the emphasis on the object of Eucharistic adoration remained, amplified by including other objects (such as wine/Blood/cup in addition to bread/host/Body).

When we objectify human persons, we limit them unnecessarily, and we also impoverish our own opportunities to come to know them more deeply, thoroughly, and wholly. Though I don’t wish to overdraw the analogy, how much more is this true when we are speaking of the Word-made-Flesh, made truly and substantially present again in the sacrament? How much fuller is our plumbing of the Incarnational and Paschal mysteries when we regularly traverse the bridge between the altar of God’s word and the altar of sacrifice?

I’m not proposing nor recommending that we surrender or lose our familiarity with or love of current communion repertoire. “Gift of Finest Wheat” was the hymn on my dad’s lips shortly before his passing—what a true gift that was! Of course Psalm thirty-four, alive in various beautiful “Taste and See” settings, must be sustained. As with the entrance antiphons and their psalms, our current sung practice can also be informed—and subsequently enriched—by the texts of the proper communion antiphons and psalms.

I may even be ready for an occasional re-visitation of tone VIII.


  1. This is a side issue to this interesting post but I can’t resist:
    In the ‘corrected’ version of the Mode III melody “Gustate et Videte” based on the earliest manuscripts, it rises from G to B, not C, and there are four B’s before it goes up to C for “DE” of viDEte.
    This better fits the third mode modality, and makes the piece a good bit more interesting.
    Oh, and on “suavis,” the first syllable should have an E rather than an F, which also makes more sense.

    1. This was the largest image of the chant that I could find, and the PTB interns said it would best meet the pixel requirements!

      Chanting in the 21st century . . .

  2. I do think that a narrowly interpreted focus on by using the communion song to echo the specific liturgical action partakes somewhat of the “Say The Red – Say The Black – Do The Red” problem mentioned in a comment on the thread on telling while showing in ritual. I’ve certainly had to work in music ministry with that narrow focus as a non-negotiable essential rule for programming (except at Christmas), and it was something of a hobgoblin.

    I do wish people would enlarging the vision of what functions as their repertoire library to include Gradual(s) and missal antiphons as source texts (even music in the case of the Gradual(s)). Certainly one frequent “theme” is an exclamation of praise/thanksgiving/solace for Providential graces. For me, the Magnificat is a model reference canticle in this regard. But as I’ve seen an enlarged repertoire that includes the aforementioned antiphons, I also see the opportunities for counterpoint rather than monophony of theme, as it were.

  3. “… the revision of the Lectionary and Graduals wasn’t terribly well coordinated.”

    If we give the Lectionary a B to B-minus, the Graduals might barely escape a failing grade. I don’t think a slavish latch to the Gospel serves the liturgy well, but I think this group could have done less dining in Roman restaurants and better work than a numerical progression through the Psalter. I’d have to pin the impoverishment on the creators of the Antiphonary. Music directors not so much. We had a wider palette of Biblical texts used by contemporary composers: Isaiah 43, Ephesians 3, Philippians 2 and 3, etc.. And if Omer Westendorf and others produced a notable text “about” the Eucharist, that might have been more of an echo of pre-conciliar catechetical hymns. Most American parishes were singing hymns at Low Mass–propers nearly not at all.

  4. Funny, I was at Mass just an hour ago thinking it would be nice if at daily Mass we sang the entrance and communion antiphons, which launched me into a reverie in which I was singing them to tone VIII in my head (the antiphons for Ignatius of Antioch would be particularly fun to sing).

    Tone VIII: clearly poised for a comeback.

    1. Or Tone III….

      I think of the mashup tone in this scene (warning: it’s a spoiler of a subplot) in Loretta Young’s “Come To The Stable” (1949), a story “inspired by” the founding of the real-life Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethelehem CT (Theodore Marier had some involvement with their chant work, if memory serves):


  5. This was probably the most striking thing to me as I used the communion propers more often – one of those things that is so obvious it’s easy to miss it. The communion song does not have to be “about” communion! (although, of course, there is nothing wrong with it being about communion).

    The communion antiphon from the Graduale is so often a snippet of the gospel that I’ve taken to saying “as usual….” when discussing the week’s text with the schola. It would be interesting to do a statistical analysis of the texts to see what the exact frequency of gospel excerpts is in the communion propers. It feels like a clear majority of the texts to me. Certainly more than introit or offertory. This revisiting the gospel certainly feels like an enrichment to me, compared to more generic songs “about” communion. I hope that the congregation experiences it that way (we have english congregational proper antiphons at three of four masses, and a chant schola at the fourth with the Graduale proper).

    It is also worth noting that this does not have to be an either/or thing – there can be multiple pieces during communion (usually one of the longest periods of music during mass), and/or a congregational hymn of thanksgiving as suggested by the GIRM, which complements the proper antiphon. Even some of the common communion hymns seem to me to work better as a communal savoring of the post-communion moment. Just as one example, the change to past tense in recent hymnals of “I Received the Living God” seems to reflect this idea.

  6. Like Alan, I too remember a congregation that could (and did !) sing the complete Mass using only Psalm Tone VIII. But this was facilitated by the fact that the Paluch Missalette presented these texst with pointing to sing the psalm tone. This disappeared sometime in the 80s, making it nearlly impossible to sing an introit or communion antiphon. In recent years I have begun to include a sung communion antiphon (currently sung only by the choir, using SATB Anglican chant), and this is much appreciated by the congregation. I am planning to include the pointed text in our worship aid, and then the congregation can sing it, too.

  7. Brilliant as always. Humorous, humble. Informative. Balanced. Reasonable. Your articles plant many seeds and serve the Church exceedingly well.

    I appreciate your personal experience from childhood coming full circle in the right measure.

    I’m itching to write a collection entirely based on Tone viii.

    Or iii. 🙂

  8. Suggestions for further reading about the communion antiphon: Goffredo Boselli, The Spiritual Meaning of the Liturgy (Collegeville: Liturgical Press 2014) pages 64-69; Marie-Philippe Schüermans, Parole de Dieu et rite sacramental. Étude critique des antiennes de communion néotestamentaire (Brussels: Lumen Vitae 1963); Th. Maertens, L’antienne de communion, clé de la compréhension de la messe, in Paroisse et Liturgie, volume 40 (1958) pages 1-48.

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