I’d like to begin a series on the Mass explaining the meaning and history of what we do each Sunday. It is amazing how little Catholics know about or reflect upon what we do every Sunday. This is an attempt to add insight and understanding to our celebration of the Sacred liturgy.
The Procession and entrance song – Something very remarkable happens at the beginning of every Mass. It is so normal to us that we hardly think of it. As the priest is ready in the back of Church to begin the Mass the congregation suddenly comes to its feet and sings a hymn of praise as the priest walks down the aisle. What is this? Surely they are not just welcoming “Father Smith” are they? No indeed. The congregation is welcoming Jesus who has taught that when two or three gather in his name that he is there in the midst of them. The priest represents Jesus and acts in the person of Christ. Therefore, through his Holy Orders the priest is configured to Christ and is a sacramental sign of the presence of Jesus. Jesus Christ is walking our aisle and we welcome him with a hymn of praise! It is quite fitting to recognize Christ who, robed in priestly vestments, arrives to minister to us in Word and Sacrament. So, don’t just see “Father Smith” see, rather, Jesus and let him minister to you.
Here is a little historical background to the development of the Entrance procession and music associated with it:
In the earliest days of the Church, and in the small, ruder buildings of the primitive Church under persecution, there could hardly have been much thought or possibility of formal processions. But by the 4thcentury after the persecutions against the Church ended, larger, and even sometimes large ecclesiastical structures arose. The sacristies (the place of preparation for the Clergy et al.) were usually located near the entrance of the buildings. This meant that the procession to the altar was now much longer and thus took on added significance and importance. Such a procession could hardly be conducted in absolute silence. Hence the addition of music was natural. But the organ had not been invented and instruments of any kind were generally not allowed due to their connection with pagan rituals. Music in the early Church was left entirely to the human voice and, hence, singing alone gave color to this entrance procession. The texts for these songs were taken essentially from the psalms. The verses of the psalm selected would be sung antiphonally during the procession to the altar. It often happened that an introductory verse (or antiphon) would be sung by one or a few voices to introduce the psalm. Gradually the Antiphons came to overshadow the psalm itself. The Antiphons became more and more complex and were increasingly given over to be sung by a specially skilled choir called the “schola cantorum” with only the psalm verses being sung by the people. There developed a practice of shortening the psalm to correspond to the arrival of the members of the procession in the sanctuary. Once they were in place the psalmodywas brought to an end with the Gloria Patri (Glory Be). Over time there was a reducing of the Entrance song to the following elements: An antiphon, drawn usually from scripture, only one verse of a psalm, a Glory Be and a repetition of the antiphon. Today there exists the option of: Singing this Entrance Antiphon, singing a hymn appropriate to the Liturgy or the season, or in the absence of song the Entrance Antiphon is used as a spoken or recited text.
The following video gives and example of the sound of the the Entrance antiphon (also called the Introit) as is was sung in the ancient Church and up to about 1965. It is Gregorian Chant and the text is
Gaudeamus Omnes in Dominino. Diem festum celebrantes sub honore Mariae Virginis de cujus solemnitate gaudant angeli et colaudant Filium Dei. Eructavit cor meum verbum bonum, et dico ego opera mea regi. Gloria Patri, et Filio et Spiritui Sancto Sicut erat in principio et nunc et semper, et in saecula saeculorum Amen.
(Let us all rejoice in the Lord, celebrating a feast in honor of the Virgin Mary concerning whose solemnity the angels rejoice and praise the Son of God. Psalm: My heart pours forth a good word and to the King I sepak my work. Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy SPirit. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen)
Today this form of singing is replaced by an opening hymn in most parishes although the singing of such Introits is still encouraged and permitted.