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Musical Musings: Liturgy

A Holy Parade? (Part 1)

by Gary D. Penkala

Processions are misunderstood. Many people see processions as mere "show," a spectacle of priest, choir, and other ministers. There is sign value inherent in this moving from one place to another, a motion which visually and even aurally draws the congregation into the act of worship and its applications in the world beyond the church building. Hence, the processional moments during the Mass are not meant for us to admire the priest's vestments or the choir robes, or to see just who's bringing down the gifts or who's receiving communion. A procession is not a "a holy parade," but this is no excuse for shabby execution. This walking must look good for the sign to be effective. "Since signs are directed to fellow human beings, they must be humanly attractive. They must be meaningful and appealing to the body of worshippers or they will fail to stir up faith." [Music in Catholic Worship, #7]

There are generally four processions in the Sunday liturgy. Two of these, the Entrance and Communion Processions, are normally accompanied by congregational singing. The other two, the Procession with the Gifts and the Recessional, may be accompanied by song or instrumental music. A fifth procession, that with the Book of Gospels, is sometimes added in solemn celebrations when a deacon is present. This, of course, would be accompanied by the Gospel Acclamation. It is apparent that the Church's use of "procession" implies music. A procession without music is sterile and lifeless. It is just such an opening and closing that the wisdom of the Church's liturgical calendar requires on Good Friday, as the ministers enter and depart in silence. The stark sign is lost here if music does not normally accompany the processions.

Rev. Lucien Deiss, in Spirit and Song of the New Liturgy, speaks of a two-fold significance for the Entrance Procession. It signifies the coming of Christ, as seen in the entrance of the priest who presides in the person of Christ. It is also a sign of the entrance of the people; not a physical entrance, but "an entrance of the people into a state of celebration, into the celebration itself." The best way for us to enter the celebration is to be united with our fellow worshippers. This is one of the main goals of the Entrance Song. Saint John Chrysostom explains, "As soon as the singing begins, all voices are united and are gathered into a harmonious canticle. Young and old, rich and poor, men and women, slaves and free men, we all sing the same melody... The inequality which exists in the world has been pushed aside, forming a single choir with equal voices, earth imitating heaven. Such is the nobility of the Church!"

How long should this Entrance Song be? We know that its main function is to unite the congregation and, only secondarily, to accompany the procession. Some would say that the Entrance Song should last as long as it takes the procession to reach the altar. In many churches the Entrance Song is then only one or two verses of a complete hymn. When I am at one of these churches and I must stop singing in the middle of a hymn, a voice inside me cries out loudly, "But I'm not done!", so loudly that I'm sure those around me can hear it. Fr. Deiss comments that limiting a song to a purely functional verse or two " reveals a rather narrow, clerical view of the liturgy. It is not the community who should accomodate its actions to those of the presiding minister, but rather he - who is in the service of the community - who should direct his actions in accord with those of the congregation. The celebration is an act of the whole community (of which the priest is a part)."

The U.S. bishops have also spoken clearly on this point. In Liturgical Music Today (1982) they teach that during the Entrance Song "the progression of text and music must be allowed to play out its course and achieve its purpose musically and poetically. In other words, the hymn should not be ended indiscriminately at the end of the procession." [#19] In order for this song to achieve its unifying purpose it must itself have unity. A verse or two tossed off as a nuisance will never grow into an effective sign.

The remaining processions will be addressed in the next article.

 Back to Liturgy Index

Part 2 - The Other Processions 

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