The End of All Our Exploring: The Entrance Rite

“Could I bring some home?”

“Sure, is that enough?”

“Could I have some more? He has a big forehead.”

Last Ash Wednesday I spent six hours distributing ashes at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. The Cathedral staff estimates 50,000 people come through St. Patrick’s on Ash Wednesday.

“Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

“Wow . . . thank you.”

St. Patrick’s has a strange effect on the people who walk by. Every day of every year all sorts of people come in. It’s hard to imagine a squat building drawing much attention at all in this city of skyscrapers. Of course skyscrapers are, as so often diagnosed, the product of striving, materialistic, anthropocentric, Pelagian capitalism. But I think those towers say something else. They show we haven’t lost our inertia. There’s something we still want. We just don’t have it yet.

St. Patrick’s gives people a little momentum. This is a city where buildings and people scramble over each other, rat-racing like vines to get higher. St. Patrick’s teaches a different lesson. No elevators to the top. Armed with Armani and stocked with Saks, visitors flood in and find that the usual way of life won’t work to appreciate St. Patrick’s. To appreciate it, you have to admit your smallness. Outside those brass doors of mercy only foolish tourists look up at buildings, but in St. Patrick’s everyone cranes. Toward more than a ceiling?

To go up you have to go down. Become little. If you go down, you’ll also find yourself going across. Gliding and gazing, people find themselves drawn down St. Patrick’s center aisle. No signs saying, “This way.” The building, arches, and repeating patterns show you the way through.

While signs were up, people didn’t need them to figure out where the ashes were distributed. The building draws you forward and into itself. Like another New York icon, St. Patrick’s calls the tired, the poor, and huddled masses yearning to be free. Yearning for more than the economic pressure that awaits outside, for more than all the clothes one could want. Yearning for freedom. The freedom a young lawyer, recently graduated and just financially independent, still doesn’t have. And the building simply brings them in.

A middle-aged man from eastern Europe.

“Repent and believe in the Gospel.”

“Could I have some for my kids? They’re in college.” 

It’s easy to overlook, but at the beginning of every Mass we are also brought in and drawn forward. The entrance procession is supposed to prepare us for the sacred mysteries. The reason it’s there—we need reminding of what’s about to happen—is the same reason it’s so easy to miss. We’re still in our own worlds, on our own schedules. With this reality in mind, this essay will trace the history of the entrance rites—particularly the entrance song, summarize what our Rite currently prescribes, and suggest why the Entrance Song must be part of our efforts to evangelize. 

The First Step: History

The Old and New Testaments invite God’s people to approach him. People have always been homines viatores, creatures on the move who want to go and get somewhere. “Come, let us sing to the Lord” (Ps 95:1, Grail). “Come before him singing for joy . . . Go within his gates giving thanks, enter his courts with songs of praise” (Ps 100:2, 4). “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden” (Mt 11:28, RSV). God now invites humanity to the liturgy, the feast where he empties himself as our fulfillment and food. Aware of this, from the first centuries Christians have emphasized the start of Mass with processions and later song. Since around the fourth century, Mass has included singing to accompany the procession. It is variously called the Introit, Entrance Chant, or Entrance Song. Some Sundays of the liturgical year are still called by the annual chants that used to identify them—Gaudete, Laetare.

Before any Entrance Song was sung, Christians have gathered. Christ said he came “to gather into one the dispersed children of God” (Jn 11:52, NAB). After the Resurrection and Ascension the disciples repeatedly gathered together (Acts 1:14, 21, NAB) to break bread (Lk 24:35; Acts 2:47, NAB). Not long after, according to Justin Martyr’s First Apology, every Sunday all Christians in an area “[gathered] together in one place.”[1] As A.G. Martimort explains, the early Christians were “conscious of the movement and change of place required for the assembly.”[2] Indeed, early Christians prayed in the Eucharistic Prayer of the Didache: “as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Thy kingdom.”[3]

Early writers consistently used verbs to describe worship.[4] God had repeatedly convoked his people in the desert and Jerusalem. He continued doing so in the Church. Congregari, one of the verbs common in early and later Church writing, is passive. But as often happens in human life, people perform actions before thinking of them as discrete actions. Only later did Christians call their action an “assembly.” As Marcel Metzger has suggested, the custom of naming can cause a rupture in how people conceive of and group events, especially liturgical ones.[5]

[caption id="attachment_5300" align="alignleft" width="399"] Photo: Mattia Panciroli; CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0.[/caption]

This “nominalization,” thingifying—turning verbs into nouns—may have helped create the entrance procession. The procession delineates gathering and formal worship. St. Augustine describes a joyful clamor during an entrance procession just after he performs a miracle. St. John Chrysostom complains people make noise before the liturgy and during the procession.

But none of these early sources describe entrance music. When Western Christians emerged from the shadows in the fourth century, they began worshiping in basilicas—long buildings initially for Roman law courts. The long middle aisle begged for a procession (in fact processions were part of Roman custom) and liturgical processions became more common in this era. Around the same time church choirs began using the Psalms as the main texts for the entrance music.

Like the Jewish liturgy, the Roman liturgy originally began with readings. However, as Peter Wagner explains, the Introit was added in front of the already existing readings. The term “Introit” first referred to the priest’s walking to the altar. When music was later added to the procession, it acquired the meaning of the chant.[6] A third meaning, used by Amalar of Metz, refers to everything in the Mass before the Collect; the term officium used in the Dominican rite sometimes shared this meaning.[7]

Pope Celestine I (r. 422–32) has often been credited with introducing the Entrance Chant. Amalar of Metz (c. 775–c.850) says Celestine ordered that “the 150 psalms of David should be sung before the sacrifice.”[8] This was typically taken to mean “at the start of Mass.” More recently Peter Jeffery has argued that sacrificium meant the Offertory and Eucharistic Prayer, not the liturgy as a whole, in which case Amalar might have meant Celestine introduced the Responsorial Psalm. Nevertheless Tertullian, the Apostolic Constitutions, and other early sources suggest Psalms were already sung during the readings by this time. Celestine’s pontificate is a rough earliest possible date for the Introit. In either case, the introductory music appeared in Rome during this period.

The Introit has three main parts: the antiphon (Scriptural refrain usually from the Psalms, with an elaborate melody), the verses (from the Psalm or one related, sung with a simple melody), and the doxology (“Glory be to the Father. . .” with the same simple melody). Initially the Introit was arranged in various ways. In some cases the choir alternated between the antiphon and psalm verses until the celebrating bishop indicated they could move to the doxology, at which point the bishop would move from the altar to his seat. This is probably the earliest Roman method.[9] Other times there was only one verse. Sometimes the antiphon split the doxology into two parts.

An older woman, alone.

“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

“Could you do that again? For my mom?”

It’s hard to keep study attached to reality. The temptation to disintegration is strong in seminary, where the medieval manuscripts you research on one day seem to have nothing to do with the homeless man you were assigned to help on the day before.

Our lives are more than what we’re making of them; before we do anything with them, they are loved and purposed.

Similarly, it’s easy to get lost in liturgical historical details, unless you remember what the liturgy is. A.G. Martimort writes, “The actual assembly of Christians renders visible the gathering of humankind that Christ has accomplished . . . Without itself being a sacrament, the assembly is a sign.”[10] The Church is the home for every created thing, and the procession shows this. Anyone can enter the Church. When a few people enter the sanctuary, it means in reality any person can enter the sanctuary. We have a need to imitate and see people imitate us. In this case, imitation does not flatter. It reveals who we are.

Humanity, perversely introverted by the fall, needs Jesus to show us who we are. The liturgy and the procession show us what we’re made for—to enter God’s dwelling—and they show us it’s not impossible to get there.

Over roaring organ pipes ten feet away:

“REPENT and believe in the GOSPEL.”

A Path to Follow: Rubrics

“Remember you are dust. . .”


Christianity is the interplay between what’s close and what’s far, what’s approachable and what’s unattainable. Put simply, Christianity is a journey. Not one whose destination is tangential or irrelevant to the traveling—journeys without ultimate destinations are sidetrips, tributaries that ultimately feed into something grander. “‘Liturgy’ is the verb form of ‘Christianity,’” David Fagerberg has written. Christianity is a journey and the liturgy is too.

That’s why the entrance procession is crucial, more than one might notice on a given Sunday. We’re going toward something. But we rush into church; everyone took too long to get ready; I’m thinking about what’s due tomorrow. The first thing I do at Mass? I don’t notice the procession. I grab a hymnal and look down!

It’s easy for our worship to be disconnected from our life. So the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), the playbook for Mass, gives some rationales for why we do what we do. The Entrance serves four purposes. It should:

  • open the celebration

  • intensify Church unity

  • lead us to think about the season or feast

  • accompany the procession to the sanctuary

What music accompanies the Entrance? The GIRM lists four options:

  • the text for a given day, with music from the Graduale Romanum or some other source

  • text and music for that season from the Graduale Simplex, a simplified version of the Graduale Romanum

  • another Psalm-antiphon combination

  • “another liturgical chant that is suited to the sacred action” (GIRM 48)

Much has been written over what this all means. Does the order in which these options are listed indicate the Church’s preference? What exactly is “another liturgical chant”? Does “chant” mean “chant” or does it mean “song”?

With an eyepatch, after cutting a line of 300 people.

“Sorry, could I cut the line? I have an eye appointment.”

“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

I could write a great deal on the above questions myself, but I think what’s ultimately more important is the theological significance the General Instruction gives for the entrance.

The liturgy and the procession show us what we’re made for—to enter God’s dwelling—and they show us it’s not impossible to get there.

Why doesn’t the General Instruction of the Roman Missal give the priest’s departure a paragraph or even a name? After all, going to Mass is about leaving, being sent (“Ite missa est . . .”). Yet everything we do outside Mass on account of Mass—“doing good works, praising and blessing God” (GIRM 90)—is ultimately part of our journey back to God. When the GIRM says the ministers depart “in a similar manner to the Entrance Procession” (GIRM 186), the resemblance is just physical and not symbolic, at least as viewed in the Roman Catholic liturgy: no one in the early Church thought to create a chant to accompany the dismissal.

The procession is not only about Christ coming to us, it is about Christ bringing us to himself. How could this happen if we do not budge? There’s a difference between the entrance and exit processions. At the entrance, the people in the procession are a microcosm of the whole congregation. They show physically what can happen throughout the congregation spiritually. But at the end of Mass, the ministers’ departure does not model what is happening to the congregation. The priest has already dismissed the congregation. Everyone is now on their way. The falling action at the end of Mass is pretty sharp: Just leave! The ministers are simply doing the very same thing the congregation is.

1000th time.

“Remember you are just.” 


“Remember you are . . . uh . . .
remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

A Way Forward

Just like the early Christian process of turning active gathering into a noun, we can sometimes suck the life from actions by making them things. (Linguist anthropologists call this process reification, and it’s probably the best example of reification!)

The Entrance Rite, sometimes called an Invitatory in medieval texts, needs to become an invitation for people to pray with us.

How can the Entrance Chant (or Entrance Song or Introit) help evangelize? How can it bring people into church and into a life with God? First, this effort cannot be limited to the Entrance Song. Music serves the whole liturgy and I simply want to highlight the potential of one portion of the liturgy here. Everything about liturgy is teleological, and this is seen in the Entrance Rite and its music. It shows us where we’re going and who we’re meant to be. It shows us what is hardest to believe today: you have a purpose and inherent meaning; you are headed somewhere.

[caption id="attachment_5299" align="alignright" width="346"] Photo: David Moreau; CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0.[/caption]

In my opinion, demonstrating this deep purpose and meaning means singing the official Entrance Chant—the music inherent in the liturgy’s structure for nearly 1500 years—a little more often. This requires a little self-emptying on our part, an admission that the liturgy isn’t simply what we’d like to make of it. It’s a gift we’re receiving. Yet this is just the point that the Entrance Rite can exhibit most effectively: our lives are more than what we’re making of them; before we do anything with them, they are loved and purposed. This would also mean not singing music that for many people is a null set empty of meaning, sung only because ecclesial in-groups are attached to it. The music of the liturgy cannot just be for the people you expect to walk in. Anyone should be able to walk into Mass and realize that something life-changing is going on.

Our music and words must not tear each other down. Our disintegrated world calls for integrated liturgy. If we want to help people find order and meaning in life, we’ll have to accept a little order ourselves. We must admit that the liturgy isn’t purely human fabrication and its music isn’t simply whichever music we pick. The liturgical year has a rhythm of songs, readings, and themes that come back year after year. That’s no accident: as people we need repeated reminders of what’s most important. This regularity does us good.

In the moral realm, the realm of deeds, we return to God through our exterior actions. Catholics affirm ethics is not just what we want life to be or what might work. If this is true for day-to-day life, why would the liturgy be different? There, God wants to “humble our sinful pride, contribute to the feeding of the poor, and so help us imitate [his] kindness” (Preface III of Lent). If Catholics aren’t supposed to get away with relativism the other days of the week, why should we on Sunday? The walls between of a Christian life are not as tall or thick as we’d like.

The beauty of the Entrance Rite—its actions and its music—can be an antidote to directionless humanity, giving momentum to people who have forgotten how to move. Medieval philosophers were fond of calling anything that comes from God his “processions.”[11] Some of St. Thomas’ students are fond of saying the Summa Theologica follows a vast pattern of leaving and returning: everything comes from God, everything eventually comes back. This is true of Jesus, the Word: “so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty” (Is 55:11).

This is true of us, too. God gives every human a desire for him and orients us to himself; being with God is built into our DNA. Even if we try to escape it, we usually end up running our own tiny circles right back into him. Whatever our choices, our human-ness is carrying us toward God, or at least making part of us want to go that way. Our hearts are restless until they rest in God and our hearts—one way or another—try to get their way, so we consciously or unconsciously try to get back to the God who fulfills us.

The beauty of the Entrance Rite—its actions and its music—can be an antidote to directionless humanity, giving momentum to people who have forgotten how to move.

In being drawn across the floor and nave of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a person can begin to realize he or she is made for something, something toward which all inexorably, if falteringly, tend. Life is a procession toward some final goal. Life is an assembly of disparate people, experiences, and places which Christ unifies by drawing them to himself. In other words, life is a procession, and it is only when Christ guides our desires, irritations, foibles, and friendships to himself that the whole makes any sense.

I saw so many faces that Ash Wednesday. I crossed ashes over makeup, over craggy wrinkles, over acne. All of these were dust and all were moving, unseenly and sometimes unseemly, toward a home.

With arms extended, the Church says: “Give me your tired, your poor . . .” When no one else takes you, come. When no one else will feed you, I will. Confounding to all the Church’s evangelical efforts, the people who stray into St. Patrick’s the first day of Lent or on any afternoon often do so without invitation from a churchgoer or an explicit desire for God. I imagine many leave without any more notion of their desire for God, the Church or the sacraments. Yet the building draws them. And the liturgy makes them one.

Featured Photo: Crystian Cruz; CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0.

[1] Justin Martyr, Apologia I, para. 67.

[2] A.G. Martimort, ed. The Church at Prayer, Volume I: Principles of Liturgy (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1987), 90.

[3] Didache, ch. 9.

[4] Martimort, Principles of Liturgy.

[5] Marcel Metzger, “Eucharistic Lexicon” in Anscar J. Chupungco, ed. Handbook for Liturgical Studies, Volume III: The Eucharist, (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1997), 1–8.

[6] Peter Wagner, “L’Origine et développement du chant liturgique jusqu'à la fin du moyen âge.”

[7] Dyer, 92.

[8] Joseph Dyer, “Psalmi ante sacrificium and the origin of the introit” in Plainsong and Medieval Music, 20, 2, 92 (2011).

[9] Peter Wagner, 73.

[10] Martimort, Principles of Liturgy, 91–2.

[11] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I, q. 44.


Samuel Bellafiore

Samuel Bellafiore is a deacon and a seminarian for the Diocese of Albany, NY.

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