Processions at Sunday Mass
At the Entrance
Every Sunday at San Rocco, there are four processions. The first, at the beginning, starts in the sacristy. The opening song is announced by the deacon, but at first there is no movement. (If there is no deacon, the priest announces the opening song.) We usually sing a verse or two, before the procession goes into action. Many of the hymns we sing have four or five verses, and the entrance procession is relatively brief. By holding off on moving at first, we can avoid the priest standing up front while two or so verses are sung, when the procession is ended.
First comes the crucifer, a server carrying the processional cross. Then follow two servers with lit candles. Then comes the deacon, carrying the Gospel Book. If there is no deacon, a lector carries the Gospel Book. Finally comes the priest, who sings with the people.
After the Second Reading and Sequence, if there is one, the Gospel Acclamation is sung. (Outside of Lent, it's Alleluia. During Lent, it's Praise and honor to you, Lord Jesus Christ.) When the Gospel Acclamation is sung, the deacon goes to the priest and asks his blessing. Then he goes to the middle of the altar, to get the Gospel Book. He picks it up and goes around the altar, to his left, preceded by two candle bearers. As the Gospel Acclamation continues to be sung, the deacon walks in procession to the pulpit, holding the Gospel Book elevated.
In the Byzantine Rite, the Gospel Book is carried to its place of proclamation in much the same way, except that the deacon holds the book higher as he walks. This is called the "Little Entrance"; it is a relic of the time when the deacon entered the church carrying the Gospel Book above his head, as a sign that the bishop was behind him.
This somewhat more elaborate procession to the pulpit was introduced in many Roman Rite churches in the last thirty years. It is neither required nor prohibited. By now, you see it relatively often. In previous generations, the deacon and candle-bearers simply went directly to the pulpit, by the most direct route.
Presentation of the Gifts
The third procession is of the bread and wine to be used for the Eucharist. Not found in the Byzantine liturgy, the procession by the people at this time is an ancient Western custom. The idea is that the presentation of the gifts, together with the money that has just been collected, represents the self-offering of the congregation. Usually, there is an intention for a deceased relative or two for Sunday Mass; and family members are invited by the ushers to present the gifts in the procession. Each Sunday, the priest sits down while the congregation or choir sings and the collection is taken up by the ushers. When appropriate, a server with a lit candle goes down to the back of church, to lead the procession to the altar.
During weekdays, this procession can be abbreviated or eliminated entirely; it is of secondary importance in the liturgy and is not required.
The fourth procession, the most important, is that during Communion, when the people receive the Body and Blood of Christ. During this time, the people in the pews are standing. In fact, as long ago as 1970, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal specified that the entire church is to stand and remain standing, as they sing the refrain of the Communion song. Certainly, the people in the middle aisle are standing, as they move forward in procession. So too, the people in the pews remain standing, in solidarity with the people in procession.
Standing during this time is our ancient tradition, especially when, during Communion, we are concentrating on what brings us together, what is the source of our unity, namely, the presence of Jesus Christ in the Church, the gathered congregation. Standing during Communion, however, was forgotten in the West, because of a strong emphasis on private prayer at this moment, on individual piety, expressed in the heart. For about the past 800 years, this was the kind of piety associated with Communion, in part because people went to receive only once or twice a year. For most, reception of Communion, under only one form, was a special moment, an occasion for most intimate and private prayer, on the part of the individual. On most Sundays, in the West, only the priest received Communion, not even the servers. In the twentieth century, thanks to Pope Pius X, people began to receive more frequently, so that by the end of the century, most people were going to Communion at Mass. However, the importance of common singing, as well as standing, during this time has yet to be generally appreciated in the Latin Rite.
In 325, the Council of Nicea, binding on the whole Church, decreed that we should not kneel during the Mass on Sundays and in Eastertime, that is, from the Easter Vigil to Pentecost Sunday. Standing reminds us of the Resurrection of Christ, which is regularly commemorated every Sunday, when we celebrate the Eucharist, reliving the paschal mystery.
At San Rocco, during the Communion procession, the people sing a simple refrain, for example,
- Alleluia. Alleluia. Alleluia.
- Taste and touch the Lord, for he is good.
- Give thanks to God, for God is good; his love will never die.
- In sharing your supper, O Lord, make us one.
- We are one, bound in a union; in your Son, ever in communion.
This kind of singing, in response to a cantor or the choir, is usually the only kind of singing that will work during a procession. Most people can't conveniently carry a book with them, so the refrain has to be something people can learn by heart and sing from memory.
Of these four processions, as noted, only the fourth involves the entire congregation, in its common action of receiving and celebrating communion. In the spirit of the liturgy, it is a time for unity of posture, purpose, and piety. We stand together; we welcome Christ together; and we sing together.
Afterwards, as permitted, there is usually a time for private prayer, when all sit or kneel down. This time of silence is important, so that such prayer can be fostered within the liturgy itself, as the Church provides.
Is there a recessional?
In the Roman sacramentary, both in 1970 and in 2003, there is no mention of any kind of recessional at the end of Mass. It is explicitly said, for example, that the Gospel Book is not carried out in recession. Therefore, at San Rocco, there is no organized movement at the end of Mass. Usually, the organist or the choir provides some music at this time; but that's all.
The reason is simple enough. Mass ends with the deacon singing the dismissal, "The Mass is ended. Go in peace." At that point, the people have just been told to leave. They sing in response, "Thanks be to God"; then they go out, since they have been dismissed. That's what the words mean.
It does not make sense to dismiss the people and then ask them to sing another hymn. You just tell them to go, and then you ask them to stay and sing something? Why did you send the people out, just before? Besides, are they supposed to sing this hymn or not? Is it appropriate to have the song just peter out, as more and more people leave? What's the idea? Is that a good thing, to have a song just get weaker and weaker, until everybody's gone or involved in conversation? What kind of prayer is such a song? Are people really paying attention to the words?
Here's some explanation why some other parishes still do this sort of thing. The recessional hymn is actually a leftover from the 1950s, when we had the "four-hymn" Mass; the last hymn sung was the recessional. That was an adaptation that had its value at the time, because the Mass was in Latin. We had to stick English hymns in when we could. At the end of Mass, it was easy to do so. But that era is past.
Maybe you could have a recession, with crossbearer et al. If so, then you would sing "The Mass is ended" when you reach the back door, when the hymn is finished, when the Mass is truly ended. Maybe that would be a good thing to do in large churches, where the ministers of the Mass take some time to make their way to the front door, so that the priest can greet the people there as they leave. However, that would not be the Roman Rite but an adaptation of it. At San Rocco, the distance from the altar to the front door is short and is traversed quickly, without ceremony.
If you want a hymn at the end of Mass, sing it after Communion. In fact, that's exactly what the Roman Rite prescribes. You can sing a hymn, a song, a Psalm, or a canticle. You start with the first verse, and you continue to the last verse; and everybody sings it together, as one body. Isn't that better than tacking on a song at the end of Mass that hardly anybody finishes? If the Roman Rite makes explicit provision for such a song and encourages it, why not sing at this time? In this way, the hymn or Psalm is integrated into the Mass itself, as part of the liturgy, standing on its own, not as accompaniment for some other action. Is this not better?
In Latin, it's clearer: "Ite. Missa est." That means, literally, "Go! It is the dismissal." The same wording was used on secular occasions. Everybody understood the words to mean that it was time to leave, not to stay and sing something.
In the pre-1970 Mass, this dismissal was followed by the Placeat prayer, the blessing, the Last Gospel, and the Prayers after Mass, said kneeling down. Of course, since people were still praying, the Mass was still going on. That's what the Mass is, the prayer of the gathered assembly, the Church. As of 1970, the dismissal was moved to its proper place, at the very end of Mass. Let the dismissal, then, be what it is meant to be.