The liturgy of the word has ended and the liturgy of the Eucharist is set to begin soon. But first the people are given an opportunity to put money in the basket as the ushers walk row by row. That money is put into a bigger basket and it is brought up the center aisle to the altar along with the bread and wine.
Then the Eucharistic Prayer begins. After another few minutes, the people stand again. The Offertory has come and gone. Is there any more to it than that? Is it really a kind of intermission that divides one section of Mass from another?
Let’s look at the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, paragraph #74:
The procession bringing the gifts is accompanied by the Offertory Chant, which continues at least until the gifts have been placed on the altar. The norms on the manner of singing are the same as for the Entrance Chant.
Most priests and choirs read that sentence and think: “the what? Never heard of it.”
Maybe “offertory chant” refers to some song or hymn or motet sung by the choir, just some random musical interlude we stick in there to pass the time. Not so. It is a prescribe part of the liturgy, even if it is almost universally dropped.
And as usual with the General Instruction, when people encounter some sentence or two that they don’t understand, they choose not to investigate further but rather to forget about it completely.
As a result, the offertory chant is rarely if ever sung in the ordinary form of Mass. And actually, this is rather shocking. It means that a major part of the liturgical text of the Mass is just being eliminated at our discretion, cut out or entirely replaced without a thought. And no one knows the difference. Surely, this is cheating the people, and cheating God too. Rather than pray the Mass we are instead deciding to do something else.
It doesn’t help that the mainstream pew resources say nothing of the offertory chant. They might list the entrance antiphon. They might list the communion antiphon. On weekdays, someone will usually read these. On Sunday, they are jettisoned for a hymn. But the offertory antiphon (which is actually technically called a responsory), is in even worse shape. It not not only excluded completely; it is not even missed.
I’ve done some private investigation of this problem myself, asking priests why they don’t insist that their choirs sing the offertory chant. Guess what? I couldn’t find a single priest who even knew that such a thing exists. Among the people I asked are very sophisticated and conscientious celebrants who are interested in “saying the black and doing the red.” These are not slackers here. The offertory chant just isn’t on the radar for them.
Now, this is interesting. Maybe it is some new part of the Mass introduced with the new English Missal? Not so. The liturgical documents of the 4th century indicate that the offertory is a very ancient part of the Mass. St. Augustine mentions such a chant too.
The action of the bringing forward of the gifts is a part of the offertory liturgy that was eliminated in the middle ages and underwent a restoration after the Second Vatican Council. But the records also indicate that the singing of a Psalm during this period is just as ancient. That part of the liturgical action as well. It was part of the medieval rite that was not eliminated. The offertory chant was prescribed to be sung by the schola in all pre-conciliar books, and it was a common feature of the Gregorian repertoire before late 1960s. .
With the post-conciliar reform, the bringing of the gifts was restored but the Psalm-based chant that had long been part of the offertory dropped out in practice, despite the mention of the chant in the rubrical instructions. There can be no real question that the conciliar reformers intended it as part of Mass. The song books that came out after the liturgical reform from 1969 through 1974 all included the offertory chant that is now absent without leave in most every presentation of the Mass in the ordinary form.
Here a clue as to why this happened. The offertory chant used to be part of the Missal on the altar, a text that was either sung by the choir or spoken by the priest in “low Masses” before the Council. When the Missal of 1970 made its first appearance, this chant was not included because the reformers imagined that every Mass would be a fully sung Mass, meaning that the offertory chant belonged to the schola, not to the celebrant. The Missal only contained the texts the the priest needed and no more. The rest of the texts were included in the liturgical books for the choir (just as the readings are part of a separate book called the Lectionary).
This explains why priests are largely oblivious to the existence of the offertory chant. Meanwhile, today’s choirs hardly even know that there are liturgical books for the choir at all. This too is an amazing oversight. When the new Missal was released, Pope Paul VI stated very plainly in the introduction that the Roman Gradual remains the music book for the Roman Rite. This is the book that contains all the assigned chants for the whole liturgical year. It has the entrance chant, the offertory chant, the communion chant, and all the Psalms and Alleluias too.
But the Roman Gradual gained no traction in these heady years when publishers and musicians were more interested in retrofitting pop songs with religious texts to make the Mass more accessible. Gregorian chant was out. Pop music was in. All the sung propers of the Mass were casualties, but the offertory chant even more than all the other chants. As a result, the offertory chant sits on the shelf gathering dust.
Now, you might say that this is hardly a surprise since that is generally true of all Gregorian chant. No one wants to hear the Latin, right? But this objection doesn’t quite hold up since there are plenty of English versions available today. And the music is available too.
So how does this work in practice? Instead of a coke-and-popcorn intermission, the Offertory period of the liturgy becomes an integral part of the liturgical action, and the presentation of the appointed text makes this very clear.
Consider the Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time as an example. The Gospel is from St. Luke, Chapter 11. Jesus presents the “Our Father” prayer, and urges his disciples to pray it. He ends with the famous words: “ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.”
The offertory text on this sae day is from Psalm 30: “I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn
me up, and have not let my foes rejoice over me. O Lord, I cried unto you and you healed me.”
With this text we recall the words of the Gospel, or, rather, we experience how the Psalms foreshadowed the coming of the Messiah. The “Our Father” is precisely this act of extolling and the plea to be delivered from one’s foes. And the promise that we can ask and receive is seen in the Psalmist’s experience of crying out to the Lord and being healed.
The offertory, in this case, serves to reinforce and broaden the Gospel text and prepare us for the sacrifice on the altar the follows.
And so it is throughout the entire liturgical year. Every single Sunday has an appointed text. It should be sung every week, and even throughout the week.
From a practical point of view, the offertory chant has great advantages for choirs too. Instead of fishing around for another hymn that may or may not fit in with the liturgical structure, and badgering people to sing along with yet another participatory moment, the offertory chant permits people to sit quietly in reflection and contemplate.
A marvelous example of how this works comes from the Sacred Music Colloquium I attended only two weeks ago. The first Mass was all English. Keep in mind that the singers here are all people who came to the conference. It is not a professional group. They rehearsed together for the first time only a few hours earlier. Here you will heard the the antiphon: “I will bless the Lord who has given me understanding. I have set the Lord always in my sight; since he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken.” Then follows more Psalms.
Singing this restores not only a practice that dates to the earliest centuries but one that continued without interruption until the 1970s, when it fell out of use almost inadvertently. It can be restored exactly as the General Instruction suggests in every parish, with very little work at all. The book from which this setting is taken is the Simple English Propers, so the congregation doesn’t have to suddenly adapt itself to Latin to experience the liturgy.
Here is a great example of something that has been on my mind for some years. The beautification of the Mass doesn’t require legislation. It doesn’t require that Bishops crack down. It doesn’t even require that music publishers get with it and start telling us what to do. It is within the power of every priest simply to ask the choir to sing the liturgy itself rather than sings songs at Mass. The text is there for us and the music too. It is simply a matter of making an effort to present the liturgy as it has been given to us.