The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass: The Introit
“The Introit strikes the tone and note proper for the ecclesiastical day and Mass: the chord thus struck sounds again after shorter or longer intervals, in the Gradual as well as in the Offertory and Communion. As the variable prayers and didactical readings also harmonize with these pieces of chant, there pervades throughout the whole Mass a uniform fundamental tone, namely, the idea of the feast or the thought of the day.” —Monsignor Nicholas Gihr
In this article, we examine the Introit, presenting the work of Monsignor Nicholas Gihr in his fundamental liturgical commentary The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass: Dogmatically, Liturgically, and Ascetically Explained. Monsignor Gihr was a priest of the Archdiocese of Freiburg in Breisgau whose work of liturgical research took place during the time frame spanning the pontificates of Popes Pius IX to Pius XI, including that of Pope St. Pius X. The early years of his work were contemporaneous with the last years in the work of the eminent Benedictine liturgist Dom Prosper Guéranger of Solesmes. The English translation of his study appeared in 1902; the original is: Gihr, Nikolaus. Messopfer dogmatisch, liturgish und aszetish erklärt (Herder: Freiburg im Breisgau, 1877).
The Introit as Keynote
While at all times the unchangeable prayers at the foot of the altar form the general introduction to the whole celebration of the Mass, the variable Introit begins, in a special manner, the principal changeable part of its liturgy. This part does not directly touch upon the sacrificea, but serves merely to prepare the way for the actual sacrifice by infusing into the minds of those present such holy thoughts, devout affections, and good resolutions, as dispose them for the worthy celebration of the divine mysteries. Accordingly, it consists, on one hand, of reading and instruction calculated to enliven and strengthen the faith; and, on the other hand, of prayer and chant to awaken and nourish devotion: for faith and devotion are, above all, required to derive fruit from the celebration of the holy mysteries. These prayers, Psalms and readings of the Introit vary principally according to the course and character of the ecclesiastical year; for they are intended to give suitable expression to the idea of the ecclesiastical celebration of the day or feast, which principally induces the offering of the Holy Sacrifice and is intimately connected therewith.
In its present form, the Introit (meaning entrance, entering, introduction) is a Psalm abbreviated as much as possible; it consists of Psalm verses with a Gloria Patri, which (like entire Psalms usually are) is introduced and concluded with an antiphon. The antiphon is generally taken from the Psalter (the book of Psalms), often too from other books of the Old or New Testament, and only rarely is it composed expressly by the Church herself. The antiphon is, as a rule, though not in every case, followed by the beginning (the first verse) of a Psalm. During the joyful Eastertide, generally two or occasionally three Alleluias are added to the antiphon. In those Masses which do not have the Psalm Iudica, the Gloria Patri is omitted after the verse of the Psalm. In the Gloria Patri, this solemn praise of the Blessed Trinity, there resounds an air of joy; hence, it is omitted in the Masses of Passiontide and of Holy Week as well as in the Masses for the dead, in order to indicate the profound sorrow, affliction, and grief of the Church.
The Mass of Holy Saturday and the principal Mass of the vigil of Pentecost, that is, the one which is preceded by the Prophecies (with or without the blessing of baptismal water) have no Introit. The reason for this may be that the foregoing chants, prayers, and lessons were regarded as taking the place of the usual introductory Psalm, and consequently, a further introductory chant could well be omitted. On these days, the preliminary solemnities constituted a whole or joint service with the Mass; hence, the ordinance of the Church laid down that one and the same celebrant should discharge the entire function, namely, the Mass together with the blessings.
Whilst the priest is saying the first words of the Introit, he makes the sign of the Cross, because the Introit forms the beginning of the variable Mass formula, that is, of the particular day or festal celebration. In Requiem Masses, the celebrant does not make the sign of the Cross on himself, but over the Missal, at the same time imploring from the Lord eternal rest and perpetual light for the departed souls; this sign of the Cross is, without doubt, not intended for the book, but for the suffering souls, that is, it would indicate that the fullness of the blessing of the Sacrifice may fall to their share. The Introit is read on the Epistle side, namely, on the right side of the altar, and with the hands joined before the breast, to signify and to manifest the priest’s prayerful disposition.
As it is the introduction to the celebration of the particular feast or day, the Introit belongs to the variable component parts of the Mass-Rite, and is to be considered under the same aspect as the Gradual, Offertory and Communion verse.
These four pieces belong to the chants, with which the choir, in the name of the people, accompany the sublime, divine tragedy of the Eucharistic sacrifice. In their present form, they are but brief remnants of longer chants, which consisted of whole Psalms or of an indefinite number of verses of the Psalms, and which were rendered while the priest was going to the altar (Introitus), or after the reading of the Epistle (Graduale), or while the faithful were presenting their offerings (Offertorium), or while they received Holy Communion (Communio). At the beginning of the fifth century, these chants were already introduced into the Roman Church, but not all at the same time: the Communion chant was probably the most ancient, while the Introit Psalm was the latest. St. Gregory the Great had already abridged these choral chants, as may be seen from his Antiphonarium; they were later on simplified still more, such as they are at present to be found in the Missal.
The Church’s Selection
Evidently these Psalms, or passages from the Psalms, did not find their way into each of the Mass formulas by chance or by mere fancy, but were inserted after judicious selection. The ecclesiastical year with its feasts and holy seasons, or the special, extraordinary occasion or intention of the Mass, suggested and determined their adoption. The celebration of Mass is most intimately connected and interwoven with the mystical, marvelously arranged cycle of the holy year: Sacrificium et Officium, Missal and Breviary, mutually harmonize and complete each other, and both together make up the entire and perfect liturgical celebration of the holy days and seasons. Like the Breviary of the priest, the formula of the Mass is also intended to impress and represent from all sides the idea of the feast or the fundamental thoughts of the Sundays and week days. Hence, it follows that the changeable chants of the Mass formulas were selected with a view to the appropriate celebration of the feast or day; this should always be had in mind as a guiding principle, in ascribing a natural, suitable and edifying liturgical relation and meaning to the choral chants taken from Scripture.
What has just been said is especially applicable to the Introit. Throughout its contents, it is as full and varied as the liturgical year of the Church: joy, jubilation, sadness, sorrow, lamentation, hope, longing of the soul, fear, praise, thanksgiving, petition, deprecation, in short, every religious sentiment with which the soul should be filled in the course of the ecclesiastical year, finds in the Introit brief and forcible expression. The Introit “seems intended to be the key-note to the whole service; which being one in its essence, yet adapts itself to all our wants, whether of propitiation or of thanksgiving, whether of evils to be averted or of blessings to be gained. Sometimes this introductory verse is loud and joyous—Gaudeamus omnes in Domino; sometimes low and plaintive—Miserere mihi, Domine, quoniam tribulor; in the Paschal solemnity the Alleluia rings through it all, like a peal of cheerful bells; in Passiontide, even the Gloria Patri is silent, and it falls melancholy and dull; when a saint is commemorated, the nature of his virtues and triumphs is at once proclaimed; if it be a festival of Our Lord, the mystery which it celebrates is solemnly announced” (Wiseman).
That the Introit introduces the theme of the Mass is easily seen in a few examples taken from the seasons of Advent and Eastertide. The ecclesiastical year begins with Advent; the time of the expectation of salvation, the time of preparation for the coming of the Lord and His redemption. As the season of Advent advances, the sentiments of the Church go on increasing in joy and longing, and thus find their corresponding expression in the Introits of the four Sunday Masses.
On the 1st Sunday of Advent the Church prays: Ad te levavi animam meam; Deus meus, in te confido, non erubescam (To Thee have I lifted up my soul; in Thee, O my God, I put my trust: let me not be ashamed). We raise our hearts and minds above the perishable things of this world and look up to God, our last end, and to Christ, “the eternal light of the faithful” (aeterna lux credentium); thus on the 2nd Sunday of Advent we have: Populus Sion: ecce Dominus veniet ad salvandum gentes: et auditam faciet Dominus gloriam vocis suae in laetitia cordis vestri (People of Sion, behold the Lord will come to save the Gentiles: and the Lord will make the glory of His voice heard to the joy of your hearts). Joy increases with the promise made that the Lord Himself will come to redeem us; thus, on the 3rd Sunday of Advent, the Introit is: Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete (Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say, rejoice). Finally, the Introit for the 4th Sunday of Advent runs thus: Rorate coeli desuper, et nubes pluant justum: aperiatur terra et germinet Salvatorem (Drop down dew, ye heavens, from above and let the clouds rain the just: let the earth be opened and bud forth a Savior). The longing for the Savior, who is to come, reaches the highest point. On the Vigil of Christmas, the Church announces to us: Hodie scietis, quia veniet Dominus, et salvabit nos: et mane videbitis gloriam ejus (This day you shall know that the Lord will come and save us: and in the morning you shall see His glory).
The Introit of the feast of Easter places the glory and the beauty of the risen Savior before our eyes: Resurrexi et adhuc tecum sum, Alleluia (I have arisen, and am still with thee, Alleluia). The Introits of Easter Week present in picturesque language to the contemplation of the soul the blessed effects and graces of holy baptism; on Low Sunday, the Introit is taken from the first Epistle of St. Peter: Quasi modo geniti infantes, alleluia: rationabiles, sine dolo lac concupiscite. Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia (As newborn babes, alleluia, desire the rational milk without guile, etc.). The above admonition of the Prince of the Apostles applies not only to the newly baptized, the first Communicants, and the newly-converted, but in general to all Christians who have been regenerated by the holy sacrament of baptism.
In his Exposition of the Mass, the Belgian monk Denis the Carthusian (+1471) explains succinctly the essence of the Introit: “The Introit contains the praise of God, and with a measured pace is sung to the honor of the Most High, so that the hearts of all the faithful present are exited and inflamed with the charity of God, and holy devotion; by this means, they may attend the whole following office with fervor and lively delight.”