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Music Ministry

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Music Ministry


Members of the assembly always seem to pay greater attention to some elements of the liturgical celebration than to others. Conventional wisdom among parish leaders has long held that Sunday worshipers go home talking mainly about two aspects of the Sunday liturgy—the homily and the music.

The importance of music for parish liturgical celebrations points to the pastoral role of liturgical musicians. This pastoral aspect of music ministry is so significant that the word is included in the name of the largest organization of Catholic church musicians in the United States (9,000 strong): the National Association of Pastoral Musicians.

Music directors occasionally receive letters from parishioners describing how the music of a particular celebration changed their lives. One year, after an exhausting Holy Week and Easter Triduum, I received a letter from a 35-year-old mother of two. She had participated in the Easter Sunday morning Mass, at which the music ministers consisted of a 40-voice choir and a cantor, accompanied by organ and brass. Most of the music, including familiar Easter hymns, was sung robustly by the whole assembly. The choir also sang alone, including a choral setting of the Easter Sequence and the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah. After weeks of intense rehearsals and three days of singing for the major liturgies of the triduum, the choir was tired but exhilarated. The congregation sang the liturgy vigorously, and the choir led them with a joy that transcended physical weariness.

This woman had come to Mass on that Easter Sunday morning after a long absence from the church and was expecting very little. But she found herself enveloped in an assembly that participated energetically in singing the Mass and was inspired by the choir, organ and brass, which communicated a profound sense of faith in the power of Christ’s new life. Not only did this woman return to the practice of the faith, but she also soon found her way into music ministry as a member of the parish choir.

Pastoral musicians can cite many such examples of the ways music helps people connect the celebration of the liturgy with their own life of faith. These connections are most obvious on occasions like baptisms or funerals or at particular seasons and feasts, like Christmas or Lent. Sometimes music speaks to people most clearly at times of personal crisis. I recall one Sunday when during the Communion procession my eyes met those of a woman who had had a miscarriage during the previous week. We were singing, “Unless a grain of wheat shall fall upon the ground and die, it remains just a grain of wheat with no life.” After an interval of many years, both of us still recall that profound moment of recognition.

Musicians are perhaps less accustomed to receiving letters, calls and comments of affirmation than of complaint. Why, people often ask, don’t we sing hymns to the Blessed Virgin Mary during Sunday Masses in May? Why can’t the music be more traditional or more contemporary, more upbeat, more familiar, more varied? Why don’t we have less (or more) music from other cultures, less (or more) Gregorian chant, less (or more) youth-oriented music, less (or more) music by the choir alone, less (or more) music with organ or contemporary ensemble or rock band? Sometimes musicians hear these questions not only from parishioners, but even from their bishops and pastors.

These questions point to several significant issues that liturgical musicians face as they work to serve the pastoral needs of their communities, but also to provide competent musical leadership and to foster good liturgical celebration.

Participation and Performance

Prior to the Second Vatican Council, most choirs and organists thought of their role as “providing music” for the liturgy. Even though official church documents since the publication in 1903 of Inter Sollicitudines, issued by Pope St. Pius X motu proprio had encouraged active singing of various Latin chants and responses of the liturgy by the whole congregation, before Vatican II most Catholics experienced a liturgy in which all the singing was performed by a choir or one singer (who was often also the organist).

The liturgical reforms of Vatican II represented both continuity and change in the way that music would be used. As in all official church documents since 1903, the “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” (1963) emphasized the singing of the liturgical texts—acclamations, responses, antiphons, psalms and songs. The C.S.L. includes an entire chapter on sacred music, declaring its value to be “greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as sacred song closely bound to the text, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy” (No. 112). The constitution also reiterated the dual purpose of music in the liturgy: the glorification of God and the sanctification of the faithful.

Vatican II set out a new agenda for liturgical musicians in its insistence on the activeparticipation of the entire assembly in the singing of the liturgy. The C.S.L. charged those responsible for the revision of the liturgical books to consider this active participation before any other element. The role of choirs and other musicians was reaffirmed, but they were now to carry out their ministry with due regard for the active role of the assembly.

While many choirs were downgraded or eliminated in the years immediately following the council, it soon became clear that the role of the choir was more important than ever. As a result, parish choirs of all kinds now flourish, from versatile groups that sing a broad range of musical styles to more specialized groups, such as Gospel choirs, chant ensembles and LifeTeen bands. Many parishes have several choirs, including a “traditional” choir, “contemporary” ensemble, youth choir, children’s choir and funeral choir.

A closer reading of church documents on music in the liturgy is gradually changing the way choirs and other music ministers interact with the larger assembly. Official church documents, including the recently revised General Instruction of the Roman Missal, envision liturgical celebrations in which the assembly engages in sung dialogue with the priest and in responsive singing with the choir and cantor. The presupposition of these documents is that the liturgy is fundamentally a sung celebration, in which the assembly of the faithful, the priest and the choir (or cantor) have active and distinct roles. Although the choir can—and should—sing alone at times, the singing of the choir should always be integral to the celebration and always planned in relation to the singing and prayer of the entire assembly. Whatever the style, choirs face the challenge of fostering active participation by the assembly while striving for the best musical quality possible.

The Challenge of Diversity

Commentators regularly call attention to the enormous diversity of the church in the United States, especially in its cultural and ethnic composition. Pastoral musicians serving dioceses and national organizations confront this every time they plan a large event.

How do music ministers plan for music that will allow all to sing with one voice, while respecting and affirming the variety of cultural voices within the church? Should we all sing some parts of the liturgy in Latin to draw us together? Should we all sing in Spanish, Vietnamese, Creole and English at the same celebration? Should different languages be used for different parts? How and to what extent should the musical styles of various cultural groups be incorporated into large-scale liturgical celebrations? Who decides what constitutes a “genuine” Hispanic or African-American style?

Parish musicians often deal not only with a variety of cultural backgrounds, but also with various age groups and musical tastes. Many parishes provide a smorgasbord of liturgical musical choices, using different styles of music at different Sunday Masses. It is not uncommon for parishes to celebrate a youth Mass each Sunday, incorporating musical styles like “praise music” or “Christian rock.”

Some communities have rejected this approach, finding that while it addresses the variety of musical tastes, it does little to foster the unity of the parish and the ability of the whole community to sing and pray the liturgy together. In these situations, musicians are challenged to incorporate various styles into all parish celebrations and to develop music ministers capable of singing and playing in those styles.

Developing Music Ministries

Every community needs ministers of music, but different communities require varying types of leadership, depending on their makeup and size. An urban cathedral or a sizeable parish community may require a full-time professional music director, while a smaller urban or rural parish may have to make do with a part-time or volunteer director.

Since the Second Vatican Council, the number of full-time music directors in U.S. parishes has risen dramatically, especially in larger and more urban dioceses. One challenge for N.A.P.M. and other national organizations, academic institutions and diocesan offices is to provide the programs needed for music leaders in all 19,000 Catholic parishes in the United States. Of these, at least 1,000 Latin-rite parishes in the United States currently have full-time directors, although in many cases the music director is also responsible for some other aspect of parish life—usually liturgy for the parish or music for the school.

The need for leadership is just as crucial for good liturgical celebration in parishes that are smaller or that have fewer financial resources. Many such communities are served by a part-time or volunteer music director or coordinator. With nearly 3,000 rural parishes and at least that many small communities in cities, suburbs and towns, there is a pressing need to find ways to help these directors and coordinators to receive ongoing formation in liturgical studies, musical skills and pastoral ministry.

Directors and coordinators of music, of course, comprise only a small percentage of the people who serve in music ministry. Many parishes also rely on paid and volunteer musicians who serve as cantors, psalm singers, choir directors, choir singers, organists, guitarists, pianists and instrumentalists of various kinds. These ministers—hundreds of thousands of them—also require continuing formation not only in their musical roles, but also as liturgical ministers.

A surprisingly large number of parishes do not have a single person who is responsible for overall leadership in music ministry, but have separate directors in charge of each Sunday Mass and no general coordination. Bishops and pastors as well therefore need formation in musical matters, so they can recruit competent music ministers to coordinate this critically important aspect of pastoral ministry.

Music and Mission

Continuing formation is clearly crucial for music ministers of all kinds, because the church’s music is linked so strongly to the life of the community as it forms its members to carry on the mission of Christ. To join in the song of the liturgy is to make a commitment to the mystery of Christ that we celebrate. Participation in the liturgy of word and sacrament is intimately linked to participation in what Karl Rahner, S.J., called the “liturgy of the world.” Even as music evokes the presence and power of God through its beauty, the active singing of God’s people makes them sharers in the mission of Christ to serve and to witness.

J. Michael McMahon is president of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians in Silver Spring, Maryland.