What Catholic does not have strong views about the kind of music used in their church? The argument regarding traditional music or contemporary music is a challenging debate that rarely brings about spiritual fruit. There are other changes, without getting into a heated debate, that can easily improve the the use of Mass music at a parish and bring about a more fruitful participation in the sacramental work of Christ in the Sacred Liturgy.
1. Let the Choir Pray and Not Perform
Where should the choir be placed in a church? The Choir is at Mass to offer reverent worship like the rest of the faithful. The choir, or cantor, offers their reverent worship to God in a way that leads and helps others to offer reverent worship to God by entering more deeply into the mystery being celebrated. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal states,
The schola cantorum (choir) should be so positioned [to] allow each choir member full sacramental participation in the Mass in a convenient manner. –GIRM 312
The faithful and the schola cantorum (choir) shall have a place that facilitates their active participation. –GIRM 294
This means that the choir is not positioned in a performance position: facing the faithful head-on. “Each choir member” should be positioned in a way that is conducive to their liturgical prayer. This doesn’t mean that the only place for a choir is in a loft behind the faithful, as early liturgies document various positions for the choir. Yet, the question should be asked: What best assists the choir’s participation in the Holy Mysteries of the altar: facing the altar or facing the people?
2. Use Microphones Properly
I recently went to a Mass with a full choir present. The problem was that my wife and I did not know there was a choir until much later in the celebration of Holy Mass. The choir, which was positioned at the front facing the faithful and not the sanctuary, was singing with their faces pointed at the ground. This means that their sound was hitting the ground first. They had microphones, but the microphones were hanging from the ceiling and their voices were moving in the opposite direction of the microphone. No one had taught them how to use a microphone properly.
3. Instruments Should Serve the Voice
A common theme in St. Pius X’s Tra le Sollecitudini is that of the primacy of the human voice. Instruments seek to accompany the voice; “As the singing should always have the principal place, the organ or other instruments should merely sustain and never oppress it” (no. 16). The instruments are not meant to support the song or style but to allow the faithful a glimpse and participation of the voice of the Church in union with the voice of her beloved bridegroom, Jesus Christ.
4. Sing the Mass, Don’t Just Sing at Mass
What parts of the Sunday Mass should a parish sing? Make a list on a piece of paper and see how you compare to the mind of the Church. Musicam Sacram states that the Church has developed useful degrees, or categories, for the parts of Mass to be sung. The first degree is of the highest importance for every parish. The second and third “may never be used without the first” (Musicam Sacram 28). What parts of the Mass must be sung before the rest? Musicam Sacram 29:
- In the entrance rites: the greeting of the priest together with the reply of the people; the [collect] prayer.
- In the Liturgy of the Word: the acclamations at the Gospel.
- In the Eucharistic Liturgy: the prayer over the offerings; the preface with its dialogue and the Sanctus; the final doxology of the Canon, the Lord’s prayer with its introduction and embolism; the Pax Domini; the prayer after Communion; the formulas of dismissal.
Essentially, the dialogue parts of the Mass and the Sanctus must be sung. Yet, for most of us Catholics, this is the opposite of what is sung at Mass. A rightly sung Mass expresses to the faithful that it is not about the instruments or musical style but about prayer; at Mass we learn to unite our prayers with the prayer of Christ (CCC 1069, 1073).
5. Train Music Directors in Sacred Music
It is initially easier to hire a music director with a background in vocal music or music education than it is to hire someone who has studied and been mentored in the Church’s Sacred Music. A music director with a secular degree like vocal music may know how to sing, how to read music, how to conduct, and schedule rehearsals. These are all great skills to have. This is not the same as knowing what music to pick, what hymnal to purchase, where to place the choir during a church building or renovation, and how to help choir members and the faithful to enter into the Mystery of Christ through the Sacred Music.
It is never too late to learn. Consider sending your choir director to the Liturgical Institute in Mundelein for a summer or a degree, or consider hiring from Franciscan University’s Sacred Music program. There are likely other institutions available that offer formation that is faithful to the directives of the Church.
6. Simplify and Focus
The Church calls for more somber music during the penitential seasons. Musical instruments are to be simplified during the seasons of Advent and Lent (GIRM 313). GIRM 313 indicates that the full use of instruments and musical resources expresses the solemnity of the time, such as Christmas and Easter, following the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent. A more subdued use of instruments during Advent and Lent is an opportunity each year for the choir and the faithful to remember the primacy of the voice, and to discern the best ways to use the voice and choose musical texts that point to the Sacred Mysteries being celebrated.
Every Catholic can and should get involved in the Sacred Music of their parish. For some this means being part of the choir. For all, it means praying for those responsible for the liturgical music of the parish and lending one’s voice to the eternal song of the Son to the Father. Consider making a financial gift to purchase books and church documents on Sacred Music, such as the Church documents in this email, or making a gift to provide a training workshop for your choir or music staff.
Lastly, consider offering constructive feedback that is in keeping with the nature of Sacred Music. I once attended a chant workshop that left me with this thought: “If someone approaches you [the cantor or choir member] after Mass and says that they love your singing, you failed. If someone approaches you and says your lovely voice helped me to pray more deeply, you succeeded.”