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The Singing Assembly at Liturgy

Take a moment and consider the following question: While ministering in ensemble music ministry during liturgy, what should our most desired and coveted sound be?

  1. Perfectly tuned SATB voices
  2. All instruments playing complimentary together at the exact same tempos
  3. Beautifully balanced instruments and voices
  4. Flutes and violins supporting the sound of the voices
  5. The sound of the gathered assembly participating fully in sung prayer

While you may be tempted to select “all of the above” if that were an option, there truly is one single correct answer — “The sound of the gathered assembly participating fully in sung prayer.”

The primary purpose for the existence of music ministry at liturgy lies in serving the gathered community in sung prayer. It’s very easy to lose sight of this purpose and become solely focused on the quality of our ensemble music-making. Make no mistake — we should all strive to make the highest quality music that our gifts can offer, but not just for the sake of making good music. That’s what secular choirs and concert performers do. The liturgical music ministry strives to create the best possible music to better assist the gathered community’s participation. This is a huge difference.

How do we know for certain that our focus should be on assisting the gathered assembly’s participation in sung prayer? Does this mean that our ministries can never provide music that is not intended for the community’s voices? Can well-prepared and delivered music at liturgy actually dissuade the community from participating?

Let’s explore what the liturgical documents say about the singing assembly and some common questions that may arise for ensemble musicians.

What the liturgical documents of the Church say

The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (CSL) is one of the Vatican II documents written by Roman Catholic Church bishops that helped shape the existing liturgy we experience worldwide today. Article 14 of CSL speaks clearly of the importance of “full, conscious, and active participation” of all God’s people gathered at liturgy. Further in Article 14, the bishops declare that “this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else.” This declaration could not be clearer — God’s people are expected to fully participate when gathered for liturgy.

Another document approved in 2007 by US Catholic Bishops entitled “Sing to the Lord: Music In Divine Worship” (STL) speaks specifically and boldly about the gathered assembly’s participation. In a section entitled “Participation,” Articles 10-14 proclaim the unity of God’s people as “one body” and greatly supports the participation of that full body.

Both CSL and STL help secure for us the idea that music ministry exists in Catholic worship to support the singing assembly — the combined voices of all gathered to offer praise and glory to God.

Interior and exterior participation

Articles 12 and 13 of STL speak of two types of participation by the gathered faithful: interior and exterior. Interior participation is when “the faithful join their mind to what they pronounce or hear, and cooperate with heavenly grace” (Article 12, STL). They may not be singing or responding verbally, but their internal being connects deeply with the sung text and responses. As those in the community internally participate at liturgy, their relationship with God is strengthened and grows.

Article 13 of STL speaks about the physical singing of songs, acclamations, and responses. It states, “the quality of our participation in such sung praise comes less from our vocal ability than from the desire of our hearts to sing together of our love for God.” The community desires to offer praise and thanks to God through singing! Music ministry serves this desire and strives to encourage all to participate as fully as possible.

Supporting the interior and exterior participation of those gathered to praise God must be at the very center of our work as music ministers.

Can the ensemble sing alone?

It is absolutely acceptable that ensembles prepare a song or two intended to be sung by the ensemble alone for any liturgy. As mentioned earlier, because those who gather experience interior participation, music not intended to be sung by the community can profoundly impact the worship of believers. A beautifully performed song that supports the readings of the day can speak to the heart of listeners when offered as a prelude, song during the offertory, or at post-communion. For some, these songs offer the greatest interior participation and can positively influence the overall worship experience.

Can our music ministry ever be too good?

I’ve heard it said that perhaps the music we prepare for liturgy can be so well-performed that it could actually dissuade the community from singing. In over 40 years of leading music ministry, I must say that this has never been my experience. What I have learned is that the community appreciates well-prepared and performed music. The better prepared the music ministry, the better the community sings. In such cases, those who are dissuaded from singing revel in the beautiful sound of the ensemble with the fully participating community. It is truly the greatest sound imaginable and offers a glimpse of the heavenly angelic sound that awaits all of us in the heavenly banquet.

  • Here are a few other ways to enhance full, conscious, and active singing at liturgy:
  • Rehearse any unfamiliar music with the assembly before liturgy and encourage their full participation.
  • Locate the ensemble in a place where vocalists can be seen and make good eye contact while singing.
  • Encourage ensemble singers to emotionally connect with the texts of songs and authentically share that emotion, for the assembly will sing better if they experience authentic singing.
  • Motion for the assembly to sing when appropriate, as when leading the Psalm.
  • Be sure that ensemble instruments and voices do not drown out the voice of the assembly, for the singing community must be able to hear their own collective voice.
  • Occasionally write a bulletin article that encourages the assembly’s participation.

Our call is clear and simple

Our greatest joy as ensemble musicians must be found in leading others. Music performed at liturgy is not meant to entertain. Our ministry is rooted in helping others find their voice and their song. Sharing music with the intent of eliciting full, conscious, and active participation is a true act of love and must be at the very forefront of our work together. Music speaks to the heart of the broken-hearted and downtrodden in ways that nothing else can. When music opens the hearts of those gathered at liturgy, God can enter and be present in unimaginable ways.

Let us always embrace the call to support our gathered communities in sung prayer and love first and foremost the sound of the singing assembly.

Written by Steve Petrunak, a founding board member of CLEF and director of music at St. Blase Catholic Church in Sterling Heights, Michigan.

Copyright © 2023 Catholic Liturgical Ensemble Formation

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