Liturgy Matters — Role of the cantor at Mass

By  Dr. Judy Bullock

What is the role of the cantor at Mass?

The ancient role of the cantor was restored with the revisions of the Second Vatican Council.

Prior to this council the congregation had not been singing any parts of the Mass; consequently, there was a pressing need to encourage the congregation to embrace their new singing role. This led to misinterpretation of the cantor’s role as “song leader.”

Today the cantor’s role is more clearly defined in the liturgical directives. The cantor’s role is not to “get the people to sing” or to be the designated singer in place of the assembly. It is each person’s responsibility to participate in word, song, gesture, mind and heart by reason of our baptism into the Body of Christ.

Today the cantor’s role at Mass falls primarily into three areas of communication: sung dialogue, transmission of verses of Scripture or parts of the Mass, and, as needed, vocal support, gesture, and verbal instructions.

Sung dialogue

Much of the cantor’s role centers on sung dialogue — the back and forth exchange with the rest of the assembly. The most important of these sung dialogues is the Responsorial Psalm.

The “responsorial form” requires the cantor/psalmist to give out the response, then listen as the assembly repeats this response. The cantor then sings the verses of the psalm, inviting the assembly to give the response between verses. For dialogue to take place the cantor does not sing the response between the verses with the rest of the assembly.

A short rehearsal before Mass to familiarize the assembly with the response may be necessary to ensure successful dialogue.

Transmission of Texts

Clear articulation of sung texts that belong to the cantor is an important aspect of the cantor’s role. Only diligent preparation will ensure this. The assigned psalm in the Lectionary for Mass has been selected to respond to the other readings of the day.

However, there are designated seasonal psalms in the Lectionary that may be substituted for the psalm of the day to increase participation of the assembly and gradual development of repertoire.

Building up the body of psalm texts we know by heart and can pray in our daily lives is the advantage of this conscientious attention to repertoire.

Vocal Support

The key to vocal support is to use the microphone only as much as needed. When the cantor is giving verbal directions (page numbers, verse numbers, etc.) the microphone is an important tool for communication.

The cantor also needs to be heard clearly when singing the verses of the Responsorial Psalm, the verse of the Gospel acclamation, etc. Nonetheless, only in exceptional situations should the voice of the cantor be heard over the singing of the assembly, such as when a new Mass setting is in the learning stages.

Where is the location for the cantor’s ministry?

The ambo/lectern is the place where the Liturgy of the Word is celebrated; therefore the preferred location for the Responsorial Psalm is the ambo.

Most of the cantor’s ministry, however, takes place at a music stand in view of the assembly and, if possible, near the instrumentation. Even though in some church spaces a choir must be located in a choir loft, the loft is not the proper location for the cantor. Since much of the cantor’s ministry is dialogical, it is important that the cantor is in position for face to face interaction with the rest of the assembly.

Dr. Judy Bullock is the director of the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Office of Worship.

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