Liturgy Matters — The role of the parish choir

By Dr. Judy Bullock

Dr. Judy Bullock
Dr. Judy Bullock

There were many significant changes in the way Mass is celebrated since the Second Vatican Council. One that profoundly altered the way we “attend” Mass was the expectation of full, conscious, and active participation by all the people. This meant that instead of a server responding to the dialogue given out by the priest and the choir singing all the sung parts of a Mass, the responsibility now belonged to all the people rather than just a designated responder. This shift contributed greatly to the understanding that Mass is not just celebrated by the priest alone but is a celebration of the whole church, the Body of Christ with Christ our Head.

At the onset, this change seemed to have a detrimental effect on the development and maintenance of parish choirs. Music ministry as it was practiced in the pre-Vatican II church was solely in the hands of an organist, a choir and a choir director. With the zeal to encourage the congregation to sing the parts of the Mass, as well as the other songs/hymns, the role of the choir was perceived by some as less important, even unnecessary.  Furthermore, the restored role of the cantor, which was at first misinterpreted as song leader, led to and supported this conclusion. The Second Vatican Council never intended the demise of choirs but insisted that they were to be diligently promoted.

What is the role of the choir at Mass?

Support and enhance
Although the choir no longer serves as the designated singer for the liturgy, the choir has an important function in the multifaceted ministry of liturgical music.

There are three primary responsibilities of the choir in the Mass. The first is to support and enhance the song of the congregation. Since the choir’s ministry includes weekly rehearsals, choir members bring a polished, enthusiastic knowledge of the music to the liturgy. For the rest of us that means that the choir helps us to learn new music more quickly and also helps us to sound great. The choir also enhances the song of the assembly by adding harmonization and descants that enrich the melody line sung by the rest of the assembly.

The choir also engages in the sung dialogues of the Mass with the cantor and/or the rest of the assembly. For example, the Glory to God may be sung using a dialogical form with cantor, choir and assembly each singing parts of this hymn. This model offers the benefit of uniting diverse assemblies with a simple refrain, but still provides musical interest as the parts move back and forth. These dialogical forms offer a more challenging setting of the hymn and a more expressive rendition of the text. The beauty and expertise of trained voices is uplifting to the mind and heart. This dialogical form may also be employed for the opening song, the presentation of the gifts and for the period during the distribution of holy Communion.

Choral selections
In addition to the times the choir sings some verses of a hymn or song in dialogue with the rest of the assembly, there are also times when the choir may sing a selection alone. These selections can focus on the season or feast or particular sacramental celebration. For example, during the presentation of gifts and preparation of the altar the choir may sing a selection unknown to the rest of the assembly or beyond the capabilities of the assembly.  These types of selections, although not intended to be the high point of the liturgy, are a way to enrich the liturgical season, reflect more deeply on the Scripture readings of the day and/or respond to the focus of the celebration.

Perhaps one of the most ministerial roles that a choir can serve is music ministry for the funeral Mass.  Grieving families may not be able to respond with full voice at these poignant moments but can be supported and consoled by the participation of parishioners in this music ministry. With the heartfelt song of the choir supporting the assembly’s singing, faith can be strengthened and hope can be restored.

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

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One reply on “Liturgy Matters — The role of the parish choir”
  1. says: Chris Garton-Zavesky

    Dr. Bullock,

    In your presentation, I didn’t see you incorporate (or exclude) the use of Latin ordinaries, so would it be a proper use of the choir to teach the congregation parts of the Mass in Latin, and then to reinforce that congregational singing?

    Additionally, when you write about the “focus of the celebration”, you permit the idea that God is the focus of every celebration of the Mass, and so anything which detracts from our focus on God would be bad?

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