Participation versus Performance


I am sure that I am not the only one who cringed at the wording of reports in the media about the release of the musical setting to be used during the final Mass at World Youth Day in July.

The word ‘perform‘ is used repeatedly in reference to the Mass setting: “The official Mass Setting will be performed for His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI and the hundreds and thousands of youth in July during the major WYD08 Masses”, “The Parish Setting is available on the WYD08 website for parishes to learn and perform in the lead-up to WYD08”.

A few months ago I wrote about the need for liturgical musicians to understand that their role is to assist the assembly to offer its prayer and praise to God in song. A Mass setting is not composed for musicians, cantors and choirs to perform but to enable the entire assembly to sing the central parts of the Mass. Instrumentalists and singers at Mass do not perform for the entertainment of those present, but provide the accompaniment and lead which facilitate the assembly’s singing of the responses, acclamations and songs of the liturgy.

Liturgical musicians do not assess their effectiveness according to how few wrong notes they played or sang or introductions they missed but by asking themselves the question: ‘How well did I enable the assembly to exercise its right to sing the liturgy?’ Their music making is more about people singing the liturgy and less about making music for others to hear.

In this, liturgical musicians are unique among their music colleagues. It requires great humility on their part to put aside personal preferences and individual expertise for the sake of exercising their ministry as servants of the Mystical Body of Christ and offering their musical talents in service of the Lord.

After all, how many musicians practise music in preparation for an occasion with the key singers absent? That challenge is peculiar to those who provide the music for liturgy where the assembly, which has the key musical role, is present only for the event and not the rehearsal!

Getting liturgical ministers to see their role as animators and not performers is only half the battle. The assembly needs to be encouraged constantly to accept responsibility for the sung parts of the Mass and not to leave it to the cantor or choir.

As I have said before, if the assembly applauds the music ministers at the end of Mass, it indicates that they have seen themselves as spectators at a performance rather than as full, conscious and active participants in their work of public prayer.

My other concern with the wording of the WYD08 Mass Setting media release is the suggestion that the music will be ‘performed for His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI’ and that it will ‘celebrate the arrival of the Pope’. Surely, the purpose and centre of all our worship is God!

No matter who the presider or how many are present or where it is held, worship is always and only for the perfect glorification of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Elizabeth Harrington