The Assembly's Singing Role


QUESTION: Who has the main musical role at Mass?
Answer: The assembly.
No, not the organist, or the cantor, or the presider, or even the choir, but the people in the pews – the assembly of the faithful!
This seemingly outlandish (to some) statement is not me “putting forward my own ideas”, as my critics sometimes claim. As always, it comes from official Church liturgy documents.
Vatican II restored the importance of people’s participation in the liturgy. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy directed that “the people should be encouraged to take part by means of acclamation, responses, psalmody, antiphons and song” (CSL 30). It also stressed that music “forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy” (CSL 112).
Thus the musical role of the assembly is central to its ministry of praise and prayer at worship. Through singing together we respond to the God who calls us together in Christ. We respond by joining in the entrance song, by singing the refrain of the responsorial psalm, through our enthusiastic participation in the Alleluiahs of the Gospel acclamation.
We express our praise together with the whole company of the angels and saints as we sing “Holy, holy, holy Lord”. In faith we proclaim the memorial acclamation and assent to the great thanksgiving in the Great Amen. Joining together in the communion song is a sign of the unity that exists among us as the body of Christ.
So what about the cantor and choir? Are they now obsolete?
The main role of the cantor could be described as that of an animator. The cantor is not a soloist who sings for the people. He or she assists the assembly to do its part by drawing everyone into the common sung prayer. Hence a cantor needs not only vocal skills but also the skills of knowing how to encourage people to participate.
The cantor should never dominate the singing and “drown out” the assembly. Once the people are familiar with the melody, key and timing of a piece of music, the cantor can step back from the microphone and let the assembly do its work unaided.
The cantor is often called on to sing the verses of the psalm during the Liturgy of the Word. Other tasks might include welcoming the assembly, introducing the liturgy, rehearsing new music and leading the general intercessions (prayers of the faithful).
Before Vatican II, the role of choral singing at Mass was to add beauty and solemnity to the celebration. The fact that the music was not seen as integral to the liturgy is evidenced by the fact that the parts of the Mass sung by the choir were also recited by the priest at the altar.
Today, the primary ministry of the choir – as of the organist and other instrumentalists – is to support and enhance the singing of all present.
Both the choir and instrumentalists may also serve the assembly by singing or playing alone at times. The people may often be drawn into the spirit of prayer by listening to an appropriate choir or organ piece, perhaps during the preparation of the gifts or before Mass begins.
At Mass we are all ministers of music as we lift up voices together in praise of God.

Elizabeth Harrington