By Barb Arland-Fye
“Step outside your comfort zone,” other parishioners and I were advised while contemplating ministries in which we could serve the Church. Already serving as a lector and extraordinary minister of holy Communion, I thought to myself, “I could never be a cantor.”
But then I joined the choir and, gradually, was invited to serve as a cantor. While singing to God is one of the greatest joys I can imagine, I don’t think God intended me to be a cantor. It feels too much like performance to me, even though I know that in reality and in Church teaching, it is not.
“The cantor is both a singer and a leader of congregational song,” the U.S. bishops observe in “Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship” (November 2007), a document which provides guidelines for those preparing for the celebration of sacred liturgy.
During the four or five Masses when I’ve served as cantor, I prayed mightily to the Holy Spirit for inspiration and to not be humiliated in my efforts to lead the congregation in the Responsorial Psalm. Having heard other cantors occasionally stumble over words or pitch, I could only imagine the congregation staring back at me as if to say, “What are you doing up there?”
So, on a few occasions, I’ve asked another cantor to accompany me. That has been an awesome experience, to hear our voices soaring to the heavens and inspiring the congregation to do the same. The bishops instruct that as a leader of congregational song the cantor should take part in singing with the entire assembly and that the cantor’s voice should not be heard above the congregation. That’s not been a problem for me.
A cantor’s responsibility is to help a congregation find its voice and sing with increasing confidence; we have some wonderful cantors in our parish whose gift enhances the sense of a faith community gathered to celebrate the Eucharist.
“Christ always invites us to enter into song, to rise above our own preoccupations, and to give our entire selves to the hymn of his Paschal Sacrifice for the honor and glory of the Most Blessed Trinity,” the bishops tell us in “Sing to the Lord.”
The bishops don’t expect perfection when it comes to singing. “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. Participation in the Sacred Liturgy both expresses and strengthens the faith that is in us.”
Neither do the bishops want us to mistake a well-sung liturgy as a performance. So, even if the choir does a great job inspiring the congregation to sing, or the cantor has an especially beautiful voice, this is no place for applause.
“The job of the choir is helping the community to pray, it’s not showing off how good we are,” says Deacon Frank Agnoli, the Diocese of Davenport’s director of liturgy.
We have a wonderful choir whose members enhance the celebration of every liturgy in which they sing. I feel blessed to be a part of our choir and even more blessed to realize that my gift is singing with and not leading the congregation.