Music Matters: "Cantors"
By Nathan Cicero, Music Director
While sadly not an official liturgical season, summer is finally upon us, and for those you that attend the 11 AM Mass, this means that the choir is on its summer hiatus, and a cantor is leading the music. For those that attend the other Masses, you may be more used to cantors already. How many times have you thought about the actual liturgical role of cantor and where it fits in with the congregation and other liturgical ministers? Often, like any liturgical role, we can start to take the presence of a cantor for granted, but that shouldn’t diminish its importance in the liturgy.
First and foremost, the cantor is the leader of congregational song and a psalmist (one who proclaims the psalm). They not only assist the congregation in their sung prayer, but proclaim essential pieces of scripture that are prescribed for every Mass, namely, the Responsorial Psalm, Gospel Acclamation, and sometimes the Entrance of Communion antiphons, if these are not sung by the congregation. Rather than just being a nice addition to Mass, it’s these functions that make a cantor absolutely crucial.
It’s important to note that the cantor serves as a leader, not as a performer. At most Catholic churches in the U.S., including St. Mark’s, it’s common to find the cantor amplified to a volume far surpassing the congregation, but this is ultimately a detriment to congregational singing. It is my hope that congregational singing of hymns, simple chants, and responses may increase to the point where the cantor can back off and let the congregation take the part that is their duty and honor to sing.
This being said, when the cantor is proclaiming scripture duly assigned to them, they function as a soloist, and have the power to shape the congregation’s perception of text, similar to a performer. It is also not wrong to appreciate and enjoy the voices of our cantors. They work very hard to cultivate and more effectively use the gifts that God has bestowed on them, and this should not go unnoticed. The human voice has the power to inspire and move us, and I believe this is truly of divine origin.
So, the next time the cantor gets up to proclaim the psalm, I challenge you to think more deeply about what he or she is saying. It is not an unessential part of the Mass between the two readings; it is another reading, proclaimed in song as the psalms have been for thousands of years. When the cantor is leading a hymn, don’t get distracted by the cantor’s beautiful voice. Rather, use it to inspire your own singing and raise your thoughts to higher things. For it is that ultimate goal that every cantor, along with me, aspires to achieve: to lead the congregation into deeper prayer through song.
Each month, Music Director Nathan Cicero will use this column to examine an aspect of music ministry at St. Mark’s. Email him at email@example.com