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Andrew Motyka is the Archdiocesan Director of Liturgical Music and Cathedral Music for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.
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“In my opinion, there should be reached the aim that all priests could continue to use the old Missal.”
— Cardinal Ratzinger, Letter to Wolfgang Waldstein (14 December 1976)

The Choir Director as Catechist
published 3 April 2013 by Andrew R. Motyka

he parish choir director wears many hats: conductor, organist, composer, (shudder) liturgist, teacher, singer, and yes, even catechist.

People join the parish choir for many different reasons. Many join for the same reason they sing with any choir: it is an opportunity to express themselves through music, to enjoy singing, and participate in musical fellowship with their peers. What sets the parish choir apart from your local community choir, though, it the liturgical and spiritual dimension. Church choirs (should) focus exclusively on liturgical music, music that participates in, highlights, and elevates the Mass. Liturgical music is, first and foremost, prayer. Singers participate in the parish choir because music has a religious connection for them, as well. It is a way in which they draw closer to God.

We choir directors need to keep that last reason in mind during our rehearsals and preparation. How often do we choose pieces of music while preparing for the liturgy and think, “Wow, this piece is just perfectly appropriate for the Feast of Saint Whomever,” but never explain to the choir just why the piece is chosen. Surely, some of them already understand, but for the most part, members of your choir have the same catechesis that the rest of the parish has, that is to say, not very much.

For example, this past Easter Vigil, our choir sang at Offertory a piece called Sing Ye to the Lord by Edward Bairstow. The first stanza reads:

Sing ye to the Lord
For He hath triumphed gloriously
Pharaoh’s chariots and his host
Hath He cast into the sea.

The rest of the piece shares its text with later verses that might be recognized from At the Lamb’s High Feast:

Mighty Victim from the sky,
Hell’s fierce pow’rs beneath Thee lie.
Thou hast conquered in the fight.
Thou hast brought us life and light.

Now no more can death appall,
Now no more the grave enthrall.
Thou hast opened paradise
And in Thee Thy saints shall rise.

You might get the connection between this piece and the Easter Vigil very quickly, but some won’t. The first and most obvious feature is that the first stanza it taken right from the Old Testament reading from Exodus at the Great Vigil, but it is better to take it deeper for your choir. I explained to mine that Easter Vigil has a special focus on baptism, and that’s what this piece is truly about. Just as the Lord led the Israelites through water, defeating slavery and death in the form of the Egyptians, so does the Lord Jesus lead His church through the waters of baptism, freeing us from slavery and death in the form of sin. I could see the eyes light up immediately. They simply never knew that. Sure, you might be repeating a fact that your choir already knows, but we can all stand to be reminded and refocused from time to time. This way of feeding your choir helps them worship better, and frankly, helps them to sing the music better, too.

The catechist-music-director needs to know his or her material well. It’s not enough to choose music because “it’s pretty,” and while using the Gradual or Missal propers is an ideal musical choice, it is no more helpful spiritually to the choir if they don’t understand why a particular text is chosen for a particular feast. Why, for the Fifth Sunday of Lent this year, is the Offertory Antiphon:

“I will praise you, O Lord, with my whole heart; deal bountifully with your servant, that I may live and observe your word; revive me according to your word, O Lord.” ?

Why, to me, that sounds like the song of praise that the woman caught in adultery would have sung to Jesus, who saved her life. Teach your choir that.

Singers join the church choir for the same reason they join any other church activity: because they are hungry for something. Use the music you sing as an opportunity to feed them, and listen as their song becomes even more beautiful because they understand it more fully.