t’s something I’ve confessed more than once: my failure to engage in what is happening during the Mass. Despite the fact that I am singing, playing the organ, or conducting for almost half of the Mass, I often completely fail to participate. How can this be? Isn’t this what is meant by the “active participation” that is one of the liturgical goals of the Second Vatican Council? Isn’t the involvement of the laity in the liturgy a success? Well, yes, but not necessarily in the way you think.
What am I doing here, if this is my internal monologue:
Downbeat tenors, sopranos on two. Basses next, followed by altos. Offbeat entrances by basses, then tenors, altos, sopranos. Don’t forget to crescendo across the stong beat…
Why, I’m conducting the first phrase of Giovanni Croce’s O Sacrum Convivium this coming Sunday, the Third Sunday of Easter.
Do you know what I’m not doing? Praying:
O Sacred Banquet in which Christ is received…
Sure, you might argue that I am praying this piece in a different way than the congregation is, but I am not engaging the music, and certainly not the action of the liturgy, in the same way that the non-singer or non-director is. I’m working right now.
And that’s fine. We all have our jobs and our roles in liturgy. However, I’m a Catholic, too, and should be actively participating in the liturgy (there’s that phrase again). I should be praying. The question here is, “How do we engage the liturgy prayerfully when we’re busy doing all of the ‘things’ that need our attention?”
It isn’t easy. There are a few tips I’ve figured out over the years, but I can’t say I’ve mastered them. Here are some starting points, though:
1. Prepare for the liturgy.
Oh, why didn’t you say so? Here I’ve been just showing up and doing it all this time. Actually, what I mean is to take care of all of the mundane “extras” before the Mass begins. I make a binder that has every piece of my music in it, in order, so I don’t have to “fish” for a single thing once the Mass begins. This includes all of the hymns, ordinaries, choir pieces, and even organ interludes. Don’t leave anything to chance; the fewer non-liturgical concerns you have during Mass, the better.
2. Prepare for the liturgy.
If I have to focus on every single cue, on every fingering passage, or on every entrance, I’ve lost the battle for liturgical focus before I’ve even begun. These things need to be worked out long before the bells ring to begin the Mass. I strongly recommend using an old musician’s trick, which consists of studying and repeating the planned music several times before executing it live. Sometimes we call this trick “practice.”
3. Prepare for the liturgy.
Seeing a trend here? The reality is that none of us is ever really perfectly disposed for prayer. We get distracted by all sorts of things (You think I have it bad? Ask my wife, who watches my two children, ages 4 and 5, during Mass. She’s my heroine). Take a minute before Mass and pray to the Holy Spirit that you be focused on the prayers of the Mass. Ready yourself spiritually to engage in the mysteries before you begin. This puts you in the proper disposition prior to the first downbeat.
So how do you actively participate despite all of that participation? Focus yourself during the non-musical moments. Don’t look for the next piece of music. Don’t micro-manage your choir regarding the next entrance. You’ve done the preparation. Now pray: there’s a miracle going on up there on the altar, and you don’t want to miss it.