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For Cantors: Ritual

Reflections for Liturgy

Copyright © 1995, 2003 by

Rick Swenton
106 Melinda Lane
Bristol, CT 06010-7199
All Rights Reserved

Permission is granted for use of this work in parish liturgy or music programs in a non-commercial setting provided that no fee is charged and that this copyright notice remains on all copies.


Over the past few weeks, I have been reading the book Why Catholics Can’t Sing by Thomas Day. I wouldn’t recommend that you read this book unless you approach the experience with a very open mind. In my humble opinion, Mr. Day is the "Rush Limbaugh" of the Catholic Music scene. This book consists mostly of bashing and finding fault. It offers little or no solutions to the problems it surfaces. When I read the book, I highlighted the interesting passages. Later, I re-read the book, but only read the highlighted sections. Suddenly, the book came alive as a thought-provoking outline of opportunities to improve our liturgies and music. He still didn’t provide the answers. He only provided certain good questions or statements to help us find our own answers.

One area of improvement is in our rituals. "…. Roman Catholicism’s historic rituals, when done up right, have a way of bringing a sense of relief and assurance to a troubled humanity, especially the lower classes." And, further grumblings: "Roman Catholic ritual just isn’t what it used to be … The Mass has lost its sense of mystery and transcendence … We have taken too much of the sacred out of liturgy … Our sense of reverence is gone."

Of course, Mr. Day is referring to the Vatican-II changes that replaced Latin with English and required other profound changes, such as having the priest face the assembly. In reality, everyone knew they had to eliminate or change certain things in the old liturgies but there was no quality replacements yet for the new worship settings. They threw out too much, too quickly and had little or nothing to fill the void.

Today, we are blessed with resources of quality liturgical material. We have very good contemporary music and we have re-written and re-translated prayers and scripture to make them true to the original languages while better dealing with the limitations of the English language. (For example, there is no gender-less pronoun for God in English.) We also have at our command the treasured richness of classical worship music from our Catholic heritage. Even with all this, sometimes we are lacking an effective understanding of ritual.

Vatican-II changed worship and liturgy but it did not re-define ritual. Ritual is a process where "individuals cease to act as individuals and, instead, surrender themselves to a collective consciousness, an idea, something bigger than one person. The ‘I’ ceases and becomes ‘we.’ The participants give up at least a part of their individuality and become anonymous performers of the rite."

What’s the difference between liturgy and ritual? Liturgy is the prescribed instructions pertaining to the people’s act of worship. Ritual is the method of performing the liturgy.

For example, the liturgy might prescribe a procession. Ritual would dictate how the procession would be done. Should it be grand with many ministers or elegantly simple? How should the ministers walk? How should the Lectionary be held? How should we hold our hymnals? How should the candles be held? In what order should the ministers be placed? When should the procession start? How fast should we walk? What do we do when we reach the altar (and why)?

What’s in it for me, as a cantor?

Did you know that you are part of a procession when you leave your seat and approach the ambo for the Psalm? Granted, it is a one-person procession. Good ritual would require you to be conscious of some not so obvious details. (Good ritual means attending to detail.)

When you walk, are you walking with a posture and flow of movement signifying the Great Mystery you are about to proclaim? Or, are you walking like a youngster being asked to throw his chewing gum in the trash can? (I know it’s dramatic, but I’m writing this, not you.) And, (again the drama!) when you hold your music or hymnal as you approach the ambo, are you holding it with prominence and dignity (two hands) as a sign of reverence or are you carrying it casually as you would carry a magazine or newspaper? When you have nothing in your hands, where are they? Are they simply at your side or are they postured (folded) as a symbol of the holiness of the event occurring around you?

When we do ritual right, we help the assembly bridge the gap between earth and heaven. We should actually embrace the drama of ritual and infuse it with a sense of awe, power and mystery. After all, who can know the mind of God? Why not build a ritual that magnifies this Great Mystery to an incomprehensible level? We can’t tell everyone just how great God is because the limits of human words would put a limit on the expression. We can tell them that God is great, beyond all understanding by showing that we don’t understand but yet proclaim the mystery in our rituals. If we do it right, the ritual will capture the hearts of the assembly and pull them into the mystery.

Good liturgy requires mastery of the principles of ritual. It is never casual or flighty. We gather on Sunday for formal worship. We must implement the liturgy in a planned, steady and disciplined fashion. The formality of the Eucharistic Celebration should be elevated to the level of Paschal Mystery, the cornerstone of our faith. This formality does not have to be elaborate. Simplicity is the key. Sometimes, it’s as simple as standing or kneeling. How are you seen by the assembly? Are you attentive with good posture and accurate placement in the sanctuary? It’s simple, but important. Are your eyes fixed on the reader of the scriptures or do you appear to be preoccupied with something "more important?" Are you studying your music during the first reading instead of experiencing the Word? (I hope not.) That would send a clear message to the assembly that, "My singing of this Psalm is more important than the word of God." It makes the "I" more important than the "we."

We must approach all of this with patience. Sometimes, when we do something good, we don’t see immediate results. We must persistently try to always do good liturgy (the prescribed, formal "rules" and the drama of ritual) As Ministers of the Church, we have the responsibility to the assembly to uphold the standards of formal worship. God is eminently deserving of our best. So are God’s people.

Copyright © 1997 - 2007 - Rick Swenton. All rights reserved.

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