According to Yogi Berra, “you can observe a lot by just watching.” Whether or not we want to admit it, prayerlessness is a common experience at Sunday worship. This grave problem is partly due to the absence of meaningful beauty. If “beauty draws you in,” as the Audi commercial states, it claims your attention. In Hollywood, beauty isn’t everything; it’s the only thing. Beauty captures, it rivets the attention. Its magic can hold one spellbound. Beauty elevates, gives meaning to life.
We need beauty in our Eucharistic liturgy to capture, to rivet our attention on the grandeur of God.
Four Keys to Liturgical Harmony
There are many particulars that comprise the liturgy. When anyone of them is poorly-prepared and poorly-executed, there is less prayer. If the outward signs, word, ritual and symbol, lack external energy emerging from the inner power of conviction, there is less prayer. Four of these particulars are: the ministry of lector, cantor and choir, organist, and homilist – the subject of this week’s essay.
Two preliminary points: Self-centeredness and poor taste have no place in any liturgical service. It is God’s grandeur and not the community as a social event that liturgy celebrates.
Proclamation of Sacred Texts: Judaism
In the Jewish liturgy, special reverence is given to the sacred text through cantillation. Cantillation is elevated speech that lies between singing a melody and reciting the text. It is a heightening of the voice that proclaims the text with feeling and conviction to convey its truth. Jewish cantors assume a special vocation and responsibility. They are chosen to render the liturgical text because of their vocal quality, clear diction, and of course proper pronunciation of Hebrew. However, they are not actors, role-playing or dramatizing the text with body-language. They herald the message.
Eastern Christianity and Proclamation of Sacred Texts
In the Christian East, most of the Divine Liturgy is sung, much of it by the cantor. In former times, cantors attended cantor’s school for three or four years. There they earned official recognition that permitted them to perform this ministry in their parish churches.
The ministry of cantor, whether in the Jewish tradition or in the Christian East, is highly valued because it is closely united to the liturgical service.
The Latin Church and Proclamation:
Ministry of Lector
The ministry of lector is implicitly mentioned in the Epistle to the Romans (10:17): faith comes through hearing the word of God. The ear is the body’s organ through which the word of God is conveyed to the whole person. Lectors breathe life into the scripture so that its truth and beauty elicit an active response. If one cannot hear or understand the lector, the sacred text is impeded from being communicated and is prevented from being grasped.
Serving as a lector requires not only the minimum: proper pronunciation, clear diction, and projection of voice that proclaims with conviction. One does not simply read the text. Lectoring asks much more. The text is to be proclaimed with heightened voice as the truth, internalized through reflection. Like a herald who announces “Hear ye, hear ye” so too the lector begins the proclamation with: “A Reading from ______!”
Preparing the text should be done well ahead of the liturgy. A careless, apathetic reading of the text impairs the communication of God’s word. Dramatizing it with hand gestures distracts by calling attention not to the text but to the lector. It is here that restlessness is likely to begin.
Ministry of Cantor and Choir
The cantor’s voice and that of the choir are the musical instruments through which the word of God sings. Like lectors, it is essential for them to use proper pronunciation, clear diction, and projection of voice. Otherwise, the text will be garbled. Singing in the English language requires that its words be over-enunciated in order to be understood.
Cantors and choirs lead the Assembly in song but also intensify the proclamation of other texts. Not the chantreuse of a cocktail lounge, not the pop singer or pop groups, and not an operatic voice – none of these serves as models for cantors or choirs. Swooning and crooning over texts, romanticizing and sentimentalizing them are entirely out of place. What is crooning? Instead of targeting the initial note of a phrase on pitch, precisely and accurately, singers scoop up the opening notes of a phrase producing a guttural sound. Sadly, this ugly, unmusical trait, typical of the popular genre, has been imitated by parish cantors and choral groups who are charged with conveying sacred texts plainly and without flourish. If, in formal singing, this guttural sound is not tolerated by voice coaches, all the more so in the ministry of the cantor and choir. Scriptural texts speak courage and urge Christians to soldier on in the faith with joy. These brave texts may not – may not be rendered as sentimental or romantic lyrics through swooning and crooning. The so-called folk idiom, epitomized in a song like “Be Not Afraid,” lends itself to this style. Such material is unsuitable for liturgy because it is unworthy of the liturgy.
The pitch of singers must be sure and firm. Singing off key (sharp, flat, in quarter tones, or anything in between) is the musical counterpart of an ululating cat. Voices should have a minimum of vibrato or preferably none at all. Warbling belongs to the order of birds. These vocal flaws provoke prayerlessness in the liturgy.
Finally, it has become fashionable for the cantor to begin the liturgy with casual introductions such as “Hi, welcome to our liturgical gathering.” The cantor gives directives such as: “As we begin our Communion Rite, please open your ritual book to number _____. Let us join in singing _____, number ____, hymn _____.” Too many words. Too distracting.
Ministry of the Organist
Sometimes an organist claims center stage during the Offertory Rite, whose prayer enables the faithful to offer themselves as worthy sacrifices of praise to the Lord. At this time, an organist will play either a prelude or a fugue or another dramatic piece. This distracts from the action at the altar. The Offertory Rite is not the place to dazzle the ear with masterpieces of the organ repertory. The logical place for brilliant organ display is the postlude where the organ may pull out all its stops and flood the church with its glorious sounds. An organ prelude before the liturgy is also suitable to set the tone for the liturgy.
Ministry of the Homilist
The homily is intended to herald the wonderful message of our salvation to the faithful anticipating the good news of the Gospel. Unlike the lector whose literal text is Sacred Scripture, the homilist uses his own words to proclaim the paschal mystery, “the heartbeat of the Church,” as Pope Francis notes. Christ the preacher becomes the preached.
The homily resists the temptation to scold or rant about a certain topic but serves as a joyful commentary on the day’s scripture readings. This is what the Church Fathers did, and did so beautifully. A good homily is biblical and liturgical, kerygmatic (proclaiming the gospel), contemporary and familiar – the pastoral component with the human touch. It allows the Assembly to apply the message in a personal way.
The homily need not be a masterpiece of soaring elegant prose, but it has to be worked on in prayer and outside of prayer – with Scripture in one hand and a newspaper in the other, so-to-speak. The final result has a certain style, the signature of the homilist. He inspires and rouses the spirit, lights up the intellect, and persuades the will so that it will bear fruit in the life of the listener.
The distinguished American theologian Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J. was no Fulton J. Sheen. Never flashy, never dramatic, his homilies were artfully crafted nonetheless. They were clear and crisp, concise and witty in the unique Dulles way. Not one to moralize, he spoke with conviction. Whether he preached in a cathedral or a chapel, every homily was a gem.
Within these particulars, communal prayer and singing must leave time for silent recollection by celebrant and Assembly. After the Collects, the homily, and the Communion Rite – silence.
Without a measure of liturgical beauty, we have an Assembly that is distracted, restless, and prayerless. As Catholics continue absenting themselves from Sunday Mass, church leaders must address the issue of empty pews. But not all churches face this problem. People who are deeply devoted to the Eucharist will travel to where the “honey” is, spending time, energy, and resources to worship at liturgies, beautifully appointed. These churches are well attended for Sunday worship. The issue of empty pews is a costly problem.
All of which returns us to Yogi Berra’s malaprops, prosaic, off-beat and zig-zag. They offer encouragement for future discussions about various particulars of the liturgy. “The future ain’t what it used to be,” [because] “if the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be." "If the people don’t want to come out to the ballpark [to the liturgy], nobody’s going to stop them; ‘it ain’t over ‘til it’s over.’”