For Byzantine Catholics, the chance to participate in liturgy is an opportunity to experience heaven on earth, according to John Michalski, the cantor at St. Nicholas of Myra Byzantine Catholic Church in Anchorage.
Because of the sacredness of the Mass, almost the entire liturgy in the Byzantine rite is sung or chanted.
"This is to set the tone and speed and create an atmosphere of prayer," Michalski explained to the Catholic Anchor. "When the priest chants the Gospel, it is meant to do it slower to communicate clearly the message of God to everyone."
For Doctor Ron Kichura, who cantors north of Anchorage at Blessed Theodore Romzha Mission in Wasilla, Byzantine rite music "moves like a conversation with God."
Chanted prayer, rich in prayer
To walk into a Byzantine church is to walk into a rich tradition, steeped in a sense of the sacred.
In the way that St. Gregory the Great influenced the Gregorian chant in the Western churches, the liturgy in the Eastern rites — including the Byzantine Catholic rite — is based primarily on the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chyrsostom throughout much of the year, and also on St. Basil’s.
"Right now as we move into the Great Fast (the Byzantine observance of Lent) our liturgy is based on St. Basil," Michalski explained. "That liturgy is a bit longer, more somber in tone and focused on prayer."
The more somber tone heard during the Great Fast of Lent is one of eight musical melodies that are used throughout the year, Michalski elaborated.
The melodies rise and fall in a chanting form, Kichura explained, and are sung either in monotone or with harmonization, depending on the church and the cantor. In keeping with the Byzantine tradition, the music is entirely vocal, with no musical instruments.
"We’ve had some requests (at Blessed Theodore) to do harminzations, but if we do, it’s more of an impromptu thing," Kichura said. "It’s all acappella, that’s just a tradition for Byzantine Catholics over the centuries."
Since the fourth century, the music has remained relatively unchanged, he added.
"Vatican II allowed the Byzantine rite to keep their liturgies and their traditions," he said. "The biggest change is that it switched over to the vernacular, instead of Old Slavonic."
In 2007, the Byzantine rite made some minor revisions to the translations again, releasing a new missal, Michalski said.
Apart from prayers for the Pope, the Byzantine metropolitan and the bishop of the local eparchy, the liturgy of the Byzantine rite is similar in form to what one might experience in other Eastern Christian traditions, such as the Russian or Greek Orthodox Church.
Everyone participates in music
Both Michalski and Kichura emphasize the importance of getting the entire congregation to participate in the liturgical music.
"There is less of an emphasis on a choir," Kichura said. "Rather, it is supposed to be music that everyone participates in, rather than having a choir where people don’t participate."
"When I teach (cantors) I tell them their role is not to be a soloist," Michalski said. "Rather, their goal is to set the tone to clearly communicate the message of God."
Both cantors said the music is organic; the congregation picks up the music by participating in the liturgy.
"We do it naturally, you hear it every Sunday and you just do it," Kichura said. "There is a reverence about it that people appreciate."
Music as a spiritual experience
Kichura has an undergraduate degree in music. For him, the goal of music — even secular — is something that should lead people to the ethereal.
"Music for me has always been a spiritual experience," he said. "It is something that should bring you closer to God."
Singing the liturgical prayers — especially in the slower chant form — helps people to meditate on what they are reading, Michalski said.
"It helps you really feel what you are singing," he said. "If you go slow and say the words distinctively and clearly, it helps you realize what you are here for."
Dr. Kichura would encourage people not familiar with the Byzantine rite to come and experience it for themselves.
"It is a resource that people can tap into, even if they go to a different church," he said. "They might find the style appealing, it may even (help) lead in their spiritual path."
Printed with permission from the Catholic Anchor, newspaper from the Diocese of Anchorage.