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    A View from the Pew

    Choir, Cantor, Psalmist: Leaders of Sung Prayer 

    In a recent conversation with a pastoral musician, Natalie and I discussed the array of liturgical musical treatments within Catholic worship. Several of her questions caused me re-read and reflect on sections of Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship, the handbook for pastoral musicians.

    “What is the role of the cantor? Does that person lead the singing of the psalm? And if the choir sings, does a congregation need a cantor?” Natalie asked.

    Great questions, Natalie. Sing to the Lord (STL) contains very specific directives for all three roles – the choir, cantor and psalmist, as well the role of music directors, organists and ensemble players and other ministers of the liturgy. Since my View from the Pew sojourn began several months ago, the role of the cantor (STL # 37 -40) seems to be the chameleon within Catholic worship, employing a myriad of models that solicits examination of the variety and styles employed within Catholic music ministry. Let’s take a look at what I’ve seen so far in my travels:

    Some musicians lead assembly song from an organ, piano or guitar (STL # 41-47).

    Other music principals double as the director of the choir, which “leads the primary song of the Liturgy” (STL # 28) in “generally unrehearsed community singing” (STL # 28), and who acts as the animator of the assembly while directing the choir.

    A few presbyters who possess musical gifts actually lead assembly song while presiding at worship, with the assistance of a well-rehearsed choir and its director.

    Several musicians single-handedly lead their assemblies from a choir loft (sans choir) with organ accompaniment and without a physical presence or simulation of a cantor within the people’s sight.


    Additionally, the role of the psalmist ( STL # 34-36) seems to be missing in action in every parish, suggesting that those who utilize gifted cantors - trained singers who possess “the ability for singing and a facility in correct pronunciation and diction” (STL # 35) couple the role of the cantor with that of the psalmist. These two distinct functions within Catholic worship include similar musical and liturgical components but contain dichotomies that beg exploration and integrate the question of the role of the choir within the conversation.

    In Diana Kodner’s excellent book Handbook for Cantors, the author tells us that two basic schools evolved around the role of the cantor. The first model positions the role as an animator, a leader of sung prayer that encourages the “full, active and conscious participation” (Constitution of the Sacred Liturgy # 14) of the participants of the liturgy – the people. Leaders of songs may be the choir or a cantor. Note the words ‘may’ and ‘or’. Sing to the Lord specifically states that “when no choir is present, the cantor may sing in alternation or dialogue with the assembly.” (STL # 37) From my perspective, that means that a choir serves as the cantor, which exercises its ministry by promoting the sung worship of the people through their sung dialogue in acclamations and hymns “ appropriate to the Liturgy” (STL # 30) in musical and collaborative sung praise with the assembly.

    The second model positions the role of the cantor closely to the Jewish tradition of the cantor as  “the singer of holy songs who offers prayers to God on behalf of the community.” (Kodner, p. 3) STL takes this point of view one step further and instructs that the “psalmist, or “cantor of the psalm,” proclaims the Psalm after the first reading and leads the gather assembly in singing the refrain. The psalmist may also, when necessary, intone the Gospel Acclamation and verse. Although this ministry is distinct from the role of the cantor, the two ministries are often entrusted to the same person.” (STL 34)

    STL states further: “As the one who proclaims the Word, the psalmist should be able to proclaim the text of the Psalm with clarity, conviction, and sensitivity to the text (Liturgical), the musical setting (Musical) , and those who are listening (Pastoral).” (STL #35). Bingo. There are the Three Judgments of Sing to the Lord, all spelled out.

    Let’s revisit Natalie’s questions within this brief examination and answer them within the perimeters of STL.

    “What is the role of the cantor?” The cantor is a singer and leader of congregational song. (STL # 37) The cantor animates the assembly to do their ‘work’ within a liturgical context – to sing songs and hymns of praise to God. According to Sing to the Lord, the cantor should preferably be a choir, (STL #28-33) but may be a single person who “can be seen by all without drawing attention from the liturgical action.” (STL #39) When the assembly knows the music, “The cantor need not be visible.” (STL #39)

    Does that person lead the singing of the psalm?” The psalmist, or “cantor of the psalm” proclaims the Psalm after the first reading and leads the gathered assembly in singing the refrain.” (STL #34) The role should be distinct and performed by a competent, well trained singer with the necessary skills that move a listening (not reading!) assembly to prayer and their response to that prayer.  

     “If the choir sings, does a congregation need a cantor?” Nowhere in Sing to the Lord does it state that a cantor must assist a choir to lead a singing assembly. If a well trained choir leads well,  a congregation will respond with the fruit of good musical, pastoral and liturgical labor – robust assembly song and profound prayer.


    STL: Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship, USCCB, ©2007.

    Handbook for Cantors, Diana Kodner. Liturgy Training Publications ©1997.