Pastoral musicians share stories of resilience and ingenuity in the midst of a pandemic


New Orleans – One of the unwritten rules of congregation behavior during the celebration of Mass relies heavily on the virtues of silence and contemplation, even when a catchy hymn sung masterfully by a choir or cantor might encourage Catholics to applaud. as if they were at a concert.

But as people deprived of personal contact with the Eucharist began to return to Mass after the almost total closure of public Masses during the 2020 pandemic, those rules may have been changed, said Jennifer Kluge, executive director. of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians.

The association represents 3,500 cantors, instrumentalists and choristers in the Catholic dioceses of the United States.

“I have heard several stories of congregations applauding at the end of the liturgy, and, at least in my experience, this is something I had never experienced before,” Kluge said at the annual conference. of the organization in New Orleans July 27-30.

“When an ensemble or choir does a concert, you would expect it, but when they literally applaud your contribution to the liturgy, it’s a surprise,” she said. “I heard people say to me after mass, ‘Thank you very much for being here. You have made the liturgy so much richer. ‘ So there is absolutely an appreciation for us. “

After hosting a virtual convention last summer in the throes of the pandemic, the National Association of Pastoral Musicians returned to an in-person conference that drew 540 music ministers to New Orleans, with 260 others entering the workshops. and other online presentations.

One of the highlights was the presentation of the MNP Pastoral Musician of the Year award to Richard Cheri, director of the Our Lady Star of the Sea parish choir in New Orleans, who also led the choir. of Archdiocesan gospel music for the past 37 years.

“It means a lot because it validates a whole bunch of firsts for me,” said Cheri, whose compositions for “Good Ground” and the responsorial psalm “Teach Me Your Way, O Lord” have received a lot of praise. “My pride and joy have been the musicians I have brought together to teach our music across the country.”

Kluge said that while 2020 was filled with challenges for choirs – some were closed for fear of spreading the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, through close contact with each other – she was amazed by the stories of resilience and ingenuity.

“It was really from Maine to Spain,” Kluge said of the various restrictions placed by civil authorities in various parts of the country on indoor gatherings for the celebration of Mass. “One of the silver liners of the pandemic for pastoral musicians is that we’ve always been used to thinking about standing and pivoting. When someone misses a cue, you do things to help them get back in. rhythm, you just keep singing.

“Our members were perfectly suited to understand how to do a live broadcast, how to determine camera angles, how to find out what technology our ward needs to serve the faithful.”

One of the common challenges for 2021, said Kluge, has been to reform choirs that have been disbanded.

“Some people still don’t feel comfortable coming back, so how can a director polish things up with so many singers who haven’t performed in 18 months?” Kluge said. “How to recreate this? How can we [at NPM] serve as ministers of a community that is fractured? “

One of the difficult realities has been the budget layoffs of music ministers in many parishes due to declining contributions during the pandemic, Kluge said. But the common wisdom holds true as parishes seek to recover: parishes that offer great homilies, great hospitality, and good music are usually the ones that thrive.

“People come to a particular parish because of a priest and his homilies and because the music is good,” she said. “And they leave some parishes because they don’t like homilies and the music is bad.”

Betty-Ann Hickey, local conference coordinator, said the Archdiocese of New Orleans has diligently tried to maintain the vitality of the music ministry “because music is an integral part of the liturgy.”

“So even in places where we stopped singing in congregation, we still had instrumental music and a singing cantor,” Hickey told the Clarion Herald, the Archdiocese of New Orleans newspaper.

As the occasional cantor of her hometown parish of St. Bartholomew in Bethesda, Md., Kluge said she has gotten used to singing in church behind a plexiglass shield hanging in front of her microphone.

“Even when we are limited to a pianist and a single cantor, it represents our mission and helps bring the importance of this ministerial role to the congregation,” Kluge said.

In the coming months, Kluge hopes the choir members will be able to rebuild their voices that haven’t been used much over the past year. A member of the MNP suggested that the choir directors could interrupt the rehearsal time with an explanation of the role of music in the liturgy.

“It’s a chance to form our choirs in a deeper way and give them vocal rest,” she said. “It would serve a dual purpose because we train them better and help them rebuild their voice.”

Recruiting new members starts with an invitation, she said.

“In my experience in managing volunteers, it’s always about asking,” Kluge said. “Rarely does a volunteer show up who are not asked. It’s someone who says: ‘Come join us!’ “

[Peter Finney is executive editor/general manager of the Clarion Herald, newspaper of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.]

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