Music Ministry – Tip #2: Receive Communion with the Assembly

Here is one simple thing you can do to make your parish’s celebration of Mass even better: Share in Communion when the Assembly is sharing Communion.

walkLong ago, when I was still a baby music minister, our choir would finish the last note of the Lamb of God, then we would start to line up at a side aisle to receive Communion before we began the Communion song. The assembly spoke their response “Lord, I am not worthy…” and we’d be up there first in line to receive Communion. So the Communion song didn’t start for quite some time until the whole choir was back in its place.

More recently, I’ve seen the opposite happen. The choir would start singing after the assembly’s response (right away, we would hope) and finish the Communion song as the last of the assembly shared in Communion. Then the entire choir would line up for Communion, receiving Communion from the ministers who came to them. Most of the time, there would be silence while the choir received, or a lone musician would remain behind to play an instrumental, or a soloist would sing a “mediation song” (we’ll talk about this next week).

Are these efficient ways to distribute Communion to the choir? Yes. Are they effective ways to do the Communion Rite well? No. Here’s why.

Delaying or stopping the Communion Song while the choir receives Communion teaches three things that we might not want taught:

  1. It teaches that the ministry of music does not belong to the assembly but to the choir. Thus, when the choir is occupied with another action, for example, receiving Communion, music does not happen;
  2. It teaches that the choir is a separate group from the assembly since it receives Communion apart from the time the assembly receives; and
  3. It teaches that one cannot walk and sing at the same time.

Let’s look at these three things more closely.

To whom does the ministry of music belong? According to Liturgical Music Today, the US Bishops’ 1982 companion document to Music in Catholic Worship (1972), “The entire worshiping assembly exercises a ministry of music” (LMT, 63). Therefore, even if there were no choir, no cantor, or no song leader, there should still be music at Mass, even a cappella. The assembly is not exempted from exercising their ministry of music simply because a choir is present. Therefore, especially during the Communion song—whose purpose “is to express the communicants’ union in spirit by means of the unity of their voices, to show joy of heart, and to highlight more clearly the ‘communitarian’ nature of the procession to receive Communion” (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 86)—it is the assembly who sings while the choir “adds beauty and solemnity to the liturgy and also assists and encourages the singing of the congregation” (Music in Catholic Worship, 36). When the choir delays or stops the Communion song in order to receive Communion, they subtly communicate that the assembly’s voices are secondary to theirs.

Liturgical Music Today goes on to say that

the church musician is first a disciple and then a minister. The musician belongs first of all to the assembly; he or she is a worshiper above all. Like any member of the assembly, the pastoral musician needs to be a believer, needs to experience conversion, needs to hear the Gospel and so proclaim the praise of God. Thus, the pastoral musician is not merely an employee or volunteer. He or she is a minister, someone who shares faith, serves the community, and expresses the love of God and neighbor through music. (64)

(Wow! Every music minister needs to tape that quote to their bathroom mirror, their guitar case, their music stand, their choir folder, and pray it every day!)

So, if the assembly is the primary music minister, and if we are first assembly members and musicians second, then we need to do what the assembly does—that is, receive Communion when the assembly receives Communion, not before or after. We are not a separate group apart from the assembly at this moment.

Finally, the GIRM says, “The singing is continued for as long as the Sacrament is being administered to the faithful” (86). If we, music ministers, are members of the faithful, the singing continues while we, ourselves, are receiving Communion. We cannot lament that the assembly doesn’t sing the Communion song if we don’t model it for them as we share in Communion.

Okay, you might be thinking that I’m encouraging bad manners and advocating that we chew, drink, and sing all at the same time! Not so. Common sense always rules. All I’m saying is that we, music ministers, can certainly sing while we walk in procession for Communion. If we need to be glued to our sheet music in order to sing, then we’re probably singing a poorly chosen Communion song, because it should be one the assembly can sing simply, by heart, even if only the refrain. And, if it’s a really good song, it could be one that can be sung without accompaniment, at least for a few moments while the accompanists also share in Communion.

The assembly at the Santa Clara Mission a couple of Sundays ago did this very well. The music ministry chose a song that obviously the assembly knew very well. As the choir was receiving Communion toward the end of the assembly’s procession, I expected the assembly to stop singing. But no! The assembly continued quite strongly with another verse of the song, all on their own! It was a nice moment when we in the assembly heard and supported each other with our voices.

At diocesan liturgies, I send the choir to the closest Communion station in the middle of the song. The choir director, cantor, and instrumentalists remain to support the assembly’s singing. All the while, the choir is encouraged to sing during their Communion procession. Once the choir has returned to their places, the choir director goes to a nearby Communion minister to receive Communion. She returns and leads the choir while the cantor receives Communion. Toward the end of the distribution of Communion to the assembly, we might sing a few refrains a cappella while the instrumentalists share in Communion. This process has worked very well for these liturgies.

Experiment with your own logistics, and see if you can improve this moment of the Communion Rite.

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