Cantor, Psalmist, and Cleric: The Pastoral Care and Responsibilities of the Soloist Musician

Next to the ministry of priests and deacons, the ministries in parish music—particularly music for Mass—are the most visible in many Catholic communities.  With the advent of the new Missal, … music ministries have the opportunity to become even more important.


On the Second Sunday of Advent, eight days into the new English Missal, the deacon had sung the dismissal, “Go in peace,” and the people had given thanks to God.  The celebrant then wished everyone a good day and told them to drive carefully.  Then the cantor—before the concluding hymn—encouraged everyone to buy copies of the congregational part to the new Mass Ordinary “so that you can learn the new Mass in just ten years instead of twenty-five.”

The story—only one of the many coming from the Church’s lived experience of the renewed English Missal—is illustrative of the problems that musicians and clerics have unintentionally introduced as the English-speaking Church adapts to new translations, and a new “look and feel” of the Mass.  The priest erred by adding unnecessary language after the congregation had been given their commission for a week of service to the Church and world.  The cantor erred by giving a sales pitch, and implying that the new language is problematic.  His ad was “a downer.”

Next to the ministry of priests and deacons, the ministries in parish music—particularly music for Mass—are the most visible in many Catholic communities.  With the advent of the new Missal, which is literally chock-full of chant, music ministries have the opportunity to become even more important to parishes.  Some priests and deacons assigned to those parishes have been taking advantage of this moment in Church history to make improvements that will build up the Church, and evangelize modern culture.  But if a coherent leadership effort is not made in that direction, musicians will drift without guidance into orientations that may not be so edifying, and reduce the parish’s effectiveness in saving souls.

Fortunately, the bishops of the United States have provided an important document to guide the parish leaders in this effort.  Sing to the Lord, published by the USCCB in late 2007, gives the clerical leader much to consider, discuss, pray over, and implement in any parish.  Once it is fully implemented (and that does not mean breaking the parish budget), the community’s worship will more completely fulfill the promise of orthodoxy—right praise—offered to us with the new Missal.

The Love Song of Bride and Bridegroom
First of all, the bishops call attention to the purpose of our song: “music is a way for God to lead us to the realm of higher things.”  What we sing at Mass “is a sign of God’s love for us, and our love for him” (Art. 2).  Quoting Pope Pius XII, they write: “Good music make(s) the liturgical prayers of the Christian community more alive and fervent so that everyone can praise and beseech the Triune God more powerfully, more intently, and more effectively.”  What is celebrated at Mass—the redemptive presence of the incarnate Word transforming Catholics into the divine image—is then translated into the day-to-day presence of those Catholics as agents of evangelism: “Charity, justice, and evangelization are thus the normal consequences of liturgical celebration. Particularly inspired by sung participation, the body of the Word Incarnate goes forth to spread the Gospel with full force and compassion.”

Those who lead liturgical singing, both lay and clerical, must foster this reality.  Bishops, priests, and deacons are addressed first in the document, just before the congregation.  After these, the choir, psalmist, cantor, and “organist, and other instrumentalists” are instructed in their particular roles, and their roles as part of the gathered assembly.  The instruction clearly envisions all of the ministers of music to be acting together to foster the love song between the Church—the Bride, and Jesus Christ—the Bridegroom.

Psalmist and Cantor
Although the bishops admit that, in practice, the psalmist and cantor are often going to be the same person, they insist that the two liturgical functions are different.  It is my experience that the functions are so different that, whenever possible, the music director should schedule two singers for each Mass.  Why is that true?

The psalmist is primarily a minister of the Word.  The psalms used at Mass, primarily the Gradual or responsorial psalm, are an integral part of the Liturgy of the Word.  They are the living Word of God proclaimed to the gathered assembly.  “As 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, the musical setting, and those who are listening” (Art. 35).

This understanding of the need to proclaim effectively the Word of God leads to an inescapable conclusion:  the psalmist must pay far more attention to the text being proclaimed than to the music setting that text.  This is so that the listening assembly may receive the Word without interference from the music.  Logically, this means that the kind of show-tune setting of the psalms often heard from commercial hymnals is totally inappropriate.  The reason for this judgment is that in such settings, the music utterly overwhelms the Word.  I have assisted at, and attended, Masses in which the responsorial psalm text is totally unintelligible, even though the melody is clear.  This is entirely out of line.  Complex or overly ornate melodies and harmonies get in the way of the proclamation.  If a psalm tone is the only way in which the verses of the psalm may be intelligibly proclaimed, then that should be used.  Moreover, any accompaniment should be very light, so that the text can be heard by all.  This means that piano accompaniment, which tends to be loud unless electrified, almost never “works.”

The cantor’s responsibility, on the other hand, is to lead congregational singing.  In so doing, the cantor may work (and rehearse!) with the psalmist to produce an effective result.  The cantor could intone the antiphon to a psalm at communion, for instance, and the psalmist could sing the verses.  In this case, the cantor would then back away from the microphone so that the congregation can sing the refrain.  When hymns are used, the cantor would help the congregation get started, and then, as before, back away from the amplification so that his/her voice is only one of the voices in the congregation.  All of us have been at Masses in which the cantor is practically the only person that can be heard, in which the cantor becomes a soloist.  That leads to the quashing of true engaged participation by the assembly.

Education of the Psalmist and Cantor
The bishops wisely spend several paragraphs teaching about the “leadership and formation” of those involved in music for worship.  Pointedly, they insist that these men and women are more than employees or volunteers.  “They are ministers who share the faith, serve the community, and express the love of God and neighbor through music” (Art. 49).  They must first be considered as disciples who “need to hear the Gospel, experience conversion, profess faith in Christ, and so proclaim the praise of God.”  It stands to reason, then, that these ministers should have regular opportunities for spiritual growth along with professional training.  In fact, a retreat of at least a day should be provided for them, and required of them, each year.

In the line of professional training, the bishops are clear: “Preparation for music ministry should include appropriate human formation, spiritual formation, intellectual formation, and pastoral formation.  Bishops and pastors should encourage liturgical musicians to take part in ministerial formation opportunities offered by universities, colleges, seminaries, ministry formation programs, dioceses, and national ministry associations. Parishes and dioceses should provide the financial support needed to ensure competent liturgical musical leadership.”

Do cantors and psalmists need a music or theology degree?  The clear answer is “no.”  The psalmist is, for the purposes of comparison, a lector who can chant.  The cantor is a choir member who can lead (and stand back and just sing once the singing begins).  However, the psalmist should study the theological and liturgical underpinnings of the psalms and canticles, and the cantor should study the underpinnings of responsorial prayer and hymnody.

All liturgical musicians should have a basic familiarity with the Catechism, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM), and the relevant documents on liturgy and music.  This can be done either through study groups, online courses, or formal classes.

But the best way to educate these parish ministers is for the diocese, or a consortium of parishes, to employ professional liturgical musicians from local colleges, universities, or other centers of learning to offer this training and continuing education.

Payment or Covenant?
When a single person is cantor, psalmist, and organizer of the music for many Masses, it creates a heavy burden on that person.  This is one of the reasons where I recommend that the cantor and psalmist be different persons, chosen for their ability in the specific ministry.  While ideally all ministers of the Mass are volunteers who offer their talents in the spirit of the Gospel, this situation can cause the sort of conflict that I have encountered on multiple occasions.

“He who pays the piper calls the tune.”  If nobody is paying, then the liturgical musician believes that he is his own boss, and need not be accountable to anyone.  The parish can set up a workshop for continuing education, and nobody shows up.  The parish can create effective guidelines for music ministry, and nobody pays attention to them.

There are, in practice, only two solutions to this problem.  The first is to pay for the services rendered, and pay adequately enough so that the parish can count on the obedience of this now employed person.  That means a minimum of twenty-five dollars per hour of service and rehearsal, something beyond many parishes’ means.

The second solution is to offer, and expect, a written covenant between the music minister and the parish clergy.  The clergy offer the support, encouragement, and limited resources of the parish to the musician.  This constitutes tuition for continuing education, regular spiritual enrichment, and access to discussions on matters, liturgical and musical, with the clergy.  In return, the musician offers regular services at Mass, a commitment to spiritual growth that may include spiritual direction, and acquiescence to reasonable requests for professional development.  This covenant should be executed in a formal religious service, ideally a Sunday Mass, so that it can be witnessed by parishioners, especially others that may be suited to music ministry.  When they see the commitment of the ministers and the support of the clergy, they will be encouraged to value the ministries more highly, and participate themselves more enthusiastically.

Young people in the parish—and that means high school and college students—should be offered the opportunity to learn these ministries in the parish.  One of the senior musicians or clergy could take on the responsibility of training these young adults in the Liturgy, and help them learn about sung prayer.  A valuable way to do both is for them to participate in the sung Liturgy of the Hours, particularly Lauds and Vespers.  In fact, it is my experience that any educational or training session is best begun, or ended, with the sung Office.

The introduction of the new Missal has offered the Church a unique opportunity to improve the engaged participation of every member of the parish, lay and clerical alike.  Enhancing the roles of psalmist and cantor can be an effective part of such improvement.

Deacon W. Patrick Cunningham About Deacon W. Patrick Cunningham

Deacon Pat Cunningham was ordained in 2002 and recently celebrated twenty years of diaconal service. He is retired from Catholic school teaching and administration but still serves part-time at St. Pius X parish in San Antonio, TX. He has been married to Carolyn since 1971; they have three daughters and ten grandchildren.


  1. This article talks about everything in music ministry except the most important: the Propers of the Mass. Music for the Mass is integral only if it’s the Propers that are being used and not the pop-songs that most “music ministries” use for Mass. The Propers are the prayers of the Mass. They should be used. They should be chanted. There are sites in the Web, manned by volunteers where the Propers have been set to chant music, yet parishes continue to subscribe to publishers of feminized pop songs that have little to do with the prayers of the Mass. Until the Propers are properly used at Mass, the Mass stays anemic and uninspired.

  2. My parish just merged with another parish, our building was retired and we are now in the new parish building. This new parish has a choir in the rear and a cantor on the altar. This is the first time I’ve ever belonged to a parish with a cantor and quite frankly I find it annoying. Ever 5 minutes he is standing up raising his hand to ask us to sing some part of the liturgy that I already know. ( do I really need help singing amen!) it’s often like a personal performance and very distracting from the sacrifice of the Mass. I’ll be honest today after 3 Sundays of this… I am seriously thinking of changing parishes. Why does the have to be a cantor at all, direction can be given by the choir, why can’t he be with the choir.

  3. Another article on how it should be as far as the musical environment at Mass is concerned. Another article to be ignored by almost all priests and bishops.


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