Re-Reading Sacrosanctum Concilium: Article 29

Vatican Website translation:

29. Servers, lectors commentators, and members of the choir also exercise a genuine liturgical function. They ought, therefore, to discharge their office with the sincere piety and decorum demanded by so exalted a ministry and rightly expected of them by God’s people.
Consequently they must all be deeply imbued with the spirit of the liturgy, each in his own measure, and they must be trained to perform their functions in a correct and orderly manner.

Latin text:

29. Etiam ministrantes, lectores, commentatores et ii qui ad scholam cantorum pertinent, vero ministerio liturgico funguntur. Propterea munus suum tali sincera pietate et ordine exerceant, quae tantum ministerium decent quaeque populus Dei ab eis iure exigit.
Ideo oportet eos spiritu Liturgiae, suo cuiusque modo, sedulo imbui, et ad partes suas rite et ordinate obeundas institui.

Slavishly literal translation:

29. Those serving, readers, commentators, and those who relate to the schola of singers also perform a liturgical ministry. Therefore they should exercise their office/task with that sincere piety and order that befits such a ministry and that the people of God properly expect of them.

Therefore it is necessary for them, each according to his own [proper] mode, to be profoundly filled with the spirit of the Liturgy and to be instructed for performing their [proper] parts correctly and in a[n] [well-]ordered fashion.


From a general consideration of how all liturgical ministers, ordained and non-ordained, are to manifest the hierarchical and communitarian character of the liturgy as signs, the Council Fathers turn their attention to liturgical ministry exercised by the non-ordained. It is significant that they declare that servers, lectors, commentators, and music ministers exercise a genuine liturgical function and are not simply substitutes for clerics, when said clerics are unavailable. Most probably this declaration comes from a deepened understanding of the role of baptism (and confirmation) as foundational to all liturgical ministry.

We can trace the development of this thinking in the case of choir members from Tra le sollecitudini (1903) that declared in its article 12: “With the exception of the melodies proper to the celebrant at the altar and to the ministers, which must be always sung in Gregorian Chant, and without accompaniment of the organ, all the rest of the liturgical chant belongs to the choir of levites, and, therefore, singers in the church, even when they are laymen, are really taking the place of the ecclesiastical choir.” From this it was deduced that a genuinely liturgical choir could only consist of men and boys, since only they were potential clerics, legislation technically in force until the 1958 Instruction on Sacred Music and Liturgy. SC art. 28 makes it clear that both men and women (presumably by reason of their baptism [and confirmation]) exercise a genuine liturgical function when they exercise music ministry.

Having clarified the genuine ministry exercised by non-ordained members of the baptized, the Council Fathers turn their attention to the proper intellectual and spiritual formation for servers, readers, commentators, and those in music ministry.

Pray Tell readers may wish to reflect on how these non-ordained liturgical ministries have developed and been exercised over the past fifty years. (E.g., the role of the commentator, presumably important to help worshipers engage the Latin language liturgy “fully, consciously and actively” at the time of the Council, has almost completely disappeared from liturgical celebrations in the vernacular.) They may also wish to discuss what kinds of formation are available for these non-ordained ministries and how effective they have been in inculcating liturgical piety and imparting practical knowledge of the rites.


  1. I haven’t seen a commentator since the early days of the liturgical renewal. There is a need at weddings, funerals and baptisms (i.e. gatherings of people who don’t belong to the parish / are not Catholic / do not go to church very frequently) to instruct people to sit and stand at the appropriate moments, and perhaps to reiterate the Catholic rules on who can receive communion. But the celebrant typically provides whatever instructions and explanations are necessary.

    I suppose, given the GIRM’s explanation of the commentator’s duties in 105.b., it could be inferred that it is *not* the celebrant’s role to do any commentating. The celebrant would confine himself to saying the black and doing the red, and in adherence to the principle in GIRM 91,”All, therefore, whether ordained ministers or lay Christian faithful, in fulfilling their function or their duty, should carry out solely but totally that which pertains to them”, that celebrants are positively erring in doing what a commentator is supposed to do, just as a celebrant would be erring in proclaiming the first reading or leading the psalm.

    1. @Jim Pauwels – comment #1:

      I haven’t seen a commentator since the early days of the liturgical renewal.

      Perhaps you haven’t been to a Spanish-language Mass in the US, where the commentator is alive and well, giving a spoken introduction to every Mass and occasionally intervening at other times.

      1. @Paul Inwood – comment #11:

        I’ve been to about a dozen Spanish language Masses in the US (in the diocese of Los Angeles, the diocese of Brooklyn, the Archdiocese of Washington, and the Archdiocese of New York, and the diocese of Bridgeport. None has had a commentator. So it’s hardly “alive and well” everywhere.

  2. Can’t help myself here: any mention of commentator in the liturgy gets me on my soap box. Just as the commentator disappeared for good reasons – mainly, that the congregation learned its part – can’t we now abolish song leading? Not cantoring, but song leading. Congregations don’t need to see a gesture after stanza one inviting them to sing stanza two of a hymn. Do we really think they’ll stop singing? Outstretched arms by a song leader do nothing to encourage participation. Does a congregation really need a signal to enter on the psalm refrain after the cantor sings a verse? I’d actually welcome a cantor who can serve as a choral conductor, getting the congregation to breathe and enter, but most cantors simply raise their hand at the end of the verse in no relation to the tempo or entrance. Does a cantor really need to sing the psalm refrain with the congregation, thereby taking both parts of the responsorial/dialogue form? (Has any presider ever answered himself on The Lord be with you. And with your spirit?) The cantor has his/her part, the congregation has theirs. Does any congregation not know what to do when they hear the four chord intro to the Mass of Creation Amen? The congregation should be in dialogue with the presider for the doxology/great amen: why is a cantor suddenly interrupting the dialogue with gestures and voice? (Thanks to Pray Tell poster KV for this point.) I don’t need to see a cantor gesture for the congregation to stand after the Great Amen, I don’t need to hear a cantor speak or sing “Lord, hear our prayer” into a microphone for the Prayers of the Faithful. I don’t need to be told to “join our hearts and voices in our communion processional, number…” My point: we still have an awful lot of “commentating” going on; its simply being done by a cantor, not a commentator. Song leading still unnecessarily abounds while true cantoring – well prepared psalm verses, purposeful occasional gestures, and the ability to determine if the congregation needs help – is sadly lacking in…

    1. @Michael Silhavy – comment #2:
      Several of your complaints are addressed in the USCCB’s Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship. In Section II, The Church at Prayer, under the category of cantor:

      “As a leader of congregational song, the cantor should take part in singing with the entire gathered assembly. In order to promote the singing of the liturgical assembly, the cantor’s voice should not be heard above the congregation, As a transitional practice, the voice of the cantor might need to be amplified to stimulate and lead congregational singing when this is still weak. However, as the congregaton finds its voice and sings with increasing confidence, the cantor’s voice should correspondingly recede. At times, it may be appropriate to use a modest gesture that invites participation and clearly indicates where the congregation is to begin, but gestures should be used sparingly and only when genuinely needed.” (E, 38)

      Another section of the document notes that a choir does not lead congregational singing, but sings with the assembly “on its own or under the leadership of the organ or other instruments.” (E, 31)

      I went to a great cantoring workshop last summer, led by Sr. Kathleen Harmon, and we discussed how these (gesturing) practices had hung on long after they were needed. We noted that part of the goal of a good cantor is to make him-or herself obsolescent, by helping to develop an assembly enthusiastic for singing. As is the case with many ministries, it’s an issue of continued catechesis.

      To your complaint about a cantor announcing song numbers: that issue came up in our workshop as well. Several attendees confessed that they couldn’t actually read the hymn number board at their church, so, without that commentary, would never know what hymn was about to be sung!

  3. When I was in college I experimented with service as a lector. One day, the sacristan at a noontime Mass asked if I wanted to lector. Reluctantly, I did so. I was such a “hit” that soon I was asked to lector nearly every day I attended Mass at this chapel.

    Service as a lector stirred within me an unhealthy ego gratification. I have had many opportunities for public speaking since, such as teaching and oral examinations. Even so, the experience of being a lector brought about a certain pride which I have not yet felt while engaged in other forms of public speech. “Certainly,” I thought, “reading at Mass will severely impair my spiritual life.” I chose to attend Mass at another chapel where seminarians performed their instituted roles as lectors.

    After this experience as a lector I have often wondered if part of the discernment process for any lay ministry position should include guided reflection on whether or not a person wishes to be a lay minister for reasons of pride or ego gratification. Perhaps these emotions are normal reactions for lay liturgical ministers or even the cross of lay liturgical ministry.

    1. @Jordan Zarembo – comment #3:
      Not just for lay ministers. But for clerics, and pastors, and bishops. With people not vested in the results of the decision in charge of vetting.

      1. @Bill deHaas – comment #6:

        Thank you, Bill.

        Perhaps this thread strikes at the heart of my dissatisfaction with the praxis of liturgical reform. I do not wish to disparage versus populum celebration. I have attended Masses said by clergy who have mastered the ability to say Mass facing the people while effecting a certain transparency. “Transparency” connotes the ability of the celebrant to sublimate the temptation to interject himself into the presentation of the gifts and the eucharistic prayer. The best-known example of this I have encountered was Avery Cardinal Dulles, who celebrated daily said Mass with a complete focus on the action of the Mass.

        Yet, this is not the norm. Perhaps the ability to “disappear behind” the liturgy is a gift relatively few prelates possess. Certainly also, many temptations towards egotism also exist in ad orientem celebration. For example, certain affectations such as a exaggerated bows draw undue attention to the celebrant during ad orientem celebration. The issue is not liturgical orientation but disposition.

        Certainly few wish to return to the preconciliar Low Mass, where priests irreverently sped through the Mass. A twenty minute said Tridentine Mass with communion is an example of arrogance. Yet, arrogance is also an egotism, even if it is a mirror of a more narcissistic manifestation.

        I do not envy priests because of the manifest temptations for narcissism, for egotism. This alone has dissuaded me from seminary, even if I were able to attend. A priest friend of mine once told me that a celebrant should disappear into the “folds of the Mass”, as if he were at once enveloped by and the facilitator of liturgy. This, I suspect, is a most difficult aspect of ministry.

      2. @Jordan Zarembo – comment #7:

        Do you recognize the irony in holding up Dulles as an example of “transparency”? No one can be an example of “transparency.” If you can discern the person, they are not transparent; if they are transparent, it is not because of what they do.

        You have a preference for a particular style of celebrating which Dulles admirably exemplifies. Not every priest is given that particular gift, nor should they be. What is to be celebrated is every gift God gives. That IMO is the route to transparency, not the suppression of personal gifts that you seem to advocate.

        God the giver, not us the misusers is to be the focus.

      3. @Jim McKay – comment #8:

        Thank you Jim for these points. I agree that the mere mention of Cdl. Dulles renders the “transparent” as “opaque”.

        Perhaps I would do better to say that I have often dismissed some priests who strike me as overly demonstrative as insincere. As you note, this could be their genuine temperament and not a conscious decision. Cdl. Dulles celebrated Mass in a very non-demonstrative and rubrically precise style. I agree that I should not uphold this as a standard for clergy or lay ministers, even if I am much more comfortable when a celebrant says Mass in this way.

  4. Since I am interested in voluntarism, Jordan has opened an interesting topic. How do we personally discern what ministries are appropriate for us? What is the role of others in the parish in discerning who should be involved in what ministries?

    Like Jordan, let me share a few of my experiences in the hope that others will share theirs and begin to provide us with some data to think about.

    My practice in joining a new parish has been to join the choir, largely because I like to sing. I am just an average singer who can’t sight read music. While I will likely be appreciated as another voice, I am not going to become a cantor, or let people down if I no longer want to be in the choir. It is also a kind of “not seeking the highest place, let others discern your talents” strategy. In one parish it led to being asked to be a member of the voluntary pastoral staff within a year.

    When I am asked to do something in a parish my general reaction is “let Joe do it.” Are there other people who could just as easily do this, and do a good job?. When the pastor asked me to be a member of the voluntary pastoral staff, he said I could be either the liturgy person or what I called the organizational development person. He accurately perceived my talents for both and he did not have a lot of other choices. However the woman religious could continue to be the liturgy person; and I was fascinated with the opportunity to apply my social science talents to a parish. The pastor had done a very good job of evaluating the needs of the parish and my talents especially since he had done most of that indirectly through people who knew me in the parish choir. Pastor, pastoral staff, parish members and I had all contributed to the discernment without a lot of formal time and effort.

    During my time on pastoral staff several of my fellow staff members approached me separately about becoming a deacon. I was shocked (not as shocked as when a woman religious once mistook me for a priest) and I asked them why. They wanted me to preach. I replied that while I liked to teach; did they want a 50 minute lecture each Sunday? That settled that. I still wondered why they ever got such an idea. It came from our staff practice of spending considerable time sharing our own prayer lives. In my case these were little prayer services of readings and recorded music with my commentary interweaved (a kind of homily).

    From these and other experiences I am convinced that the gift of discerning (electing) ministers is alive and well in our people, and might make us a better church than relying solely upon either our own thinking and desires and/or those of our pastors.

    Although people can be very helpful informally in giving their opinions, experiences with “group discernment” have been very disappointing. Very low levels of candor! In one case two persons declared their interest in the job. The pastor asked for the opinions of others, e.g. what was needed in the position; dead silence for several minutes. He said he could work with either candidate. Dead silence for several more minutes. One candidate then withdrew!

  5. At a recent Sunday Mass a boy of about 11 years was the sole acolyte. He didn’t catch my attention until it became obvious that he was apparently clueless about when to ring the sanctus bells. He sounded them several times throughout the Eucharistic Prayer, seemingly at random.

    The priest raised an eyebrow a couple of times and furrowed his brows at least once…I thought, “well, training really should be better…or the kids should be allowed to use a crib, perhaps written on a forearm…”

    Then, as the boy discharged his post-communion duties in a studied slovenly manner, walking about like Groucho Marx, the obvious at last dawned on me: he was trying to get fired.

  6. Certainly few wish to return to the preconciliar Low Mass, where priests irreverently sped through the Mass. A twenty minute said Tridentine Mass with communion is an example of arrogance.

    It has very little to do with the preconcilar Low Mass and very much to do with priests being lazy/arogant, something that wasn’t changed by the Vatican II reforms! Many priests are very happy to speed through the new rite of Mass as well, omitting required parts (Gloria, Creed, Lavabo), not doing too much music because it will slow things down too much, omitting the homily on days it is required, always choosing the short readings for time’s sake, using vast armies of unnecessary Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion, etc. etc.

    1. @Samuel J. Howard – comment #14:

      Sam, you are completely correct. I just cited the example of irreverent EF low Masses as but one example of the way in which poor celebration might reveal something about a priest’s nature.

      Priests who wish to say a “fast Mass” can now do so reverently in the ordinary form. Indeed, I have seen priests say a said OF with EP II in 20-25 minutes, including communion and a two or three minute sermon. Certainly a benefit of the OF is the ability to say Mass quickly and with clear enunciation.

  7. In my experience as a cantor and trainer of cantors, announcing song numbers is sometimes a necessary evil. If your congregation is especially well-attuned to what is coming next (perhaps a daily Mass crowd, an intentional community, a monastic or other religious setting, etc) it may be enough to simply post the numbers on a hymn board or in a program. People know when it is time to sing, and they do so without prompting. But if you serve in a large suburban parish like mine, with crowds of people with varying degrees of knowing the score, it is necessary. I’ve tried this in many combinations, and many congregations need that prompting, “hey, pick up your book and sing now.”

    I’ve tried to strike a balance between prompting people and excessive blabber. Our opening announcement is fairly robust. “Good morning/evening. [pause] Our processional hymn is found in the blue hymnal, number 4-6-9, God is Love, number 4-6-9. Please stand.” On occasions with many visitors, we add such information as where to find the order of Mass, where to find hearing assist devices, restrooms, please turn off your cell phone, etc.

    But after that, we keep the announcements very brief: “Number 6-2-8, Blest Are They, number 6-2-8.” No need to tell them “our song for the preparation of the gifts is…” or say over and over, “can be found in the blue hymnal.” And please, never ever, “please join me/us in singing…” Major pet peeve!

  8. Many times unnecessary verbal instructions could be minimized with some creativity.

    A local parish begins the Mass by having a hand bell ringer sound slowly and repeatedly a very deep sounding hand bell. Unfortunately this beautiful beginning is followed by the accompanist saying “Please rise, face the center aisle, and acknowledging that we are the Body of Christ, we will begin with Hymn XXX in the Blue book.”

    How much easier to have the accompanist say before the bell ringing, “Our opening hymn after the bell tolling will be Hymn XXX in the Blue book.” At the end of the bell sounding the choir should simply rise, and the accompanist begin the hymn. It gives everyone during the bell ringing time to find the hymn and become settled. Surely most of the people in the pews are going to rise and begin singing when the choir rises and begins singing. What people look at and think about should be up to them.

    1. @Jack Rakosky – comment #17:
      The bell is a nice touch.

      Even better to follow it: the cantor simply raises the hymnal (whatever has the music/text to be sung) and, if there is a hymn board or equivalent (which there should be….), people will just do. Eventually. They really do. (If you must announce a number, just announce the number, as in “Number N”. Nothing else. Zip. People increasingly tune out announcements, so they are fruitless.)

      Show, don’t tell.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *