Non solum: Singing during Communion

Today’s Question: Singing During Communion

No. 86 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal says of the Communion chant:

86. While the Priest is receiving the Sacrament, the Communion Chant is begun, … its purpose being to express the spiritual union of the communicants by means of the unity of their voices, to show gladness of heart, and to bring out more clearly the “communitarian” character of the procession to receive the Eucharist. The singing is prolonged for as long as the Sacrament is being administered to the faithful [Cf. Sacred Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship, Instruction, Inestimabile donum, April 3, 1980, no. 17: Acta Apostolicae Sedis 72 (1980), p. 338.]. However, if there is to be a hymn after Communion, the Communion Chant should be ended in a timely manner.

Care should be taken that singers, too, can receive Communion with ease.

This raises several questions and presents several challenges.

How do you foster “unity of voices” of the communicants? What repertoires and musical practices make possible and foster the communal singing during Communion that the Church desires? When do the singers and musicians receive – first, or last? How do you keep the song extended throughout the Communion rite when the music ministers also must receive at some point during it? If the rite is unduly long, how does the music still tie the entire rite together – or is it a problem if two or three different (somewhat unrelated) musical pieces are programmed?

Moderator’s note: “Non solum” is a feature at Pray Tell for our readership community to discuss practical liturgical issues. The title comes from article 11 of the Vatican II liturgy constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium: “Therefore there is to be vigilance among holy pastors that in liturgical action not only are laws for valid and licit celebration to be observed, but that the faithful should participate knowingly, actively, and fruitfully.” (Ideo sacris pastoribus advigilandum est ut in actione liturgica non solum observentur leges ad validam et licitam celebrationem, sed ut fideles scienter, actuose et fructuose eandem participent.) May the series contribute to good liturgical practice – not only following the law, but especially grasping the spirit of the liturgy!



  1. I must highly commend our current church organist here. An organ version of music for communion begins as Father is receiving communion. The choir receives communion immediately (and they are in the balcony at the back.) The choice of music during communion rarely, if ever, requires reference to a book but contains a refrain that everyone sings, even if it is new to the congregation. Small organ improvisations between the verses fill the time because our communion procession is quite long.

    I note a few things: first, delaying the start of the singing means that there seems to be no rush at the start of communion. The singing begins at what feels like a more appropriate moment and people join in. It always seems that the final verse is being ended just as the lines are ending and a quiet play-out is continued throughout the transfers and purification of the vessels unites it all together.

    Oh … did I mention we no longer have the “The communion hymn is found on page …” announcement? In fact, we have NO announcements for music during the service. The numbers are on the hymn boards. Highly recommend this!

    1. @Deacon Don Donaldson – comment #1:

      The downside to no announcements of hymn numbers is that the short of sight and short of stature don’t get the message! Being both, I have to admit that I am not a fan, despite the interruption to the flow. We handle communion similarly. The instrumental helps unite the elements and gives the voices some strength by previewing the music.

      1. @Michelle Francl-Donnay – comment #2:

        This brings up for me the question of why there aren’t protestant style service bulletins with all that information in Catholic churches. No need for hymn boards when you’ve got it in your hand already. When I first started going to a Catholic church, I was really surprised there were only weekly announcements for bulletins. And the advertisements on the back page came across to me as, well, not good at all.

      2. @Jonathan Ziegler – comment #3:
        Some parishes publish worship aides for Sunday Mass, though they are the exception. In comparing Catholic with Protestant services, there is a key difference. A large Protestant congregation might have 2 or 3 full-time musicians on staff to lead 2 or 3 services per week. Compare that with my previous Catholic assignment where 1 full-time and 1 part-time musician served as music director/liturgist/organist/choir director/occasional cantor for 600+ services per year while directing or overseeing 7 choirs. To say we were spread thin is an understatement. We also published a complete order of service every Sunday, but then again I had no life outside of church back then!

      3. @Scott Pluff – comment #8:

        Catholic musicians are indeed overworked compared to their protestant counterparts. It hadn’t occured to me that Catholic music directors might be expected to write up a bulletin. In my experience in various protestant churches, I always just emailed the music selections to the church secretary, who was responsible for the weekly bulletin. Is that not the case with other protestant congregations, or did I just happen to get lucky? 🙂

  2. In our parish rhe cantor announces the number and name of the communion hymn when the priest takes communion–as clearly yet sedately, if you will, as possible–so everybody is singing as the Eucharistic ministers are receiving and preparing to distribute. To me, it gives the communion hymn a strong start, perhaps because some of our most energetic assembly members sit in the front pews. They model full, conscious, and active participation for everybody!
    The communion hymn/hymns continue until the last of the assembly receives, and then the choir (if present) cantor, and I take communion.
    I agree that depending only on hymn number boards assumes that everyone is able to see/read them from a distance, which is not an assumption we make.

  3. As the priest receives, we announce and start the song (why are song announcements – integral to sharing the info – seen as an interruption?). When the EMHCs move to their position, the cantor goes to be first in line while the choir maintains the leadership. We use two songs (see below). As the first song’s last refrain starts, the choir moves into line to receive. The ushers can stop the line so that the choir can move to the front. The cantor is in place to maintain leadership and announce the second song.

    Since we use 2 songs, I have a rotation of 15-20 Communion songs. All are refrain-verse format so that people can at least sing the refrains while processing. I, along with the instrumentalists, receive last. I strive to end the song so that the EMHCs don’t have to wait for us, or not wait long.

    If it’s a cantor only Mass, the cantor receives at the end with me.

    We use programs for weddings and funerals, but people seem to set them down and not pick them back up. My parish is discussing electronic hymn boards so that in addition to hymn numbers, we can also let visitors know where to find the acclamations in our hymnals. My biggest concern is that visitors can also join in our acclamations, which a 4 slot hymn board can’t accommodate. We’re a half-circle nave, so locating them well will take some care.

  4. I usually begin an improv on the communion hymn as the EM’s and cantor receive communion. When they begin to move to their places for distribution I start the intro to the communion hymn. We use worship aids so there is no need [hopefully] to announce the communion hymn. If we need to extend the hymn, an improv on a verse will be played w/cantor then bringing cong. in on the refrain. I receive communion last. The Associate Pastor and I have chatted about using the communion chant provided in RM3 as the priest is receiving then moving into the congregational hymn. Does anyone practice this? If so, what are your thoughts?

  5. An aside–as much as my memory can be trusted, in my general experience in Germany (various places over the years), there is no singing during reception of communion—rather, the organist plays. When everyone has received, there is a song. Anyone else have international experience in this regard that differs from the General Instructions?

  6. At my parish, we use the Song of the Table from the Psallite collection (usually) or the communion antiphon from the Simple English Propers. The cantor receives communion first while the organist improvises on the antiphon and, after a moment of thanksgiving, leads the congregation in singing.
    When the choir is present, the antiphon is sung from the above mentioned sources but begun immediately when the celebrant receives communion. The choir receives communion with the congregation during this singing. After this is completed or about 1/3 of the congregation has received communion, the choir offers a piece on behalf of the congregation.
    Also, my parish sings a hymn of praise after the communion procession is complete, a time of silence has been had, and the celebrant returns to the chair.

  7. The new “regulations” have been a great help to congregational singing. We might get a minute or two while the lay Communion ministers are receiving.

    Choir members and musicians receive during, not at the beginning or at the end.

    Sometimes we use a psalm, which isn’t always announced. We announce at the right time, and it doesn’t seem to be an intrusion.

    We’re looking at a hymn board, but in an antiphonal church, it’s even more of a challenge than in half-shell seating.

    We don’t haven’t used programs because of the expense and waste of paper. But with our hymnals nearing the end of their useful life, we’re going to have to make a call in 2-4 years as to where to go from here.

  8. Just last week we had our quarterly “Congregation is the Choir” weekend where I lead the music from a piano in the sanctuary and do some creative things with congregational singing. (Call and response singing, women/men/all on verses of a hymn, unaccompanied singing, etc.) I noticed that people participated well on the hymns and acclamations, except for the Communion songs which were nearly zilch. Specifically, they sang until they stood up to join the procession, then quit singing and never took it up again until the recessional hymn. These were very well-known refrain-based songs which could be easily sung from memory if they were inclined. I’ll direct some catechesis in this direction, but it is an uphill climb in every parish where I’ve served. Singing at this point of the Mass seems to go against people’s natural inclinations, even as we’ve been pushing this point for 50 years now.

    I’ve heard it’s a different story in those places where everyone remains standing until all have received Communion, stressing the communal vs. private nature of receiving the Eucharist. I’ve never experienced this, perhaps someone can share their experience with that practice.

    1. @Scott Pluff – comment #11:
      The “official” policy in the San Jose, Los Angeles, and Honolulu dioceses is to stand until the end of the Communion Procession. I must admit that it really does give a person a different sense of what “Communion” is about — both with Christ and with one another. (I’ve often thought it is odd that the only point of the current Roman Mass when the participants are not “in Communion” [as far as posture and singing is concerned] tends to be at “Communion” because so many are doing different things!) But when people get into the habit of remaining standing (and singing) until the celebrant is seated at the chair, one understands how “communion” is much more than “Jesus and me.”

  9. “86. While the Priest is receiving the Sacrament, the Communion Chant is begun …”

    The rubric right in the Order of Mass is equally explicit that the song must begin while the Priest receives. I believe this principle is extremely important. The practice in many places of having silence (or quiet instrumental music) while the priest and other ministers receive, only beginning the Communion song as the “people” start forward sends an extremely bad non-verbal message. It sets apart the reception of the Sacrament by the sanctuary party from that of the others. As though the lay people’s Communion procession is a separate thing from the reception by the really important people.

    Granted, maintaining the rubric and the important witness to unity that the one continuing song represents can require creativity. Since someone asked about non-U.S. practice: unlike the recollection presented above, I have experienced very fine assembly singing in German churches where, by the way, ingenious and dignified projections at various places in the church (just numbers discretely projected in white light on walls or columns) just before that particular number is called for. Given their penchant for congregational singing, quite unlike that in the typical American parish, there is no need for special provision for a break in the singing for cantor or choir to receive (at least where I’ve been).

    But, where the cantor or choir have a decisive role in that song, the problem when they receive presents itself. I now live in Catalonia where the brilliant liturgical example of Montserrat Abbey can be counted on to be both rubrical and creative. As the celebrant receives, the cantor sings the Communion Antiphon and the people repeat it. Then he and the choir receive (only a few steps from where they were just singing). When he has received, the cantor then continues with the first verse of the psalm, the people then of course repeating the Antiphon after the verse.

  10. By the way audio of the Sunday liturgies at Montserrat are archived at and monthly videos of Sunday Masses are archived at—07042013

    Every day of the year, liturgies are streamed live in video and can be seen at

    Some of the times, of course, are not convenient for U.S. viewers. Weekdays are (Central European Time):
    7:30 Laudes 13:00 Salve Regina and Virelai* sung by the choir 18:45 Vespers
    Sundays: Laudes and Vespers the same; Conventual Mass at 11:00.

    * The “virelai” is the hymn to the Mother of God of Montserrat sung and loved by even atheist Catalans, in my experience.

    A PDF of it:

    And here’s a video of one of this midday Virolais (where the singing of the congregation — except the many tourists — of the refrain by memory will be noticed):

  11. Simple-
    Upon reception of the host by the celebrant the Communio is sung, typically from:
    Simple English Propers (Bartlett)
    Simple Choral Gradual (Rice)
    Choral Communios (Rice)
    Others sources from the past, American Gradual (B. Ford), By Flowing Waters (P. Ford) and Greg. Missal./ Communio (Rice)
    Our congregations are large, reception of EMHC’s is normative to use the above in “full measure.”
    Upon the ministerial shift to communicate the faithful, a measured and calm announcement of an option four hymn is made, also toward the refrain mode. The length of that choice and the ensemble present determines whether a “hymn of praise” or a choral motet is segued to which will still allow for silence after the deposition of the ciborium to the tabernacle.

    1. @Charles Culbreth – comment #15:
      As long as the pieces are designed for congregational singing (another option one) I’m fine with Charles’s program. Mr Rice is a fine choral composer, but excluding the assembly is another option four–hardly optimal. It’s more important that people sing than unreformed Psalm texts be slavishly followed, especially if designed for choir only.

  12. Todd, I’m happy to receive your conditional nihil obstat, but you know well that “excluding the assembly” is not intended, your determination that the vernacular settings are de facto option fours simply because of the ambiguity of the GIRM and a convenient interpretation of option one on your part means the GR or GM exclusively seems disingenuous and a quibble.
    It’s also quite a shock to hear you advocate anything being “slavishly followed” in the liturgical economy.
    I don’t presume to know what works in Iowa for you and yours. I’d ask you not to be presumptive about what is working quite well in CenCA.

  13. I don’t find the GIRM at all ambiguous. It gives options. There are some music directors who are uneasy about options, and some wish their favorite option was more strongly advocated by the institution. But such is not the case.

    I don’t think choral singing at Communion is a good idea, no matter who does it or where: Iowa, California, or the Vatican. In some instances, it might be tolerable: funerals or weddings. But the 42nd year after MCW in the US? Somebody’s not attending to this ministry as well as they might.

    1. @Todd Flowerday – comment #18:
      Todd: “I don’t think choral singing at Communion is a good idea, no matter who does it or where:”

      GIRM 87: “[the selected option] is sung either by the choir alone or by the choir or a 
      cantor with the people”

      I’ll go with the Church’s official liturgical guidelines on this one, Todd. Despite the hard work of many self-proclaimed experts on Catholic liturgical music, choral singing during communion is a legitimate, licit option in the liturgy today. I will make use of that option until the CHURCH (not Flowerday or Inwood) says I may not.

      And surely you realize that 42 years after MCW, MCW has been replaced by STTL…

      Please stop trying to promote your personal agenda against choral singing at communion, by ignoring legitimate liturgical options and denigrating those who choose to follow them. It is incredibly tiresome.

    2. @Todd Flowerday – comment #18:
      And I forgot to add – stop trying to create a dichotomy between choral and congregational singing at communion. In very many places, there is time for both.

      In addition, there is not usually a choir at every Mass. Between our four weekend Masses we have three different combinations at my Cathedral – cantor English propers + improv + congregational hymn, schola Graduale proper + improv + cong. hymn, and at the main choir Mass choir antiphon + improv + choral meditation (or, if we don’t have one ready, + cong. hymn).

      1. @Jared Ostermann – comment #21:
        The GIRM states the ideal of a dialogue of choir and assembly. It always struck me that dialogue was always superior to monologue in all sorts of ministry situations. There is no dichotomy in my thinking. I’m just railing against performance music at Mass for its own sake, and offering an important caution to using choral settings of propers as a regular practice.

      2. @Todd Flowerday – comment #23:
        “I’m just railing against performance music at Mass for its own sake, and offering an important caution to using choral settings of propers as a regular practice.”

        I can only repeat, Todd: the Church’s liturgical legislation does not offer a caution against using choral settings of propers. In fact, it explicitly lists the choral proper as an option. Therefore, I must question how important your caution is. We use choral propers, as well as congregational hymns, every single week at the cathedral where I’m music director. Neither hymn nor proper is long enough on its own, to cover the entire procession.

        However, we’ve been down this road before, with the party line that GIRM 86 is superior to, and somehow supersedes GIRM 87, which is a flawed paragraph included as a concession to the trad crowd. I’ve heard it all before, and I’m not convinced that I should ignore the explicit options given to me by the Church’s liturgical legislation.

        I don’t think this is off-topic, if the thread is about best practices for communion music. If there are people out there teaching that the choir should never sing alone at communion, that is a matter of concern to me as a liturgical musician. This kind of misinformation creates tension and division in an already contentious area of church life. The exclusion of the choir from singing at Communion (or Offertory for that matter) is simply not mandated by current liturgical legislation. If you must exclude choral repertoire at your parish, please at least be clear and honest that it is a matter of personal opinion (which contradicts current legislation), rather than some kind of ideal or dictate from the Church.

      3. @Todd Flowerday – comment #23:
        Todd makes a valuable point about performance music at Mass. To borrow a phrase, I don’t know how to define performance music at Mass, but I know it when I hear it. Somehow it comes from violating the pastoral judgment–for these particular people in this time and place. Choral or instrumental pieces which may be perfectly fitting in one setting would be out of place in another setting. Singing a 3-minute choral anthem at the start of a 10-minute communion procession in a large church or cathedral may fit, while singing that same piece in a small country church might overwhelm the moment. I have seen parish choral/instrumental music overdone, such as a 5-piece brass ensemble and a fully roaring organ at a Midnight Mass with around 100 people in attendance. Beautiful, yes, but out of proportion for the occasion.

  14. Isn’t the last sentence of your comment a bit presumptuous, Todd? I hardly think that you are in any position to judge how well Charles is carrying out his ministry, particularly when he is exercising legitimate liturgical options.

    1. @Fritz Bauerschmidt – comment #19:
      The last sentence of my comment has nothing to do with Charles.

      GIRM 86 offers an ideal: the unity of the communicants’ voices. GIRM 87 offers supplementary choices.

      I point out it was Charles who brought up the matter of options one and four. I merely pointed out option one, in GIRM 86. It seems far from ambiguous to me, and I have a comfort level, probably more than most reform2 musicians, about not letting the perfect be set up as a foil to the good. I’m just offering a corrective to the modern notion that the Communion propers have any particular liturgical or pastoral advantage over good songs and psalm settings. Quite often they do not.

  15. I need to apologize to Charles, especially for steering this thread off into unnecessary territory. This thread is about optimal practices, not criticizing what others believe to be optimal.

    1. @Todd Flowerday – comment #24:
      No offense taken, my good friend, and thank you for your sentiment.
      We haven’t the faculties, despite some of my other friends’ ruminations over at MSF, of what will be heard from choirs of angels and saints in the beatific environs, so we tend toward silly arguments about the purpose of choirs in our earthbound rites with the usual suspect questions: what, where, when and why? And my simple notion in response is we “choir up” because a. we can; and b. it’s beautiful.
      Judging all choral music at service is “performance music….for its own sake is a very untenable hill to defend, Todd, on many levels. Regarding one of those as discordant with dialogue during Communion, think upon any occasion where the particular nature and affect of a given choral piece elicits visible joy, a sense of corporate peace, tears of…etc., and I’d cite that as evidence of dialogic interaction.

  16. I have difficulty with your putting choral music in the same category as the famous supreme court justice’s answer to what defines “pornography,” Scott, “I know it when I see/hear it.” Yeesh.
    Do you (or Todd) presume that DM’s who frequent here and other reasonably informed blogsites have no or little sense of decorum and propriety in the sacral moment? Seriously?
    And I’ll add my voice to Jared’s in that you both are using criteria from MCW (the pastoral judgment?) that is jaded and tarnished, and was/is ineffectual.
    If a director wants to reprise the Communio of the given Sunday with Jean Berger’s “The eyes of all wait upon thee,” I say why not?
    OTOH, if some local rube programs “Hallelujah” from “Messiah” or Mozart’s “Ave verum corpus” every darn Sunday, then you have an ecclesial problem, not a liturgical problem. The pastor’s not pastoring.
    Lastly, an organ postlude played magnificently in place of a technically non-existent recessional hymn is still a voice of praise, thus speaketh the documents. Are we gonna rubricize those out of the picture, too, in our iconoclasm?

    1. @Charles Culbreth – comment #29:
      Charles, please take my comment with a bit of levity, I’m not actually equating sacred music to porn.

      Do I presume that some DMs lack decorum? Yes, some do. I have known and worked with them. For example, a conservatory-trained organist who between concert performances has held a string of church positions. I’ve heard him improvise at great length and even greater volume/ferocity after Communion when everyone else in the room sits and waits for him to finish so they can conclude the liturgy. It is not unheard of for musicians with no sense of decorum to turn a liturgy into a concert with themselves or their choir as the headlining act. 1 brilliant musician + 0 knowledge or training in liturgy = a royal mess.

      I agree with your idea about an organ piece in place of the closing hymn. Just this past Sunday on our parish feast day I played Procesión Alegre by G. Cornell with organ, trumpet and timpani for the recessional. I do something similar a few times per year, but not every Sunday. Balance, scale, propriety, and your dreaded “pastoral judgement.”

  17. I know, father. ‘Twas just tweaking for the parallel three from 1903, “sacred, universal and beautiful.” Which, btw, carries more universal clout than do MCW and SttL combined;-)
    Interesting cross fertilization with thread at MSF, yes?

Leave a Reply

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