Thoughts on the Liturgical Ministry of Cantors (and Presiders)

by Father Paul Nienaber, SJ

These reflections on the spirituality of liturgical ministry were shared last year in the comment thread of a post by Rita Ferrone: “What Cantors Need Most.” They are reprinted here with Fr. Nienaber’s kind permission.


Margaret Brown, Cathedral of St Matthew the Apostle. Washington, D.C.
Margaret Brown, Cathedral of St Matthew the Apostle. Washington, D.C.

Much of what I learned about being cantor — and, mutatis mutandis, about presiding at liturgy — I learned from another NPM Master Cantor Teacher, James Hansen. In an emailed conversation with him a few years ago, I offered ten points for cantors; FWIW:

1) All authentic ministry starts with the minister’s internal spiritual life. One hopes that this life is a richly nurtured and fruitful reality, but there must at least be something there. As I remember Lucien Deiss saying, “How can we be women of prayer and men of praise on Sunday morning if nothing happens during the week?”

2) Technique must be solid and dependable. This is true for vocal technique, of course, but also for communication (verbal and not). If I sing, “May Christ Jesus, Word made flesh, graciously smile upon us,” and my face and body are broadcasting on all wavelengths, “I’m thinking about something else” or “Get me out of here!”, the message is lost. I have to be able to rise above my imperfect voice, arthritic knees, or dysphoric affect, and at least appear that I want Jesus to smile upon us. I still remember in this regard your advice about gestures moving outward from the center, and being inviting rather than directing. I hope I’ve practiced that long enough that it’s in my spinal cord.

3) In most situations, technique should be vernacular. I have encountered cantors who think they’re the next Bocelli, and affect these pear-shaped tones: “O Gahd, yeoo ah maee Gahd, for yeoo Ahee lahng…” as if English weren’t their native language. (Always reminds me of the quip: I have a British accent, so I’m smarter than you are.)

4) The minister’s education, experience, and imaginative resources have to be broad-ranging enough to be able to have at least some referent for the situation being addressed. If I want to tell the story, “I called to the Lord, my cry was heard” and have no memory-event of God hearing me upon which I can draw, how can I tell that story? There are things, to be sure, for which I do not (e.g., what does it feel like when your first child is born?) or cannot (what’s it like to feel an unborn child move in your abdomen?) have a referent; hopefully my imagination can extrapolate.

5) Ministry is presence, and more. There are things that I do (e.g., visiting folks in the hospital) that are mostly about showing up. But I think the reason I find presiding well so taxing is that I have to not just be there, but pay attention – watch, listen, consider, respond. My exhaustion may have much to do with my wonted introversion, but I think the best ministers pay careful and thoughtful attention to the assembly gathered.

6) Ministry has a performative dimension. Like it or not, ready or not, in the mood or not, come Sunday morning, I’m on. This is not all that ministry is about, but as my presiding teacher responded to a student who complained about the artificiality of presiding, “If you can’t stand being on stage, take off the costume!”

7) Ministry should have a certain transparency. If the assembly’s experience-trajectory ends on me, then I’ve failed – it must point beyond me, to God.

8) Ministry should be enjoyable. One memorable comment I received from an elderly woman as she exited after mass: “Oh, Father, it’s wonderful watching you preside; you always look like you’re having such a good time up there!”

9) Ministry makes you open, and that can mean being vulnerable. I still get nervous when I stand at the ambo after the Gospel; is this the time I completely screw it up?

10) Ministry is not about the minister. My ministry attempts, however haltingly, to name the grace of God present in this particular assembly. It’s about God’s people, and about God.

Paul Nienaber SJ is a Jesuit priest and physics educator; he is Associate Professor and Chair of Physics at Saint Mary’s University in Winona, MN.  He spends summers and school breaks working in neutrino physics at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in west suburban Chicago, residing and celebrating liturgy at his “home” parish of Saint Scholastica in Woodridge IL. His first collection of hymn texts, “Arise, O Church,” is being published by World Library.

Photo courtesy of Thomas Stehle, music director.


  1. These are worthy and essential points, one and all, and I stand with Fr. Nienaber on all of them! So much of the cantor’s/presider’s ministry is internal, in order to make the externals prayerful, natural and inviting, but none more so than #7 and #10

  2. I have to confess a dislike for the term ‘Presider’ and its associated verb. I used to ask students what priests did at 9am. They gave the conventional replies – ‘saying Mass,’ celebrating Mass,’ ‘doing Mass’ and so on. ‘Presiding’ also came up at times. I realised over time that I liked none of these expressions.

    One of my former colleagues (now deceased) at the Seminary where I taught used to say he would be ‘singing’ the Mass. He never sang anything, in fact.

    It seems to me that the expressions I have cited are very priest-centred. I am not really the ‘celebrant’ – the Church is always the celebrant as liturgy is always the action of the whole Church. I don’t like the idea of being ‘presider,’ still less the awful Anglican expression ‘The President’ (which probably would sound ridiculous in the US).

    The most holy Eucharist is the action of Christ the High Priest, acting now through his priests and gathered people. I remember Dom Adrien Nocent OSB quoting, I think, Antoine Chavasse, saying that the words of consecration have only ever been uttered once and that was by the Lord. All we priests do is echo them, or something like that. This was a contribution to my spiritual life which I have never forgotten.

    So I would like to speak of ‘serving’ the Sacred Liturgy. I think a lot of what Fr. Nienaber writes fits that very well.


    Two contemporaries of mine from my miss-spent Seminary days later became Russian Orthodox and were received as priests. I liked the way they began to speak about what their priestly ministry. They talked about ‘serving’ – the Liturgy, Vespers, etc.

    I think they got it right and as that seems to be the usual expression among Orthodox folk, good for them. Some of us might be less tempted to act as though the liturgy were a personal play-space if we began to get that notion of ‘serving’ into our heads.

  3. Maybe I’m doing it wrong, but very few of my cantors are at a level to appreciate such distinctions. Most of them are doing well to remember to show up and to prepare their music more than 15 minutes before Mass. Then again the majority of my cantors have joined the ministry in the past three years, and half of them are middle-school or high-school age. These are good principles to instill as we go.

  4. In reading these excellent points, and getting to point #10, I wonder how often we put the entire weight of this on the individual minister (cantor/presider/instrumentalist). We live in a surrounding culture in which a person on an elevated stage, with a microphone, doing something that I’m not (singing, preaching, playing an instrument) IS the focus and the sole perform-er/act-or.
    It’s only natural when assemblies who are situated in that same context everywhere else become passive audience/consumers react the same way in the sanctuary.
    There’s been an interesting uptick in the mega-church/evangelical/praise band world recently against “perfomancism” with over-amplification and the entertainment model being viewed as problematic. But there I also wonder how much of that is just a natural or instinctive reaction on the part of the congregation?

  5. Alan makes an excellent point about the expectations derived from performance situations, with which our culture is saturated. I would say that, far from being “natural,” this reaction by people is a carefully cultivated aspect of our consumer economy. You do not find the same dynamic in traditional societies. Music is an industry in ours, and as such promotes situations favorable to commerce. Stardom and vanity and all the rest make some people a lot of money! On the way to the bank, they also lead to outcomes like over-reliance on technology to “perfect” sound, cutthroat competition, and the handing over to “experts” what really by rights belongs to the many.

    How do we break out of that situation?

    One sign of hope I find is built into our liturgical structures themselves. When the cantor fosters the song of the assembly in the dialogical forms found in the liturgy (litanies, the responsorial psalm), one receives and gives in a reciprocal and harmonious whole. The assembly’s engagement with this sort of musical form can be a great way out of the performer/ audience trap.

    The minister can’t take responsibility for what the congregation thinks or feels, but he/she can take responsibility for his or her own attitude. What keeps the soul refreshed may be hidden from view, yet bear fruit in a life of faithfulness. I know this sounds a little trite, but a life of faithfulness is really the only kind worth living, over the long run.

    Scott, it’s never too soon to tap into the sincerity and God-consciousness of your young cantors, istm. Some would argue that the younger they are, the easier it is for them to be transparent and joyful in their role! Yes, some of these admonitions are for older, more complicated souls, but I’d really want to affirm whatever you do to cultivate these young people. There was a beautiful young cantor at a workshop I gave, who was just graduating from college and would be teaching music soon. She had a great attitude. The music director told me proudly, “I raised her!”…

  6. Wonderful things to ponder. I would only add two small elements … first, the need for the cantor to be in balance with the presider and liturgy, and second, the need for the presider and liturgy to be in balance with the cantor.

    How often does the prayerful intoning of the psalm stand in total contract to what a local pastor calls a “MORS Mass” … a Mass on Roller Skates? The moment of meditation after Holy Communion dashed by the droned reading of this weekend’s bulletin.

    The opposite hold true … cantors and song leaders who clearly would rather be somewhere else waiting impatiently on a contemplative pastor.

    It is, whether we like it or not, a balance of artistic elements, of timing, of staging, of choreography. When you work with a ballet company you begin to realize how much preparation happens in the wings, far away from the gaze of the audience, and even before the dancer enters the lights they are in full sync with the rhythm of the performance. The dance truly begins in darkness.

    To often it is an “us – them” situation. The choir and cantor trying to be prayerful while the presider is trying to be funny … the pastor bringing focus while the choir and cantor simply want to get-‘er-done.

    It is too simple to characterize and dismiss. Many professional singers are wonderful cantors … illuminating the text with their voice and having the technique to do so effortlessly. Many untrained singers flail aimlessly because they lack the skills to stay on pitch or sing with line … and yet we are far too ready to dismiss the former as professional, when really we are dismissing ourselves because we don’t want to invest the time and effort to raise the other elements of the liturgy to that level.

    We (rightfully) are concerned about over-amplification, but why are we prepared to accept the reader, cantor and presider who can’t be clearly heard as solemn and dignified … as though the whole liturgy should disappear into a mime.

    It is about balance … in the prayers …

  7. Maybe liturgical direction should be turned over to a celebrant who uses chant to dialog with the congregation (e.g. Syriac liturgy of St. James), or have the gifted cantor ordained to become the “presider”. in so many churches there are far too many actors in performance at the same time. Often it is the cantor who is carrying the greatest burden.

    The celebrant is just an interfering after thought. The deacon a mere fixture who reads the gospel and distributes communion.

  8. I am an undergraduate organ performance major and I am currently employed at an Episcopal Church. We have a nice choir at one service, and the other one is just me with the congregation singing the hymns. We don’t have an amplified cantor, and everyone just sings along with the organ. I understand the need for the cantor in RC worship in leading the responsorial psalm, but why does the cantor need to be amplified and sing along during the hymns, especially on very familiar hymns? It seems that in the mainline Protestant denominations that when traditional hymns are sung, it is just the organ, choir (sometimes) and congregation, so why do Catholics need a cantor singing on everything?

    1. @Beau Baldwin – comment #9:
      I myself think that the cantor should never be amplified during hymn singing. Even if the cantor announces the hymn and sings with the congregation, she/he should not be miked.

      Whether the cantor should “lead song” however, depends on a number of concrete circumstances. For instance, if the organist does not do a good job leading (and there are many who have musical chops but do not know how to lead congregational singing) a cantor can help to stabilize that situation. Two, there are congregations so timid about singing that they need to be brought along step by step. Cantors can also help with that, if they are attuned to the issue and do not try to substitute their voice for the voice of the assembly.

      1. @Rita Ferrone – comment #11:
        Brings to mind a memorable lyric by, I believe, Mary Prete:

        Can you hear the people sing? Singing a song the people own?
        Well, if you can’t you’re singing much too loud into the microphone…

  9. ” … so why do Catholics need a cantor singing on everything?” The answer is “we don’t” BUT that does not deal with the times in the liturgy when the answer is “we do.”

    We are, within the music of our liturgy, a call-response musical expression at heart. Certainly, the hymns do not need a cantor or “animator-of-song” … and then we turn to a communion hymn which elongates verses and the congregation joins in on a chorus … oops, if no one can sing it.

    The Mass is so much more than the tyranny of the four hymns. I loved working as an organist for the Protestant churches, Something fancy before, 2 hymns, “Praise God from Whom All Blessing Flow”, 2 hymns, a piece afterward … here is your check. Now, the Catholic Mass … whoa … Parts of the Ordinary, Parts of the Proper, Psalm, Gospel Acclamation, Introit, Sequence, and three or four hymns … plus before and after … and here is your Tylenol.

    There is simply so much variance that there is no one-size solution: 5:00 PM with piano is not 9:00 AM with guitars is not 11:00 AM with choir and organ is not Vespers which is unaccompanied. In the Protestant congregation I played exactly the same pieces, often with the same registrations in back-to-back services.

    And do it all solely to the glory of God … gotta run … worship warmup begins in five minutes.

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