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.
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.