Church choirs everywhere have been told to stop singing. The COVID-19 virus is more easily spread, particularly among choir members, as a result of the deep inhaling and exhaling that occurs when singing. Today, only the cantor sings, with strict instructions not to prompt the congregation to join.
OC Catholic asked Lauren McCaul to share how Christ Cathedral has adjusted to the restrictions on its music program. McCaul has served as Christ Cathedral’s music administrator for the past 4 years, and before that at St. Timothy’s in Laguna Niguel for 12 years. Prior to that, she served at a number of different locations including Holy Family Cathedral, St. Boniface, Our Lady Queen of Angels, St. John the Baptist, Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano, Christ our Savior Cathedral, St. Edward’s, Mater Dei High School & Holy Trinity.
HOW HAS THE PANDEMIC CHANGED THE MUSIC MINISTRY OF THE CHURCH ON A UNIVERSAL LEVEL, AS WELL AS A LOCAL LEVEL?
The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly been the strangest period of time I have lived through. The only comparison I can make is when 9/11 happened. It was the same sort of feeling that something fundamental had changed and there was a lot of unknown, both of which are true in this case. With this pandemic, however, both the Church in general and specifically the music ministry have been greatly impacted. With churches having to close to public worship, and so much yet to be learned about the way the virus spreads, music ministry as we have come to know it – with choirs and ensembles filled with joyful singers – has been temporarily altered. Out of an abundance of caution, choirs and other groups have been put on hold. Our music ministries throughout the diocese are scaling back and keeping it simple, while we are still learning more about how the virus spreads.
SPECIFICALLY REGARDING CHRIST CATHEDRAL’S MUSIC MINISTRY, WHAT IMMEDIATE ACTION WAS TAKEN WHEN THE CHURCHES FIRST CLOSED?
Before COVID-19, I would have been hard-pressed to imagine anything that would have closed the doors of our churches. Anyone who works in music ministry knew immediately that we had to find a way to continue to feed the faithful. At Christ Cathedral we are so blessed to have had in place the equipment necessary to livestream Masses. We had already been livestreaming for over a year, so when the pandemic hit, we were, in that sense, well prepared. Like every other parish in the diocese, we had to evaluate our means of communication with parishioners. Suddenly, e-blasts and websites became so much more important in communicating up-to-the-minute changes with our people, and also enabling them to continue their generous support of our parishes through online donations. The first weeks that our churches were closing were right as we entered Holy Week. For obvious reasons, it was just devastating! Holy Week is the most important week of the liturgical year, and our choirs had been preparing for months! It was also our first Holy Week in the newly dedicated Christ Cathedral, and we were so looking forward to celebrating these beautiful liturgies. Every single day in the week leading up to Holy Week we were being updated with new rules and recommendations regarding the liturgies themselves, the number of singers we were allowed to have, how far apart everyone needed to be, who was going to be allowed in the Cathedral… our music team must have planned and re-planned our Holy Week 20 times in the span of 10 days. We scaled our music ministry back to a quartet of singers plus a cantor and organist. After Holy Week, we scaled back even further to one cantor and organist at each Mass. This was both because of the contagious nature of the virus as well as a financial decision, with our weekly collections down.
HAS THE ROLE OF THE CANTOR CHANGED?
My role as cantor is something that has been on the forefront of my mind ever since the pandemic began. As cantors we are called to “animate” the assembly, we lead our congregations in sung worship. When public Masses ceased and everything moved to livestream with churches that were empty, it was very surreal. Just as I know my fellow cantors throughout the world had done, I had to rethink my role. On one hand, the building was empty, silent… animating an assembly you cannot see is essentially impossible. On the other hand, our livestream was now reaching thousands more than it ever had, and for those watching and participating from home, we were a lifeline. I switched my focus to leading them… and not just in song, but as a result of having no congregation present, I also became the voice of the people quite literally!
WHAT ARE YOUR HOPES MOVING FORWARD?
My hope is that we can work our way back to a bit more normalcy. We love our music program at Christ Cathedral and have brought together wonderful singers from not just the Cathedral parish, but from all over, with our Diocesan Adult and Children’s Choirs. I hope that as we learn more about COVID-19 and eventually have a vaccine, we can begin to bring our singers back safely and return to the work of filling our liturgies with beautiful music. As we await those days, we will continue to serve those who are coming to Mass and those who are watching from home.