Kids In The Liturgical Crosshairs

child singingIn twenty-plus years as a parish liturgist, I’ve shepherded young people through any number of special events. Often, a family requests a teen or even a child sing at a wedding or funeral. That’s usually a challenging situation. A friend brought to my attention a recent experience of hers, and gave me permission to share the general details so we could discuss it here.

A ten-year-old girl was volunteered to sing the psalm at her grandfather’s funeral. The young lady worked with her music teacher to prepare a well-known setting, “Shepherd Me O God,” and was heading out of town full of confidence. The parish music director on site, however, was not pleased. The girl was criticized for being flat on the high notes. Musical drilling didn’t change the pitch, and brought the young lady to tears. A child alone would not do, as it was told, so an aunt was engaged to assist. Auntie sang verse one. The girl sang number two. They sang three together.

“You would have handled this better,” my friend said.

I hope I would have. But my solutions may not be palatable to the whole spectrum running from parents to liturgists. I remember shepherding a thirteen-year-old who was volunteered to sing at her cousin’s wedding. Five songs and four rehearsals later, the teen did a competent job on the music. But it was demanding work for both of us. I’m not usually engaged to provide singing lessons and confidence coaching as part of a wedding gig. The cousin was likely not thinking singing at a family wedding would entail so much effort and inner anguish.

Being a psalmist is  a serious, serious liturgical role. The psalmist proclaims the Word of God. As such, she or he is part of the kerygmatic ministry of the Church. My sense is that a level of maturity equal to that of the lector, deacon, or priest is required.

That said, there are liturgies in which the bar is lowered. One must learn to be a psalmist somewhere, sometime. Liturgies with Catholic schools and religious education programs would be a scenario in which it is reasonable to assume children will prepare the psalm and proclaim it to their peers. Even so, the young person must be reasonably competent in that particular environment. How many psalmists are there at a parish grade school? About the same number as there are athletic stars, or leads in the school play. It’s likely a single-digit number.

A funeral or wedding, despite protestations that it’s “the bride’s day,” or that it’s a “communal liturgy of the Church” are also family events. Funerals and weddings were family affairs before Christ, and they continue to have that emphasis, more or less, to the present day.

So if a ten-year-old were presented to me with the words, “Todd, I’d like you to meet the cantor for tomorrow’s funeral,” I wouldn’t strike a terrorist pose. At least not right away.

I would need to assess if the person were actually capable. The psalm verses would need to be communicated, possibly by placement in the worship aid, if need be. Diction and intelligibility would rate slightly above pitch. It might not be a liturgical experience of high quality, but I would have to ask: Is this potentially fruitful? If I sensed a child was getting railroaded into something over their head, I would likely take it upon myself to play bad guy and say no way were little kids (plural) capable of rendering the psalm properly. And then I’d suggest the vigil or the rosary would be a better place for this kind of “fluff.”

Any great stories? Any nightmares to share? What about your opinions on the situation, especially if the pastor is backing the family and insisting you make it work?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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6 Responses to Kids In The Liturgical Crosshairs

  1. Liam says:

    Your fundamental sense here of ministerial capacity is correct. Anyone presenting to sing in a cantor/solo capacity should be qualified by experience and/or training to do so, and that qualification should be left entirely to the professional judgment of the director of music (or equivalent leadership position of the music ministry, not necessarily liturgy). If a pastor is unwilling to avoid interfering, then I think the policy must be more draconian (namely, that no cantors/soloists “from away” would be permitted), if anything.

    If a pastor insist on the child offering the psalm, it should be spoken (no soundtrack underneath, either).

  2. Randolph Nichols says:

    Through the years I’ve had my share of last minute “guest” singers, often youngsters who usually avoid the psalm and opt for a solo at the presentation of the gifts or as a communion meditation. Ninety percent of the time it’s a not too focused rendition of Amazing Grace. (Hello world: whole tone melodies really demand being in tune.)

    In the case of funerals in cities with big Catholic populations, most music directors have no opportunity to audition guest singers since it’s often not announced until the eve or day of the funeral. Under that time constraint, I’m not sure it’s worth the anguish to forbid their participation. (I’ve worked with pastors who would not have let me make that decision anyway.)

    Besides, taking the no conflict route can have a positive side. Sometimes letting a singer mess up serves a useful purpose. Everyone learns very quickly to appreciate the difficulty and discipline of the liturgical role.

    It doesn’t always have to be disaster, however. I’ve had some unexpected delights. For example, yesterday at my parish an eigth grader who I had never heard gave a splendid rendering of a Bach organ Prelude and Fugue for the postlude. I usually oppose applause in church, but in this case the enthusiastic response was well deserved. When kids have been trained well, they are such a pleasure to listen to. Todd alludes to the necessity of being adequately trained. I think deep down most people know that.

  3. Liam says:


    Was that after the 11AM Mass, as I assume? Ted Marier would be beaming.

  4. Randolph Nichols says:

    Yes. It was the 11 a.m. Mass. It was same kid who on Good Friday of 2008 sang from the loft the famous soprano solo in Allegri’s “Miserere.”

  5. Gavin says:

    The big problem is the line “But I cantor at my church!” My usual response (when I was at my last Catholic church) is to expect the same from all cantors. Which means:

    – Sung psalm, to a setting with chanted verses with approved text
    – Sung chant Alleluia and verse to tone 6
    – Sung “Lux Aeterna” and “Requiem…” verse
    – No singing into the microphone on hymns
    – Arrive 1 hour early to practice, music will be made available upon volunteering to cantor

    If they can’t sing any of the settings, I take over for them (usually the “Lux” at Communion) and let them stick with what they know. The last rule is something I hold stubbornly to. I haven’t run into any problems with that policy, but again I tend towards Randolph’s attitude of letting it also be a teaching moment. We also have to in some way respect their desire to honor the deceased.

  6. Kathy says:

    I can’t stop myself from putting in my two cents from the other side. I am an amateur musician who has been asked to sing for family funerals and weddings. My family pulls out instruments and sings in harmony at family get-togethers; folk musicianship is part of our culture. My brothers and sisters have sung in choirs at our various parishes, but we are not by any stretch professional cantors or liturgists. No splendid renderings of any Bach preludes from us. I have felt quite awkward showing up expecting to sing at a strange parish, although I have never been treated rudely. At my own wedding, the pastor approved the music choices and let our amateur musicians do all the music—the music director wasn’t even there. At my aunt’s funeral, a musician from the church played with us; to support us (and cover if we screwed up).
    Frankly, I don’t love doing weddings because the church contains too many people expecting performance quality music. But at the funerals, people have been really touched by seeing their cousins lead the songs. You church professionals forget how forbidding churches are for many people. A strange church (not your own parish, I mean) is a cold place to confront the death of someone you love. I would argue that to have a niece or cousin participate in the liturgy can do so much to warm up a funeral liturgy that music directors should set a low bar for the quality of family/friend musicians. Seriously, a kid’s shaky rendition of Amazing Grace can do more for the Mass than the best of Liam’s professional cantors. The music director in the post can’t tolerate the girl’s tuning issues because the musician doesn’t know or care about the family; pitch is ALL she cared about.
    To a point this reasoning applies to weddings, too, although I would be more strict about the standards. Some weddings need to be toned down to be appropriate to the sacrament being celebrated, not warmed up. Like I said, personally, I’d be kind of relieved if Liam forbade me to sing for a wedding at his parish :). When some family member asks you to sing for something, I can tell you from personal experience, you say you’re not really qualified to do this and they think you’re just being modest. I’ve tried to get out of this before and failed. So having the music director enforce some standards is a blessing for all.

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