Covid-19 took music from our Masses. Now it’s (slowly) coming back.
At St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Fulton, Md., Sundays are slowly starting to sound normal again. After more than a year of restrictions on music ministry, liturgies once more include congregational singing and a scaled-down choir.
For Brandon Henley, the music director at St. Francis of Assisi since 2019, it is a welcome shift. “I’m excited to have our music ministry and our parishioners experience the normalcy that they’ve been missing for a long time,” he said.
Parishes are in dramatically different circumstances this summer than they were a year ago. As vaccination rates permit the lifting of some Covid-19 restrictions, churches are expanding capacity at Masses, parish groups are beginning to host in-person events again and congregations are easing back into singing.
As vaccination rates permit the lifting of some Covid-19 restrictions, congregations are easing back into singing.
The changes to music ministry over the past 16 months have been significant: Early in the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified singing as an activity that carried one of the highest risks of spreading the virus, a reality that swiftly suspended choir rehearsals and forced musicians to get creative.
For Catholic pastoral musicians, navigating the challenges of the pandemic had an added dimension, as they sought to minister to their communities while preventing the spread of Covid-19.
Now that the familiar forms of music ministry are becoming possible, music ministers are looking back at the past year and a half, reflecting on what has changed and how the pandemic has shaped their ministry. For some, the changes brought by the pandemic invited them to reimagine how they connected with their communities.
Teresa Cobarrubia Yoder, who recently retired from her role as the director of music ministries at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Hampton, Va., said that music ministers need to be flexible, creative and patient with themselves and others during this period of transition.
Ms. Yoder recommended that ministers ease their musicians back slowly, noting that for most it has been over a year without singing as they were accustomed.
Ms. Yoder, a member of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians, recommended that ministers ease their musicians back slowly, noting that for most it has been over a year without singing as they were accustomed. Ms. Yoder suggested that a new repertoire could help musicians reset their expectations and get excited about returning to church and rebuilding their skills.
“It’s going to be a slow process,” she said. “Look for new repertoire that [the choir] can simply put together, and then also look for some stretches that they can build toward in the next six months.”
Mr. Henley shared a similar sentiment. Since the outset of the pandemic, he has tried to channel his choir’s efforts into new projects and new music, rather than try to maintain the status quo amid Covid-19 restrictions. Thinking outside the box has helped him to see restrictions as an opportunity to reimagine music ministry at his parish.
Mr. Henley said that he relied in new ways on his parish’s handbell choir, since bells did not carry the risk of virus transmission the way that singing did. He also piloted new projects that had no grounds for pre-pandemic comparison: an Advent concert that blended virtual choir videos and live handbells; an online concert series in collaboration with St. Louis, a church in the same pastorate as St. Francis of Assisi, during which they performed Mozart’s Requiem.
“It was still a really meaningful experience for our parish and our music ministry in a way that wasn’t like, ‘Oh, this isn’t really the lessons and carols that we normally do,’ Mr. Henley said. “I think that made a big difference.”
Mr. Henley said that he relied in new ways on his parish’s handbell choir, since bells did not carry the risk of virus transmission the way that singing did.
Mr. Henley said that he was encouraged by the response to his efforts to adapt music ministry to the pandemic. “I feel really fortunate that I was able to continue to make music through my church job, when so many people were not able to make music at all,” he said.
Now, as more familiar ways of making music return at churches across the United States, Ms. Yoder said that it is important to let the Holy Spirit lead the way in music ministry. She emphasized the need for patience as parishes transition away from virtual mass and back to in-person liturgies.
“You’re not God,” Ms. Yoder said. “As much as we want to control what’s going to happen, we have to be flexible. God’s got this.”
She also noted that the congregation returning to church is not the same congregation that was in the pews in winter 2020 and that the pandemic has been traumatic for parishes.
“I remember seeing at least four of our parishioners the Sunday before we completely shut down, and the next thing I knew we were preparing for their funerals,” Ms. Yoder reflected. “There is some trauma that happens to a music minister when you realize some of the people are not going to be there.”
As more familiar ways of making music return at churches across the United States, Ms. Yoder said that it is important to let the Holy Spirit lead the way in music ministry.
This summer and fall, she recommended, music ministers should take into account that some people are nervous to return to church; others have lost family members or friends to the virus. Amid the traumas wrought by the pandemic, Ms. Yoder said that it is important to make space for the new life and new starts that are now slowly becoming possible.
It doesn’t have to be singing, Ms. Yoder said, but choir directors and parish leaders should look for ways to “resurrect” their communities after a year and a half apart.
She described joyful reunions at a “homecoming” celebration hosted outdoors at her parish. Friends long separated by the pandemic were at first tentative, then eager to share hugs and stories, thanks to vaccinations and the outdoor venue. For Ms. Yoder, the outdoor events were a reminder that parish ministries should prioritize community—the parishioners needed music but also human connection.
“It was very emotional,” she said. “There were tears of joy.”
Aaron Renninger, the director of liturgy and music at St. Bede Catholic Church in Williamsburg, Va., had similar stories. Members of the choirs in his parish have celebrated the summer with outdoor potlucks in local parks, trying to maintain a sense of community.
Choir directors and parish leaders should look for ways to “resurrect” their communities after a year and a half apart.
The choirs will begin rehearsing again in the fall, he said. During the hiatus his parish, which serves about 3,000 families, has planned some changes and expansions to the choirs. Mr. Renninger is looking forward to returning to a robust music program.
“We’re excited to hopefully bring all of those groups back in the fall because it’s been in a musical desert without any of our ensembles for the past year and a half,” he said.
Although virtual choir projects and livestreamed liturgies began as stopgap measures, music ministers say that they will be using what they have learned about technology to serve a broader population moving forward.
Mr. Renninger said that all of his parish’s livestreamed Masses attracted viewers far from the church’s Virginia home. The livestream of the Spanish-language Mass reached online attendees as far away as Mexico and elsewhere in Central America. It is a trend that Mr. Renninger said testifies to the evangelization possibilities of continuing to incorporate technology into parish life and “reach beyond our immediate parish family.”
According to Mr. Renninger, livestreaming enabled some extended families who live far apart to pray together for the first time.
Music ministers say that they will be using what they have learned about technology to serve a broader population moving forward.
Similarly, technology can be a way to engage a larger proportion of parishioners. “Our homebound parishioners, in particular, and those in assisted living facilities are able to maintain contact with the parish family that they may not have been able to do pre-Covid,” Mr. Renninger said. His church will continue streaming events to improve accessibility.
Craig Colson, the director of music and liturgy at the Church of Holy Apostles in McHenry, Ill., shared a story about how digital evangelization can translate into in-person community.
“We had a lady come from Virginia last week, and she’s never set foot in the building, but she’s been watching us online,” he said. “She came to visit and said, ‘I feel like this is my home because I’ve been part of this for the past six months, every day.’”
Mr. Colson’s story underscores the longing for community that each of the music ministers witnessed. These reunions may well be the most celebrated aspect of increased in-person parish opportunities.
As Ms. Yoder said of the first Sunday when music at her parish resumed, “I didn’t care about the notes, I didn’t care about any of that stuff—I just cared about them coming together.”
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