Getting What you Pay For with Liturgical Music

A new president gets to appoint an entirely new cabinet when he's elected, but a parish priest is "stuck" with the same choir director as before. This is the topic of Fr. Z's, blog - a lead I got from @4catholics.

I can sympathize with some of the things that he brings up, but there are a few points left out that reflect the reality of running a parish-especially when it comes to paid staff and the church's available funds. This is true especially in urban and/or poor parishes. It's unfortunate that musicians can be out of sync with the presider (and the congregation), but from a friar who regularly attends Mass at poor and minority parishes, it is only a "problem" for parishes that can afford another Music Director.


Most of our priests are in poor parishes in Chicago, Milwaukee, and Detroit. Because of the ethnic focus of our Order, these parishes are mostly Latino or African-American. That often leaves them with less available funds than a suburban parish. An inner-city parish can bring in $2000 a weekend in gifts, while a suburban parish can bring in $22,000. In spite of this disparity, a poor parish still attempts to offer services such as RCIA, retreats, youth groups, CCD, and marriage encounters...but using volunteers instead of paid staff. Many of the Capuchin parishes couldn't offer the services we do without the devoted and gracious assistance of parishioners who volunteer their time. We always attempt to foster and show gratitude for their participation in the church community.

While I praise the commitment of volunteers, that doesn't mean I'm against paid church staff. I know many men and women who have attended school and gotten degrees to help in the management of parishes. These are highly qualified people, and like anyone else, they should be paid for their skill. Whether they are a youth minister, pastoral associate, secretary, or music director, all these roles require a skill set that most priests would gladly pay for. Even janitors and grounds keeping are needs not often considered. And if a parish cannot afford these services, they must seek volunteers or do the tasks themselves.

Church singers and musicians are no different. Choir directors and organists have a specific skill set. (Choir directors have a special place in my heart, because they deal with the personalities, egos, and preferences of a group of singers.) Choir directors and musicians can make $35-50k a year, all depending on their skill. In African-American Catholic parishes, the choir director can make more than the priest. Music is an important part of worship and liturgy, and these realities of running a parish influence how I look at the "problem" of religious music today.

Fr. Mike Bertram OFM Cap. leads the musicians during the
Liturgy of First Vows at St. Francis Parish in Milwaukee.
Churches that I attend have musicians that volunteer to participate and share their gifts with the parish...sometimes at all the Masses. Whether they are singers, organists, guitarists (like myself), or violinists, they participate in the Liturgy and fill a role that the parish cannot readily afford. There are great musicians that volunteer, and there are people like me who are just trying to fill a need. Either way, their gifts and their commitment are appreciated and are a blessing to the entire community.

So when I attend a Mass where the music is a little boring, or the cantor is a little off, or the song choice is not to my liking, I'm inclined to be thankful for the willingness of someone who desires to share their gift. More times than not, these people are just trying to fill a role, and will happily take any assistance that is offered. As someone who sometimes does the "fill in," my focus is to be relevant to the Mass and Liturgical calendar and to use music that is appropriate.

When you're at Mass next Sunday, and you hear Taste and See and think "Why don't they ever pick other music?" find out more about the music in your parish. Your music director may be working as a volunteer or for a very low salary to fill a need in your church. And if you have the gift of music and are willing to commit, you may be able to be to help change the music.

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1 Response to Getting What you Pay For with Liturgical Music

December 13, 2010 at 11:48 AM

I'm not in a position to take part in the performance of the music during worship, but I find that the music director is open to suggestions. Since I told her how great I think "How Can I Keep from Singing" is, we've had it as a recessional hymn a couple of times a year. I suggested "The King Shall Come" for Advent, but it was already the Second Sunday, and she didn't include it that day or yesterday, and it doesn't really fit the Fourth Sunday, since it refers to the coming in glory at the end of time. Maybe next year, if I think of it, I can make the suggestion in a more timely fashion.

At any rate, we can all make respectful suggestions. Some may not be implemented, but some may be.