Liturgical Celebrations

Still Singing the Seldom Sacraments

April 15, 2008


CantorSome years ago I wrote an article urging song at celebrations of the “seldom sacraments.” I defined these as sacraments that members of the assembly seldom attend (unless in the case of weddings and infant baptisms they are celebrated during Sunday Mass), but that Church ministers do regularly: weddings, infant baptisms, and funerals. The U.S. Catholic Bishops’ new document, Sing to the Lord, invites us to take another look at how we prepare these celebrations, and how we still “sing” these sacraments.


The music for marriage is often the most challenging to prepare. Our secular culture impacts heavily on young couples and their experiences of friends’ weddings. What to do? We begin by preparing guidelines that are given to the couple when they first come to the rectory for their marriage prep. This material explains that their Wedding Mass is similar to Sunday Mass, with cantors, an organist, and congregational participation. In addition, we offer selections from the parish music resource as well as a few solo pieces appropriate for weddings. Four or five times a year there is a gathering of wedding couples (minus mothers of the bride, if possible!) to hear the music – hymns and organ pieces – the parish music ministry offers. The parish organist and cantors are present so the couples can hear the music as it would be done at their wedding, and the music director remarks on why a particular piece is appropriate for a wedding. We have this meeting near the organ, so the couples can watch the organist. The men in particular are impressed with how physical organ playing is! It’s a good moment to comment on how gifted the musicians are who will be at their wedding.

What value is such a wedding prep program?

° It is evangelizing, as couples get a glimpse at how the church cares for their wedding;
° It can reinforce the belief that Christ is really present in this sacramental celebration;
° Couples have come back to Mass to experience “just what Mass is like now” (as one couple told me).
° Sometimes couples continue to attend Mass, becoming active members of the parish community.

All because of the good wedding prep? Yes!

Infant Baptisms

Another “seldom sacrament” is infant baptism. A priest once told me “it’s a circus out there,” as we stood in the sacristy before the service began. Days later we sat with the ritual and prepared the music for the celebration. The next time we celebrated together we began with those magic words: “Please stand as we begin our opening hymn.” These words reminded folks that they weren’t just observers but had a part in what was going to happen. The music plan for these celebrations included:

° the opening hymn,
° verses to accompany the couples into the body of the church,
° the responsorial psalm,
° gospel acclamation,
° litany of the saints,
° an acclamation during the blessing of the water,
° an acclamation after each baptism and a closing hymn.

Too much singing? Not at all. Except for the opening and closing hymns, all are acclamations – no books needed, just follow the cantor’s lead. One moment that works especially well is the litany, with the saints’ names drawn from the names of the infants, their godparents, parents, parish patron, etc. Another high moment is the acclamation sung after the baptism: “Ashley Marie, you have put on Christ,” and so we sing that short refrain. One time someone asked where we had gotten the ritual: “This was so good. I’m on my parish baptism committee and ours is nothing like this.” My reply: Read the Rite for Baptism carefully, and see how many places beg for a song or acclamation.


Another “seldom sacrament” is the funeral liturgy. Parish consolation ministers visit with the family, offering the opportunity for input into the preparation of the funeral mass. People who are grieving don’t need too many options: keeping it simple is the goal. We ask families to select two or three hymns from a list of ten and we place them in appropriate spots for the liturgy. Important for participation is not just the hymns and readings, but the visibility and manner of the cantor, one who is up front, gently encouraging the singing. Sometimes there is very little participation; at other times, there is full participation. I recall the funeral of a young father who died in an accident. The widow and children were in the first row, singing quietly through their tears. The alleluia they sang still lives in my memory. What a testimony to faith.

These “seldom sacraments” offer us opportunity - and challenge – to continue striving for that “full, conscious and active participation” held out to us by the Vatican Council. Sing to the Lord continues to lead our way.

Sr. Sheila Browne, RSM is the Associate Director of the Office of Worship and the Catechumenate for the Diocese of Rockville Centre, New York, U.S.A.

Photo by Mike Jensen, Minneapolis, MN.

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