Joseph Muir sings the psalm during the Easter Vigil Mass April 11 at St. Mary Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland. Amid reports that singing spreads coronavirus more than speaking, church musicians are seeking ways to stay safe. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
Joseph Muir sings the psalm during the Easter Vigil Mass April 11 at St. Mary Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland. Amid reports that singing spreads coronavirus more than speaking, church musicians are seeking ways to stay safe. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
" It would be terrible if we had no singing at church. We can figure it out.  " Msgr. Gerard O’Connor Director of the Office of Divine Worship at the Archdiocese of Portland
With choirs and hymnals suspect because they may spread the coronavirus — and perhaps the next pathogen — what is the future of singing at Mass?

Though a few parishes have set singing aside for now, it clearly won’t be kept down. Liturgical experts say worship is inconceivable without the musical voices of the faithful. Scripture and church history show that the earliest Christians sang as part of their commemorations. The task amid the current pandemic, the experts say, is to believe the science and then adapt.

“For most of the problems in the world that have arisen, people have stepped up to work on that problem,” said Luke Rosen, music director at Corpus Christi Parish in Toledo, Ohio, and choir teacher at St. John’s Jesuit High School. “The entire world is working on this one. We will come up with better solutions than to shut choirs down for two years.”

Oregon Catholic Press, which publishes much of the nation’s Catholic liturgical music as well as this newspaper, is working with music directors and pastoral musicians around the country to find creative and safe ways to sing.

“I don’t believe removing all music and singing from Mass is the answer,” said Wade Wisler, publisher of OCP. “Our love for God and worship of him requires it.”

Wisler cites the old hymn “How Can I Keep from Singing?” as well as the Vatican II document “Sacrosanctum Concilium,” which said that Christ is “present when the church prays and sings.”

“There is a song in our hearts, a song that thanks, praises, and gives glory to God, and it must be sung. If not, ‘the stones will cry out!’” Wisler said, quoting Jesus from the Gospel of Luke.

Infection in a choir

One of the most dramatic instances of COVID-19 infection came on March 10 when the Skagit Valley Chorale an hour north of Seattle practiced for more than two hours in a concert hall about the size of a volleyball court. Choir members knew the virus was spreading in the metro area, so avoided shaking hands and hugging. They used hand sanitizer and brought their own copies of music. They did, however, share snacks.

A single carrier of the coronavirus — who had minor cold symptoms — spread the disease to 52 of 60 choristers. Two died.

Some investigators reported that singing, more so than talking, turns respiratory droplets into vapor that can carry the virus as far as 16 feet. And singers take big gulps of air. It’s a heyday for a virus, the researchers said.

The American Choral Directors Association held a May 5 webinar in which health officials explained some views of the science. The webinar’s bottom line: There is no safe way for choirs to perform or rehearse until a COVID-19 vaccine is proven effective.

Later studies posited that the originally-infected Skagit choir member likely was a super-spreader, a relatively rare person who for some reason emits high doses of the virus.

Use creativity

Rosen, also a composer of sacred song, said church musicians should not panic but should rise to the occasion with creativity. He has proposed plexiglass shields or even booths to keep singers and congregations safe, at least for the next year or two.

“Choir directors around the world know we aren’t going to go back to what we were doing,” said Rosen. But canceling choirs for Mass and other events six months or a year ahead is unwarranted, he argues.

“The only way forward cannot be to just stop,” said Rosen, who thinks the Skagit Valley example is not enough to draw scientific conclusions. Though he wants everyone to take bold precautions now, he called for more study.

“I don’t think we are giving science enough credit,” he said, predicting that there will be quick tests to ensure choir members are healthy before they sing.

Rosen said science might also save songbooks, suggesting ultraviolet light. New York City is now experimenting with ultraviolet lamps to kill the coronavirus on its buses and trains. Medical operations have long used the high-intensity light for disinfecting operating rooms and clinic surfaces.

What parishes face

Most Catholic parishes will continue music with a small crew. With only 25 people allowed in a church at one time in western Oregon, pastors don’t want limited spaces filled by singers and other liturgical ministers.

Wisler of OCP said that, under the present circumstances, a single cantor and accompanist is reasonable, as is focusing on songs the community already knows and loves.

In the Archdiocese of Portland, cantors need not wear masks, but only worshippers who have masks can sing along.

Only a few parishes in western Oregon have nixed music for the time being. “Congregational singing will not be employed as I have seen little tendency toward the wearing of face masks and this is essential to have singing,” Father William Palmer said in a note to members of Sacred Heart Parish in Newport.

All parishes have been ordered to remove communal songbooks as a way to prevent spread of the virus. “We don’t want to have to sanitize books after every Mass,” said Father Ken Sampson, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Medford.

The Catholic Church has a long history of people bringing their own missals to Mass. The pandemic may revive that custom.

Some parishes are making missals and hymnals available for parishioners to pick up and take home. For example, Sacred Heart Parish in Southeast Portland puts the books in boxes outside the church, and parishioners stop by to grab a copy. Other parishes are encouraging parishioners to purchase their own personal copies of the books to bring to church or to use at home during livestreamed Masses.

Early in May, OCP surveyed more than 600 parish workers across the nation who subscribe to OCP songbooks. Only 2% of respondents said their parishes would cut all music during the pandemic and reopening phases.

About a third predicted they would use songbooks less after coronavirus restrictions are lifted. About 30% said they plan to have Mass with just a cantor and one instrumentalist, and 17% count on having a smaller choir. Around 12% said they would purchase missals for parishioners to use at home. About 3 in 10 parish leaders who will continue to livestream Masses said they are likely to offer digital music files for their viewers.

OCP in mid-May informed parishes that have purchased OCP missals and hymnals that they can use songs OCP owns, publishes and administers for livestream worship without purchasing a license. The move, which extends through the current liturgical year, got a grateful response.

Participation, but safe

The real question is crafting liturgy so the people of God can participate as fully as possible while staying safe, said Benedictine Father Godfrey Mullen. He taught liturgical theology for 14 years at St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology and now is rector of St. Benedict Cathedral in Evansville, Indiana.

“We’re looking for a middle road that respects the science as we have it but respects the rights of the faithful to participate actively,” Father Godfrey said. He cites teaching from the U.S. Catholic bishops, who say song is a gift God has bestowed upon his people. “Removing that should not be done lightly,” Father Godfrey said.

He knows that masked worshippers cannot project their voices, but he thinks that is a decent compromise that keeps people safe while allowing worship.

“We cannot eliminate the risk, but there are ways we can do it safely,” said Msgr. Gerard O’Connor, director of the Office of Divine Worship at the Archdiocese of Portland. “Music is such an important part of Catholic liturgy. It would be terrible if we had no singing at church. We can figure it out.”

Msgr. O’Connor predicted that while choirs are on hold for now, they will return and “will always be a part of Catholic liturgy.”

One solution to the absence of songbooks is musical simplicity, said Msgr. O’Connor. The church has a rich collection of antiphonal singing — songs in which all repeat a simple refrain with the cantor singing verses. The responsorial psalm is in antiphonal form. There are antiphonal arrangements for processions, Communion and other parts of Mass.

Some churches have suggested projecting music and lyrics onto a screen or wall during Mass. That does not fit Catholic liturgy, Msgr. O’Connor said. He describes projection as a “secular and worldly” practice imposed on a timeless action.

Participation in liturgy is vital, but that does not always mean doing something, said Father Andrew Menke, executive director of the Secretariat of Divine Worship for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“What participation means is that with your mind and heart you are part of that prayer,” explained Father Menke. “I am by no means discouraging singing, but a mature Catholic realizes that I can participate even if I am not singing a hymn.”

Listening as a cantor sings and meditating deeply might be one way liturgical music will happen during the pandemic, and that is acceptable to Father Menke.

Hungry for sung worship

Singing for worship is not fading, but just the opposite, said Steve Petrunack, president of the Maryland-based National Association of Pastoral Musicians. Petrunack likens the current halt on choirs to fasting that enlivens desire.

“What music does to us as human beings is so profound that to say we can worship without it — we don’t buy that,” Petrunack said.

Petrunack agrees that, unless there are effective solutions, choirs will need to wait for a vaccine against Covid-19. “Safety is the priority,” he said. At the same time, he added, his association and other liturgical leaders must continue to declare that “music is embedded in our worship of God.”

While respecting current science, it’s important to know that the studies are not done, Petrunack added.

“We now find ourselves in a time when singing together, based on scientific evidence, is somewhere between difficult and dangerous,” the association said in a May 22 statement. “We call for continued cooperation among medical experts and pastoral ministers in developing solutions for singing safely and pledge our support for such efforts.”

Petrunack accepts solutions like distancing and plexiglass. He is skeptical of masks on choir members, since he has heard anecdotal reports that masked singers soon get woozy for lack of oxygen.

Solution by simplicity

Mass without a choir is a sad notion for Angela Westhoff-Johnson, who has directed music at St. Mary Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Portland for 26 years. She often is moved to tears when she hears a big congregation sing along with her big choir.

At the cathedral, the pandemic solution has been two or three singers standing six feet apart and facing away from anyone else in the church. “There is so much beautiful stuff you can do with reduced numbers,” Westhoff-Johnson said. She has been able to find antiphonal pieces that fit the liturgy of the day and are simpler for worshippers at home or without hymnals.

“The safety of all people is most important,” Westhoff-Johnson said. “It will be awhile, but I don’t think choirs will go away.”

In line with many liturgical musicians, Westhoff-Johnson said a choir in masks would muffle sound and degrade worship. She reluctantly accepts the idea of singers behind plexiglass as a safety measure, explaining that the human connection between everyone at Mass helps carry a vital message of unity.

“I am an incorrigible optimist,” said Myrna Keough, director of music at Mount Angel Abbey and a professor of music at the seminary there. “I think the Lord is going to work through this.”

Keough said the pause on choirs may allow Catholics to step back and contemplate what beautiful music means in liturgy.

Meantime, she suggests that trios or quartets lead songs in antiphonal form. “Our priority is still for the music to be beautiful,” Keough said. “That may just look different.”

Choirs could stand in ways that can promote safety. Keough recalls historic St. Mark Church in Venice, with singers spread around giving a lovely sound.

She also plays organ and leads music for livestreamed Masses from St. Paul Parish in Silverton. Though her hands are occupied, she is the cantor, too, with a microphone strapped to her face. She keeps music simple and singable for the remote congregation, then sends them off with a big, roaring hymn on the organ, something that will remind them all day of their encounter with the Almighty.