Kathy Irvin sees her role as cantor as inviting the assembly to be the singers of the Mass. Photo courtesy St. Patrick’s Parish

Cantor sets right tone for music ministry

  • October 3, 2019

Kathy Irvin admits she takes her role in music ministry seriously.

She believes it’s so important to the liturgical celebration that there’s simply no other way to approach it.

“I do take it a little seriously,” said Irvin, a cantor at St. Patrick’s Parish in Markham, Ont. “I love being a cantor and I love what it can bring to the people, to the assembly, when it’s done correctly.”

It’s a role with a long history in Christian circles. A cantor’s duties and qualifications have varied over time and its prestige has been so high it came close to the highest offices in the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Today, the cantor is the primary singer in the Mass at a parish, and is generally responsible for the choir and involved in the preparation of the liturgy, while also instructing others in their craft.

Music can be such an integral part of the Mass and Irvin believes the cantor can make or break a parish’s music ministry. It comes down to the subtleties. 

“Sometimes you’ve got to tell people what’s expected of them and you can do that by words, by your gestures, the look on your face, your posture, where you stand in the church,” said Irvin. “All of those things contribute to the cantor giving that invitation to the people to take their role.”

Irvin has the tools to know what she’s talking about. She’s been in church choirs since she was six, sang in community and school choirs and is a member of the semi-professional Amadeus Choir. She leads two Masses at St. Patrick’s and is the only Canadian with a Cantor Colleague Certificate from the National Association of Pastoral Musicians, the U.S.-based organization that supports the value of musical ministry. 

She’s now continuing her education and working on a cantor training certificate that will enable her to certify cantors in Canada.

She has seen many cantors give the wrong message at Mass.

“They forget about the role of inviting and making the assembly singers of the Mass as opposed to doing it for them,” she said.

Too often she’s seen the cantor with the amazing voice who takes over the Mass, preventing others from participating. She stresses the most important thing is that the Mass is for the participation of all.

“It’s trying to get (the cantor) to come down to the people’s level and to be that welcoming person and be the one that makes the people want to respond in the responsorial psalm and pick up their hymn books.”

The key, she said, is to be the story teller. They need to connect the readings, the Gospel and the psalm.

“So many people forget you’re supposed to be telling the story of what’s happening,” said Irvin, who in her day job works with the Bank of Montreal. “The psalm can be sung beautifully but if it isn’t the story you’re telling people aren’t getting it.”

These are some of the things Irvin is trying to pass on to future cantors. “I tell them it’s not about performing. You’re a leader, not a performer.”

Bill Targett led the choir at St. Patrick’s where he first met Irvin and convinced her to become a cantor. When he was director of the Office of Formation for Discipleship at the Archdiocese of Toronto, he brought Irvin in to offer a workshop for deacons to prepare to sing the Easter Exulted.

“The response of the deacons was excellent and most appreciated,” Targett said in an e-mail to The Catholic Register. “She has also offered workshops in some parishes and she is able to encourage and support the most reticent, the shy, the over-eager, the divas and all others a pastor sends to her for workshops.”

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