The Singing Tradition of Byzantine Rite Churches

Technically speaking, we are “sui iuris (self-governing) Churches using the Byzantine Rite.” There are quite a few different churches using the Byzantine rite, and they can be grouped into categories of church, i.e. slavic, Greek, Russian, Antiochian, etc. The ones that most people are familiar with are churches in the slavic category (Ruthenian – which goes under the name of Byzantine Catholic Church in America, and Ukranian) as well as the Melkites. There are plenty of other Eastern Catholic sui iuris Churches that utilize different rites, i.e. Maronites, Chaldean, Syro-Malabar, etc. but for this article, I will be focusing primarily on churches using the Byzantine Rite, as this is where I have most of my experiential knowledge.

First Things First: Traditionally We Sing Everything

I know what some of you may be thinking: “at our church, we recite some liturgies.” Technically speaking, we aren’t supposed to be doing that. It continues for a few reasons:

  1. Back in the era of forced latinizations, many parishes adopted Romanesque practices such as kneeling during Sunday and Paschal liturgies (in violation of the 2nd Nicean Council) which have stuck because the people who grew up with the latinizations thing this is what a Byzantine Catholic church should look like and don’t want to change it.
  2. The parish is in a tourist area and wants to appeal to Roman Catholic visitors on vacation. Yes, this actually happens. You can tell it is a tourist church when the priest or some parishioner has to announce before liturgy that it is an Eastern Catholic Church but “we are still under the Pope, but we do things a little differently.” So, in this case, they are sacrificing their identity for tourist dollars.
  3. People and Priests are too lazy to change. Remember that this is a list of potential reasons, and I am not writing about anyone’s church specifically (i.e. I’m not calling anyone lazy or saying anyone is lazy. I’m saying that there are people who *might* be lazy. One is calumny or gossip, the other is just throwing out potential ideas. Know the difference). Let’s be honest, singing a liturgy takes effort. And it makes the liturgy take a lot longer. A recited liturgy will be over in 25 to 30 minutes, whereas a sung liturgy will take a minimum of an hour. For time reasons alone, some people prefer recited liturgies.

With this out of the way, we should understand why we sing and why it is bad when the liturgy is just recited. St. Augustine says “he who sings prays twice.” In the Metropolitan Cantor Institute (Byzantine Catholic Metropolia of Pittsburgh), it states that singing indicates “oneness of heart.” Our singing changes liturgy from being a ritual to being a truly communal worship, a joyful, yet a reverent celebration of the resurrection. When we reduce it to a recited liturgy, the goal shifts from prayer and worship to simply receiving a sacrament. That issue will be covered in a later (and likely shorter) article.

THE MUSIC IS DIFFERENT IN DIFFERENT JURISDICTIONS

That’s right. Just because you walk into a church using the Byzantine Rite does not mean they use the same music. They have the 8 tones and they have the same responses, but they are written to different music. This is because when churches began to develop in certain areas, popular melodies were adapted to fit the words of the liturgical words. Thus, Ruthenian tone 1 will be different than Ukranian tone 1, which will be different from Melkite tone 1, etc.

They are different sui iuris churches. Again, it is important to emphasize that there is no one single Byzantine Catholic Church.

CANTORS OR CHOIRS?

Some churches use a cantor or two to lead the congregation in singing. Some churches use a choir to sing the responses and the people will sing along. In my church, as the cantor, my priest tells me to let the people sing. That means I start the music, and then I let the people sing it (i.e. I shut up and listen) and if they start going off track, I jump in to correct them. Yes, it takes practice to learn how to do this while still providing for a reverent liturgy, but it is possible. My priest likes it because it forces the people to sing rather than rely on me to do it for them. Some cantors are told to sing at a regular volume so that the people have a base melody to sing along to. In this case, a lot of the people will listen rather than sing. Other churches have choirs who are told to sing in plainchant (i.e. non-harmonized melody). Lastly, there are choirs who harmonize melodies and sound truly beautiful. My priest doesn’t like the idea of that because he thinks that with a harmonized choir, the people will not sing along.

So what is the right way? Obviously, I have my opinions and my priest has his opinion, but it really depends on the tradition of your church. One thing I learned in the Roman Catholic Church is that you do not need to be singing or saying anything to be actively participating in the mass (internal participation). This is the case in our church when parishes choose to use the language of their ethnicity rather than in the vernacular (in our case, English). Some prefer to use Church Slavonic, and despite what some may think, that is not a latinization. Many Orthodox churches will choose to sing more ancient languages rather than the vernacular. (Ironically it was Saint Cyril and Methodius who translated the original liturgy into Slavonic – the vernacular of the Slavic people, who they ministered and brought the gospel to.) Singing in Slavonic or in Ukrainian, while it may be nice for immigrants isn’t so great for potential converts or visitors. An example would be a Melkite Catholic who moves and only has a UGCC nearby, which sings solely in Ukranian.

In these cases, if the person doesn’t know the language, they cannot sing along, but they can certainly pray in the reverent atmosphere of the church, thus actively participating without saying a word. Of course, unlike a Latin Mass, this shouldn’t be the primary means of worship, but rather a way of worshipping when one cannot sing along. And yes, it is possible to sing along without actually praying along, but again – a different topic for a different day.

SUMMARY

Overall, music is deeply ingrained in the liturgical life of Byzantine Catholics and is more than just background music or ambiance. It is truly the outpouring of one’s heart in the worship of God. The music may differ between jurisdictions, but the fact is that they all have their own music, thus a testimony to the great importance that it has in the liturgical life of the Church.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s