During Advent, parish music ministries across the diocese are working to ensure that Christmas Eve won’t be a silent night.
Preparing to celebrate the first Christmas under social distancing guidelines and COVID-19 restrictions, they are shining a new light on well-loved traditions — finding creative ways to make Christmas 2020 truly a season of joy in these darkest days of the year.
“It might not be just like it was before,” said Patty Trail, pastoral care coordinator at St. Luke, Virginia Beach, “but it can still be a reverent and beautiful holiday.”
Joyful and triumphant: overcoming challenges
Music has been part of the season for almost as long as the celebration of the holy day itself, with St. Hilary of Poitiers’ “Jesus refulsit omnium” ( “Jesus illuminates all”) dating to just a few years after the first recorded celebration of Christ’s Mass in 336.
“Music is a vital part of the Mass,” said Steven James, music director at St. Vincent de Paul, Newport News. COVID-19 restrictions might present a few challenges to music ministers this year,” he said, but “we’ll always have music.”
Traditionally, James said, Christmas Mass at St. Vincent de Paul has featured a full Gospel choir. “Go Tell It on the Mountain” serves as the Mass’ customary entrance song and recessional, he said, but this year, he’s making a few adjustments.
“We won’t have the choir this year, of course,” he explained. “And, as a piece, it’s not as effective with a soloist.”
James said he is considering drafting a new arrangement of the song, one better suited to a single cantor accompanied by the piano. He said that he also plans to include “Silent Night” and “O Come, All Ye Faithful” in this year’s repertoire.
“I want to keep to songs that are familiar so that the congregation can all sing along in their minds,” he said. “We aren’t encouraging singing aloud this year, so we are hoping everyone will sing along in their thoughts.”
Aaron Renninger, director of liturgy and music at St. Bede, Williamsburg, said his parish’s music ministry is also making some tweaks to tradition — and embracing a spirit of teamwork — in bringing music to every Mass this year — all 14 of them.
To lessen the size of the crowds, St. Bede, a parish of around 3,000 families, is planning to celebrate up to 14 Masses at three different locations this Christmas: in the church’s worship space, in the parish hall, and at the nearby Shine of Our Lady of Walsingham.
It’s a schedule that will prove a challenge, especially in 2020. In years past, Renninger said, a Christmas Mass at St. Bede might have featured one of the parish’s seven choirs, accompanied by a brass quintet and timpani, and augmented, at times, with singers and musicians.
“So a lot of my resources are out of commission this year,” he said.
Renninger said his ministry will be adjusting its repertoire to suit the season’s sparer, softer sound and banding together with liturgical volunteers to make each Mass something special.
“It will be a little different, but we will definitely have music at each Mass — a cantor and an accompanist,” he said. “We just feel fortunate that we have the space to do this, so that we can bring everyone together.”
‘What hope we have’
“This Christmas is not going to be how it always was,” said Tom Kaczmarek, music director at St. Michael the Archangel, Glen Allen. “There is a real longing, in this season, for things to be as they always were. But then again, if we think about it, we realize they never really were. Things are always changing, all the time.”
Kaczmarek said that, through the months of quarantine, it’s been his goal to find new ways to gather the ministry’s volunteers together so that they might continue to bring music to the parish. Choir practice is still on Wednesday nights, just as it always was, only now he is recording each singer and musician one person at a time.
The recordings are then mixed and edited to produce videos that can be inserted into live-streamed Masses or uploaded onto the parish’s YouTube channel so that parishioners can sing along with them at home.
This summer, the ministry put together a video of “Hallelujah is Our Song,” a song Kaczmarek said drew him in with its upbeat, Appalachian vibe and with its message.
“The lyrics really seemed meant for our times — ‘what peace we have,’ ‘what hope we have, even in the longest night,’” he said. “Even though they were apart, when you watch the video, you can see it, the joy in everyone’s faces, in connecting with people they couldn’t see or hear.”
For Christmas, the ministry will be bringing more parishioners together as it holds a virtual reunion of sorts, of all those who have participated in the St. Michael children’s choir over the past 20 years. Each singer will be recorded performing “A Song of Peace,” a song that’s been a standard for the choir for the past two decades.
“It will be the children’s choir, alumni edition,” Kaczmarek said. “We’ll have current members singing along with those currently in their early 30s. A living mosaic of people.”
Christmas Masses at St. Michael will feature live music, he said — only rather than performances by the choir and an ensemble of strings, brass and percussion, they’ll feature a single cantor accompanied by piano and a string section.
“Strings are in vogue right now, because they don’t exhale,” he said, laughing.
The challenges his ministry has faced over the past year, Kaczmarek said, are representative of our times: during quarantine, it’s easy to lock yourself away, he said; it helps when people can find something to work on together, a common goal.
And music, of course, is one of them.
Quiet, reflective sound
Church of the Incarnation, Charlottesville, is also working to bring its parishioners together while embracing a quieter, more reflective sound this year.
At Christmas, said John Konstrain, coordinator of worship, the parish typically celebrates multiple Masses, with the parish’s family choir ringing in the season at the Christmas Eve afternoon Mass, with all the well-loved carols worshipers know by heart.
“It’s a beautiful tradition we have at Church of the Incarnation,” he said. “Rather than children singing in a separate choir, it’s made up of parents singing along together with their children.”
The choir will not be performing this year, but Konstrain said that music will still, as always, be a part of the celebration.
For Christmas, the parish plans to celebrate Masses in English and Spanish, with each Mass featuring a cantor accompanied by piano.
“We will have all the traditional songs that people are familiar with.” Konstrain said. “The songs we hope will bring everyone a sense of being together when we’ve been so much apart. Very festive, very much in the spirit of Christmas.”
Joy to the world — all the world
Music is a universal language, it’s often said, but at St. Luke, Virginia Beach, three other languages also hold a treasured place in celebrating the liturgy.
It’s long been a tradition at the parish to celebrate a trilingual Mass in Spanish, English and Tagalog during the Christmas season — a Mass that ends on a definite high note, with a rendition of “Joy to the World” sung in all three languages.
The Mass, however, requires an inordinate amount of teamwork, with cantors fluent in each language, “so, we won’t be holding it this year,” Trail said. “We just can’t have that many people together all at once.”
Instead, the parish will be celebrating Masses in English, with music provided by a cantor and piano, and in Spanish, featuring a cantor and guitar.
St. Luke parishioners might also have the chance to participate in the Filipino tradition of Simbang Gabi — a devotional series of nine Masses held in the days leading up to Christmas.
Trail said St. Luke is collaborating with area parishes to see if they might take turns hosting the Masses, as it’s not easy in these days of social distancing to simply throw open the church doors without planning.
“We want to be sure we can hold all nine Masses and that we can accommodate everyone,” Trail said. “Actually, the best thing people can do this year is to register, to let churches know your plans, so they can plan accordingly.”
That way, she said, they can make sure there is room for everyone, this Christmas, at the inn.
Comfort and joy: keeping connected
Dan Keeley, music director at Our Lady of Nazareth, Roanoke, said that in looking for ways to bring the faith community together for Christmas the parish staff is turning to technology to forge a sense of togetherness.
In lieu of the traditional caroling, Keeley said, the music ministry plans to pre-record choir members, each singing separately, performing a mix of contemporary and traditional music, in order to produce a video that can be shown as a prelude to the Mass.
The parish’s new youth group, OLN Youth Creates, a performing arts and communications group formed in direct response to the recent spate of COVID-19-related cancellations, will also get the chance to participate in working on the video, with a rendition of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”
“We got tired of telling the kids that everything is cancelled,” said youth minister Meg Griffith. “So we decided to start something new. They’ve been excited about it. And for us, it’s been a chance to say ‘yes,’ instead of always having to say ‘no.’”
Keeley said that an added benefit of producing the videos is that they can be shared with parishioners at home.
“It’s a challenge to make Christmas feel like Christmas this year,” he said. “It’s a sad time for many. We are hoping that these pre-recordings will bring some joy into people’s holiday.”
Let nothing you dismay
At Christ the King, Abingdon, music director Melanie Coddington said her ministry has found that, amid COVID-19 restrictions, they have an unexpected advantage.
“We have a small choir, 10 or 12 at the most. So scaling back hasn’t been a problem,” she said.
Coddington said that her parish’s choir is largely liturgical; they rarely sing by themselves, but when they do, they tend to specialize in shorter pieces and in rounds.
“We don’t have a lot of voices,” she said, “but by layering the voices we do have, we’ve managed to create some very good music.”
Coddington said the secret to the group’s success is the unison they have achieved in working together — collaborating on small details from how to pronounce vowel sounds to where to place each breath in a song.
It’s a degree of teamwork that has come in handy these past few weeks as they have embarked on a new project together: a prerecorded Christmas concert that can be played as a prelude to the Christmas Eve Mass, which will also be prerecorded and uploaded to the parish’s private YouTube channel, and that can also be piped into the church’s sound system before the in-person Mass on Christmas Day.
“We are a small parish with limited resources, so we haven’t invested in a mixer and a lot expensive equipment,” Coddington said. Instead, they’ve been using a parishioner’s camera to record.
Since the air handling system in the church is fairly loud, they’ve been turning it off during recording sessions, and so, to stay on the safe side, they’ve been going into the church in groups of twos and threes, every few days, recording one song at a time, tag-teaming and doubling up on tasks.
“One of our altos is also our camerawoman,” she said with a laugh.
The concert will include a series of rounds, including “Christmas Bells are Ringing,” “Jubilate Deo Omnis Terra,” and “Rose Tree Carol,” as well as a solo of “O Holy Night.”
Coddington said it’s the ministry’s hope that a concert by the parish’s own choir and pianist will add a glimmer of familiarity and festivity to Christ the King’s Christmas.
“And, just like everyone else,” she said, “I can’t wait to get everyone back together and singing again.”
Let every heart prepare him room
Dr. James Gallatin, music director at Sacred Heart, Norfolk, said he plans to take advantage of his parish’s worship space — a basilica-style building with a large hall lined by colonnades — to make sure his musicians are socially distanced.
With one cantor in the choir loft and an instrumentalist at the front of the church, he said, his musicians will be far more socially distanced than what the guidelines call for, while filling the church with the sounds of the holy day — a bit toned-down, perhaps, but still full of the light of Christmas.
“Christmas will always be Christmas,” Gallatin said. “It doesn’t change. We’ll come in with ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful,’ and go out with ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing.’” Today Christ is Born. A proclamation that’s true whether it’s sung by a choir of hundreds or murmured from behind a mask.
It’s different, but it’s still Christmas
No choirs nor congregations singing. While strings and percussion are allowed, no angels will be heralded with brass and woodwinds. Those absences, according to Father Sean Prince, will make Christmas “very different, very odd” this year, just as the Church’s celebrations of the Triduum and Easter were odd.
“We’ve been down this road, sadly, of sacrificing these major liturgical celebrations in life that we live as Catholics in the Church in these moments,” said Father Prince, director of the Diocese of Richmond’s Office of Worship. “But we celebrated Triduum and Easter; it was different, but there was still Easter Sunday. We will celebrate Christmas Eve and Christmas Day; it will be different, but it’s still a celebration.”
To offer encouragement to those concerned about the impact COVID-19 restrictions will have on Christmas, Father Prince notes that churches were closed during the Triduum and Easter, with a maximum of 10 people allowed at the Sunday Mass.
“The music might be different, caroling may not be there, but for Christmas we can actually still gather as Church at this moment,” he said. “We can receive the Eucharist, and all members of the faithful can feel comfortable doing so.”
Father Prince, a member of the diocese’s COVID-19 Task Force, said the diocese has been effective in passing along to the parishes the COVID prevention information it has received from the governor’s office and the CDC.
“We as a Church, from what I’ve seen and understand, have done a very good job in this time of pandemic,” he said, noting the implementation of protocols, practices and guidance the task force provided.
While some are bemoaning how different Christmas will be, Father Prince suggested they reflect on the true nature of Advent.
“This is a season of waiting and of anticipation, a season of darkness waiting for the light. The pandemic has given us a new and more tangible understanding of the liturgical season of Advent,” he said. He encouraged the faithful to ask themselves: “How can I unpack, unlock and understand in a unique way the life we are currently living and its intersection with the liturgical life we’re living?”
He continued, “The Lord has offered us an incredible moment here to really see what the Church has been teaching for centuries: that the liturgical life really does guide our everyday life and is connected to our everyday life. This Advent season and Christmas season couldn’t speak more clearly and beautifully to that teaching of the Church.”
— Brian T. Olszewski