QUAERITUR: deacon in music ministry

From a reader:

There is a situation I would like to ask your (or your readers’) advice about.
If a man whose job was to be a music director at a parish with a serious sacred music program perceived a calling to the diaconate and eventually was ordained a deacon, would he be able to continue his ministry as a choir director in the choir loft?  Or would he be required to serve as a deacon at the altar in every case?  More particularly, if there was a time when the priest wished to distribute holy communion under both species, would the deacon be obliged to do so in preference to any extraordinary minister, even if it meant abandoning the music program that he directs?
I’m not quite sure I see the solution to this from the official sources I’ve read so far.
Thanks for considering fielding this question on WDTPRS.

No, the deacon would not be obliged to leave the choir loft in favor of the presbyterium (the proper name for the sanctuary).

First, consider that the sacred music for Holy Mass should be the proper texts the Church assigns for Mass.  Other texts are substitutions.   The choir for Mass was through the centuries perceived as an extension of the ministry of clerics, serving Mass, since they were singing the texts for Mass.  This is one reason why there was a prohibition against mixed choirs.  This is a reason why some people don’t want lay people in the congregation to be singing chant responses, etc.   The idea is that the choir was an extension of service at the altar, even when not all the members of the choir were clerics.

Based on that, there is nothing incongruous for a deacon to be working in music ministry.  That is to say, he finds a d good and proper place in the choir loft.

Second, it is pretty hard to ask for clerics to mix ministries, as it were.  For example, consider the situation of a priest or deacon vested at the altar in the sanctuary who is simultaneously trying to act as the MC.  It just doesn’t go very well.  I would say that the same applies to the deacon who is in music ministry in the choir loft.  One or the other.

Third, in my experience I have know cleric musicians who indeed stay with the choir and do not leave it except for rare occasions.   For example, the great Fr. Perrone in Detriot stayed with the choir at Assumption Grotto parish.  The legendary Msgr. Richard Schuler of St. Agnes in St. Paul directed the choir for decades in the choir loft.  He would dress in his proper choir dress and remain there, unless there was a special reason – for example he also had to preach for a first Mass.

So, based on these points and my experience, I see no compelling reason why a deacon would be obliged to leave the choir loft for other duties during the course of a Mass.   I think he could if necessary, but I don’t think he must.

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  1. Midwest Organist says:

    One of the things holding me back from pursuing a possible vocation to the priesthood is that I don’t want to give up playing the organ for Mass, or give up my dreams of directing a schola someday. I’ve heard of men who are priests and still work with sacred music (like the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius) but such a thing is unheard of in my diocese. The Church needs priests, but she also needs musicians who understand sacred music. It’s tough to know what to do.

  2. Maureen says:

    The Catholic Church is all about “both and”. Follow your call, Midwest Organist, and the Lord will give you all your dreams or better!

    Some guy named Fr. Georg Ratzinger did a lot of choir directing in his day… and hey, I hear he’s got family connections with the Pope. You might want to look up his career. :)

  3. TNCath says:

    I think clerics who are involved in music ministry are often torn between their love for music and the exercise of their proper orders. There was a hospital chaplain that used to act as both celebrant and organist at Mass. The organ was located next to the altar, and he would hop on and off the organ throughout the Mass. While I could appreciate his desire to have music at Mass, it got very distracting and annoying to see him going back and forth.

    However, the examples of Msgrs. Schuler and Ratzinger, as well as the directors of the Cappella Sistina and Cappella Giulia, show that it CAN be done.

  4. Ann says:

    I think it is beautiful that he wants to serve God in this way. Outside of Mass our deacons do a lot around our parish, so his being a deacon would open up some of the other avenues of service and he could still do the music for Mass. I’m just a lay person thinking and giving a personal opinion, but this seems to me like a good thing this man wishes to do.

  5. Causus Omnium Danorum says:

    In days of fond memory in the Christendom College choir, the great Fr. Robert A. Skeris would direct us from the choir loft for Sunday High Mass, while the celebration of the Mass was undertaken by the other chaplain. We usually sounded better under his direction than anyone else’s anyway….

  6. Allen Murphy sfo says:

    Father, The place of the deacon is of course up to the bishop and his immediate priest supervisor. However in general I respectfully disagree. The deacon is to assist in charitable works, assist at the altar etc. The deacon is called to proclaim the Gospel, preach ( if given faculties), cleansing of vessels, ordinary minister of the eucharist, baptisms, witness of weddings etc. These are far more primary than engaging in music ministry.

  7. Allen Murphy sfo says:

    One other p.s. If an ordained deacon is present and there is a need for an additional person to distribute the eucharist, an ordinary minister must be called upon before considering an extraordinary minister of holy communion. Allen Murphy sfo

  8. Precentrix says:

    My immediate thought on this question is of the role of the deacon in the Byzantine rite – as they say:

    “When you find a man with a good mind and a good voice, ordain him deacon.
    “When he loses his voice, ordain him priest.
    “When he loses his mind, make him bishop.”


    More seriously, there is nothing at all incongruous about deacons or even priests directing the choir – especially if the choir is, umm, actually a liturgical choir. I mean, the rest of us church musicians are just stand-ins.

    What doesn’t work, is for a man to try and do two things at once. So, a priest who directs the choir for High Mass, will celebrate his own Mass later on, or whatever. I have directed choirs (of the non-strict definition, being a girl) including seminarians and priests, vested in – get this – choir dress, and it makes perfect sense if they are the ones capable of singing. But they weren’t simultaneously in the sanctuary. Our soon-to-be-ordained transitional deacon has frequently sung with the schola except for descending from the choir loft (believe me, this is difficult, since there is no direct access…) to distribute Holy Communion, before remounting. Of course, it becomes more difficult if the person in question is the director, but given that we value sacred silence, there is no reason why a director or organist could not do the same. I mean, I manage to receive…

  9. irishgirl says:

    In the parish where I used to be a lector and a cantor-I now go to the TLM exclusively-there was an organist who was studying to be a deacon. He was ordained about four or five years ago, and I think he still plays the organ at the parish he now attends.

    And speaking of priests who are musicians: one of my best friends in the early 1980s was a Franciscan priest who played the organ. I heard play twice-once at a St. Francis’ Day Mass in the parish in 1981 [the year I met him], and at a wake service for a Franciscan priest who died at an early age from cancer. When I visited him at his new parish in the North Country of New York State in 1982, he took me and my traveling companion on a tour through his little church. We went up to the choir loft, where he opened the organ, and from memory played the opening chords of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in C Minor…on one hand!

    I miss my friend-he got cancer in 1986, and died in 1990, just six months after celecbrating his Silver Jubilee. At the wake, I heard a funny story about a gathering of Franciscans a few miles from his North Country parish. After a spaghetti dinner, all the friars gathered around a piano, where my friend sat banging away on one tune after the other. Everybody was singing their lungs out and having a great old time….and then one of the friars got sick and THREW UP all over the back of my friend! So, of course, there was a shocking silence…and then my friend turned around, looked at the culprit, and calmly asks, ‘Are you commenting on my playing, or my selections?’

    Almost twenty years later, I have never forgotten this story….

  10. fatherz says:

    If anyone should hold that deacons MUST leave music ministry for the sake of distributing Communion rather than have laypeople distribute, perhaps it would be best to eliminate EMHCs and remove the conflict.

    Seriously, let no one think that music ministry with a proper view of sacred music is not truly liturgical ministry and therefore also service fit for deacons.

  11. fatherz says:

    Midwest: There is greater need for priests. And a priest who knows sacred music well is worth his weight in Gradualia Romana!

  12. Vincent says:

    I think this is a great idea to encourage men working in various ministries in parishes to consider the permanent diaconate. Surely this is what the fathers of Vatican II actually intended the restoration of the permanent diaconate for.

  13. Ken says:

    Some of the finest clergymen were composers, singers, choir directors and organists, such as Father Tomás Luis de Victoria (a favorite of many here, including me, a priest who served in all of those roles) and Father Claudio Monteverdi.

    There was a Musical Quarterly article on this subject in 1968:

  14. JaneC says:

    I sang under a choir director who was also a permanent deacon. He conducted a choir for an evening Mass, and generally if he were going to serve at the altar he did so in the morning. Sometimes, generally on major feasts (Easter, Christ the King), he did serve at the altar at the evening Mass, and one of his assistants took over the choir. I think this is a good solution for the deacon who is torn between the altar and the choir loft. Train an assistant who will be capable of directing the choir occasionally, with prior rehearsal. For important days, for which you rehearse more anyway, you can supervise your assistant in rehearsal and make corrections as necessary, not sacrificing your own role in the choir.

    Also, smaller groups can be trained to chant without being conducted. So, if the deacon-director is asked to leave the loft to distribute Holy Communion, maybe the choir is capable of singing the Communion chant without him.

  15. Father Gregory says:

    Wasn’t Palestrina a priest? So was Aichinger and many others through the centuries. The priestly or diaconal ministry doesn’t prevent the exercise of other ministries of course. If, however, someone is appointed “magister choralis” or “pulsator organorum,” then, when he directs the choir or plays the organ he is doing his appointed ministry in that situation. It would be absurd for him to break of accompanying the communion antiphon to distribute the cup.

  16. Ken says:

    Also, Father Antonio Lucio Vivaldi and Father Gregorio Allegri were notable ordained composers and musicians. Do it, Midwest Organist! (ICR, FSSP…)

  17. Josh Hood says:

    Among the Doctors of the Church, St. Ephrem the Syrian was both deacon and musician. He composed countless liturgical hymns and also established choirs of consecrated virgins. A deacon and church musician could have no greater patron than the holy Mar Ephrem!

  18. Noel says:

    The deacon need only assist at one Sunday Mass to fulfil a liturgical ministry. There is no call for him to assist in a liturgical role at many Sunday masses or even at daily mass, save,say, where the priest is infirm.
    The restored diaconate is specifically a ministry of charity and the liturgical functions are but one aspect – and are the visible sign of other good works he undertakes in fulfilment of his calling.

  19. Noel: Very good point about the one Mass. Well done.

  20. Precentrix says:

    “Servers, readers, commentators, *and members of the choir also exercise a genuine liturgical function*.”

  21. Perhaps if more GOOD music ministers became deacons we would have fewer poor music directors playing silly things at mass.

    And Deacons I have seen do fulfill a music roll often at mass. For instance, it is the Deacon’s Privilege to sing proclamations, such as the exultet

  22. At services where the Deacon is not crucial, such as Vespers, he will often join us at the kliros to chant. I suspect he will do so tonight (tomorrow for us is the Feast of the Nativity of the Forerunner John).

  23. geri says:

    Dr Ed Shaefer [sp?] the genius onetime director of the schola at Gonzaga is now Rev. Mr. Shaefer, and still is in music ministry as a deacon, I believe.

    And our cathedral has had more than one priestly music director.

    (Save the Liturgy, Save the World)

  24. Hans says:

    This is a question that interests me directly, as I’m in the choir (not the director, merely a lowly bass), and I’ve applied (am applying) for the diaconate. I look forward to learning how those intersecting roles will work together. I’ve received two basic patterns of advice concerning the issue: 1) Give up the choir and concentrate your energies on being a deacon; 2) For heaven’s sake, don’t give up being in the choir as you become a deacon.

    Everything I’d seen (though I considered this issue a couple years ago) has agreed with Fr. Z’s conclusion about such a requirement. Moreover, a deacon has certain roles that are essentially choral, such as singing the Exultet for the Easter Vigil. I don’t see why he would be any more required to distribute holy communion than he would be to proclaim the Gospel if a deacon weren’t already serving at the altar.


    I think, Midwest Organist, that I must agree with the consensus that you should pursue your priestly vocation. In this year of the priest, we are reminded how vital priests are: Without them we have little need for organists. Besides, think of all those seminarians (and later, priests) who would benefit from your positive influence. Or am I the only one who knows almost no young priests who aren’t at least a little afraid of singing? It’s not that they can’t sing, but they’ve learned (presumably unintentionally) to fear it, as if there’s going to be an exam. Not to mention the music directors whose lives will be influenced by yours.

  25. Hans says:

    Among the Doctors of the Church, St. Ephrem the Syrian was both deacon and musician. He composed countless liturgical hymns and also established choirs of consecrated virgins. A deacon and church musician could have no greater patron than the holy Mar Ephrem!

    Indeed, and the Venerable Bede (the only English-born Doctor, thus far at least) was a priest and musician (among many other things), composing many hymns; at least one of which that I can think of survived the ravishing of northern Europe.

  26. An English Pastor says:

    While it is not necessary that a Deacon fulfil his ministry on the sanctuary at every Mass, it is illicit to use extra-ordinary ministers when an ordinary minister is present. Certainly a Deacon could continue to work with the choir but to suggest that this as on an equal par with the exercise of Holy Orders in Sacred Liturgy seems a little off-key: the correct place for those in Holy Order during the liturgy is the presbyterium. Is it possible that the desire to remain with the choir rather than exercise a Sacred Order is not only to suggest the two are interchangeable, but that there is a failure to trust the Choir Director who replaces him? While a Deacon’s skill at music may well be very important, none of us is indispensible and we all need to hand over to someone else at some point in time. I concur with the suggestion that this shows the need for ending the use of EMHC.

  27. Hans says:

    While a Deacon’s skill at music may well be very important, none of us is indispensible and we all need to hand over to someone else at some point in time.

    That’s an important point, English Pastor. One of the deacons I spoke with along the way said that a large part of his job (in many non-liturgical matters) isn’t to try to do everything, but to get somebody in the parish to the point where they can sustain that effort, and then move on to the next thing.

    While music is liturgical, it isn’t specifically, or at least necessarily, a deacon’s role. So it would seem, very likely, to fall into the category of finding someone to do it full time.

  28. Ron says:

    I am most grateful for this question, Fr.Z’s response, and the comments from the readers, for I am beginning the final year of study for the permanent Diaconate. I have also been heavily involved with liturgical music for many years in the role of organist and director of two Gregorian Chant scholas. As such I have also had questions about the correct role of one, such as me, who would be both a Deacon and musician. Thanks much!

  29. Precentrix says:


    Surely, in the case of a proper schola (where the choir is, umm, in choir) there is no conflict (unless acting as one of the three sacred ministers at High Mass). If the choir is actually ‘in choir’, then the whole thing becomes a whole lot easier and more intuitive.

    Grrr for being a female singer/director!

  30. ssoldie says:

    Good grief! a husband, a father, grandfather, choir director, and a permanent deacon, I’d say his cup runnith over.

  31. Pope Paul VI in 1967’s Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem (General Norms for Restoring the Permanent Diaconate in the Latin Church) wrote that Deacon’s should be trained “in familiarizing the people with sacred chant and in directing it”.

    Since it wouldn’t make sense to train them for a role they’re not to carry out it would seem to me that directing a choir would be an fitting ministry for a Deacon.

  32. At my local cathedral (SS. Peter and Paul in Providence, RI), Msgr. Anthony Mancini was appointed music director in 1991 (succeeding Alexander Peloquin), while still serving as pastor elsewhere in the city. In 2004, he was named Cathedral rector while remaining as music director. He does have a separate organist (Phil Faraone, quite good!), though he also has played himself, and directs the Gregorian Concert Choir for all the big Masses at the Cathedral.

    As for deacons, my predecessor at Sacred Heart in Woonsocket was the late Deacon John Russell, who served as organist/choirmaster for about 50 years. He served in the sanctuary in his diaconate role for the 10:00 guitar Mass, played organ and directed the choir for all the others.

    On the other hand, we have another local permanent deacon not far from me that does all the goofy stuff (guitars, etc.)

  33. eddie says:

    Midwest, I would respectfully submit that it’s not about what you want to do, but rather what is the will of God for you. You love music, and God has blessed you with that gift, that talent. But is God perhaps calling you to become a priest? Is that God’s will for your life? Living the Christian life is, above all, discerning and doing the will of God out of selfless love for Christ. Based on what you wrote, I think you know what God is calling you to do.

    I will pray for you in your discernment.

  34. MAJ Tony says:

    Regarding discernment, one second year seminarian told us if you think you’re being called to priesthood, try to forget about it. If you really are being called, you won’t be able to forget about it.

  35. Another says:

    1 Chronicles 15:22

    Chenaniah, leader of the Levites in music, should direct the music, for he understood it.

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