QUAERITUR: bishop won’t allow choir to be in choir loft

From a reader:

Our priest wanted to move the choir loft into the open attic space at the back of our church (over the narthex), [the logical place for a choir loft] but he said the bishop would not let him “because Vatican II said the choir should be in a place where it can lead the congregation.” 

(Our priest was successful in moving it from the sanctuary – opposite the altar – to a place down the steps in the front corner of the church.) 

I have searched Sacrosanctum Concillium, but have not found anything pertaining to the placement of the choir. 

Did I miss it, or what?

If His Excellency is really interested in following the Church’s documents about liturgical participation and sacred music, I would imagine that he is vigorously promoting the use of the pipe organ and Gregorian chant, which have the very first places in all the Church’s sacred music.   If His Excellency is so interested in the proper application of liturgical norms, I am sure he has followed Sacrosanctum Concilium 54 ("… steps should be taken so that the faithful may also be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them.").   If he was the local ordinary before 2007, how did he apply Ecclesia Dei adflicta? How about Ecclesia de mysterio? Are there any parishes in the diocese which do not celebrate the sacred rites in conformity with the rubrics?  Are they any points of Redemptionis Sacramentum which might need to be reviewed?

Okay… now that I have that out of my system….

I am guessing that the bishop, who is probably of a certain age, is thinking of a 1964 document called Inter Oecumenici in which we read the silly statement:

The choir and organ shall occupy a place clearly showing that the singers and the organist form a part of the united community of the faithful and allowing them best to fulfill their part in the liturgy.

I use the strong word "silly", because I can’t fathom how a person would get the idea that people in a choir loft weren’t participating in the liturgical action. Inter Oecumenici was written back in the day by the liturgical experts who were in the throes of making everything "meaningful".  Everyone had to see everything in order to "participate".   I think we have grown out of that limited and limiting notion.  Furthermore, the place where they are best allowed to fulfill their role would be a place where the acoustics are best and where they are not a distraction to others and to themselves.  More on that below.

I think there is also something about this in Musicam sacram of 1967.  The 2000 GIRM says in "The Place for the Choir and the Musical Instruments":

312. The choir should be positioned with respect to the design of each church so as to make
clearly evident its character as a part of the gathered community of the faithful fulfilling a specific
function. The location should also assist the choir to exercise its function more easily and
conveniently allow each choir member full, sacramental participation in the Mass. [I don’t see why coming down from the choir loft, or having a priest/deacon go to the loft with Holy Communion is so very haaard.  And if a choir is singing, will anyone be confused about their presence?   "GaaaWLEE!? Where’s da sound cumin’ frum??"]

The problem with putting a choir in front of everyone’s eyes (let’s not even contemplate putting them in the sanctuary where the clerical choir belongs) is that it gives the impression that the choir is performing.  It gives also the wrong sense to the musicians (if they can be so called) as well. 

It seems to me that making the choir too easily visible in the church places too much emphasis on their physical presence and appearance rather than on the prayer they contribute in the form of sacred music.   Having the choir up front is just another distraction.  Even for the members of the choir it is a distraction.

Moreover, in most older churches, the building’s acoustics will favor the positioning of the organ and choir in the choir loft.  A choir can usually sing without amplification when they are in a choir loft, thus avoiding yet another layer of artificiality in the sacred action.

I think the bishop should let the church building be the church building it was designed to be and let the priest in this case make the good choice to put the choir in the loft. 

There is after all a fairly good track record for choirs in lofts.  That has been successful for centuries. 

I think it could be successful now, too.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. JimGB says:

    Perhaps someone shuold also point out these documents to the Rector of the Basilica of the National Shrine in Washington DC. Doesn’t the chior there usually occupy the area directly behind the “Cramner’s Table” altar and in front of, and with their backs to, the high altar?

  2. PghCath says:

    Amen! Liturgical music is extremely important, but choirs – and especially cantors – should be heard, not seen.

  3. basilorat says:

    “If His Excellency is really interested in following the Church’s documents about liturgical participation and sacred music, I would imagine that he is vigorously promoting the use of the pipe organ and Gregorian chant, which have the very first places in all the Church’s sacred music. If His Excellency is so interested in the proper application of liturgical norms, I am sure he has followed Sacrosanctum Concilium 54 (“… steps should be taken so that the faithful may also be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them.”). If he was the local ordinary before 2007, how did he apply Ecclesia Dei adflicta? How about Ecclesia de mysterio? Are there any parishes in the diocese which do not celebrate the sacred rites in conformity with the rubrics? Are they any points of Redemptionis Sacramentum which might need to be reviewed?”

    Damn, I like the way you fight! I’ll remember that. You’re in my prayers… hope you’re feeling better.

  4. Has anyone asked the choirs which they prefer? Just curious, since most of the cantors I know prefer the loft because a. Their families can sit with them b. It’s easy to see the altar. c. Acoustics are better. d. They don’t feel like they’re on display.

    From a purely personal POV, I prefer the lofts because they keep my babies happier (they enjoy looking over my shoulder and seeing the people singing up there.)

  5. TomG says:

    JimGB is right about the Basilica choir’s positioning, but I think they have made the best of an imperfect situation. There really isn’t anywhere else to put them because of the Basilica’s design. And anyway, the NO altar is quite elevated and you can’t really see the choir from the pews.

  6. RichR says:

    When we travel to other parishes to sing, the men’s schola cantorum that I sing in always insists on using the choir loft. Sometimes we’ve had priests try to coax us down into the sanctuary, but we stand firm. The compromise we’ve found that works well is for the Responsorial Psalm, we have the cantor walk down to sing from the ambo (which is a legitimate option since the Psalm is from Sacred Scripture). This seems to placate most pastors.

    Incidentally, we find that the people do just fine catching their cues as long as you use your voices or the pipe organ stops well.

    People aren’t stupid.

  7. nanetteclaret says:

    Having the choir located in the front where the congregation sits has resulted in several of the members singing as if they are each giving a concert. They all compete to see who can sing the loudest – it is just a collection of soloists and not a true choir.

    Father, is an electronic organ permitted? I thought I read somewhere that it has to be a pipe organ and not a synthesizer-type instrument. The instrument we have is a synthesizer-type and the organist has it set on “baseball game.”

  8. TJerome says:

    sounds kind of silly that the bishop got involved in this issue.

  9. Jason says:

    I regularly attend a TLM and our Pastor is a wonderful and dedicated liturgist. We have an old church with the loft and organ above the narthex.

    About a year ago the parish purchased a brand new organ. It took a month or so to be installed and, in that time, a temporary organ was rolled in. It was placed in really the only place it could be at the front of the church off to the side of the sanctuary. The choir, of course, stood with the organist.

    They were an obvious distraction during Mass (mostly because they are so good). Especially when the female soloist would begin with her beautiful voice, all heads were faced towards her, and not the altar. Minds and hearts were not in prayer, but busy being entertained/enthralled by the choir.

    I pointed out to my daughter and the other girls we bring to Mass with us where everyone was focusing their gaze and, after Mass, explained to them “THAT is why the choir belongs in the loft.”

    Of course, once the organ installation was complete the choir returned to the loft but it was an important reminder to me.

  10. capchoirgirl says:

    I’m a bit torn on this.
    At my parish, we have a choir loft. And I’m in the choir, so, yes, we sing up there. It’s a bit of climb to get into, but it’s sort of neat. It *sounds* lovely in the sanctuary.
    BUT: it is REALLY HARD to follow for the glorias, the psalms, etc, when you are in the sanctuary. And this frustrates me to no end. We have a lot of different Mass settings (several in Latin, kudos!) and it’s super hard to sing along with the cantor when the cantor is in the loft.
    I know that the loft is preferred. But it is hard for the congregation to hear and sing, and to me, very frustrating.

  11. jaykay says:

    Amen to the 2000 GIRM! It really only proves the point of generations of experience anyway.For example, the acoustics in our glorious 1840s Perpendicular-style church are extremely good (it has a stone-vaulted ceiling) and are such that they do *not* allow the choir to sound good from any position other than the choir loft over the entrance. And boy, is the sound good from there! Alas, we very infrequently get the chance to do a cappella chant, but when it’s done, as on Holy Thursday with the Pangue Lingua or the Veni Creator at Pentecost, it’s a sock knocker-offer! During the recent restoration of the organ we had to sing from the altar area. Not good. And people hated being up-front. Especially the ladies! Umm… why, I wunderz?? And comments came back fairly rapidly about the awful sound quality. Now that’s what I call “participatio actuosa”!

  12. leutgeb says:

    I hate being on view playing the organ and try not to turn pages/adjust my music/ clamber onto the organ bench at unsuitable moments. The organist must be able to see the Celebrant at all times of course, but no-one need see the organist, save the choir.

    I like having the music coming from above and behind me when there is a choir loft. The spatial element of music is surely a dimension lost if all the sound sources at Mass are situated in the same place. It’s another way of making you aware of the different aspects of the singing as well as making you more sensitive to the architecture of the Church and its acoustics.

    The Gabrielis knew all about this!

  13. Fr_Sotelo says:

    TJerome said: *sounds kind of silly that the bishop got involved in this issue.*

    I am pretty respectful of my bishop, but if he told me where to put the choir, I’d write him a nasty note and say, “why don’t you just come up here and run your own d*mn parish? Running a parish is enough of a pain in the posterior without you campaigning for Micromanager of the Year Award!!”

    Some priests get pushed around by their bishop. Other priests can act like Pfleger in Chicago and the bishop goes to him, hat in hand, bowed head and trembling knees to announce that the priest is getting another diocesan award for being looney. What gives? Message to brother priests: my theory is that if the boss doesn’t think you have the cajones to defend yourself, he’ll treat you accordingly.

  14. Mike says:

    Nothing can beat the narcisstic idiocy of the bell-ringer choir at my old parish. Fifteen grannies up their ringing away!

    Oh the humanity!

  15. Jason says:

    jaykay do you sing at Old St. Patrick’s in New Orleans?

    If so, God bless you and all the others for providing such beautiful sacred music for the liturgy. Thank you. If not, God bless you anyway!!

  16. Mrs Kate says:

    “The problem with putting a choir in front of everyone’s eyes (let’s not even contemplate putting them in the sanctuary where the clerical choir belongs) is that it gives the impression that the choir is performing. It gives also the wrong sense to the musicians (if they can be so called) as well.”-
    This is pretty well what we now have. (One even hears talk of musicians ‘doing’ this piece or that piece at Mass.)
    It’s a huge distraction, especially if your own children are playing!
    Are these things decided by the Bishop or by the Liturgy Commission/committee guidelines?

  17. medievalist says:

    If not from the loft, then from a screened area east or north of the altar. Westminster Cathedral and St Michael’s Cathedral (Toronto) illustrate these respectively, and both have renowned choir schools.

  18. TrueLiturgy says:

    So my parish has the choir in the sanctuary…. The architect that the pastor has asked to design a renovation is part of the Charismatic group. He told the pastor that… he would only do it if the choir went up to the loft. :-) Now I just need to get the architect to make the sanctuary look somewhat decent, although anything is better than blue carpet and white walls. :-) I am pushing hard to keep the high altar!

  19. jaykay says:

    Jason: no, not in New Orleans, I’m in Ireland but the church is in fact called St. Patrick’s. Strangely enough :) Would love to post a link to it but am on a mobile browser. Anyway, we won’t be back at ground level again. Our 1840’s forebears have gently reminded up that they did actually know what they were doing.

  20. Sleepyhead says:

    Yet more daftness at my Church… after Mass, people applaud (clap) the choir. It’s embarrassing.

  21. TJerome says:

    Father Sotelo, great comments, great attitude. Best, Tom

  22. Dave N. says:

    I’d say that that the bishop is basically correct in stating that: “the choir should be in a place where it can lead the congregation.” (Although it doesn’t have anything to do with Vatican II as far as I am aware.) The faulty assumption is that the choir MUST be somewhere “in front” and visible to lead the singing, which is simply not the case–assuming the choir is relatively good at they’re supposed to be doing.

    And I think TomG’s observation is a good one. Some churches are designed in such a way that even if the choir sits unelevated “behind” the altar–not getting into the wisdom of such a design or lack thereof–they are not all that visible and don’t distract from what’s going on at the altar. So this could work fine under some circumstances.

    But something else entirely may be going on with the reader’s situation–the whole thing sounds a little “excusey” to me. I wouldn’t jump to the conclusion that the bishop is necessarily micromanaging the placement of choirs.

  23. Sleepyhead: after Mass, people applaud (clap)

    Check this out.

    Ratzinger on applause in church

  24. nanetteclaret says:

    Dave N.:

    Evidently the pastor thought he had to get the bishop’s permission in order to do the necessary construction on the attic space.

  25. jaykay says:

    They do it in our church after the organist has finished the final piece. But it’s well after Mass is over, and it’s usually quite subdued- there are few left anyway, only the hardcore who appreciate the playing. I don’t object, as he’s a dammed good musician. He loves the Boellemann Suite Gothique, and the organ has a couple of 16′ stops that really do it justice. The reverb is colossal when he opens it up. So applause is justified. He spent years perfecting the art, and never does unworthy pieces.

  26. AM says:

    In my parish, the lay ministers of Holy Communion stand around the altat presumably to save time, lay ministers go and stand next the altar during the time when the people are saying “Peace” to each other. One of the lay ministers of Holy Communion carries some of the consecrated up to the choir loft, then, even before the Lamb of God has been said. Presumably then (!) she administers Holy Communion to the choir right after the priest has received.. and soon thereafter they start singing a hymn. (Oh, this past Sunday there was a trumpet playing Schubert’s Ave Maria instead.)

    I suspect that bearing the Sacrament out of the sanctuary before the sacrifice is “completed” by the priest’s communion is… a bit of an abuse, isn’t it? I suppose it’s valid, though?


  27. Re: following the choir’s music from the loft

    If there’s a problem, it’s usually one of two things:

    1. Too much echo echo echo or resonance in the church. (Too “live” of acoustics.) Not much to do about that, except renovation or finding techniques to work with it instead of against it.

    2. The church has good acoustics, but the choir sound is both produced from the loft and piped out through speakers from the front of church, and the two sources start fighting each other.

    Sometimes you still get “the natural acoustics stink and there’s no amplification, either”, but not often.

  28. AnAmericanMother says:

    Mike, the little old lady handbell choir in our former ECUSA parish was known as “The Dead Ringers”. You are free to use that if you like . . . :-D

    Our handbell choir (and the rest of us) are firmly ensconced in the choir loft above the narthex. There are some good reasons to prefer that-

    1. Shuffling of music, quick whispered conferences about “chant first, or motet first?”, and hunting for offering envelopes is cleverly concealed from the congregation downstairs.

    2. Great sight lines to the altar so we (and especially the organist/director) can see what’s going on.

    3. Most traditional churches are designed for choir in the loft. Our church is H.H. Richardson style ‘Romanesque Revival’, and our architect was a genius and did a fine job with the acoustics. The sound just rushes down the nave and bounces off the rear wall. A single soloist (unmiked) can be heard at the altar, even somebody like me who doesn’t have a big voice and does have an “Anglican Hoot” type tone. We’ve found that the handbells carry especially well – – at Christmas and Easter we often do ‘festival anthems’ with bells and it sounds magnificent (so I am told – we can’t really perceive the effect behind the solid choir loft railing).

    There are exceptions — English style churches with a chancel choir, for example. They’re not as much of a distraction as the setup that you see in so many Protestant churches, with the choir facing the congregation ranged all along the steps. With a chancel choir the congregation only sees four singers – the first in the two rows on each side. My parents’ little carpenter-Gothic Episcopal church in S. GA is a chancel choir church. The acoustics are excellent.

    Our former ECUSA parish had a ‘church in the round’ and a horrible acoustic problem. The only solution was to move the choir up front from the back, but they’re behind the altar which is on a high dais, and the choir is fairly well concealed except for the folks on the end. St Philips (ECUSA) cathedral in Atlanta (where my parents sang for 30+ years & I sang at choral festivals) has the choir behind the altar and reredos — along with most of the organ pipes. It’s noisy back there! The acoustics in St. Philips are about as abysmal as you can imagine, all sorts of rumors as to why, they’ve had sound engineers and a sound system in but none of it does much good. The only place you can hear anything is if you sit on the floor in the middle of the transept. Can’t do that during a service, but if you’re recording that’s where you have to put the mikes.

    All in all, having sung in all three places, I prefer the loft. They send an EMHC upstairs, except when there are extra priests about, but they know to expect me to receive on the tongue . . . now.

  29. AnAmericanMother says:


    When our organist/music director really cuts loose, he sometimes gets applause, but as you say it’s well after the Mass is over and only the hard core music aficionados remain.

    He’s a big fan of the early 20th c. French composers and it’s a treat to hear him really open up on Vierne or Widor. In fact, I did a little detective work to identify the organ postlude at the Papal Mass in NYC, just because it sounded French. It wasn’t in the program, but by the simple expedient of Emailing the music director I found out that it was “Tu Es Petrus” by Henri Mulet. I told our man this fact on Wednesday night at choir practice — and Sunday guess what we got for a postlude? Gotta love it.

    Our organ is kind of old and tired, but he does his best.

  30. jaykay says:

    American Mother: just thinking of great organ pieces I’ve been privileged to hear on that instrument live, the “Chouer des voix humaines” by a man rejoicing in the name of Louis Alfred Lefubeure Wely (from the 1850s, I think) is outstanding.On the high reeds. Absolutely out of this world. Inspiring, calming, reflective and uplifting are too poor words to describe it. Thanks be to God, and the hard-earned pence of my ancestors who raised the money in very hard times to put in the organ (in 1903 – it’s a Willis) we can still enjoy great music in its proper setting. What will my generation leave to our great-grand children? A karaoke, probably. Et pessumi exempli et nostri saeculi est

  31. AnAmericanMother says:


    I’ll ask our choirmaster if he knows it. Found part of it online here:


    There are rumbling noises :-D about our getting a new organ. The organ builders have come in for estimates etc. but as you know times are tough all over . . . . it may be awhile. Casavant is looking like the front runner to build it but who knows. The old instrument is old, was never first rate, it’s mostly pipes but some electronics and they are wearing out.

    An old Willis is a nice thing to have. Are you in Britain? The only good thing about the ECUSA cathedral here is the Aeolian-Skinner, one of the last ones built.

  32. jaykay says:

    AM : I’m in Ireland. The organ is reliably said to be the last that “Father” Willis built. Whenever I get back home must give a link. Mobile browsers: great, but…

  33. Bob says:

    Several years ago our church was remodeled and the new configuration has the choir loft directly in front of the congregation, above and to the rear of the altar about 10 feet! Included in the loft is a large pipe organ and concert grand piano. What an amazing distraction for the congregation, as fine as any modern theater I’d guess! It’s particularly interesting on special occasions when an orchestra is employed. I’ve since moved to an FSSP TLM parish for most Masses while my wife continues in the choir at the old parish.

  34. TNCath says:

    I was watching the choir at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception yesterday on EWTN. While as a choir, they are quite good, their presence behind that portable altar, which should be removed so that the main altar can be used, was more of a distraction than a integral part of assisting at Mass.

  35. joanofarcfan says:

    Email the organist or confront him afterwards and tell him how much you liked his playing. Don’t applaud in church, please. That postlude is still part of the service and for God’s glory, not the organist’s.

    My opinion.

  36. AM says:

    jaykay : note “AM” (me) and “AnAmericanMother” are different monnikers.

  37. AnAmericanMother says:


    Are you Ante Meridian? :-D

    I usually get abbreviated as “AAM” which should prevent you from getting tarred with my brush.


    “confront” is something I think folks would only do if they didn’t like the music. ;-) But yes, people do climb up to the choir loft and say nice things to the organist and the choir. Which is very much appreciated. When people thank us, I always say, “If you have a problem, tell us. If you like it — tell the management!”

    The applause is usually well after the Mass is over . . . I can see how you wouldn’t want it to interfere with people praying after Mass, etc. but usually by that point everyone is gone and the deacon is bustling round getting ready for a baptism, the altar guild has descended on the flower arrangements, etc. Visiting and so forth goes on in the narthex, of course.

  38. Henry Edwards says:


    Speaking of organs and drifting even further, I wonder if you are familiar with the Atlanta organist Richard Morris. He was the schola director for the TLM community back when I was in the environs and occasionally drove over for the now-called EF Mass. Then, about the time I left Georgia, I think I heard he had become organist at St. Philips. Or did I hear wrong?

  39. AnAmericanMother says:


    I’m kind of out of the St Philips loop, but so far as I know Dave Fishburn is still over there and they have recently hired a new guy from out in California somewhere.

    And last I heard Morris was still over at St Francis de Sales. One of my coworkers is a parishioner there, I can ask. Or I can ask our music director because all the organists know each other. Just depends on who I catch up with first.

  40. nanetteclaret says:


    Your choir and organ placement sounds like the organ and choir placement at the Meyerson Symphony Center in Dallas. Up front and center. Excellent for concerts, but certainly not fitting for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Another sad example of people thinking it’s “all about us” and not “all about Him.”

  41. Henry Edwards says:

    Speaking of whom,

    The Collapse-and Rebirth-of Sacred Music
    An Interview with Richard Morris – Spring 1999

    First question:
    Tucker: What are your thoughts on what passes for sacred music in most Catholic parishes today?

    Morris: There’s nothing sacred about it. The tunes, rhythms, and messages are drawn mainly from secular culture. When it isn’t aesthetically repugnant and downright offensive to the Faith, it is utterly forgettable.

    Last question:
    Tucker: What has the St. Francis de Sales Latin Mass community meant to your spirituality?

    Morris: Everything in the world. It is as if everything I had tried to do for thirty years has been useless by comparison. Instead of trying to cram good music into the Mass, my only frustration is that I don’t have enough time to fulfill all that the Mass seems to demand. I wonder: why hasn’t this Mass been there all along?

  42. lofstrr says:

    With the choir in the loft it also seems that, in facing the same direction as the faithful below, they would themselves have a better experience of the liturgy and would appear more to be leading the congregation by singing with them rather than to them.

    From a congregation point of view, the choir sing from above and behind reminds us of the angles that also sing with us.

  43. jaykay says:

    AM: ooops! Yes indeed, careless of me. Apologies to you, and to Mater Americana :)

    As regards the applause for the postlude, I’m actually in two minds about the whole thing. A big part of me dislikes applause in church at any time, since the whole clapping thing now seems to have become endemic and people seem to feel almost obliged to do it. Yet very often I’ve noticed many people do it in a hesitant fashion, as though they know something is wrong but it’s peer pressure driving them. That’s during the Mass.

    On the other hand the applause at the end comes well after Mass is finished and is quite subdued and short. So the smaller part of me tends to shrug it off. I just wish we could hear a good sermon on the subject of respect in church during Mass but they seem desperate not to offend anyone in any way, so I don’t think that’ll be coming to a pulpit near me anytime soon.

  44. Tina in Ashburn says:

    You guys! The choir can’t be back in the loft because the drum kit, all the guitarists, the swaying dancers, all the electronics and stuff just won’t fit! Better to move the Table over a bit to make room in the Sanctuary too while you are at it… Get with it! “God” who? Watching the singers and musicians up front is waaay more entertaining.

    [tongue-in-cheek alert]

  45. Nordic Breed says:

    More ridiculous modernism and possibly willful ignorance. From 1997 to 1999 I proved the choir and organist could lead the congregation from the rear. The people there to pray and not party loved the removal of a major distraction and there was no hindrance to congregational singing.

  46. Jayna says:

    Do you know what really annoys me? At my parish, we have a choir loft and a wonderful choir, both of which I am very thankful for. We also, however, have a cantor who apparently must lead us in singing from the sanctuary. And even when the priest decides to chant the opening prayer (I swear it’s arbitrary) and we have to sing “amen” back, she feels the need to get up to the microphone, raise her arms, and guide us in singing two syllables in one note. Because we hadn’t figured that one out yet.

    Makes me long for the church I went to when I lived in England. Latin, incense, organ, and bells every Sunday (and these were NO Masses), along with a choir and cantor who stayed firmly put in the choir loft.

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