Singing and Church Renewal

(Originally published in the September 2017 issue of the Byzantine Catholic World.)

Our church’s tradition of singing – that we ALL participate in chanting entire liturgical services – is a precious spiritual inheritance, one that sets us apart within both the Catholic and Orthodox traditions. It has the potential to endow our worship with great beauty and stateliness, but it can also have practical benefits for our parishes. In this series of articles, I’d like to talk about these benefits, and present a challenge to each parish, and each Byzantine Catholic, to help foster this tradition over the coming year.

Our plain chant, developed for Church Slavonic from its origins in Greek music and adapted to English, has a vital property when led by a trained cantor: inevitability.  Its melodies can be learned by heart and applied to a wide variety of hymns such as troparia and kontakia, in such a way that every phrase leads naturally into the next, and each hymn is matched to the one that follows.  “The overall effect,” said musicologist Ivan Garder, who travelled in Eastern Europe in the 1920’s, “is one of extraordinary power.”

Yet many of our parishes no longer  experience this power today, and the reasons are not hard to find. As a whole, we are no longer a culture that sings, at work or at play; instead of making music, we listen to other people make it. Music education in schools is less thorough than it once was, and parishes are fragmented. Liturgical services like Vespers, molebens and the Paraklis have fallen out of use, and while the vast majority of our parishes still sing entire Divine Liturgies, we often do so in a lackluster fashion, using only a small number of the wide range of melodies we once knew by heart.

At this year’s Summer Music School in Pittsburgh, cantors from around the country had a chance to discuss the state of our church singing and prospects for renewal. There was general agreement that there ARE things we can do to recapture and even surpass the kind of congregational singing our parishes have been known for in the past.

– We need to acknowledge that EVERYONE can sing, and good singing can be taught, learned, and practiced.

– Cantors need to be encouraged, AND held to a high standard, since their talents and attitude make a huge difference.

– Singing in harmony, once done by ear in most of our parishes, is a skill that can taught, and harmonized plain chant should become once more a regular part of our liturgical experience.

– School children and young adults, in particular, should have more opportunities to learn and enjoy singing in church.

Most importantly, cantors and faithful need to learn to listen to one another. We sometimes forget that listening is an essential part of living in community, and is just as essential if we want to sing our praises to God with beauty, grace, and joy.

Deacon Jeffrey Mierzejewski is the director of the Metropolitan Cantor Institute.

The Chanted Choral Liturgy

(A guest post by Deacon Timothy Woods)

The purpose of chant in our churches is to invite the people to be actively involved in the prayer. Our chants are simple and repetitious, easy to catch on to. Even when I am tired and I don’t really feel like singing, even if I tell myself NOT to sing, halfway through the liturgy I find myself humming along and then finally singing out loudly from my heart. That is the reason for our chant, to allow the people to worship God from their hearts!

But we also have a beautiful choral tradition. Composers like Bortniansky, Kedroff, and Archangelsky are household names in the Eastern Slavic churches, and there are many others who have graced our liturgies and moved our people. Modern composers are also making fine contributions which should be used. With a well rehearsed choir under the direction of a capable leader, these Holy God’s, Cherubic Hymns and special communion pieces not only move hearts, but attract new parishioners.

It was once described to me that chant is where “the rubber meets the road,” but that the people’s prayer takes wing with choral music. The most effective worship uses both, but in a way which does not cause one to detract from the other.
When I have incorporated choral music into a chant setting, my philosophy has always been thus: The first thing sung MUST be chant, and it MUST be something the people know. If we begin with a choral Liturgy of Peace, we are immediately sending a signal to the people that “we are glad you are here, but we don’t really expect you to sing”. This is precisely the wrong message to give to any parish. Choral music should be saved for the larger liturgical pieces, and the short responses, again, must be chant so as to keep the people engaged in the flow of
the liturgical current.

I offer here an example of a Sunday Divine Liturgy with Cantors and Choir. Note that the choir rarely sings two pieces in a row. In this way the choir is present, but it is never allowed to “take over the liturgy”. The main responsibility of the singing still falls to the cantors and the people. The choir simply allows the worship to “soar” from time to time. Also note that the “Choral Settings” could be harmonized chant, or a through-composed work. This is only a suggested pattern. Many other patterns are possible, as long as the chanting holds a slight sway.

Deacon Timothy Woods

Music before Liturgy:

  • One choral piece
  • Appropriate congregational hymns, sung in unison by cantors or choir (very important there is no harmony yet, unless the people add it themselves)

At the Divine Liturgy

  • Litany of Peace: Chant, again, in unison!
  • First and Second Antiphon: Chant (spontaneous harmonizations could begin)
  • Hymn of Incarnation: Choral setting (all choral settings could be either harmonized chant or composed choral music)
  • Third Antiphon: Chant
  • Entrance Hymn: Choral setting
  • Troparion/Kontakion: Chant
  • Holy God: Choral
  • Prokeimenon: Chant
  • Alleluia: Choral or Chanted
  • Litany of Supplication: Chant
  • Cherubic hymn: Choral
  • Responses: Chant
  • Symbol of Faith: Harmonized chant (led or assisted by choir)
  • Anaphora responses: Chant
  • Hymn of Victory: Choral
  • Responses: Chant
  • It is truly proper: Choral or chanted (if a 9th ode irmos is called, I would use a choral arrangement or harmonized chant, so it will not seem less festive than the parish’s ordinary hymn at this point)
  • Responses and preparation for Communion: Chant
  • Lord’s Prayer: Choral
  • Responses: Chant
  • Communion hymn of the day: Choral
  • Blessed is he who comes: Chant
  • Communion: Choral music while the cantors receive, then verses of the communion psalm through a chanted or choral refrain
  • We have seen the true light: Chant
  • May our mouth be filled: Choral
  • Responses: Chant
  • Blessed be the name of the Lord: Choral
  • Dismissal: Chant
  • Many Years: Chant or Choral
  • After Liturgy: One choral piece, then congregational hymns as people leave.

Liturgical hymns before the Divine Liturgy – your comments requested!

Recently, as part of the Introduction to the Divine Liturgy course for cantors, I added an article on what to sing before the Divine Liturgy to the MCI website. In particular, I have some real reservations about the practicality of using some of the liturgical hymns in the Divine Liturgies book for this purpose.

Rather than put those observations (which are purely my own!) into the article, I have decided to post them here for comment and discussion. What do you think? (Here is the article itself, without my personal thoughts.)

Continue reading “Liturgical hymns before the Divine Liturgy – your comments requested!”

“To Jordan’s Water” – understanding the issues with a new hymnal

A paraliturgical hymn that was sung recently in many of our parishes, “To Jordan’s Water”, illustrates several of the issues we are facing with a new hymnal for the Byzantine Catholic Church.

Continue reading ““To Jordan’s Water” – understanding the issues with a new hymnal”

First steps toward a hymnal

At the request of the Inter-Eparchial Music Commission, the Metropolitan Cantor Institute is sponsoring initial work on a hymal – that is, a collection of paraliturgical hymns for singing before and after the Divine Liturgy, and on other church occasions as well.

On Saturday, October 2, 2016, we held a workshop on paraliturgical hymns at which we sang through a variety of our hymns, and discussed what might go into the proposed hymnal.  A complete recording of this workshop is now available, along with the handout that was distributed.

Please take a listen, and if you have thoughts on the subject, or things you’d like to suggest go into the new collection, please leave a comment here!

Matins at the Cathedral in Parma

Every Sunday morning, parishioners of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in Parma, Ohio pray full Matins, led by the harmonized chant of eight fellow parishioners, most of them seasoned cantors.

What began as a special initiative to offer Vespers every Sunday evening during the Great Fast, blossomed into an ongoing commitment to chant weekly Matins.


Father Andrew Summerson, who leads the singers and who serves as parochial vicar, said some parishioners had approached him with the desire to continue offering the same quality chant they had offered during the Great Fast during Holy Week and Pascha.

Thus began the cathedral singers, who after Pascha, took on Matins, which are now sung entirely in English. Continue reading “Matins at the Cathedral in Parma”

Moleben Monday!

Here is a moleben or prayer service for those suffering from alcoholism and substance abuse; this is an exceptionally good example of a directed service of prayer for healing. The text was provided by Father Valerian Michlik of the Archeparchy of Pittsburgh, based on texts from the Orthodox Church in Canada; music is by the MCI.

Moleben for Those Suffering from Alcohol or Drug Dependence

Moleben Monday!

This week, as part of our weekly opening of the MCI files, we bring you a moleben or prayer service to Saints Cyril and Methodius, the two brothers from Thessalonika who brought the Gospel to the Slavs in the 9th century AD. This service also includes, as a bonus, an English setting of the hymn Slava vam Brata, or “Glory to you, brothers.”

Moleben to Saints Cyril and Methodius

Look for a complete list of MCI booklets on the Publications page. And if there are particular molebens or other services you would like to see on the MCI website, please leave a comment here!

Hymnal Project

The singing of “paraliturgical hymns” – popular devotional songs – outside the Liturgy is a significant and beloved part of our Church’s tradition. A small appendix of these songs was included in our previous Divine Liturgy book, and several additional collections were published over the years. Unfortunately, the new hymnal which was announced at “forthcoming” in 2006 never materialized.

With the consent of our bishops, the Metropolitan Cantor Institute is undertaking the project of preparing a new hymnal for our church, to be submitted to the Inter-Eparchial Music Commission when it is complete. This hymnal will include hymns to the Trinity, to the Mother of God, and to the saints, chosenfrom material traditionally used in our church, printed with music and set for singing in various languages as appropriate.

Of course, there are a variety of issues to consider. Which hymns should be included?  If there are several translations or melodies in circulation, which one(s) should be used? Would it be appropriate to provide literal (non-sung) translations for traditional Carpatho-Rusyn or Magyar hymns when our current English translation is a very free one?  And so on.

As part of  this project, we will hold several meetings over the next year, as well as a public “hymn sing” on Sunday, October 2, at Saint John the Baptist Byzantine Catholic Cathedral in Munhall, PA. My goal is to complete a draft hymnal by September 1, 2017.

If  you have suggestions for this project, please comment below!

If you would like to assist in this project or contribute on a continuing basis, please write to

Two new hymns for Ascension

For your enjoyment and use, two hymns for the Ascension:

1. An English setting of the Ascension hymn, Hospod’ Voznesesja, by cantors Joe Ferenchik and Kenneth Dilks, for singing before or after the
Divine Liturgy.

2. Settings in English and Slavonic of All You Peoples, Clap Your Hands, a paraphrase of Psalm 46 by Prof. John Kahanick, restored by cantor Joe