We have formed a choir at a small rural church. Because there is not enough room at the front of the church or in the sanctuary, we perform from the choir loft. Is this acceptable as far as Vatican II?
There are four main documents that mention the proper location of the choir, none of which say that the choir should be at the front of the church or in the sanctuary.
First, "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." (Inter Oecumenici, n. 97) -- 1964
Second, "According to the design of the particular church, the place for the choir is to be such that:
- its status as a part of the community with a special function is clearly evident;
- the performance of its liturgical ministry is facilitated.
- full, that is, sacramental, participation in the Mass remains convenient for each of the members."
(Musicam Sacram, n. 23) -- 1967
Third, "The congregation and the choir should have a place that facilitates their active participation." (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, n.257) -- 1974
Fourth, the Ceremonial of Bishops and 2000 years of Church tradition reserve the sanctuary for the ministers of the Mass: "The sanctuary or chancel, that is, the place where the bishop, presbyters, and ministers carry out their ministries, should be set apart from the body of the church in some way."
These statements make four requirements concerning the placement of the choir.
The choir is supposed to be part of the worshipping community. Is there anybody who thought that because the choir was in a choir loft the members weren't really at Mass? Choir lofts do not violate this requirement, in fact, choir lofts support the next requirement that the choir's location show that it has a special liturgical purpose.
The choir is also supposed to be placed in a location where its participation is facilitated. Choir lofts are built in the best part of a church for this. The choir is elevated, giving it a clear view of everything happening at Mass and the sound (if the church has been constructed properly) carries much better from the loft than some other portion of the church.
The choir is also supposed to be able to participate sacramentally in Mass, i.e., receive Holy Communion. As long as someone can bring Holy Communion to the choir or the choir can get down from the loft there isn't any problem with the choir being in the loft.
The sanctuary is reserved for the ministers of the Mass. Ministers here refers to bishops, priests, deacons, acolytes, readers and cantors, not to the congregation or the choir.
The reality of the choir is that if it can be seen, it serves as a distraction to the faithful at Mass. The choir is constantly busy, switching pages, taking cues, changing positions and occassionally dropping music. Placing the choir in plain view of everyone is not only a distraction to the faithful, it is a distraction to the choir members who may get flustered when in plain view.
If churches are designed with acoustics in mind, a choir loft is the ideal location for the choir. In many churches, the choir has abandoned the loft to its own detriment. Once the choir is on the floor or in an acoustically unfriendly church or in a place in the church not originally intended for the choir, they are forced to use microphones to avoid being lost. The use of microphones frequently has the effect of drowning out the congregation which already has a difficult enough time being coaxed into singing.
In 1903 Pope Saint Pius X ordered that choirs should be hidden behind screens if they were too noticeable in church. His reasoning is still sound today.
Another consideration to note when placing the choir is that when a choir is in front of the congregation and facing the congregation, it appears that the choir is giving a concert instead of fulfilling its proper role at Mass. Also, if the choir is facing the congregation, it isn't directing its music towards the proper focal point. In fact, it will have its back to what is most important, namely, the Eucharist.