Michael Ruzicki (Submitted photo)

Anita Draper
Catholic Herald staff

Having their ministries quieted – or even silenced – by the pandemic was a shared experience for attendees of the Diocese of Superior’s 2021 Music Ministry Workshop.

Presented through Liturgy Training Publications via the Adobe Connect platform, the online event was designed for diocesan musicians but welcomed viewers from all over.

Diocese of Superior Office of Worship Director Paul Birch began by acknowledging COVID-19 has left liturgical musicians with a “tough row to hoe” as far as pastoral music in parishes. He quoted the USCCB document “Sing to the Lord: Music and Divine Worship”:

“God gave us the gift of song. It springs from within and helps us to see our interconnection with the sacred. When we sing, it is easier for us to know God.”

But, just as the pandemic has limited musicians’ ability to share that gift of song, so too did it prevent their gathering for the annual two-day workshop, which typically includes social time and dinner on Friday night and concludes Saturday afternoon.

This year’s presenters were Michael Ruzicki and Wendy Barton Silhavy. Ruzicki, a pastoral musician and training and events manager at Liturgy Training Publications, emceed the online workshop, which lasted from 9 a.m. to noon on Saturday, Feb. 6.

After leading off with readings and song, Ruzicki focused on the pandemic as an opportunity for renewal.

“In the face of adversity, our truest identity shines forth,” he said, observing that COVID has shined a light on parishes. If a church was just a “Mass station,” without much parish life going on, that has become even more evident now, he said. Parishes that were vibrant and vital before have continued to be vibrant through creativity.

“We feel even more exhausted now, because we were never able to just dust off the old plan, because the old plan doesn’t work right now,” he added.

Old parish plans, perhaps decades old, may be ready for “archival storage,” he observed. He offered Pope Francis’ definition of a parish – a place for hearing God’s word, growth in Christian life, dialogue, charitable outreach, proclamation, worship and celebration — then posed a couple of questions: What is worship without music? What is life without music?

Participants discussed, via chat, how COVID had affected music’s ability to change, transform and unite people in communion in their parishes. Later discussion topics included analyzing what has changed in listeners’ music ministry during the pandemic, what elements of ministry have proven unnecessary, and what additional steps should be taken to improve that ministry.

Discovering “simple can be better” was Silhavy’s contribution, although Birch – along with many musicians commenting in the sidebar – struggled to see the silver lining in their parish’s COVID-era liturgical practices.

“Your ministry of music is not just … that performance on Sunday,” Ruzicki commented. The first role of musicians is to be disciples: “I say, you are just disciples who happen to make music.”

COVID and a silent assembly made Ruzicki realize what a poor job of liturgical catechesis has been done since Vatican II. One of the roles of liturgical musicians in his parish was offering parishioners liturgical formation – “helping folks dive deeper ” – to achieve the “fully conscious and active participation” in the Mass envisioned by the Second Vatican Council.

As a means of communicating, evangelizing and expanding parish music ministry, he suggests posting a note in the bulletin or on the church website with a one-paragraph reflection, written in rotation by choir members, explaining which pieces of music were chosen and why. For those who are willing to put in more work, a blog, weekly email or even video chat could also be used to “preach the music in a different way.”

Musicians could also share their skills – via teaching basic music-reading skills on Zoom, for example, or offering a couple classes on music history – as another means of evangelizing.

Holy Week

Silhavy is the senior coordinator for liturgy and music in the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Office for Divine Worship. She has a bachelor’s degree in church music and a master’s degree in liturgical music.

Following a break, she opened her presentation by discussing how to engage people in different ways beyond “the full-throated singing that we know and love.”

Call to mind “not necessarily what’s allowed, but what’s safe,” she asked listeners to consider what can be done “simply, nobly and well” during the Triduum.

Ancestors have worshipped in different ways through the centuries, she continued, and we are not alone in these times.

“We have worshipped in difficult times throughout our history,” she repeated. Silhavy said she finds hope and comfort in that.

“Take some time to allow yourselves to recognize that [these are] unusual times, unprecedented times, difficult times,” she advised. “We need to be creative in what we do.”

She called for “noble simplicity” in liturgy, not an “impoverished” liturgy, and later said this is “a chance to begin anew again … retain traditions, but now is the time to really evaluate what we’ve done, especially on the parish level, and see if that’s worth bringing forward into the future.”

She urged listeners to keep in mind the importance of caring for themselves and caring for others, in a fuller sense of pastoral ministry. She suggested reaching out to others to make sure fellow choir members are okay both physically and spiritually – whether by taking groceries to more vulnerable members, checking in via Zoom or helping in some other way.

Silhavy said her group has a “Vespers and Vino” night every week to pray together and drink wine.

At this moment in time, churches are dealing with the challenge of dual engagement – they are ministering both to communities that are worshipping virtually and communities that are worshipping in the church. The question, she said, is how to minister to both sets of people.

Silhavy offered some practical suggestions for reaching out; for example, give ministry aids to those at home. Some parishes have taken unused missalettes, as worship aids are not currently permitted in the archdiocese, and sent them home with people.

Musicians can also make a seasonal worship guide that goes home with parishioners and contains music they are using, a synopsis of why that music is being used, a history of songs, etc. She also suggested including examples of how to create effective at-home worship spaces.

For those in church, there should be “clear and hospitable directions,” so they know what to expect and what to do. “This will become more important as we approach the events of the Triduum,” she predicted, because in most churches, Holy Week will not follow traditional patterns.

Silhavy then spoke of the importance of using the entire parish space to engage people. “As Catholics, we participate with all of our senses,” she explained. To create a richer ambiance, she suggested perhaps keeping the lights lower and lighting many candles, using hand bells or other instruments to engage people aurally or encouraging body percussion – clapping, stomping, etc. – from parishioners.

In preparing for the Triduum Masses, she asked musicians to carefully analyze every moment to assess whether active participation, via speaking, or actively listening to music would be better for the community.

She talked about loss of music budgets right now due to COVID and encouraged listeners to surf through their missals and hymnals or look for free, public-domain music to fill the void. She quoted a friend’s observation about fasting from music, but feasting on the Word, and told listeners to seek ways to let the text predominate.

Silhavy then reviewed the liturgies of Holy Week and made suggestions for how to use music choices to compensate for the absence of familiar rituals, such as using a service-oriented Communion song to allude to the washing of the feet on Holy Thursday. She suggested trying chant or singing familiar hymns in Latin.

Throughout her presentation and again at its conclusion, Silhavy emphasized these are unprecedented times. She encouraged listeners to focus on caring for themselves and others, find creative solutions to problems and remember this time in their ministry, however challenging, is temporary.


Each year during the Music Ministry Workshop, the director of the Diocesan Chorale invites musicians to join the choir. This year, Birch issued the invitation. The chorale is currently on hiatus, he said, but they plan to meet virtually every month during the pandemic. A conversation on diocesan guidelines was scheduled to follow Silhavy’s presentation.