Catholic 101: Leading Worship and Catholic Mass

I, Lorelei, have been a part of leading worship at church since I was about 12 years old. I’m 30 now, so 18 years. There are few things I can say I’ve done that long! Walking, riding a bike, eating copious amounts of chocolate in various forms, maybe. But not much else.

Now, being Catholic, I am still helping lead the music, but my role now looks a lot different than it did before my Confirmation. I wanted to write a little bit about what leading worship looks like in the Mass as part of my Catholic 101 series.

Part of what I adapted to in becoming Catholic, is a difference in the structure of the service itself. Most of the churches I’d ever attended prior had a similar structure. There would be between 2 and 6 songs during the service. Most of them would be at the very beginning. There would be an offertory song, and sometimes, a song at the end. Sometimes my church was so small I sang along to actual pre-recorded music by the original singers. Sometimes my church was large enough that we had a full band accompanying the vocalists. But the overall structure was pretty much the same.

Our current parish has a choir that sings every other Sunday, and then the other weeks are filled in by a “Cantor.” This is my new role. I lead the music through the Mass, accompanied by a pianist. The Cantor is very busy during the service.

When the Cantor raises his/her arm it means its time for everyone to join in!

Here’s how it breaks down.


Before Mass begins, I sing a song of my choosing. Usually I try and find something that sort of goes with the theme of the readings, and so far I’ve opted for some more contemporary songs that might not be in the hymnal, but that are still theologically solid.

Opening Hymn.

This is a song welcoming everyone to Mass, and the Priest processes to the altar during this song. Interestingly, during Mass, we don’t always sing through the entire hymns. When we see that the Priest is ready to move on, we wrap up the verse/chorus we are currently singing, and the song ends.

Glory to God.

This is a sweet hymn we sing early in Mass for most of the liturgical year. We don’t sing it during Advent because we are anticipating Jesus’ birth, and we also don’t sing it during Lent, as we lead up to the celebration on Easter. The Glory to God dates back to somewhere between the 1st and 3rd Centuries A.D. and is composed of only quotes from the Bible. The first words, for example, are what the Angels sang at the birth of Christ (Luke 2:14). There are 3 verses, each sort of focused on one aspect of the Trinity. It’s really beautiful. If you want to learn more about the Glory to God, check out the link here.

Responsoral Psalm.

There are 4 readings during Mass, as I talk about in my 5 Cool Facts About Catholic Mass post. The Psalm “reading” is actually sung. The Cantor sings the refrain, and the congregation repeats. Then the Cantor “reads” the rest of the Psalm by singing, going back to the refrain throughout.

Gospel Acclamation.

We sing some Alleluia’s before the Gospel reading for the day. The only time we don’t do this is during Lent, where we save our Alleluia’s for the celebration of Easter.  The acclamation is a welcoming and thankfulness of the Gospel, which contains the words and deeds of our Savior, Jesus. The Gospel is indeed something to celebrate and be thankful for!

Offertory Hymn.

This part is the same as all the other churches I’ve had the privilege to lead worship at. A hymn is sung while the offering is being taken, and also, during Mass, while the bread and wine are brought up to the altar for Holy Communion.

Liturgy of the Eucharist.


This is the central part of any Mass. The priest prepares the bread and wine for Communion. There are many sung components to this Liturgy, where the Cantor leads the congregation to join in song.

The one component I’ll focus on is the sung “Holy, Holy.” This is before the Priest says the Words of Institution that Jesus said during the Last Supper “This is my body… etc.” It’s a song proclaiming the Holiness of God. The text comes from Isaiah 6, Matthew 21, and Psalm 118. The idea is that we are joining in song with all the angels and Saints in their unending hymn of praise. Which is very cool.

The lyrics of the song are:

“Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts, heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest. “

It’s a beautiful hymn of praise that ushers us into the celebration of Holy Communion, or, as we Catholics call it, The Eucharist.

Communion Hymns

Depending on the size of the congregation, one or more Communion Hymns will be sung. These are usually chosen to go along with the theme of the readings and the homily for that Sunday. Here is a link to one of my absolute favorite Hymns (contemporary version). A cool side note is that many, many Catholic hymns are taken straight from The Bible and put to music.

Based on Isaiah 6:8. Here I Am Lord.


Closing Hymn

We join together in song once more at the end of Mass, as the Priest processes out. The closing hymn is often a call to live out our faith and share the Gospel.

A couple other things.

Due to the structure of Mass, and how there is a lot of music throughout the service, there isn’t a lot of down time for the Cantor! (Or choir if they are leading the singing that day.) Also, you are sitting or standing off to the side, the entire time, versus when I was leading worship at my previous churches, where you would leave the stage/altar area, and then sit in the congregation for most of the service. Since I’m a new Catholic, I’m always paying extra close attention to what comes next- it’s not second nature for me yet :). Also, during different seasons of the liturgical calendar, the Mass “setting” may change. For example, during Lent, this is particularly noticeable during the Liturgy of the Eucharist, which is where the Priest prepares Holy Communion. The music is more somber during Lent, and more joyful during other seasons, like Advent.

Overall, I’m very thankful for all the opportunities I’ve had over the years to lead worship during church services, in all their different structures and settings. Hopefully this is helpful to people looking to understand what all the music means in a Mass, and how it contributes to the service.

Until next time!


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