Chris Lyons paused when asked about misconceptions Protestants may have about music in Roman Catholic churches. “I’m not sure if they all realize that we praise God along with them,” remarked Lyons, music coordinator at St. John Vianney (SJV) Catholic Church in Wyoming.
“Although we praise God in our own ways, I’m thinking they respect our ways and I know I respect theirs.”
Lyons is a lifelong Catholic, raised in St. Isadore Church on Grand Rapids’ northeast side and a graduate of Catholic Central High School.
She’s been directing the choir at SJV for the last seven years, but was a long time choir member at the parish before that.
“I just know I’m very happy to be here,” she said.
Lyons directs the SJV church choir which sings at the second of the two Sunday morning masses.
There’s also a Saturday evening mass with lyrics-on-the-screen music played by a praise band directed by Lori Jacobs. It mixes contemporary Catholic artist-songs with a wider variety of tunes from better known composers such as Chris Tomlin and Laura Story.
Combined, the three services draw an average of more than 1,200 worshipers.
Lyons also selects music for the Sunday services. Most of the worship liturgy is the same week to week.
“The words remain the same, but the music (melody) can change,” she explained.
That includes the sung prayers “Holy, Holy,” “Lamb of God” and “Gloria.”
“But we add music from the hymnal that goes with the readings, and for the choir pieces I choose, we do the same thing. It’s all enhancing the liturgy, not detracting from it.”
Typically a solo “cantor” will lead the congregation in hymns. These volunteer singers serve on a rotating basis.
“They do the (responsive) psalms between our first and second readings, singing the verses and bringing in the congregation on the refrain,” she explained.
Lyons said occasionally they will do a cantata or some other special music during holidays and may bring in various instrumentalists.
A MUSICAL SANCTUARY
Although the 30-voice choir is a traditional style ensemble, a more contemporary praise refrain has become a regular on Sunday mornings. Right before receiving the elements of the Eucharist, the choir and congregation sing together the chorus of “Sanctuary” (“Lord, prepare me…”).
“We sing the refrain three times – it’s a short but beautiful prayer and it they have responded to it extremely well,” Lyons said of the song.
The music coordinator also sings at weddings and funerals, and consults on music with outside performers for special services.
Although she occasionally will get feedback from parish priest Rev. Michael Alber, Lyons regularly reports to SJV director of worship and pastoral care Mary Witucki.
“Chris puts her heart and soul into her music ministry,” said Witucki. “The care and dedication that she demonstrates in her work clearly reflect her love for God and our Catholic liturgy.”
The music coordinator said typically her responsibilities keep her busy 20 hours per week. But during the Christian and Easter holiday seasons, that total can hit 60.
Lyons said Holy Week (from Palm Sunday to Easter) is among her greatest challenges.
“There are several prayer services – Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil (about two hours) and Easter – and I have to make sure the music fits with all the readings and get everything organized making sure there are enough voices for every service,” she added.
Lyons describes the most satisfying aspect of her ministry: “When the choir actually feels the words and music, and you feel the congregation accepting and benefitting from them.”
“To do that, you really have to feel not just the music and the words, but the Holy Spirit moving them to do so.”
Despite her extensive musical training (more than 10 years of voice lessons and also studying piano) Lyons never imagined she would be a music director.
“When I was originally introduced to this opportunity, I was a big frightened,” she admitted.
“It was only supposed to be a temporary thing, but it all worked out.”
“I’m just very honored and happy to praise God – that’s the only thing I enjoy doing with all my heart."
Just the Facts:
Who: Chris Lyons
What: Music Coordinator
Where: St. John Vianney Catholic Church, 4101 Clyde Park SW, Wyoming; www.stjohnvianney.net, 534-5449
How: Coordinating music, planning, rehearsing and directing choir, and providing music for special services.
Philosophy on the role of the arts/music in worship: “Music should enhance the liturgy – it should make the congregation more inspired to pray and feel closer to God. I feel words should be understood – not just the music – and that singing is another form of prayer.”