What Does it Mean to be In Choir?
From time to time, in various spiritual writings and elsewhere, I’ve come across the term “choir” and it seems like it has nothing to do with music, which is what I associate it with. I think it might have something to do with Mass, perhaps where it is said?, but I’m not exactly sure what. Is it used in certain settings? Could you explain what it means to be “in choir” and “choir dress”? And also, what is the history behind it? Thank you very much. God bless you and your ministry.
Yes indeed, the word “choir” can be used in many different ways. We usually use it to refer to a group of singers. And in this sense, choir robes could simply refer to the uniform worn by members of a choir.
In the past, however, the term was primarily architectural. It referred to the part of the church reserved for the members of the choir. Depending on the time period and architectural style, this could be a balcony in the back of the church, or balconies above the naves, or any number of places. But it gets even more interesting when we dig into the monastic tradition.
For communities of monks and nuns who pray, chant, or sing together the Liturgy of the Hours, the “choir” often referred to the section of the church or chapel reserved for that purpose. This section, in some architectural traditions, is separated both from the sanctuary (where the priest celebrates the liturgy of the Eucharist) and from the nave, where other Catholic faithful, not monks or nuns, would sit for liturgical celebrations. Sometimes these sections of a church were elaborate structures containing large numbers of carved stalls, one for each monk or nun. Other times they were barely distinguishable from the sanctuary. Sometimes they were directly between the sanctuary and the nave, other times they were behind or to the sides of the sanctuary.
Some liturgical assistants (acolytes or lectors, for example) would sometimes sit in this area of the “choir” during a liturgical service, even if they were not monks or nuns themselves. The specific vestments they used were then, sometimes, referred to as choir robes – the kind of robe you would wear if you had to sit in the choir during a Mass or vespers.
So, yes, the term “choir” has many uses. I hope this brief summary helps you understand the references you were puzzling over.
Fr John Bartunek, LC, SThD
Art for this post on the term “Choir”: Choir and rood screen in the Albi Cathedral, France, artist not identified, photographed by Pom2, 2 July 2008 own work, CCA-SA 3.0 Unported; Coro ligneo di Baldino di Surso: legno intagliato e scolpito (Baldino wooden choir Surso: carved and sculpted wood), artist not identified, 1477, photographed by IRE FEDU 14, 20 March 2015 own work, CCA-SA 4.0 International; ClerusProcesie2008Brugge (Clerics Processing 2008 Bruges [in choir dress]), Feast of the Ascension 2008, photographed by Carolus, 2008 own work, CCA 3.0 Unported; all Wikimedia Commons.