" It is a highlight of the year for my husband, Joe, and me, who started singing in church choirs as children and have continued throughout our adult lives. Every convention we have attended has fostered spiritual growth and deepened our understanding and love for our faith and the celebration of the Mass.   "

Every summer it is a tradition in the LaMantia household to travel to the National Association of Pastoral Musicians Convention to gather with fellow Catholic musicians and choir members from parishes in the U.S., Canada, and beyond where we celebrate and fortify our ministry as leaders of sung prayer in our home parishes.

It is a highlight of the year for my husband, Joe, and me, who started singing in church choirs as children and have continued throughout our adult lives. Every convention we have attended has fostered spiritual growth and deepened our understanding and love for our faith and the celebration of the Mass.  

We learn important lessons about the ministry. It is not about performing, but about leading the congregation in song, because Jesus is present at Mass in the priest, the Eucharist, the Sacred Word, and in the people when they pray and sing.  Often, I remember those words when I take my seat with the choir.

But when COVID descended, in addition to upending how we live, work, and learn, it changed how the Church worships – sidelining choirs and the assembly itself – and crushing the spirits of so many in a time when holding onto faith was crucial. 

As the pandemic dug in its heels, technology – virtual live streaming and online meetings – reconnected us with our families, our churches and schools from afar.

NPM cancelled its 2020 Convention, scheduled in Louisville, Ky., opting for the first-ever virtual convention. Like attending Sunday Mass or visiting our loved ones on Christmas from our couches, it seemed to me a paltry substitution.  Joe attended, but I did not.  NPM always takes us to distant American cities. Virtual could not satisfy my wanderlust.

When COVID started to abate, NPM announced good news: Convention 2021 would meet as planned in New Orleans the last week of July. We signed up, wondering, how will safety measures impact the convention?

Until 2019, up to 2,000 members and guests would attend and assemble in the convention hall where acclaimed Church leaders and artists delivered the Keynote and Plenum addresses, and music publishers introduced their latest music releases and led all in singing the latest new hymns. Everyone received a 200-page spiral paperback containing the entire convention program. Paper handouts covering updates were abundant.  

Publishers of liturgical music brought hymnals, sheet music, and recordings to sell in the exhibit hall. Sales reps from organ and vestment manufacturers, tour companies with religious itineraries, and religious book publishers filled the space remaining. Joe and I packed our luggage only half full.  We needed the space for new hymnals and recordings.

In New Orleans, we wore masks, chairs were set six feet apart, and many speakers appeared remotely.  Paper use was minimal. Instead participants downloaded the proceedings onto their iPads. The exhibit hall was eerily small – a skeleton crew of vendors with a dearth of goods took orders for sale by mail.

Berta Sabrio, NPM’s Associate Director, explained that the publishers have been hit hard by the pandemic. “They didn’t sell books in the last two years,” she said.  “No choirs, no people, no hymnals.” She reported that of the 795 members who signed up for New Orleans, 533 were in-person and 262 virtual. Already NPM is planning 2022’s convention for Louisville.

While the gathering was different, the convention did what it always does — brought kindred souls together to sing, pray and be inspired.  For me, it stirred up the sadness and also the hope born of this difficult year, especially when I heard a song written on Day 25 of the pandemic, “Still We Sing Alleluia,” which sings of the faith that makes life and song possible in spite of fear.   

It reminded me of the virtual address by Sister of St. Joseph of Medaille Helen Prejean, author of “Dead Man Walking,” on the first night of convention. As she recounted her experience as spiritual advisor to Patrick Sonnier, a prisoner on Death Row, she told of playing the song “Be Not Afraid” the day before his execution, and how it brought God into the place of execution and into Sonnier’s heart and soul.

She addressed all music ministers, “Sometimes it may look like what you’re doing is the least powerful thing in the world … but you are healers, that’s the servant’s role you have – to heal, to inspire, to pick up again.  The power of your ministry, your vocation is to bring us back to life.”

Her words brought solace and challenge, renewing my own peace and resolve to recognize the importance of the task.

As Joe reflected on our days in New Orleans: “This is like giving your car a tune-up and filling the tank with gas.  There is no better way to reinvigorate a music minister that to be among peers and reestablish your connection to ministry.  I return home with fresh ideas and energy to share with my faith community.