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A Model for Parish Revitalization (NO)

Last week George Weigel released an article entitled A Pastor in Full honoring Fr. Jay Scott Newman of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Greenville, SC, a priest who has influenced Weigel greatly over the years and who recently celebrated the silver jubilee of his ordination. Weigel writes about Fr. Newman’s parish:

“I know of none better than St. Mary’s in Greenville, where the entire parish is, as Pope Francis urges, “permanently in mission,” empowered by biblically-rich preaching, nurtured by a beautiful and prayerful liturgy that embodies Vatican II’s liturgical reform at its finest, and led by a pastor who makes evangelization a priority.

Weigel even released his work Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st-Century Church at St. Mary’s. I decided to pop over to the parish’s website and found the following from Fr. Newman. “Being Evangelical Catholics requires that we know the Gospel, believe the Gospel, live the Gospel, and share the Gospel with others, and this begins and ends for us in the sacred liturgy, the source and summit of the Church’s life.” This struct me because its wisdom flies in the face of the commonest forms of evangelization promoted in the Church today. Fr. Newman claims, and rightly so, that evangelization begins and returns in the Sacred Liturgy, where we find Christ Himself. I cannot stress how important this is. If we  truly seek to evangelize, we must first receive before we can give. It is in the Sacred Liturgy, especially in the Holy Eucharist, where we receive Christ and through this gift are able to transform the world.

I would encourage everyone to visit the parish website and to see what can be done in a parish. Especially pay attention to Fr. Newman’s page about Evangelical Catholicism. Please share this website with those pastors you know who truly pray and work for the building up of the Mystical Body of Christ. It is refreshing to see the Gospel put forth in all of its beauty and glory. Otherwise the faithful get this.

A Response

Recently a friend and priest commented to me that he felt some seminarians and young priests were far too focused on the exterior details of the Sacred Liturgy, ultimately missing Christ in the celebration of the Sacraments (personally, I think his comments were directed more to me than to certain seminarians). To be fair, he is a very good priest with a heart after the Heart of Christ, one who both believes and practices an orthodox Faith (and celebrates the Liturgy beautifully and reverently) and believes these things are essential to the mission of the Church, which seeks “to baptize all nations.” Nevertheless, I want to address this somewhat common, if negative, assumption about younger Catholics, whether clerical or lay, based on my experience working for the Church.

First, as a church musician and liturgist, my job IS to be concerned with the Sacred Liturgy. It would be a dereliction of my duties were I not. Can you imagine engaging someone to teach your children who didn’t have any interest in them? It’s a comical thought.

Second, I find that those who make such an accusation usually don’t understand the connection between cult and culture, that how we pray determines what we believe, and that what we believe determines where we focus our lives. Perhaps a homely analogy will demonstrate my point.

My wife and I love our children dearly and work to create strong familial bonds that will help us in our work to form virtuous children who will one day arrive at Heaven’s shore (and take care of us in our dotage!), and nowhere does this happen more than at the dining room table. Early on, my wife and I realized that the majority of our human and Christian formation came to us through our parents as we sat down each night to supper, so we decided to give our children the same gift. Like so many other things, though, the devil has been in the details and we have had to pay attention to these details along the way, while  not losing focus on the end goal.

When we moved into our house 5 years ago, we found that our dining room was the most uninspiring room in the whole house. It was rather depressing. We still sat down every night to supper and spent quality time together, but it wasn’t until we gave the room a new coat of paint, nice window treatments and hung quality pictures on the walls that we found we couldn’t wait to spend time it that room. Supper hadn’t changed; we didn’t love our children more (at least not for that reason); but we anticipated our time together more.

The next addition was a new (at least to us) dining room table. Our home is an 80+ year old colonial and I had always dreamed of beautiful Georgian table as the final touch in the room, but knew I could never justify what would amount to half a year of college tuition to pay for such an heirloom. God, however, in His eternal sense of humor inadvertently brought my attention to such a table and chairs for 10 in solid mahogany and brass on Craigslist for a fraction of the cost. As I paid for the table, I wondered if the inlaid table top would survive our boys, who had the unfortunate habit of dragging the points of their silverware across the table. We purchased place mats for everyone and instituted a policy that one’s plate, cup and silverware always had to stay on the place mat and that everyone had to stay in his chair until were finished.

We also had to fix the problem of our children starting to eat before we got to the table, so we taught them to stand behind their chairs until we had prayed. Only then would we ALL sit down. As the final touch, we decided that on Sundays and feast days we would pull out the wedding china and my grandmother’s wedding silver to give the day a real specialness.

My wife and I often comment that supper is our favorite time of the day. We ask each of our children to tell us what their greatest joy of the day was as well as their greatest sorrow and we sometimes read a short biography of the day’s saint. We find that supper is where we have really grown as a family and where we have learned so much about our children. It is also where we talk intentionally about our Faith with our children. This is our evangelization time, if you will. Some people might acuse my wife and I of focusing too much on the details to the detriment of letting our children be kids by trying to recreate long gone social customs or pretending that we are somehow higher on the social ladder than other people, but nothing could be further from the truth. We are resigned to the fact that wedding china will break (and has broken) and that milk will continue to spill from precariously stemmed glassware. They are, after all, just things, but they are sacramentals in the sense that they speak to us about the beauty of the vocation of a Christian family and they reinforce in us the desire to become the family God has called us to be.

Some time ago we spent a few days with extended family who regularly passed out paper plates to everyone in an effort to keep things easy. The table was usually half full of groceries or toys that had to be pushed aside, and which caused people to eat all over the house.  My wife commented later that she missed getting to spend quality time at the table with everyone and I couldn’t have agreed more.

In the same way, I focus on beauty in the externals of liturgy and music not because I worship them, but because I love God and He is worth it. Every so often (although not nearly enough) I get flowers for my wife and my naturally frugal mind always cringes at the cost, but I am amazed how such a simple gesture brighten’s my wife’s entire day and I find that by “wasting” my money on her, I find freedom and joy. To be honest, focusing on the external aspects of liturgy engages very little of my day. Even at home I don’t sit around talking to my family about liturgy. We pray together and pass on the Faith to our children, but I can’t remember that I have ever engaged my children in a discussion about the aesthetics of the liturgy, even on their own level.

I am sure that there are those seminarians and priests and laymen who are too focused on the externals of liturgy, but don’t forget they exist on both sides of the liturgical divide. I would venture to say that in the past 50 years there have been more than a fair share of priests and seminarians who were overly focused on the liturgy in an effort to destroy all that was holy and good, including Faith in Christ. Perhaps the supposed over emphasis on the Liturgy among younger Catholics today is just a response to its devaluation since the 1960s. I have said it before and will say it again: if the Sacred Liturgy is where we meet the Lord, then there you will find me.

Tone Quality and Your Singers

Some weeks ago I addressed the challenge of teaching your singers to breath well and today I hope to continue the conversation, focusing on your choir’s  tone quality. I remember well the numerous school and church choirs I sang in throughout my youth and to the best of my knowledge, not one of those choirs’ directors ever mentioned tone quality, much less worked with us to achieve a certain choral sound. The vast majority of our time was spent learning notes and paying attention to the odd, but occasional triple forte encountered on Easter morning. However, if you hope to lead your singers to greener pastures, working on the quality of your choir’s tone produces great dividends.

Warm-ups

I continue to be amazed by the number of choir directors who believe the entire purpose of warm-ups is simply to warm-up their singers’ voices. Perhaps the name warm-up is misleading, because there are so many other things the choir director can accomplish at the same time time. Use this time to build your choir vocally, especially focusing on problems they will encounter during rehearsal in the music.

Listening

The greatest skill you can teach your singers is to listen, both to themselves and to each other. They should sing everything as softly as necessary in order to learn to listen and to become aware of what comes out of their own mouths and the mouths of their fellow singers. When they prove adept at listening, THEN you may allow them to sing louder (just beware that you will need to constantly reinforce listening). All of my experience, though, has taught me that soft singing cures a great number of vocal faults.

Resonance

Resonance is extremely important! Ask your singers if any play the violin or guitar and inquire what would happen if they were to remove the instrument’s strings, stretch them as tightly as possible and then bow or pluck them. The strings would vibrate and make noise, albeit very softly. The sound box, because it vibrates in tandem with the strings, acts as a resonator and amplifies the sound of the strings. The same phenomenon happens to the human voice. As the vocal folds or chords begin to vibrate, they cause cavities in areas around the nose and mouth to resonate and amplify the sound. In this way, the voice is given life.

Help your singers to become aware of the natural resonance already taking place as they sing. Ask them to buzz like bees or to sing a very nasally ee and place their fingers to their noses and cheeks and feel the vibrations. Utilize warm-ups that build resonance and you will find your choir much improved in a few short weeks.

I also find it helpful to avoid overly technical language with most choir members, especially children. For the youngest ones, I simply sing the line of a hymn without resonance and then sing it with resonance and ask them if they hear the difference. They can always hear the difference and are often able to mimic both ways of singing.

Head Voice and Chest Voice

In the beginning stages of your work, strive for a greater use of the head voice, especially by singing everything softly. Often untrained singers have picked up a number of bad vocal habits, most of which result in undue tension place on the voice and singing softly reduces and eliminates this tension. This also encourages singers to listen louder than they sing and will help the overall blend of your choir.

Begin the warm-up with descending scales. The high notes encourage your singers to start in the head voice, and if you make sure they continue to sing quietly, they will bring the head voice down into the lower registers. What you don’t want is for them to start in a lower register in the chest voice and force the chest voice into the higher registers of their range, resulting in unhealthy tension.

Eventually, you will want to introduce the chest voice into warm-ups and into the repertoire, making sure that singers don’t introduce undue tension as they do. The addition of the chest voice adds color to music that would otherwise sound very emotionally restrained.

Vowels

Lastly, I would like to mentioned the manner in which choristers sing vowels and how it affects the tone quality of your choir’s sound. Just as Bostonians sound different from Mid westerners and Iowans speak differently from Georgians, the members of your choir will surely sing vowels differently one from another. Your job is to unify their pronunciation on beautiful vowel sounds. If your choir sings primarily in Latin, you will have a much easier time. I personally follow the Liber usualis for Latin pronunciation and Madeleine Marshall’s English Diction for Singers for English.

Conclusion

The ultimate goal of the choral director is to communicate through the music. In the end it doesn’t matter if your choir resonates well and sings beautiful vowels but can’t communicate. However, it would be pretty hard to communicate without these things.

Music in Catholic Schools

Last week Catholics across the fruited plain celebrated Catholic Schools Week, so I find it apropos to share some musings about music education in our parochial Schools–the good, the bad and the ugly, and offer a plan forward.

First, the Good. There are almost 2 million students served by Catholic schools across the US, making the Catholic school system the second largest educator of American students after public schools. The Church, therefore, exerts a large influence on a sizeable minority of US children and quite frankly usually educates them better than public schools. This means the Church possess a tool of immense value. From my own experience, I can say that Catholic education in our present day is far more Catholic in every way possible compared to when I attended (through the 90s and early 2000s). Schools possess a far superior Catholic identity with a greater focus on evangelizing than in my day (I know some of you are shaking your heads at this point in disbelief and I promise to address your concerns in a moment) due in no small part to a much healthier crop of bishops, priests, parents and young teachers who want the Faith to be taught in its fullness. I wish I could say the same for music education in our schools, but for a few exceptional pastors and teachers, it is rather abysmal. I must say that I find a greater number of parishes that believe in the power of music to evangelize young people, but I can’t say that they always act on this belief in a healthy way.

Second, the bad. Just because the situation one encounters in Catholic Schools today is much healthier now than it was 25 years ago, that doesn’t mean that it is anywhere near where it should be. The educational vineyard has suffered tremendously and it is going to take a very long time and even greater effort to repair the damage of the last 60 years. Throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s pastors and teachers tried to all but destroy the Faith of average Catholics in the west, and now that they have largely succeeded, a much healthier crop of clergy and teachers find it daunting to overcome. More than half the families with children in Catholic Schools can’t even be bothered to take their children to Mass on Sunday, much less give witness to the Faith to their children. This means that even good Catholic schools struggle to fulfill their mission. As I mentioned above, Catholics are realizing how important music is to evangelization, but in general they view it as a manipulative tool used to get young people through the door (I realize they don’t think about it in this way). Basically, give them what they like to get them through the door the first time. If you are familiar with books and programs such as Rebuilt or Amazing Parish, they lean in this direction, while most schools and youth group programs rely on this model exclusively.

Finally, the ugly. What I find so distressing in all of this is that we have sold our educational birthright as Catholics for a tepid bowl of Dewey inspired porridge. The greatest educator in the history of the world is the Catholic Church and over the centuries She developed a model of education based on the liberal (free) arts, the trivium and the quadrivium, crowned by Theology, whose aim was nothing less than to form children to love and seek after truth and to realize that ultimately Truth is a person, the person of Jesus Christ. In this paradigm students move from the here and now to ultimate things, while our modern system of Catholic education tends to be a good public school with religion class thrown in. This system compartmentalizes education into separate and unrelated fields relegating religion to be “just another class.” Some children like math, some like spelling and some like religion. In the end, the general populace wants their children to receive high paying jobs and music doesn’t usually fit into that scheme. Education becomes something we consume instead of something that frees us and music is another consumable product the school provides if enough students and parents want it. There is no belief that some music is good and some is bad and that within these categories there are levels of goodness and badness. There is no concept of offering both God and our students the best of what we have. There is no idea of opening young people up to this great thing we call western civilization. Rather we produce what students and families prefer to consume. We give young people the kind of music we think they want at Mass and wonder why they don’t stick around (admittedly music is by no means the only problem). The Church and Her music become like clothes, just another consumable commodity–young people like them when they are in style, and feel good about them at the time, but soon they wear thin and are tossed in the wastebasket with yesterday’s refuse.

The questions remains, though, how do we move forward. I would suggest that we:

  1. Rediscover the purpose of a Catholic education (and it isn’t to be a better public school with a religion class tacked on) and be able to articulate it over and over.
  2. Rediscover that music has the power to train the heart to love what is good, and that we make the decision to give our students the very best of our musical patrimony.
  3. Devote a large amount of our music education program a program to teaching the music of the Church, one of our greatest treasures.
  4. Slowly introduce a diet of good music while reducing the dubious sort. (Richard Terry told the story of a pastor who changed the music at school Masses over the course of a generation and after that time the problem of music at Sunday Masses had taken care of itself.)
  5. For smaller parishes with limited resources, hire a competent musician who has a knack for teaching to run the parish music program and teach in the school. I personally know of pastors who have been very successful doing this.

If you are trying to move away from Praise and Worship, be sure to read Adam Barlett’s FOCUS on Beauty: The Liturgical Heart of Missionary Zeal. FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) is doing incredible work bringing young people to/back to the Faith and over the last 7-8 years they have made a seismic shift in the way they prepare music for Holy Mass.

Another invaluable tool is the National Catholic Education Association/Pueri Cantores list of Music for Catholic School Masses. Implementing this list of hymns and a beautiful setting of the Mass Ordinary in English would be a vast musical improvement for most parochial school Masses. If you school is ready to sing the Propers (you are blessed indeed!) Corpus Christi Watershed is more than happy to point you in the right direction.

Finally, I would encourage you to never let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Lay people especially need to pray for and encourage their pastors and music teachers, but realize they may be constrained in what they can do because of either outside limitations or by internal ones such as limited funds or extreme pressure from small, but vocal minorities in the parish. If they are working toward the good, do everything you can to assist them. In short, keep up the good fight and keep moving forward!

What if…

If only… At some point in every man’s life he mutters this phrase in a moment of  absolute frustration. If only… I have my own slew of such stories, many of which deal with a beautiful, but old colonial style home my wife and I purchased a number of years ago (if only the builders hadn’t planned the main gray water drain line to exit the house into the back yard, snake under the entire garage, enter our neighbor’s yard and then return back into our front yard to connect to the main sewer–who willingly creates problems like that?). As musicians, priests and liturgists each of us has similar stories he could tell about his own parish church and problems he deals with because the building wasn’t conceived through careful thought and planning. Following my article last week on the importance of the right sound quality in churches I thought long and hard about the various peoples and knowledge I would bring to the table if I were building an ideal Roman Catholic Church and would like to share that with you today. What follows is a short list of those people I feel should be involved in the planning of a church from the very beginning to ensure a worthy celebration of the Roman Rite in both of its forms. (I do not include obvious examples such as engineers, contractors, fund-raisers, etc., but confine myself to those with an obvious connection to the Sacred Liturgy.)

Priest: As obvious as this is and should be, I wonder if priests sometimes view their role in the church building process as more of parish CEO than as chief parish liturgist. As the one responsible for the celebration of the Sacraments and as the spiritual father of a vast family he is leading to Heaven (on whom the building will have an obvious impact) , he needs to have a clear vision of what a church building is. Obviously this won’t be the strength of every pastor, which is both natural and to be expected, but if he struggles in this area, he needs to find those who can help him.

Liturgist: I hesitate to include liturgists in this discussion, having had more trouble with them in my life than I care to recall. (I somewhat rue the fact that I have liturgist in my official parish title, but the Lord has a sense of humor.) However, there are some really good ones out there who understand the history of the Roman Rite and its liturgical requirements and they can offer insights that otherwise might never be thought of. Such a liturgist needs not only to understand the Roman Rite and its rich history, but needs to have a love and respect for that history, especially for both forms, as well as such things as ad orientem worship.

Organist/Choir Director: Again, I hesitate to add musicians to this list for the same reason I hesitate to add liturgists–too many of them disdain the Roman Rite’s liturgical patrimony, which bodes ill for any of our building projects. However, the importance of music in the celebration of the Roman Rite behooves a pastor to include a liturgical musician worthy of the name, and to do so from the very start. It goes without saying that a fine organ should be part of the project from the beginning and it is much easier to remove walls or add them before they are built rather than after. Many parishes won’t be able to afford a quality instrument until after the church is built, but it should be planned for from the very beginning. A quality acoustician (recommended by a organ company of high quality) goes without saying as well (refer to my article last week on this topic).

Liturgical Architect: It is imperative that a parish employ an architect steeped in the history of church architecture. This does NOT lock a parish into copying a specific style, nor does it preclude a genuine inculturation of local elements. Nevertheless, your parish will not succeed in building a church structure worthy to be called an icon of Heaven if you don’t have an architect who can embody some part of the glory of Heaven in stone, wood and glass. Duncan Stroik is well known for his ability to do this, but there are others as well.

The Way of Beauty: David Clayton’s book The Way of Beauty should be require reading as well as the basis for reflection and discussion for any church building committee. One must always keep in mind that the church building itself is a sacrament of Heaven and this book is the most complete, yet accessible work I have encountered that forms such an understanding in the reader.

Whether a Gothic cathedral in France, a rural Norman church in England or a Californian mission church, each one in its own way has the power to lift our eyes in contemplation of the New and Eternal Jerusalem. My prayer is that parishes recognize both the incredible potential and responsibility they possess in erecting such edifices.

Sound Does Matter

As we stand upon the threshold of a New Year, waves of joy and apprehension simultaneously flood my soul as I arrive, rested, back to work following a beautiful holiday vacation. Mind you, I don’t consider Christmas “done in” yet, nevertheless our new year of grace presents a time for fresh beginnings and in that vein I feel obligated to press for one particular New Year’s resolution from you and your music program—namely, switching from a predominantly fake system of amplification (that thing we call the microphone) to the beauty of natural resonance.

I confess an innate disgust for all things fake, but the microphone stands as a doubly dreaded foe due to my unfortunate lack of technical prowess. Perhaps it’s only my personal experience, but its use seems to fall into two camps in the Church. Ordinary Form parishes worship the microphone as the unum necessarium, the one thing necessary, to bring the Liturgy to life, while Extraordinary Form parishes tread upon the microphone as one attacks a venomous serpent. Thus I find the shear volume of the Ordinary Form parts my hair down the middle (but at least can hear the homily!) while the quiet of the Extraordinary Form graciously envelops me (even during the homily!). I realize this contemplative nature is due as much if not more to the very nature of the Extraordinary Form, but I wouldn’t mind a little updated amplification during the homily. It makes me feel unduly past my prime when my wife and I are forced to whisper back and forth throughout the 40 minute long sermon asking each other “what did he say?” Alas!

I will never forget about a decade ago entering the local church to pray and noticing that the pastor had a man from Bose Sound Systems on site testing new sound equipment. The priest read passages from Scripture as the technician experimented with various sounds levels and microphone positions, while the speakers, placed in the sanctuary facing the nave, produced such a loud cackle that I couldn’t even pull my thoughts together to pray. In a sense, I understood every word. As a matter of fact, I was beaten over the head by every one of them. Yet I had no space in which to contemplate the WORD because there was no silence, no quiet, no stillness. The pastor and I were friends, so he left the sanctuary to ask me what I thought. What ensued was a short conversation about the nature of the Sacred Liturgy and its twofold purpose of worship and sanctification. We spoke of the difference between the Catholic Mass and a Protestant worship service, the former by necessity sung as the Church’s eternal hymn of praise, while the latter is almost entirely spoken due to its over emphasis on the written word of God to the exclusion of the Word of God.

The sung Liturgy is much less attached to the microphone due to the repetitive nature of the Ordinary of the Mass and the natural resonance of the singing. Plus, the gift of silence offers one the priceless pearl of contemplation. Ask any mother what she would like after a day at home with the young ones and I guarantee you she won’t ask for more noise. Perhaps Christians share the same boat. They are simply tired of the noise.

I don’t know if my conversation with Father was the catalyst, but I noticed later that when the new sound system arrived, the speakers were mounted in numerous indirect locations to the congregation, replicating a pleasing and natural resonance. It was perfect!

On the other hand, most church musicians  follow the Rolling Stones amplification model of QUANTITY over quality. I watch in amusement as some church bands practically caress the microphones as they get tooled up (do I hear strains of Preciousssssss……) and later as they perform. Quite frankly it’s exhausting to listen to and practically douses any warm strains of congregational singing with the iciest of waters.

I felt somewhat vindicated recently when a good friend and far greater intellect (Dr. Kevin Vogt, Director of Music at St. Michael the Archangel in Leawood, KS) posted a New York Times article on Facebook entitled Dear Architects: Sound Matters—a wonderful read about acoustics and the forgotten ingredient in architecture–sound.

Vogt commented by way of a forward to the article that “while many people appreciate the beauty and reverence of our celebrations at St. Michael, many others feel it is lacking affective appeal. There are a lot of reasons why this might be, but those of us who experience and think about this every day believe that while our sound system is excellent, the scale of the room and the lack of early sound reflections make any unamplified sound very quiet and isolated…”

Chant and polyphony (and even congregational hymnody) developed before electrical amplification and I firmly believe that proper acoustics are essential to their success (I will spare you a long tangent about the overtone series). As Dr. Vogt recognizes, “As Catholics, we believe that Christ is truly present in the assembly of the baptized, when it prays and sing, and so the very sound of the Church praying and singing is ‘sacramental.'” The Church’s music loses much of its sacramental power when its natural voice is destroyed. Imagine the difference between chant sung in a carpeted bungalow as opposed to a Gothic cathedral (or even a humble country church from the 19th century for that matter).

Dear Architects: Sound Matters rightly makes the connection between sound (not just the amount, but the very quality of it) and the fittingness of a building (does it do what it is supposed to). For example, “an expensive, solid wood door sounds better than an inexpensive hollow one, partly because its heavy clunk reassures us that the door is a true barrier, corresponding to the task it serves.” In another place the author writes “If only subliminally, we also know, by contrast, when sound spoils architecture because it fails to correspond to funtion. The bygone Shea Stadium in Queens was joyless partly because the design of its low, wide semicircle dissipated the sound of a cheering crowd into Flushing Bay. Fenway Park in Boston is the reverse; it concentrates hometown joy.” Such a dichotomy is an apt description for many of our churches.

What good is it training choirs to praise God beautifully and to communicate the Gospel effectively if at the end of the day the congregation feels isolated by cold and emotionless music? I realize it is “right and just” to give God what He deserves whether people feel good about it or not, but in today’s climate the church musician is under fire from a thousand different voices shouting at him through more than microphones to be relevant. What musician would continue to offer such an invitation to serial martyrdom when no matter how well he does his job, the acoustical devil spits his work back in his face Sunday after Sunday. Maybe the first step is to slowly ween congregations from amplified sound (this Sunday perhaps), or if amplification is necessary, to convince one’s parish to invest in a high quality system that delivers necessary but understated amplification effectively. That would make a fantastic Resolution!

Your Family and Adventtide

In Nicholas Diat’s full length interview with Cardinal Sarah, God or Nothing, His Eminence echos a point frequently made by Pope Benedict throughout his life, namely that at the heart of the Christian Faith lies an Event, a Person–the Person of Jesus Christ. Our theology and philosophy, our doctrines and dogmas and even our morality are not the foundation of our Faith, but rather flow from Him who is our Rock. This encounter with Christ also lies at the very heart of the mysteries we celebrate during Advent and Christmas, the threefold coming of Christ in the Incarnation, in the life of Grace and finally at the end of time to “judge the living and the dead.” The Person of Jesus is the greatest gift you and your family can receive this year, and in that vein I would like to propose some helpful suggestions for preparing a place for Him to come and dwell:

  1. Finish your Christmas shopping (completely) before the first Sunday in Advent. Remove the consumerist culture from your family entirely by not having to partake in it during these four weeks. My wife and I have done this for the past two years and it has changed our family’s celebration of Advent and has drastically reduced our stress and strained relations between us. It forces us to make gift decisions quickly and it reduces the ridiculous amount of time we spend shopping to about a full Friday and Saturday. In some ways it becomes a game for us, a giant scavenger hunt to find out if we can slay the proverbial dragon again. Later my wife and I spend one or two evenings (after the children are snuggled in bed) during Advent sipping hot chocolate and eating cookies while we wrap gifts and talk.
  2. Your spiritual life comes first. If you spend titanic amounts of time in physical preparations for Christmas but can’t find 20 to 30 minutes for mental prayer each day, then you don’t have your priorities straight. Stop right now and change that. Also, make sure that every member of your family cleans his own stable before Christmas by making a good Confession and help your children to make a concrete spiritual and material resolution to carry out during Advent.
  3. The Advent wreath and dinner table. Create an Advent wreath and place it in the center of your dining room table where your family can gather each evening before supper to light the Advent wreath and eat together. As part of the ritual sing Advent hymns and talk about them with your children (t is amazing how much of our Faith can be passed on in a song). Remove the electronic devices and  spend at least 45 minutes together. Yes, your children will complain about sitting so long, but remember that you are the parent and you are forming your children.
  4. Set up your nativity scene throughout Advent. We have a Fontanini nativity scene that we have added pieces to every year so that it now sprawls all over the living room mantel, side tables and piano, and recreates the Little Town of Bethlehem. The pieces are made of resin so little hands can play with them and wee have statues of St. Joseph and our Blessed Mother with child riding on a donkey, which journey around the living room as they make their way toward the manger (the same goes for the Three Wise Men). Our children see the Christmas narrative unfolding in front of their eyes–their own daily meditation on the Christmas mysteries. We also have a handful of straw next to the stable and they are allowed to put a piece in every time they perform a good deed (yes, this gets messy!).
  5. Turn off the Television. There is no explanation needed. Simply fill the void with any number of family activities.
  6. Let the Sacred Liturgy be your guide. Allow the feasts and celebrations of the Church to guide your family celebrations, from reading the Sunday Gospels to celebrating the Feasts of the Immaculate Conception, Our Lady of Guadelupe, Sts. Nicholas and Lucy and finally the O Antiphons.
  7. Go to Midnight Mass. Do not attend the Christmas Eve/Vigil Mass in an effort to put your obligation behind you because you have so much else you need to do. Think instead about attending Midnight Mass or one of the morning Masses and teach your children how important it is that Christ is at the center of your Christmas celebrations. I remember as a child each year returning home from Midnight Mass and standing around our outdoor manger scene, half frozen, singing Silent Night and placing Jesus in his crib.  Of course, our dad always read the Christmas story from St. Luke’s Gospel before we opened gifts.

At the heart of all of your preparations remember that your children need to see that for you everything takes second place to your relationship with Christ. Let that relationship be the foundation for everything you do to prepare for this Holy Season and you will receive the gift of a truly blessed Christmas!

Music and Evangelization

I feel blessed to belong to the Archdiocese of Kansas City (KS) where our shepherd, Archbishop Joseph Naumann takes his role with joyful seriousness. Over the past few years evangelization has been at the forefront of his activities, working to to cultivate in the faithful a love for proclaiming the Good News to a world desperately in need of that News. I have personally benefited from a number of these initiatives, especially the work of the Apostles of the Interior Life, who provide untold hours of spiritual direction, and the Little Brothers and Sisters of the Lamb, who provide for the materially poor not only with food, but with a beauty (Beauty) more satisfying than any earthly fare. As a matter of fact, His Excellency has more than once made the point that Beauty is an essential starting point for evangelization.

Nevertheless, I feel that the faithful in general (clergy or lay) have yet to discovere the deep connection between the Church’s Sacred worship and beauty and Her mission to evangelize–they don’t understand that the Sacred Liturgy provides the fuel for the Church’s evanglization efforts through the “right and just” worship of God, while at the same time forming the evangelizers themselves into the men and women God has called them to be. Too often there is a false dichotomy between those drawn to Beauty and those drawn to the outward efforts of evangelization (in much the same way that a false dichotomy has always existed between the contemplative and actives apostolates), which is why I was so excited to read Leah Sedlacek’s September 17th article for the Adoremus Bulletin entitled FOCUS on Beauty: the Liturgical Heart of Missionary Zeal.

Sedlacek’s article follows the story of how FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students), arguably the largest and most effect group of Catholic missionaries on both secular and Catholic universities in the US today, has begun to bridge that gap through a renewed emphasis on beauty, especially within the Sacred Liturgy. FOCUS, with the help of Illuminare Publications and Adam Barlett, has been transitioning from a “singing at Mass” approach to a “singing THE Mass” approach to liturgical music and it is having a profound impact on the millennial students they work with (this doesn’t mean that they no longer use Praise and Worship, only that they don’t use it as a cheap substitute for what is authentic). The authoress, who heads FOCUS’s worship team, writes,

“We continue to take steps to follow more closely the vision and principles proposed by the Church. And we hope to equip our missionaries and staff with a deep liturgical formation and with resources to help them encounter the beauty of Jesus Christ in the liturgy, who is the source of all our efforts to evangelize on college campuses and in parishes.

It is an incredibly refreshing and dare I say beautiful movement within the Church today, one that I feel could be of invaluable help to those places making the transition to a more authentic celebration of the Church’s sacred worship.

The Problem of Acedia

For some time I have been engaged in the reading a truly great little work, one I would heartily recommend to every reader of this blog, The Noonday Devil: Acedia, the Unnamed Evil of Our Times by Jean-Charles Nault, O.S.B. I don’t intend to lecture you with a digested version of the book (which deals neither with the Sacred Liturgy nor with music), but to discuss one section in particular that speak to me as one who strives to “labor in the Lord’s vineyard.”

Following an exposition of the thought of the Fathers of the Church on Acedia (often translated todaymerely as Sloth), the author tackles the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas on Acedia. According to St. Thomas there are two definitions of Acedia: 1) a sadness about spiritual good and 2) the disgust with activity.

St. Thomas makes note of many ways in which the vice of Acedia might manifest itself in the Christian, but one way in particular strikes me as particularly insidious for the Church in our time, that of Pusillanimity, or smallness of soul. St. Thomas refers to this vice as a daughter of Acedia and lists it as one of the vices opposite the virtue of Magnanimity, or greatness of soul. Magnanimity is the virtue that allows man to perceive the greatnes of the God’s calling and to respond to this call.

Magnanimity is that virtue that spured the saints to tackle enormous and seemingly insurmountable problems. Magnanimity is the virtue that brought to fruition the great cathedrals of the Middle Ages and inspired men like St. Francis de Sales or St. Martin de Pores to work for the conversion of thousands of souls. Think of St. John Paul II who worked to defeat Communism or Pope Benedict, a seemingly introverted professor/pope, who inspired a generation of church musicians and reinvigorated the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy. Think of Mother Teresa who worked with the poorest of the poor around the world or Mother Angelica, the cloistered nun who, probably more than any, brought the light of truth and the joy of the Gospel to generations ofspiritually suffocating Americans?

Pusillanimity, the vice opposed to Magnanimity, causes man to shrink back from the greatness of God’s call and to strive for what is merely comfortable and easily attainable. It is usually cloaked as false humility. Pusillanimity convinces the Christian that the Gospel is too hard. The Good News is meant more for cloistered convents and monasteries. Marriage is too hard, being a priest or religious is too hard. Being truthful, loyal, a good friend—these are too hard and therefore meant merely as ideals for the Christian to halfheartedly strive for.

We rarely speak of greatness in the Church anymore for fear of driving people away, yet look at all of the men who responded to the call of the priesthood because of the example of Pope St. John Paul II or how many women responded to work with the poorest of the poor with Mother Teresa because they saw in her the greatness to which they felt called.

Unfortunately, the Church, in Her humanness, is not overly welcoming of the those inspired by magnanimity at the moment. She seems stuck in the rut of minimalism, which Matthew Kelly describes as one of the three greatest problems afflicting the Church today. In this atmosphere, the professional musician is generally seen as an elitist or aesthete, the fop concerned with nothing more than producing refined music fit for the concert hall as opposed to one who is truly adept at his craft and who offers it in service back to Christ and His Church.

Of course, there is a remedy for this situation. The author of The Noonday Devil reminds us that according to St. Thomas and the Church Fathers the Incarnation is the ultimate remedy for Acedia and its many problems, including Pusillanimity. When man is tempted to despair in the face of his great calling, he should meditate upon the Incarnation and contemplate the fact that God “was willing to unite human nature to Himself personally” (St. Thomas, Summa contra Gentiles, quoted in The Noonday Devil) and will always be our “help and our shield.”

The Importance of Education

Any reader of my posts has come to expect a certain maniacal preoccupation with the education of our children in the art of sacred music, however, I want to focus on another incredibly important area of education, that of our clergy and especially our seminarians. Perhaps this issue is of a more fundamental importance than the training of choristers because it places the horse before the cart and might finally allow the Church to heal in matters liturgical since the bishop, and the priest in his stead, really is the custodian of the sacred liturgy in his local area, and only he has the power to effect widespread and healthy change.

Perhaps this topic is on my mind because of a recent wedding I provided music for where the priest joked his way through the couple’s vows and even had both the bride and groom stand with him behind the altar throughout the entire consecration and then asked each to distribute the Precious Blood on either side of him as he distributed Holy Communion to the congregation. When he asked before Mass if I would sing Sabath Prayer from Fiddler on the Roof for the Responsorial Psalm I simply smiled and played dumb and said I didn’t have a copy of if. It was the most bizarre wedding I have ever attended (with certain parts cut here and others added there), so much so that I was unusually at peace knowing the likelihood of ever experiencing such a circus again would be minimal to say the least (most of these clerics are entering the twilight of their lives). A priest once commented to me that he made it through one of our nation’s prominent seminaries in the 90s without ever having had a class on the sacred liturgy, which might account in part for the travesty previously mentioned, but I think the problem runs much deeper. Most of the clergy I know truly love the Sacred Liturgy and say the Black and do the Red, but that isn’t enough.

I feel that as Americans we have always taken a very pragmatic approach to all of our problems and seek to solve them as quickly and as efficiently as possible without much “stopping to smell the Roses.” This worked well enough before the Second Vatican Council when the Church maintained a strong central moral authority and society nominally upheld traditional Christian mores. Priests could sacramentalize their parishioners and keep them on the strait and narrow efficiently enough and collections assured that lighting and heating bills and the sisters (in that order) got paid. Efficiency makes for a wonderful taskmaster but a terrible lover and under this Culture of Efficiency the beloved suffered. The Church ran efficiently, but in the post-war years the heart of the Church in the western world grew cold and the Sacred Liturgy, that incredible place where man truly met God and was embraced by Him, became nothing more than one’s weekly obligation to avoid mortal sin.

I liken the effects of such a relationship over time to that of spouses whose love has grown cold. In the beginning the husband is always cognizant of his wife’s emotional needs and shows appreciation for the great work she does for the family and often indulges in small acts of love for her—a vase of flowers here and an embrace and heartfelt words of thanks there—but after time tiredness sets in and the husband assumes that his wife no longer needs to be told “I love you” because she already knows, and besides, where is his appreciation? In this new state the husband feels his time and his and his wife’s money are more efficiently put to use securing a new roof for the house. Love grows cold.

Of course, the cultural revolution of the 1960s didn’t help, and thankfully we are past much of that and I am truly edified by so many of the priests I know. At the same time, I find the tentacles of efficiency still lurking in the shadows. We live in a time when there is so much work to be done to bring about the Kingdom of God that we are tempted to boil down our coarse of action to finding the perfect evangelization program that will fill our pews efficiently, turn on the lights again, and maybe even furnish the parish with sisters one day, too. I feel we run the temptation of turning the Mass into the means of confecting the Holy Eucharist and the Divine Office into the private mental prayer of the priest. While the Church is given the gift of the Holy Eucharist at Mass and while the Divine Office is an essential part of a priest’s prayer life, such a reduction of the work and power of the Sacred Liturgy turns God into nothing more than a Divine dispenser of spiritual medication as opposed to the all powerful and Triune God, the Father who created Heaven and Earth and Who sent His only-begotten Son with the Holy Spirit to redeem mankind and Who carries out this work within the Sacred Liturgy.

Perhaps I am just a Benedictine at heart but I feel the Opus Dei (Work of God) must truly be given pride of place in our personal lives and in the life of the Church so that God can accomplish His Will in us and in all of creation to the glory of His name. The Sacred Liturgy and the Sacraments have the power to do just that. Unfortunately this is neither efficient to teach nor simple to learn.