Category Archives: Feasts of the Church

The Beauty of Dance

“So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obededom to the city of David with rejoicing… and David danced before the Lord with all his might.” II Samuel 6

I am amazed by the somewhat random and seemingly disconnected memories I tend to recall from childhood. For example, I could take you to the very spot, only blocks from Kansas’ only minor basilica, where I first realized at the age of 12 that one day I would die and that this life would pass by faster than I could possibly imagine. I can also vividly recall my parents playing polkas and waltzes on the piano and accordion after supper when we were very young, or dad and mom changing our vacation plans in Yellowstone National Park one year in order to make a 3 hour pilgrimage to attend the nearest Mass in next door Idaho for the Feast of the Assumption. I especially remember my father, who lacking any ego whatsoever was probably the man most comfortable in his own skin whom I have ever met. In particular, I recall one evening when he and my mother arrived home early from a presentation of of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker at St. Louis’ Fox Theatre. Dad’s workplace had provided the tickets as a Christmas gift and as those tickets provided my parents with a night away from us, they dutifully went. Being the eldest, I was put in charge in their absence, and somewhat surprised when they came home early. The house hadn’t burned and no one had died, so I asked mom what had happened. She smiled and said that dad had had enough of men in tights prancing around the stage for one evening. I couldn’t get that image out of my head years later when I attended The Nutcracker for the first time, although I enjoyed it as much as my father had disliked it.

I wonder what my father would have thought of liturgical dance, although I might hazard a guess, but thankfully he was spared the spectacle. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for myself since liturgical aberrations seem to find me wherever I am, but two instances in particular are worth mentioning here. The first took place at a talk given by a Dominican priest who was indistinguishable from the rest of us in his green pants and polo shirt, which were my first clues that the morning might prove interesting. Later, when a sexagenarian Benedictine sister in a floor length leotard, appropriately contrasted in color to her silvery hair, began dancing about the room sprinkling us (and the priest) with holy water, I judiciously held my laughter, as well as my contempt for the one who had forced my participation in the travesty.

My second memorable encounter with liturgical dance, albeit in secular surroundings, took place in graduate school, where a number of us were deemed unduly inexperienced in this particular liturgical art and made to overcome the deficiency. One of the young ladies in the class was organist at a local Latin Mass parish, and if Chesterton was correct to remark that “angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly,” she must have roared with laughter on the inside, because she made a glorious spectacle twirling her skirts into the air. Of course, harrowing trials are often the cause of deepened friendships among comrades, and she and I have remained good friend to this day. My wife and I were privileged when she and her husband asked us to be godparents for one of their daughters and I can write in all truth that we were not made to dance like harts in search of the proverbial water brooks as we made our way to the Font of Life on that happy day.

While I don’t pretend to love liturgical dance, I do love to pretend that I dance well and my wife and I go for the occasional twirl every now and again, for dance is a beautiful thing. President Washington considered himself to be little in the way of a musician, yet a master on the dance floor. He must have seen the beauty in it, too. A number of years ago a friend of mine married a young woman from Austria, whose family attended the wedding clad in the very best of their national costumes and readily took themselves to the dance floor. I will never forget the mother of the bride dancing the Viennese waltz. I stopped my own feeble attempts and stared at the sheer beauty of it, so simple and yet so elegant. There shall surely be dancing in Heaven.

I mention this because last Sunday most parishes in our nation celebrated the Feast of Corpus Christi, and I was struck again by the fact that Catholics, contrary to popular belief, really do have the most beautiful of what one might call sacred dance within the liturgy. Saturday morning I spent an hour and a half with eight altar boys rehearsing the steps of the procession and Benediction, whose intricate and graceful movements are but a shadow of the eternal dance we all hope to share in one day. At every moment, but I think especially on Corpus Christi, Christ issues His invitation to each soul to join Him, to take His hand to be lead by grace and to unite every step to Him Who is life itself. In order to follow His lead, we have to fasten our eyes and hearts upon Him, doing whatever He asks. This sacred dance is as far removed from “liturgical dance” as the waltz is from any form of what passes for dancing in most high schools and colleges today. Nevertheless, a dance it is. May we all accept the invitation of Christ to join Him, to be taken by Him, to love Him and be loved by Him in the Holy Eucharist, futurae gloriae nobis pignus datur. Alleluia.

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.

Choosing Choral Repertoire

I find that one of the most difficult aspects of my position is choosing choral repertoire for the Sacred Liturgy. How does one remain faithful to the Church’s mandates for liturgical music and choose music the choir enjoys singing and the congregation (not to mention the pastor) enjoys listening to (or should that even be a concern?). What about my own preferences or the abilities of the choristers?

Every choir director probably knows of one or two pieces his choir loves to sing and does well, but his choir likely sings more than twice a year. Is it alright for him to program the same piece several Sundays in a row?

In order to answer these questions, it is good to remember the two classical “ends” of the Mass: 1) the Glory of God and 2) the sanctification of the faithful. We need to follow what the Church has discerned to be true liturgical music, what is worthy of the temple, but also be mindful of the laity who are spiritually nourished or starved to an extent by the music they hear.

Obviously, Gregorian chant should play a healthy role in every parish’s liturgical life, although by no means the only music one should hear. Of course, the Extraordinary Form parish will naturally be used to copious amounts of chant while the Ordinary Form parish might need copious amounts of coaxing. If your parish is new to chant, I would suggest learning a number of the superbly accessible Gregorian hymns in English, such as Godhead here in hiding (Adorote devote) or Hear Us, Almighty Lord (Attende, Domine).

The first place one should go in choosing choral literature is to the texts of the sacred liturgy themselves, especially the Propers. I personally look at those before I look at the readings since the Offertory or Communion motet is an extension of sorts of each respective antiphon.

One great resource for literature is Dennis Schrock’s Choral Repertoire.  I have learned so much simply by reading this book. It lists composers and works according time period, nationality, nature of the work (sacred, secular, Mass, motet, madrigal, etc.) and popularity (based on the frequency of performance). I have learned about a great amount of modern music this way. I also enjoy reading the choral lists posted by most of the great Cathedrals and choral foundations, both in the US and on foreign soil and I don’t hesitate to ask other choir directors for their suggestions. On occasion I have even commissioned works from our parochial school music teacher (what are friends for).

I will assume that our readers already know they need to choose liturgically, musically and theologically sound music for use in the Mass or Divine Office. Some other things to keep in mind are:

  1. Choose repertoire for the choral forces at your disposal. Don’t tackle that 8 part war horse when you only have 12 people in your choir (I am guilty of this). I would much rather hear the simple done well (even if your choir has to sing hymns as motets) than the complex done badly, or even mediocrely. (Mediocrity is often what kills chant!)
  2. Choose music that your choir sounds good singing or the acoustics of your church support. My choir has sung Messiaen’s O sacrum convivium on several occasions but the dryer acoustics of our parish church don’t do it justice. Messiaen’s music really needs the acoustics of a French cathedral to pull it off successfully.
  3. Don’t be afraid of modern music (or, don’t be afraid of older styles). Church musicians need to continually expand the treasury of Sacred Music and I firmly believe that we will never exhaust the music possibilities of the texts of the Sacred Liturgy.
  4. Work to expand and deepen your choir’s and your congregation’s musical abilities. At the same time, don’t kill them with relentless good taste. There is nothing wrong with throwing an appropriate bone on occasion.
  5. Sing music that not only glorifies God, but also brings your congregation to a greater love of God (His Truth, Mercy, Charity, Goodness, Beauty). The two are not exclusive.

Good luck!

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!

Forward, Ever Forward!

Yesterday I had the immense privilege of attending the Kansas state Pro-Life Mass and Rally to mark with sadness the 45th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision Roe vs. Wade and to pray for the continued conversion of our nation and for an end to the scourge of abortion in our land. As I looked around at the myriad faces of grade school and high school students present, it gave me cause to contemplate the other great holocaust plucking young men and women from our ranks, almost universal apostasy.

The fact that a third of my generation never made it out of the womb alive is  disgusting, but what of the others who received the chance at life? If the statistics are correct, almost 80 percent of Catholic youth leave the Church by the age of 23. I wonder how many of the youth I encountered yesterday will still be among the spiritually living a decade hence? The thought isn’t heart-warming. Sometimes it’s utterly unbearable.

I write, however, with a deeper purpose. I encounter so many faithful Catholic men and women, priests and religious, fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers, not to mention a number of youth, who have grown complacent in the current situation, feeling helpless. They live in Faith, but without Hope. I grant that it is difficult to live the virtue of Hope surrounded by spiritual death and destruction on every side, and perhaps even harder when such evil emanates from those within the Church.

I am aware of the many readers here who work untiringly in the field of sacred music (and elsewhere), who wonder at times if their work matters, if their prayers are heard. To each of you I say continue living in Faith, praying for the virtue of Hope. Remind yourselves of the History of Salvation and the great love of God for His people. He will not abandon you or leave you orphaned. It seems impossible at times to remain calm in the barque of Peter as the winds rise and the waves buffet her about and the vessel fills with water. But Christ is still at the helm, the same yesterday, today and forever.

One day, God willing, when He calls you into the New and Eternal Jerusalem, you will discover the eternal consequences of the offering of your widow’s mite. You will be amazed at the countless number of souls who will have arrived safely upon that Shore because you pressed forward resolutely, not stopping to count the cost. Forward in Faith! Forward in Hope! Forward, ever Forward!

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!

Of the Father’s Love Begotten…

I must confess that I don’t turn on the radio to listen to Christmas carols, as nothing puts me more out of the season’s spirit than listening to the likes of Chestnuts roasting on an open fire… These songsfor that is all they really arehave precious little to do with Christmas and certainly aren’t carols. They can’t even claim to be good ol’ honest secular carols like Jingle Bells and Deck the Halls.

Last year I regaled readers with a short history of the Christmas carol and provided ample encouragement to all families to once again take up the honorable tradition of caroling around the tree, or wherever best suits your family. I would echo that encouragement again this year, only more passionately. Your children’s view of the Incarnation will be influenced more than you could ever imagine by the Christmas music they listen to and sing, by the Christmas movies they watch, by the decorations you have in your household, by the general  way you celebrate the season and most importantly, by the way you and your spouse conduct yourselves (especially your prayer lives) throughout Christmastide. Christians must take a stand and take back the culture. Do at least one special thing together each of the twelve days of Christmas, even if it is something as simple as playing a game or drinking hot chocolate and eating Christmas cookies. At least a couple of those nights should involve extended family and friends. Here are a few of my family’s favorites:

  • Continuing our family’s routine of prayer even though we are with extended family
  • Caroling (that was a given)
  • Playing cards (about 4 hours worth last night)
  • Visiting, especially older relatives who live alone
  • Playing board games (unfortunately I am typing this as some family are on the other side of the table playing Connect Four)
  • Eating and drinking, and eating and drinking, and eating… did I mention eating? (fudge and English toffee accompanied by coffee with Bailey’s Irish Cream are my downfall)
  • Maintaining an attitude of wonder and awe at the Incarnation (it snowed this year on Christmas Eve and on St. Stephen’s Day, and for some reason every time I look out the window it reminds me of God’s gift of His Son)
  • Reading the fantastic books I received as Christmas gifts (David Clayton’s Way of Beauty, James Monti’s Sense of the Sacred, Sir Winston Churchill’s History of the English Speaking People and Barry Singer’s Churchill Style: The Art of Being Winston Churchill
  • LEAVING UP THE CHRISTMAS TREE UNTIL AT LEAST THE EPIPHANY (we DO NOT fudge on this one, folks!)

Some day I wouldn’t mind cooking up a good ol’ fashioned Christmas Ball, but ’til then have to content myself with adding a few pounds (or more than a few) in honor of our Lord’s birth. However you and yours decide to celebrate, I wish our readers a very blessed and Merry Christmas!

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.

A Silver Jubilee

“Pleasure and action make the hours seem short.” William Shakespeare

Yesterday marked a milestone of sorts—the 25th anniversary of the first time I played the organ for Holy Mass—Friday, October 2, 1992. I remember because it was the Feast of the Guardian Angels and I played a hymn related to the day, although for the life of me I couldn’t now tell you what it was. Here I am 25 years later thanking God for the life of the church musician, along with its joys and vicissitudes. It is wonderful now to look back and realize with what love God prepared me for this avocation, from being born into a devout Catholic family with a deep musical heritage to beings surrounded by pastors, teachers and wonderful friends along the way who have guided and mentored. Of course none of this would now be possible without my wife Katie, who takes the helm and navigates the family ship every Sunday morning while I busy myself with any myriad of things musical and liturgical.

Many things have changed over the last quarter of a century in the field of church music and thankfully most of them have been for the better. I distinctly remember my 8th grade year in school when I found my mother’s missal from her youth, which happened to contain a short Kyriale at the end in modern notation. She and my aunt recorded the Agnus Dei from Mass XVIII on a cassette and I listened to it and memorized it, enraptured with its beauty and thinking it was the most sublime thing I had ever heard (it would be years before I discovered the Kyrie from Mass IX). None of the young people then seems to care about it or for it, but how different things are today. Young people, parents, priests, religious and the un-churched alike are touched by the beauty of the rich treasury of sacred music, one of the greatest gifts the Church has bequeathed to western civilization.

In many ways I feel blessed because I don’t have to work, I simply get paid to do what I love and the time has truly flown. Yesterday I went to Mass early in the morning at the local to give thanks for such a gift and I found myself repeating the words of Psalm 150… “O praise God in His holiness… Praise Him for His noble acts… Let everything that hath breath praise the Lord!”