Introducing Young Adults to Sacred Music

This month, I have the joy of serving as the music director at the Ecclesia Institute, a 5-week program of formation in philosophy and theology, structured in the monastic schedule of the Community of St. John, taking place at the University of Mary in Bismarck.

A class given by one of the priests

The students, coming from many different backgrounds and from all around the U.S., are receiving a sort of “immersion experience” in sacred music and liturgy.  In addition to the offices being sung, we’ve had sung Masses in the Ordinary Form of the Roman rite every day of the institute. The priests sing the dialogues, collects, preface, etc. and the propers are chanted every day, sometimes in English (SEP), sometimes using the Gregorian melodies, and the singing of the Gregorian Gradual and Alleluia is often heard instead of the responsorial psalm and acclamation-style Alleluia.  The ordinary is always sung, sometimes in Gregorian melodies, sometimes in English adaptations thereof.  There are also organ improvisations and repertoire punctuating the liturgies, especially on Sundays and feasts, the readings are sung on Sundays and feasts, and sometimes hymns are used at the end of Mass. Yesterday, we went to a local parish for the celebration of a missa cantata without incense in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman rite, and will do so again on the feast of St. James.  For many of the participants, it was their first exposure to the Traditional Latin Mass. 

Ordinary Form Mass in a simple country parish, following four days of intense hiking and camping

All of these experiences have been accompanied by classes on basic principles of sacred music and sacred liturgy, giving them them the opportunity to learn about the Church’s traditions and sacred treasures in an academic style, but also giving free reign to honest questions about the experiences and ideas presented to them.

What has been the result?  I’ve been asking around to gauge the honest reactions of people who haven’t had experiences of liturgy and sacred music like this before, and there’s an amazing docility to receiving the Church’s treasures of sacred music and sacred liturgy. Many have made comments about the positive impact the experience has had on their ability to pray and sense God’s presence in the liturgy. Most had never heard a Gregorian Gradual or Alleluia sung before, but they have found them capable of prompting the heart to contemplation of scripture. Because so much of the music is  a capella, they have really enjoyed the sound of the organ when it does make an appearance, and it really adds to the festivity of the day. Others have a preference for “praise and worship”-style music, but through the encouragement of the priests, they have cultivated an openness to something new and different, thereby receiving it with more joy than they might otherwise have done, and it does seem to be growing on them.  The overall feeling, though, is one of being excited about the opportunity to learn how to pray from a liturgy well-celebrated, as well as excitement about the authentically Catholic and sacred character of the liturgy.

Ecclesia participants at prayer following celebration of the Extraordinary Form of the Roman rite in the chapel of a local parish

What can we draw from an experience like this?

I think the lesson lies in allowing the liturgy to shine as it is, rather than hoping for it to be something that it’s not. 

Directors of religious education, campus ministers, and priests are often overly-sensitive to letting the liturgy radiate through a devotion to celebrating it with a marked sense of the sacred. The result is a labored, often artificial (or even banal) feeling in the liturgy, fearful that something marked by silence, repetition, and transcendence might offend someone, or not engage them because its appeal doesn’t lie firstly in the emotions.  Convinced that the emotions are the first and most direct route to engaging young people, they opt for modes of celebrating the Mass that focus in on the excitement of the passions, relying on the energy of the human heart thereby stirred up to reach God. Resorting to the notion of self-expression, these efforts often block the full glory of God’s gift of Himself as the “prime mover” in the liturgy, and the liturgy ends up being horizontal and closed in upon itself.

The liturgy, properly celebrated, has a distinct identity, and that identity has great currency for young people looking for their calling, hoping to identify their gifts, searching for what they have to offer to God, His Church, and the world. Why give them a liturgy that is really just trying to be like an evangelical “worship service” plus Eucharist?  That’s not terribly Catholic, and the liturgy (and by extension, the faith of young people) can’t long bear being something it is not before it disintegrates. Chant, Latin, ad orientem, beautiful vestments and vessels, meaningful and simple gestures – these are Catholic in their character, and give young people something meaty to chew on, something beyond themselves to grasp. They also offer something that recognizes that young people are looking for something substantive, something real, and that they aren’t just narcissistic, unintellectual libertines. 

If we don’t seriously engage them in their faith with all the treasures of the Church in hand, who will?

Beyond that, though, the notion of making the liturgy into a didactic experience through explaining everything whilst going on with the celebration of the Mass is a tired, frumpy one.  In an age when media offer a total immersion experience that relies on images, gestures, symbols (and not text alone), and end up having a formative effect as a result, why not allow the liturgy to be this way?  Liturgy is a sort of holy Gesamtkunstwerk, a total experience for the senses. We see God, the source of Beauty in the gestures, architecture, and sacred art; we hear the voice of God in scriptures, music, and prayers; we smell the rising of our prayers to Him in the incense; we feel Him in the movement of the body between different postures of prayer; and ultimately we taste Him in the reception of Holy Communion. God doesn’t only teach through explanations; He reaches hearts through the penetration of the senses with beauty, silence at key points, solemnity, and a sense of the sacred.  Why be frightened of the liturgy’s import, seeking to cover it with explanations and overly-emotional, often effeminate music?

If the liturgy has a palpable character of sacrality, the hearts of young people are allowed to encounter the Lord rather than just the people around them.  Rather than experiences which point only to the human, the passionate, the horizontal, why not allow the liturgy to shine in its character which perfectly balances the horizontal and vertical in the Incarnation and Cross of Christ?

Allow the liturgy to be as it is – a gift from God and vehicle of His grace to us.  Channel your efforts into celebrating the liturgy in accordance with its innate character, rather than working to explain away that character.  Don’t be afraid that doing so will drive away young people – you might very well find that the contrary is true! Prepare young people for a lifetime of faith with a liturgy that bears the weight of repetition. Don’t settle for something that just seems to fit the bill while they’re young.

“Liturgy” as “Public Work” and “Opus Dei” – The Impact of Properly Understanding the Term

On Wednesday night, Fr. Nick Schneider (Director of the Office of Worship for the Diocese of Bismarck, ND) and I gave a short introduction to sacred music and Gregorian chant in my hometown.  Though the workshop was planned with short notice, about 50 people came, including 6 or 7 priests, from parishes all over town as well as many of the surrounding towns.   

Below is a recording of Fr. Schneider’s talk, which was really brilliant.  He began by talking about the etymology of the word “liturgy.” Many of you are well-acquainted with the tired definition given to it for so long as “work of the people,” a definition which was used to drive an agenda of self-expression, liberties in rubrics and interpretation of conciliar documents claimed out of “pastoral need” of the people at the liturgy, something that we assemble and present, etc.

Fr. Schneider discussed, instead, how the words which form liturgy are more accurately translated as “public work,” something God does for His people, the “opus Dei,” something which is received rather than created. The shift in perspective has immediate ramifications. To receive liturgy as gift rather than primarily based on one’s efforts is to open one’s heart in a truly proper disposition. “Let us therefore love God, because God first hath loved us.” (1 John 4: 19)

This point is so important! Just the other day on the forum, there was a discussion that grew exponentially about an “apologetics” of sacred music. One of the points raised was that it’s not enough to defend Gregorian chant as the music proper to the Roman liturgy when there is a fundamental misunderstanding among so many of what liturgy is.  Chant being proper is a sort of non-starter if we don’t understand to what it is proper.

Update (7/20) – Here’s a better quality recording of the talk:

Father goes on to discuss a number of other fundamental issues so important when we introduce others to truly sacred music. The talk is a great way to frame a discussion of what we ought do in the choir loft.

Diocese of Marquette Sacred Music Conference

The Diocese of Marquette, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, is offering its second annual Sacred Music Conference on July 12-13, 2013.

The 2013 Sacred Music Conference will be held in Escanaba, MI. Those from the Diocese of Marquette and neighboring dioceses are highly encouraged to attend!

Topics will include:

  • Gregorian and English Chant
  • Organ registration and use
  • How to start a schola
  • Choral music study
  • Practical ways to build and improve your music program
  • Resources, and much more!

There will be time for prayer, discussion, as well as social time. Sung Vespers and Holy Mass with multiple scholae and polyphonic choir.

For more information and to register online, visit:

Annual Colloquium of the Gregorian Institute of Canada

An international rapprochement of sorts will take place this summer at the Gregorian Institute of Canada’s 8th Annual Colloquium.  The colloquium’s keynote speaker is the CMAA’s own Dr. William Mahrt. 

The August 6-9 conference in Vancouver is jam-packed with wonderful presentations, including topics like the role of memory in singing chant, the interaction between chant and polyphony and organ music, Hildegard of Bingen, and the connection between Catholic identity and Gregorian chant.  The preliminary conference schedule is available by clicking here.

Here’s the description of the conference, which has as its theme “Chant and Culture” and takes as its starting point Dr. Mahrt’s book The Musical Shape of the Liturgy.

The Gregorian Institute of Canada has focused from its inception on performance, providing a unique opportunity for scholars and performers from Canada and around the world to share and discuss their ideas, research, and experience. This year’s theme –Chant and Culture – is inspired by an essay currently found in WILLIAM MAHRT’s book, The Musical Shape of the Liturgy, and which also originally appeared as “Gregorian Chant as a Fundamentum of Western Musical Culture”, in Sacred Music (Spring 1975). In addition to academic papers, there will be workshops in chant performance, and liturgical offices sung in Gregorian chant.

Academic papers and workshops will address the broadly conceived colloquium theme – Chant and Culture. The conference program will include papers on European and Middle Eastern chant from c. 800 A.D. to our day – chant as melody and text, but also in its relations to (among others) instrumental music, opera, social history, women’s studies, theology, manuscript studies and edition.

More information can be found here.

The Renewal of Sacred Music and the Liturgy in the Catholic Church: Movements Old and New – Saint Paul, Minn., October 2013

October 13-15, 2013

The CMAA is thrilled to announce a conference honoring the legacy of Msgr. Schuler at Saint Agnes Church in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

The registration page is now up and running!

Registration deadline is September 13.

If you’re looking for an immersion experience in beautiful liturgies and sacred music, thought-provoking and inspiring presentations on historical and current issues in sacred music and liturgy, and a chance to meet others working in sacred music and the liturgy from around the country, we hope you’ll come!

Our line up of keynote speakers includes well-known figures:
     – Dom Alcuin Reid  – “The New Liturgical Movement after the Pontificate of Benedict XVI”
     – Dr. William Mahrt – “The Treasury of Sacred Music at Saint Agnes: From Chant to Mozart”
     – Jeffrey Tucker -“Chant as Free Culture: The Legacy of Msgr. Schuler’s Revolutionary 

Other topics covered by scholars include:
     – Austrian orchestral Masses
     – Rubrics and liturgical documents
     – The 20th-century Liturgical Movement
     – Louis Bouyer and Annibale Bugnini
     – Liturgical architecture
     – Gregorian chant and Solesmes
     – Spanish Renaissance music
     – Bl. John Henry Cardinal Newman
     – Evelyn Waugh and Flannery O’Connor’s
             views on liturgical changes
     – The role of silence in the liturgy
     and, of course,
     – The role of Saint Agnes Church in the preservation of the sacred music tradition

The conference will include the celebration of vespers (featuring Mozart’s Vesperae Solennes de Confessore) and Missae Cantatae at the Cathedral of Saint Paul and Church of Saint Agnes, featuring an orchestral Mass (Paukenmesse by Franz Joseph Haydn), classical works for organ, chanted Gregorian propers, and a modern polyphonic setting of the Mass ordinary (Messe Salve Regina by Yves Castagnet).

The entire conference schedule is available by clicking here.

More information on the conference, including the registration page are available here:

A Month-long Immersion in Chant, Philosophy, and Theology for Young Adults

We are happy to announce a unique opportunity to immerse yourself in chant for five weeks with the Community of St. John (no, not the one founded by Hans Urs von Balthasar and Adrienne von Speyr).  The Ecclesia program is a summer formation program led by the Brothers of St. John at the University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota.  

July 1 – August 2, 2013

The Ecclesia program offers an opportunity to earn undergraduate, graduate, or continuing education credits, all while experiencing a summer of prayer, evangelization, and fellowship with future leaders of the Catholic Church from across the country.

There is an almost monastic flow to each day, with lauds, sext, vespers, and Mass celebrated daily, as well as time for lectio divina, recitation of the rosary, consecration to Mary, and Eucharistic adoration.

Aside from the liturgy, the heart of the program is an intensive formation in theology and philosophy, with nearly four hours of class per day.  There is also time for recreation, a silent retreat, a camping trip to the Badlands, a service project, cultural outings, and the usual fun activities of a camp like bonfires, etc. The setting is amazingly beautiful, and offers the inspiration so necessary for living the artistic vocation.

Six credit hours (three in Theology and three in Philosophy) will be offered, transferable to any University in the country for undergrad or grad school credits. Or, the same classes may be taken for a certificate of continuing education.

How much does Ecclesia cost?
+ Undergraduate and Graduate Credit (Participants obtain 3 theology and 3 philosophy credits): $3,400
+ Continuting Education: $1,500

For more information about registration or scholarships, contact Katie Kimar 216.409.0973.  For more information about Ecclesia’s music program, contact Dr. Jennifer Donelson at

Sign up here to register for the Ecclesia Institute 2013! The registration deadline is June 1st, 2013.

Immersion in Chant
New to this summer’s program is a component for those who would like to study and sing chant throughout the 5-week program. 

Here’s the text from the program’s website:

“The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as sacred song united to the words, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy.” Sacrosanctum Concilium ¶ 112

“The singing of the Church comes ultimately out of love. It is the utter depth of love that produces the singing. ‘Cantare amantis est,’ says St. Augustine, singing is a lover’s thing. In so saying, we come again to the Trinitarian interpretation of Church music. The Holy Spirit is love, and it is he who produces the singing. He is the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit who draws us into love for Christ and so leads to the Father.” – Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, The Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 142
“Whether it is Bach or Mozart that we hear in church, we have a sense in either case of what Gloria Dei, the glory of God, means. The mystery of infinite beauty is there and enables us to ex­perience the presence of God more truly and vividly than in many sermons.” – Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, The Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 148

The liturgies of the Ecclesia institute will form an important and vital part of your growth in faith this summer. We turn to our mother, the Church, at whose feet we sit to learn to pray, through Her liturgical traditions. Sacred music plays a vital role in these liturgies, for it clothes the Word of God with splendor and beauty, and enables us to better worship God and grow in holiness.

This summer, our Masses will draw on the Church’s vast treasury of sacred music as a means of drawing the hearts of all deeper into the mystery of God. Whether it be Gregorian chant, chant in English, choral music, or sacred organ music, the liturgical music at Ecclesia will strive to cultivate singers’ talents in creating sublimely beautiful music in order to convey the reality of the earthly liturgy as a reflection of the Divine liturgy taking place continuously in heaven. The music, though varied, will reflect a fidelity to the Church’s liturgical texts as outlined for us in the meditative chants (Gradual and Alleluia), and entrance, offertory, and communion antiphons of the Roman Missal, so that the beautiful and noble structure of the Roman rite will shine forth the glory of God.
There are two levels of participation available to those who would like to take part in the music program at this summer’s institute:
– Rehearsal 5 days/week for 45 mintues, singing at most of the institute’s liturgies
– Rehearsl 2 days/week for 45 minutes, joining with the above group, singing at Sunday and feast day liturgies
The following will also be a part of this summer’s institutes for all participants:
– The celebration of the extraordinary form of the Roman rite twice throughout the institute. All other liturgies will be in the ordinary form of the Roman rite.
– Twice weekly talks about sacred music and the liturgy to help you grow in your love and appreciation for our Church’s beautiful traditions and liturgy.
For those who are interested in a more intensive study of sacred music, the following option is available:
– Private lessons in singing and/or directing Gregorian chant as arranged with the Music Director
About Ecclesia’s Music Director:

Dr. Jennifer Donelson is an assistant professor of music at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale. She received her DMA in Piano Performance from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where she studied piano with Paul Barnes, Mark Clinton, and Ann Chang, and organ with Quentin Faulkner. A specialist in the piano works and writings of Olivier Messiaen, she has lectured on and given performances of portions of the Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant-Jésus throughout the United States, France, and Mexico. Dr. Donelson has been awarded numerous academic fellowships, as well as a grant supporting her research at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France on the controversy surrounding the premiere of Messiaen’s Vingt Regards. She has presented her work on Messiaen and Charles Tournemire at the national conference of the College Music Society, the annual conferences of the Society for Catholic Liturgy, and at the International Conference on Music Since 1900 at Lancaster University (UK). Her publications include articles in the New Catholic Encyclopedia, Sacred Music, Antiphon: A Journal for Liturgical Renewal, and a forthcoming edited volume of essays on Charles Tournemire’s L’Orgue Mystique. In February 2012, she hosted and presented a paper at a national conference of the Church Music Association of America on the work of Charles Tournemire and has subsequently assumed the role of Academic Liaison for the CMAA, in which she develops academic initiatives and organizes academic conferences for the organization. She currently serves as a board member of the Society for Catholic Liturgy and as the associate managing editor of the CMAA’s Sacred Music journal.

Having studied Gregorian chant at the Catholic University of America and Abbey of St. Peter in Solesmes, Dr. Donelson has served as the director of music at St. Gregory the Great Seminary (Diocese of Lincoln, NE) and St. Thomas Aquinas Newman Center (UNL) where she founded the Cor Immaculatae Schola Cantorum, a semi-professional vocal ensemble dedicated to the performance of Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony. She has given diocesan workshops in Gregorian chant across the U.S., is a founder of the annual Musica Sacra Florida Gregorian chant conference, directed the children’s choirs at the Oratory at Ave Maria according to the Ward method, and has served on the faculty of the annual colloquium of the Church Music Association of America. She currently directs the schola cantorum at the Mission of Sts. Francis and Clare in Miami, where the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite is celebrated weekly.