Why hymns matter: A Q & A with Father Michael Joncas

| May 12, 2015 | 0 Comments

On the occasion of the publication of Father Michael Joncas’ second volume of hymns, “We Contemplate the Mystery,” The Catholic Spirit sought to tap his expertise in sacred music. His new work will be celebrated June 1 at a Hymn Festival at St. Bartholomew in Wayzata. The following is excerpted from an email interview with Father Joncas, a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and an artist in residence at the Center for Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul:

Q. Is there a need for more hymns? It seems as though we regularly sing a small portion of the pieces in “Gather” or “Worship.”

A. In a certain sense the same question could be asked about homilies: Do we really need any more since we’ve been hearing them every time we go to Mass? (Smiley-face emoticon inserted.)

I believe that hymns, when they are well-chosen, can offer the congregation a chance to meditate on the scriptural texts proclaimed at a particular celebration and affirm their faith in the proclaimed and preached Word of God.

As an example I’d like to quote the first and final verses of the hymn I wrote for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, Cycle C, when we hear the Gospel of the woman caught in adultery.

We begin by recounting the scriptural event and then turn to prayer:

Guardians of law and custom / caught a woman doing wrong, / shamed her with their accusations, / stoked the frenzy of the throng. / Seeing through their allegations / to the malice deep within, / Jesus would not be a party / to such cruel sanctioned sin. . . .

God of kindness and compassion, / when we judge another’s life / help us hold to mercy’s maxim: / “There but for your grace go I.” / With your constant loving-kindness / crushing guilt and shame undo. / You, who conquer sin and hatred, / make our hearts, and all things, new!

While this hymn text certainly illuminates the Scriptures for that particular celebration, it might also become a “theme song” for the upcoming Jubilee Year of Mercy declared by Pope Francis.

Q. Congregations seem to prefer hymns they know how to sing. Is there a secret to introducing new hymns to a parish’s community worship?

A. Introducing new hymns to a parish could involve:

1) Some education (perhaps in a bulletin announcement) as to why this hymn was chosen, what its central message is, and how it relates to the scriptural and liturgical texts;

2) Teaching it to the choir or music group so that there is a core group of parishioners who are already familiar with the piece when it is introduced to the entire congregation;

3) Rehearsing it prior to the liturgy when it is introduced to the entire assembly;

4) Keeping the arrangement very simple for the first few weeks/months when it is used and only musically elaborating it (descants, different harmonizations, choral adornments) after the congregation has clearly learned it.

Q. How do you see contemporary hymns speaking to people of this age differently than say the faithful of other eras, the pre-Vatican II Church and the post-Vatican II/St. Louis Jesuits/guitar Mass-era, for example?

A. Most of the hymns Roman Catholics sang prior to the Second Vatican Council were associated with para-liturgies or devotions — “At the Cross Her Station Keeping” for Stations of the Cross, “Tantum ergo” for Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, “On This Day O Beautiful Mother” for May Crowning — rather than for the liturgy, although some catechists from the 1930s on encouraged the singing of entrance, offertory, communion and exit hymns at “low” Mass.

Much of the music created for the vernacular post-Vatican II liturgy set either the liturgical texts (“Lord, have mercy,” “Lamb of God”) or scriptural texts (especially psalms sung in an antiphon/verse format). Although a few metrical hymns by text writers such as Omer Westendorf and Jesuit Father James Quinn appeared during this era, the real explosion of Catholic hymn-text writing has taken place in the last 15 years or so, with authors such as Benedictine Sister Genevieve Glen, and Benedictine Fathers Ralph Wright and Henry Hagen.

Here in Minnesota we have been graced with many Catholic hymn text writers, probably because of the strong presence of Lutherans in our area. I’d especially like to salute two Minnesota Catholic hymn text writers: Benedictine Sister Delores Dufner, from St. Benedict’s monastery in St. Joseph, and Jesuit Father Paul Nienaber, who is chair of the physics department at St. Mary’s University in Winona.

Q. What might Catholics expect in the future? What does the future of hymn writing look like?

A. While traditional metrical hymnody will continue to be enriched by both text writers and composers, I think we will see an increasing exploration of hymns from our U.S. shape-note, spiritual, Shaker and Gospel-music tradition and well as sharing of repertoire coming from Christian communities in different parts of the world: Spanish-speaking (“Pescador de hombres”/“Lord, When You Came to the Seashore”), Africa (“Jesu, Jesu,” “We Are Marching in the Light of God”), and Asia (the hymns of Dr. I-to Loh).


Hymn festival to celebrate local priest-composer’s work

Anyone who enjoys listening to or making church music is invited to a free Hymn Festival Monday, June 1, featuring the work of local composers and the voices and accompaniment of local choirs and musicians.

The program from 7-8 p.m. at St. Bartholomew, Wayzata, is being held in honor of the publication of “We Contemplate the Mystery,” the second volume of hymn texts by Father Michael Joncas, a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and an artist in residence of the University of St. Thomas’ Center for Catholic Studies.

“I would hope that parish music directors, cantors, choir members and instrumentalists, fellow composers, members of the Association of Liturgical Ministers and the National Association of Pastoral Musicians, as well as folks in the pew who enjoy praising God in song will come,” Father Joncas noted.

Adult choirs of St. Bartholomew and St. Therese, Deephaven, accompanied by guest instrumentalists, will lead the congregation in a program of hymns for Advent, Christmastide, Lent, Triduum and Eastertide, with commentary by Father Joncas.

Richard Clarke and Rob Glover will direct. Composer David Haas will participate as a special guest musician.

St. Bartholomew hurch is located at 630 E. Wayzata Blvd., Wayzata. For further information call or email Richard Clarke at 962-745-4567 or rclarke@st-barts.org. There will be an opportunity to purchase either or both “We Contemplate the Mystery” and “Within Our Hearts Be Born,” Father Joncas’ first volume of hymn texts published in 1995.

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