Interview: Behind the making of an all-Ignatian album, featuring the music of Jesuits from 13 countries
During the height of the Covid shutdowns in May 2020, my friend Cristóbal Fones, S.J., a musician from the Province of Chile of the Society of Jesus, sent me a WhatsApp message. Father Fones is a composer, vocalist and guitarist. Music runs in his family. As a Jesuit he studied at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and has released a dozen albums, beginning in the late 1990s. Currently he lives in Santiago, Chile, and serves as director of formation for Chilean Jesuits.
He was messaging me to ask about leads for a song by a Jesuit from North America to put on his next album. It would be his second collection of songs composed entirely by Jesuits from around the world. He was planning to translate into Spanish all the songs not already in his native tongue and to sing the lead vocals himself, backed up by an international collection of performers and featured artists.
I wanted to show who we are, through songs—what we express through the arts.
Cristóbal was undertaking the project for the Ignatian Year of 2021-22, which commemorates the 500th anniversary of the conversion of St. Ignatius Loyola and the 400th anniversary of Ignatius’ canonization alongside his friend St. Francis Xavier. In making the album, he joined Jesuits and others worldwide who have engaged in a variety of creative projects to celebrate these milestones through art.
After I inquired among some Jesuits and found they had not written much original music, I offered Cristóbal (with some trepidation) a song I wrote years ago, based on the life of Ignatius. I play a bit of guitar and harmonica and have composed songs at the rate of about one per year—often on my annual silent retreat. I had written "Carry You" for my younger brother when he took Ignatius as his confirmation name. As it turned out, Cristóbal decided to use the song for the project and took this very humble offering and turned it into something beautiful.
The album, called “Nova Omnia,” was released in April 2022, and is available along with his other work through his website and on many online music platforms. I had the chance to speak on Zoom with Father Fones about the project, the significance of music and the joy—and pain—of working with other Jesuits.
While institutions are very important, and we cannot access God without mediations, they are not God.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Phil Hurley, S.J.: Thanks very much for agreeing to discuss your latest music project with us, Cristóbal. It’s also a good excuse for us to talk as Jesuit friends who’ve also done some work together! You’ve released two albums now of songs by Jesuit composers. Tell us about the idea behind those projects.
Cristóbal Fones, S.J.: Yes, I recorded the first one in 2014. That was “Ite Inflammate Omnia,” [“Go, Set the World on Fire”], which are supposedly the words Ignatius said to Xavier when sending him to India. I was trying to collect different Jesuit artists, and to show something of our vocations, as I worked with our [Chilean Province] vocations office. I wanted to show who we are, through songs—not just what we do, but what we believe in and what we express through the arts. This time, with “Nova Omnia” [“All Things New”] the idea was to do an album in the same vein, but for the Ignatian Year—so we can celebrate with compositions from all around the world.
P.H.: Could you describe the concept, and say a little bit about what first gave you the idea to do an album of songs by Jesuit composers?
When people see that Jesuits can be friends, we can collaborate, it sounds bright—because the message is much more than just the words or the music.
C.F.: The main motivation for me is always to meet with Jesuits. I love the Society of Jesus! So, it’s a bit of an excuse for me to get in contact with other Jesuits, to share our approach to mission and spirituality—for me it’s fascinating to get to meet them and get to know them. I try to follow what’s going on in terms of Jesuit music around the world. The Filipino guys are composing a lot. I also got to know a lot of Indian Jesuit music of very good quality.
P.H.: Was there a particularly interesting way you came across one of the songs for the new album?
C.F.: “En Éxodo” is a song composed by Enric Puiggròs, who is a friend of mine, but I didn’t know the song. The text is by [former Brazilian bishop] Pedro Casaldáliga. It’s very rooted in Catholic tradition, but it basically expresses to God: the more I try to capture you, the less I can access your mystery. And that’s very significant for the current church in a day when institutions are very much questioned. While institutions are very important, and we cannot access God without mediations, they are not God. Young people are very sensitive to that.
P.H.: Each of the thirteen songs on “Nova Omnia” is written by a Jesuit from a different country. What are some of the nations represented?
The more we work with the arts, the more we enter the mystery of God and express it in a free way—gratuita.
C.F.: There’s a version of the “Suscipe” [“Take, Lord, receive,” a prayer of St. Ignatius] from Poland. Then there’s one with lyrics by a Jesuit from Cuba but with music from the Dominican Republic. There’s one called “Aún Más Allá” (original English title “Carry You”), by a great Jesuit from the U.S. [he says wryly, because he is talking about me]. “Contigo de la Mano” is an Italian song. “El Senor Los Bendiga” is by a Jesuit oboist and composer from Slovakia. He sent me the song in Slovakian. So I put it in Google translate to get the basic idea! Then I went to the Bible to help me, because it’s based on several Scripture passages.
P.H.: In this Ignatian Year, we celebrate both St. Ignatius and St. Francis Xavier, who remained close friends even when separated by great distances. I’m hearing that in some way this album represents a kind of global “friendship in the Lord” for you. Is that the case?
C.F.: Yeah, I really believe in that. Even when we don’t know each other personally, we can find ourselves very close as we share faith, vocation, the experience of the Spiritual Exercises. That’s one of the main reasons I do this. More than words, when people see that we are together, we can be friends, we can work together, we can collaborate, you know, it sounds bright—because the message is much more than just the words or the music. It’s the Society of Jesus trying to share the Gospel. That’s the same reason I have this group called Jesuitas Acústico. We’ve been meeting each year since 2016, and this year we’ll meet in Spain. For the last time probably.... We’re very old now. [Laughs.]
I really believe God is like a chord. Like Ignatius did.
P.H.: For “Nova Omnia,” what are some of the Ignatian themes represented in the songs?
C.F.: Some are very explicit, like “Alma de Cristo,” which is a prayer referred to in the Spiritual Exercises, or “Coloquio” which is a way of prayer directly from the Exercises. “Aún Más Allá” reflects the life of Ignatius. For the other songs, another connection is with our mission of reconciliation. “Único” is kind of a connection with the fourth (current Jesuit) apostolic preference, trying to reconcile with the whole creation through faith.
P.H.: What do you see as the role of the arts, and especially music, in the Society of Jesus and the church today?
C.F.: I think it’s critical. We as Jesuits have worked with the arts from the beginning, especially in the first two centuries. It’s a way of communicating things, but not just a means—in a certain way it’s also a sacramental. It has an inner value; it’s not just something in between the message and the people. And I think the more we work with the arts, the more we enter the mystery of God and express it in a free way—gratuita— not trying to capture God, but just being with him, you know? Being who we are… expressed in different ways—in this case, through music. I really believe God is like a chord. Like Ignatius did.
With art, it’s not just knowing something, or deepening our understanding of a spiritual text, but rather it’s trying to have an experience.
C.F.: At the Cardoner [a river in Manresa, Spain], he understood God as three musical keys, and that’s a chord. There is something in harmony that reflects the beauty of God among us. It’s not just a means of evangelization. Many people ask me, “Why did you choose music as a means to say....” No! I didn’t choose music as a means of anything. I just sing, because it’s the way I love, you know? And I do think that we [Jesuits] need to reconnect a little bit with the arts in general, but with music in particular. And it’s not just talking. Because we talk a lot. And people are tired of our talking.
P.H.: [Laughing] Sometimes Jesuits ourselves are tired of it!
C.F.: Yeah. And you know, we write a lot, and that’s marvelous—I really appreciate it. But there’s something different with art. It’s not just knowing something, or deepening our understanding of a spiritual text, but rather it’s trying to have an experience. And that makes all the difference.
P.H.: It reminds me, to put a philosophical bent on it, that there’s a reason there’s the three “transcendentals:” truth, goodness and beauty. Which are all access points to God. And I’m hearing you say that sometimes people talk about art and music and think, “Oh, so you’re using this to get at truth or goodness,” and it’s like—no, it’s just beautiful. And that itself is an access to God. They work together.
We need to wait, we need to keep in the presence of God, and that’s very hard.
C.F.: And you know, in music there’s something people don’t realize much: Music is made of both sound and silence. If you only have sound, it’s noise, it’s not music. And we are in a very noisy world. So music helps us to make silence. Silence, not in the sense of not having any sound, but in not being rooted in our ego. Silence is being able to open ourselves to others, to transcend. And music, it’s not the only way, but it’s a very wonderful and human way to express that. We have all this content, and feeling and ideas, but also we need...just being, you know? And that kind of combination between sound and silence—I love it!
And the other thing is, music only happens in time. It’s not an instant thing. You need to waaaiiituntiiiil the song is ended. I think that’s also very human. We are very used to things being instant these days. But that is something that is—empobreciendo—making us poorer, in terms of depth. We need to wait, we need to keep in the presence of God, and that’s very hard. It’s very hard to pray, especially today.
P.H.: You’ve shared movingly regarding some of the best things about working with brother Jesuits on an album like this for the Ignatian Year. What’s the worst thing about working with other Jesuits on music?
C.F.: Oh, come on—there are so many things! First of all, we are very busy, you know? So to reach people, it’s very hard. They don’t answer their WhatsApps and their emails. They are—we are—terrible.
P.H.: I will say, unequivocally, you are a very good singer. If you could do a duet with any other singer in the world, whom would you pick?
C.F.: Wow... (thinks for a moment) ...Mon Laferte. She’s a Chilean singer, but she lives in Mexico.
P.H.: We’ll try to get a copy of this interview to Mon Laferte, and hopefully you’ll get a call from her agent soon.
C.F.: Yeah! You know what? There are some Jesuits in Dublin who are trying to connect with Bono, for me to sing with him.
P.H.: O.K.! Well if that happens, let me come, and you pretend you don’t speak any English, and let me be your translator so I can meet Bono.
C.F.: Yes. I’ll take you.
Listen to the album here: