Sing a New Song: Part 2, The St. Louis Jesuits: Earthen Vessels
It is hard today to appreciate the significance of the St. Louis Jesuits. Forty years after the Second Vatican Council, the idea of a vernacular liturgy that takes Scripture seriously and attempts to engage the congregation’s participation at every step has become relatively commonplace. But it has not always been so. And much of what we take for granted today has its roots in the work of Bob Dufford, S.J., John Foley, S.J., Tim Manion, Robert “Roc” O’Connor, S.J., and Dan Schutte.
Prior to Vatican II, Scripture had no clear place in the lives of ordinary Catholics. Bari Colombari, senior research editor at Oregon Catholic Press, remembers, “Many Catholics were told the Bible was off limits; we’ll tell you what it means.” Mass included readings and a homily, yet for the most part the preconciliar liturgy was a time of silent witness to the event happening at the altar and an occasion for private devotions.
Early compositions after the council sometimes referred to Scripture; many songs were interested in the call to justice. So Ray Repp, pioneer of the first wave of postconciliar American liturgical music, writes in the refrain of “Wake Up My People” (1967):
Wake up my people, wake up, peal a shout.
Wake up my people, know what life’s about and
Wake up to the needs of all the ones who suffer sorrow;
Wake up, promise now to do our best to change tomorrow.
Wake up my people and open every door.
Wake up, it’s time now, love my people evermore.
Yet as these lyrics show, such songs were at best loosely inspired by Scripture. Other titles, such as “Love Is Colored Like a Rainbow,” “Tomorrow’s Sunshine” and “Gonna Sing, My Lord,” betray a similar lack of scriptural foundation, as well as oftentimes a lack of the proper tone. “Some of the early texts were pretty awful,” remembers Lawrence Madden, S.J., director of the Georgetown Center for Liturgy. “Frivolous. They could not bear the weight of the mystery that they were dealing with.”
The St. Louis Jesuits, on the other hand, were intent upon the Scriptures. In biblical sources, including the Psalms, Isaiah, the Gospels and the letters of Paul, they found not only inspiration but the proper language and imagery for liturgical music. “Seek the Lord while he may be found,/ Call upon him while he is near” (Is 55:6). “If God is for us, who is against us?” (Rom 8:31). “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Ps 127:1). “For me,” says Schutte, “it was the most natural place in the world to go. All our Jesuit prayer was built around Scripture. Take a couple of words, or take a line, imagine yourself in a passage—that’s where our own prayer was coming from.”
As a practice the men considered a variety of translations and concentrated above all on getting the scriptural point across. Schutte recalls the creation of his song “Here I Am, Lord”: “Instead of ‘Here I am, Lord,/ Is it I, Lord?’ the original words of the refrain were ‘Here I am, Lord,/ Here I stand, Lord.’” The others found the phrasing not quite right: “You look at the call of Isaiah and Samuel or our own call; the one being called is always hesitant. They do say, ‘Here I am, Lord,’ but also, ‘I don’t have the words to speak. What am I supposed to say to them?’
“So we tried to figure out, how can we articulate a willingness to give myself to service and at the same time communicate the hesitation? Together we came up with the idea of a question.”
In their sound, the group turned to both American Catholic and American cultural sources. Melodies and instrumentation drew upon folk, rock, even Broadway. As Virgil Funk, founder of the National Association of Pastoral Ministers (N.P.M.), says, “They were the first to effectively link English liturgical texts based on the Bible with cultural music that worked in the American liturgical worshipping community.” They found “the American cultural ear.”
At the same time, the St. Louis Jesuits understood and capitalized on the musical traditions of the church. “Their work used chord progressions that resembled those in the commonly-used St. Gregory hymnal,” notes Elaine Rendler, associate professor of music theory at George Mason University. “Consequently, their product sounded familiar to many Catholics.” Put simply, they sounded Catholic, and did so in ways that remained compositionally interesting. Though originally only Foley had extensive training as a musician, all five resisted the banality of previous postconciliar work. “The musical vocabulary that they engaged was more complex in terms of melodic, rhythmic and harmonic structures,” states Judith Kubicki, assistant professor of sacramental and liturgical theology at Fordham University. Schutte introduced long, melodic refrains; Dufford brought in the concept of the third verse as a bridge offering an entirely different melody. Subsequent verses in the group’s songs often would bring new harmonies and broader instrumentation. Kubicki asserts, “They raised the level.”
And in doing so, they revolutionized not only music but liturgy itself. “With their lovely melodies, they in some way endeared the Scriptures to the Catholic laity in ways that had never been experienced before,” says Kubicki. Madden agrees: “They shaped people’s spirituality.”
Between 1975 and 1985, the St. Louis Jesuits put out five albums: Earthen Vessels (1975), A Dwelling Place (1976), Gentle Night: Music for Advent and Christmas (1977), Lord of Light (1981) and The Steadfast Love (1985). Their music remained immensely popular, both in the United States and abroad.
Individually or in groups, the five also gave presentations at conferences. “In the heyday I was doing probably 15 to 25 workshops a year around the United States and Canada,” Dufford remembers. They were noted for their refusal to do large-scale staged performances. “That was the difference between the Jesuits and earlier groups,” says Gary Daigle, member of the fellow liturgical group the Dameans. “They didn’t do concerts. When they gathered people, they would do their evenings more like prayer services, hymns and carols.” Funk says, “They understood from the beginning that it was not about them.”
Their material was received by music critics as a tremendous improvement upon what had come before. In 1982 Edward J. McKenna, associate editor of Worship, wrote in America, “After a simply awful beginning [to ‘folk’ liturgical music] in the late 60’s, quality became an evident norm with the work of the St. Louis Jesuits” (Am., 11/6/82). Fred Moleck, professor of music at Seton Hill College, described their work as having “a quality that speaks immediately to the heart” (Pastoral Music, August/September 1983). “They showed us that simple music need not be simpleminded, that the guitar is a musicl instrument capable of sensitive expression, and that introspection can occur without Debussy harmonies.
At the same time, by the 1980’s some critics were becoming restless with folk innovations. “Most liturgical music of this idiom remains insufferably dull and monotonous,” McKenna complained in the same article. In another article, he notes that John Foley had recently composed The Book of Glory, an elaborate, dissonant oratorio based on the Passion of St. John. “Are folk musicians tiring of their repetitious rhythms and smooth melodizing,” McKenna wondered (Am., 12/5/81).
And though sales remained strong, reviews of their later albums, Lord of Light and Steadfast Love, were mixed. Worship reviewed Lord of Light as “rather safe and contented” (January 1982). Dufford’s “All the Ends of the Earth” is “catchy and cheerful;” Foley’s “May We Praise You” is “very beautiful;” O’Connor’s “Jesus the Lord” has “a poignant note.” Yet for the most part the review found the group at “rest in placid waters.” Likewise, in 1986 Worship appraised the 22-song Steadfast Love as giving “generally excellent attention to liturgical appropriateness and lyrical prayerfulness,” but also as “pre-modern, having none of the verve and passion or plain old excitement of contemporary living” (May 1986). The review notes an “overly somber cast” to some of the songs. And, it points out, Tim Manion is no longer mentioned.
After roughly a decade together, the St. Louis Jesuits were going through growing pains. “There was a part of each person wanting to be more expressive in his own right and in a sense have a little less oversight,” O’Connor remembers. “If we were going to work as a group, we were going to have to work on communicating better.” In the summer of 1980 the five men and Manion’s wife moved to Seattle to study, compose and reconnect. While there they recorded Lord of Light in 1981.
Schutte was reassigned to Milwaukee to begin work in campus ministry at Marquette University in 1982. The group sent monthly letters summarizing their word. “We just wanted to keep the communication going,” O’Connor remembers. A year later new assignments took Foley O’Connor and Dufford away from Seattle, as well. Manion and his wife stayed.
The five came together again in January 1984 to discuss a new album. “And Tim said, ‘I’m not going to be a part of this thing anymore. I don’t want to do any more music,” O’Connor remembers. The four were shocked. “We wondered, ‘Where did that come from?’ To this day I still don’t know.” That summer, the group recorded Steadfast Love without him.
And with that, the group known as the St. Louis Jesuits quietly came to an end. “We never talked about it as being an ending as much as let’s just see,” says Schutte. The four remained friends, and each continued to compose on his own. But the group experience was over. Dufford: “It was never a conscious decision; it just sort of happened. We had individual ministries; that itself pulls people apart. Life changes.”
Claiming the Living
In the 20 years since the St. Louis Jesuits last recorded an album together, the world of liturgical music has continued to change and develop. Where once few competent composers were writing, today there are many, and a solid body of ritual music has been established. “When we started, every slot was empty in the Mass for this kind of music,” remembers Foley. “We had this almost unlimited opportunity. Now, there are many people writing, and much of the liturgy has been covered.” Consequently, to some extent the needs have shifted away from repertoire to the formation of parish musicians. “There are 17,000 parishes,” says Funk. “Three thousand have really high quality music makers out there. You can work on the repertoire all you want, but if you don’t have the music maker, so what?”
Other issues have emerged as well. “There got to be too many liberties being taken in liturgical music,” states Paulette McCoy, manager of liturgical resources for Oregon Catholic Press. “Some musicians would change the rite, or change the eucharistic prayer, to fit their music; once music publishing software became available, they would publish these works and then put them in front of the parish.
“They were really making up their own prayers. Those translations took years to put together. You can’t have people out there creating their own eucharistic prayers.” Liturgical texts are now evaluated by the bishops’ conference based on their translation of the Roman Missal and Scripture.
The recently revised General Instruction of the Roman Missal has likewise called for a greater consistency of liturgical practice among parishes. Funk says, “In 1976, the state of liturgy was optimistic. It was looking for new frontiers. It was exploring new avenues. The windows had been opened.
“In 2005, people are trying to close doors and windows and clean up the abuses, and many people are working their own agendas.”
Liturgical music has also grown more diverse in style and scope. “It’s not one size fits all anymore,” notes McCoy. “We put out a Latin music supplement, and we can’t keep it on the shelves; a contemporary Christian music supplement, and we can’t keep it on the shelves. And we’re seeing a lot more intercultural music,” in which the languages and styles of different cultures are intertwined. “The church is becoming much more colorful.”
In the midst of this diversity, a less scriptural, more devotional style has re-emerged. Known as “praise and worship” or “Christian rock,” this sound combines professional-quality instrumentation and secular rock or folk stylings with a strongly inspirational thrust. It is the music of World Youth Day and Willow Creek. “These religious songs allow the composer and artist a wide vocal range, more complex and richer chord progressions,” states Manoling Francisco, S.J., a Filipino liturgical composer. “For young people, it’s so much easier to be drawn to secular-styled music than to the folksy and very simple tunes and structures of liturgical music. It’s like comparing the aesthetic value of nursery rhymes or folk tunes with classical music or pop music that’s professionally recorded.”
The problem is, praise and worship music generally is not written for a liturgical setting. It lacks a basic orientation toward the movements of the ritual. “There’s lots of ‘I’ and ‘me,’” points out Daigle, “without any concern for social justice, any theology of meal sharing, a sense of sacrifice or shared life together.” Much as in the early days of postconciliar music, many of these songs offer heartfelt sentiments in a modern style but lack depth and seriousness of tone. Scripture is used at best as a starting point and inspiration. And where Vatican II called for full and active participation of the congregation, much of this material is meant instead for solo performance. “In a sense, we have come full circle,” states Rendler. “The challenge for those writing in this style is to wrestle with the text and tune the same way the Jesuits did.”
the lives of Schutte, Dufford, O’Connor, Foley and Manion have continued to evolve as well. O’Connor undertook further study in theology and has since become an associate professor of theology and co-director of liturgy at Creighton University in Omaha, Neb. “The question that really arose for me was, how is liturgy truly an encounter of persons? It hadn’t been that for me in a way that was satisfying. Especially being a musician at liturgy, my growing sense of boredom with it all prompted me to say I have to figure out what this stuff means or bag it. There has to be more depth in this thing than I’m realizing.”
Foley, too, went back to school. “In writing classical music you have to spend a lot of time alone writing, with a piece of paper, a pencil and your mind. I did it, but it made me unhappy. I discovered I’m more an extrovert, a teacher.” After completing his doctorate in liturgical and ascetical theology, he returned to St. Louis University, where he teaches theology, continues to compose and runs a center for liturgy that specializes in training for parish ministers and forums for composers.
After 11 years of work at Creighton, Dufford moved to the Oshkosh Jesuit Retreat House in Oshkosh, Wis., where he serves as retreat director and composer-in-residence. Spiritual ministries have brought him to the heart of his work. “For me, music is very important, but it’s not the central thing I do. I love talking to people about God and freeing them from the images of God that they seem to get trapped in. The music is in service of that—providing new images, so that people can see that God was much more than they thought and something to be delighted in, not feared or hidden from.”
In 1986, Schutte left the Society of Jesus. “It was the most difficult decision I have ever made. It wasn’t that I was angry at the Society or didn’t love the priesthood; there was a need for intimacy in my life that was so strong that I knew I would be losing myself if I did not pay attention to it.” A few months of transition led to a job at a parish in Milwaukee. He began to record albums on his own, and since leaving the Jesuits has produced six albums of new material as well as an anthology of old songs. For the last five years he has served as composer in residence and director of liturgical music at the University of San Francisco.
After leaving the St. Louis Jesuits, Manion put out his own album of liturgical music, There Is a River. Within him much was shifting: “That kind of lifelong tether to the church started to unravel; my spirituality was changing.” Eventually he left the church; later he and his wife divorced. Today he lives in the Southwest, where he works for an outdorrs company and enjoys poetry. Looking back, he is grateful: “I think we added to the atmosphere of the church in this country. How many times does anybody get a chance to have that kind of effect on other people’s lives?”
In 2000, the four still involved in liturgical music were approached to sing their song “City of God” at the N.P.M. convention, in honor of their friend Virgil Funk. They agreed. The organizers were tight-lipped about the venture: “Just before the show, they let us in,” remembers Foley. “They wanted it to be a surprise.”
Indeed it was, for everyone involved. Schutte remembers: “I had a hard time singing. There were moments when I just had to stop because I was all choked up. Looking into people’s faces, they were singing with their eyes closed, not even looking at us. They were singing from the bottom of their soul.”
Because of that experience, some 30 years after they had all first met and almost 20 years since they had parted, the St. Louis Jesuits decided to work together again. “There seem to be so many dark clouds on the horizon,” muses Schutte. “People get discouraged and disheartened. So we thought maybe the thing for us is to think of ourselves as writing music that could give hope to people.” In November 2004, the four brought together new material for a 12-song album entitled Morning Light, which they plan to record this summer with the help of Manion. “We see it as an act of hope, to work together again,” says O’Connor. “An act of reconciliation.”
It is an act of faith, as well. Dufford explained: “Our music is integrating the sense of loss of where we once were, riding high on the tide. I knew it would end one day. But can I let go gracefully? Can I embrace my own death, my own loss of hair and nice waistline? Can I embrace the loss I feel in the changes in the liturgy of the church?
“And I say, it’s O.K. for it to go. But is there still something the Father has to say to me?”