I'd like to share an experience I had yesterday at my own parish, St. James, located on the near South Side of Chicago. If you visit our web site, you will see a grand building, with a grand pipe organ in the loft. Unfortunately, the organ (a magnificent and historic Roosevelt) is not playable at this time. Even if it were, we would not be able to hear it because the city of Chicago closed our church building a few months ago because of questions surrounding its structural integrity. We are currently worshipping in our parish social hall, a rather small, high-ceilinged building with wonderful acoustics. The chairs have been arranged to accommodate as many people as possible, with the piano, other musical instruments, and choir taking up a good portion of one of the sections. Wherever one sits, one has a good view of the altar and ambo, as well as the parishioners seated on the other side of the hall. The singing of the assembly is superb at St. James. Before moving into the hall, I felt that sometimes our voices seemed to get lost in the huge gothic church. I have had no other parish experience (including the parishes that I served as director of music) where the congregational singing was as strong as it is at St. James right now. Perhaps this is due to the fact that we are a people currently "in exile," missing the beauty of our church building. Perhaps it is the configuration of seats. Perhaps it is the acoustics of the hall.
I paid careful attention this weekend to the singing. Our pastor is a Benedictine monk from St. Meinrad Archabbey in southern Indiana. Even though it took us a little while to learn it, we now sing the introductory dialogue to the Eucharistic prayer wonderfully and full-throatedly. Father chants a good portion of the Eucharistic Prayer (using the chant setting from the Archabbey). For many people, this sounds so "Catholic." We also sang "We Have Been Told" at the preparation of the gifts. Admittedly, there is a problem with this piece because of its movement to a high E flat during the refrain (and I know there are those of you who would object to the singing of this particular song mightily), but, for many people, this is a "Catholic" sound as well. There is a tradition at St. James of singing Mallotte's setting of the Lord's Prayer. I had heard this about the parish before I ever worshipped there and my liturgical and musical nose was all out of joint over this. Now, after having worshipped there for nearly six years, I wouldn't trade the moment of singing this with my Catholic brothers and sisters at St. James for the world. This is another "Catholic" moment for us. I know all the arguments against the singing of this setting (not the approved text, etc.), but it is a custom that has taken root in this predominantly African-American parish, and has become a part of the fabric of the parish's liturgical life. Incidentally, during Lent, we sing the Lord's Prayer set to traditional chant, and we lift the roof off the building when we chant the text, just like we do when we sing the Mallotte setting.
I love my parish. I love being Catholic. That is one of the reasons why I worship at St. James. It is a very diverse community. When I am not there on a weekend because of the amount of traveling that I do, I miss the parish so much. When I return, people tell me that they missed me and that they pray for me when I am on the road. That's why it is a risk for me to share my own parish experience with those of you out there in the blogosphere. I don't want the good people that I love so much to be maligned in any way, which brings me to my point for today (it's taken a while to get there, admittedly). The point is this: we cannot deny the reality of context when we consider the appropriateness of music for the liturgy. In a parish that has struggled with poverty, crime, a fire in the early 70's that nearly destroyed the building, in the current crisis, what people do is hang on to the music that is so much a part of their Catholic DNA. Others may think that the music is inappropriate. But for this community, in this place, in this time, that piece of music may be what is keeping the community of faith together. What is most important?
After the chanted Easter dismissal yesterday, we sang "This Little Light of Mine." Right now I am getting ready to go to the airport. I am headed to St. Stephen's parish in the Archdiocese of St. Paul/Minneapolis. I will be giving a presentation tonight on the role of the parish in Christian initiation. Tomorrow I will be leading an inservice with the parish staff on the potential the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults can have on pastoral practice in general. I need the nourishment I receive at Mass in order to do these kinds of events with the kind of energy and passion the topics demand. I am grateful for having attended Mass at St. James this past weekend. I am inspired by the words of both the dismissal (Go in the peace of Christ, Alleluia, Alleluia!) and the words of the closing song: Everywhere I go, I'm gonna let it shine; everywhere I go, I'm gonna let it shine; everywhere I go, I'm gonna let it shine; let it shine, let it shine, let it shine!
Gotta sing. Gotta pray. This piece, "I Know the Lord Laid His Hands On Me," captures the way I felt when I left St. James on Sunday. I hope your experience of Sunday Mass lifted your heart and convinced you that the Lord had laid his hands on you as well.