HAVE TOLD THIS STORY several times before; it was a seminal moment as a young musician. Although I was a boy of eight or nine, I remember it like it was yesterday. It was 1977 or ’78. I was at mass in a gymnasium. We were not far from the basketball hoops that were pulled up to the ceiling. We sat in metal folding chairs. We knelt on tile of the basketball court. I don’t recall if this particular mass had a row of several guitarists on the stage to our left or if there was a cantor with the electronic organ. It didn’t matter. I had had enough.
I shook my head only slightly and said to myself, “To be a church musician has got to be the lowest musical aspiration possible.” The thought came to me only suddenly, but it was a long time coming. I was sad.
Meanwhile, I was blissfully unaware that the Novus Ordo was in its infancy. I was unaware that the 1973 translation of the 1970 Roman Missal was only a few years old. Also, our parish had a first class problem: It had grown so large that the simple, but beautiful church across the street was now much too small, necessitating overflow masses in the gym and likely overextending resources.
There was certainly a lot I didn’t understand as a child, (including how music, even at its highest levels can be devastatingly humbling). But I knew enough to understand that something was terribly wrong at mass. On the surface, I was aware of various levels of incompetence, probably by spirited volunteers with no training. My eight-year-old ears could tell. But while other musicians were in fact quite competent and highly trained, their input was stifled, perhaps by many factors. So, what else was the problem?
N TRUTH, IT WAS MUCH OF WHAT HAS PLAGUED many parishes in the last fifty years: highly varied interpretations or misinterpretations of Sacrosanctum Concilium, the rejection of certain traditions (which led to a “brain drain” of talented musicians who could no longer get work in the Catholic Church), and most fundamentally, a misunderstanding of the true purpose of sacred music: singing text and sacred melody wedded to the liturgical action of the mass. These problems clearly still plague the Church today.
In reality, my home parish, St. William the Abbot in Seaford, NY, was probably handling the traumatic changes in the Post-Conciliar era far better than most. Only recently do I appreciate some of it. And do I ever! Like a teenager who thinks he is smarter than his father, he eventually grows up, gets a job, and has children. As life gets more challenging, the wisdom of the father seems to grow with each passing year! (I’m now old enough that my father is a genius.) As such, I have viewed the leadership of longtime pastor of St. William’s, Msgr. Tomas G. Leavey, with growing admiration. While there were problems with music – typical of the day – it is what he did right that probably made me realize why the music was dreadfully inadequate. I will explain momentarily.
ERE’S WHAT ST. WILLIAM’S IN THE INFANCY of the Novus Ordo did right. Whether or not the several priests of this large parish agreed with the new translation and the reforms of Vatican II, they complied. More than that, it was evident that they said the mass with love.
In the 1970s at St. William’s, the mass was the mass. The mass was dignified and reverent – even in the gymnasium. This was not to be taken for granted. It went without saying that they took these words of Pope Paul VI to heart:
“Anyone who takes advantage of the reform to indulge in arbitrary experiments is wasting energy and offending the ecclesial sense.” [Paul VI, address of August 22, 1973: “L’Osservatore Romano,” August 23, 1973.]
We were spared the misguided experimentation, confusion, and liturgical abuse that was all too common in the period. Therefore, as a child, I could learn the rhythms of the liturgy and its shape. The value of this cannot be underestimated. My understanding was not conscious. But through the mass, the mystery of God had room to shine forth. Meanwhile, the humble priests of the parish were engaging, but never got in the way of allowing God’s work to speak for itself. As Goffredo Boselli so aptly states:
“…the liturgy is, in itself, mystagogy. It is by its very nature an epiphany of the mystery of God; in celebrating the mystery, we are initiated into the mystery…Through liturgy, the mystery is revealed, communicated, made known.” (The Spiritual Meaning of the Liturgy, pg. 4, Liturgical Press.)
All that St. William’s did right is what made me realize that the current state of music was not enough; it was not worthy of the mass that was reverent, prayerful, and dignified. This realization was a gift and a motivation for me for years to come.
THE HIGHEST MUSICAL ASPIRATION POSSIBLE
NE REASON I LIKE TO retell the story of my dismay as a child is the eventual irony of it all. I have since made a life in sacred music for more than a quarter century so far. I told this story to Dr. William Mahrt who responded with his beaming and beautiful smile, “It is the HIGHEST!” Dr. Mahrt is right.
Time moves on and seeds that are planted come to fruition. About eleven years ago, St. William’s pastor, Fr. William E. Koenig (now rector of St. Agnes Cathedral, Rockville Centre) looked to hire a new music director, Alfred Allongo. Hiring a full-time was a major step. Beyond that, Allongo was a perfect choice as he embodies what is best about the profession of sacred music. A true servant leader, he joins his musical skills with great charisma and a wise understanding of human nature. He established several new programs in the parish and the school. These continue to grow. Furthermore, the choirs are sounding better and better with each passing year. Not one to ever be satisfied, he looks for ways to improve while he deflects credit from himself by pointing out the hard work of his legion of volunteers who love to make music with him.
As to Allongo’s achievements, the proof is in the exponential improvement in congregational singing. Allongo’s choices and playing makes all the difference. The organ leads the congregation with a sprightly but very manageable tempo. Allongo’s playing never draws attention to himself, but is filled with little gems of lines and phrasing. His choice of cantors is exquisite, Matt Georgetti in particular sings with a straight tone voice that is pitch perfect, and proclaims the Word with humility.
This renaissance of sacred music at St. William the Abbot is a result of leadership that is one of service to God and the Church. This is the HIGHEST musical aspiration possible!