AST WEEKEND, I participated in a wonderful conference at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie) in Yonkers, New York. Entitled “Gregorian Chant in Pastoral Ministry and Religious Education,” the event attracted 140 sacred music enthusiasts to share two days attending thoughtful lectures and engaging in beautiful liturgies.
I met several new friends and learned many new things in these two rich days, and, perhaps most importantly, I was renewed in spirit for a future filled with hope for liturgical music. Here are just a few highlights.
First, the opening keynote was memorable for both its speaker and its content. Msgr. Robert Skeris has made extraordinary lifetime contributions to the field of sacred music, and his reflections at the opening of the conference explored the theological underpinnings of the Church’s liturgical music. Equally good was the keynote address of Rev. Christopher Smith, who spoke about the role of Catholic schools in providing sound liturgical formation. Fr. Smith shared a treasure trove of best practices filled with practical usefulness and catechetical insightfulness. Forming children well, of course, is essential for renewing the practice of sacred music in the Church.
Secondly, one of the unique features of this conference is that Mass on the first day was offered in Spanish. This is not something I have experienced at other similar liturgical conferences, but the choice to celebrate Mass in Spanish reflects great sensitivity to a very real pastoral need in the realm of sacred music. Quality Spanish-language resources for truly sacred music are minimal, but this Mass demonstrated ably the heights that are possible. Music for the occasion was supplied by the St. Joseph Seminary Schola Cantorum, who are to be commended for their achievement.
Thirdly, and related to the second point, I was encouraged by the overwhelmingly pastoral and outward-reaching tenor of this conference. Such an event could easily become a chance for “chantheads” to close in on themselves. Instead, this conference was a gathering of dedicated musicians keen to learn more about chant and eager to discover ways of improving the quality of sacred music in their particular situations. Over and over again, I heard music directors, pastors, presenters, and seminarians use the phrase “in my parish,” evidence that these proceedings were grounded in lived reality. This is good news, because the movement toward better sacred music is one that will only be accomplished parish by parish, at the grassroots level. Theory is necessary, and it had its place in this conference; but practical direction is equally indispensable, and it was abundant throughout these days at Dunwoodie.
Finally, one of the highlights of these days for me was hearing the Mueller Family Schola lead the whole assembly in chanting Lauds. Led by fellow-blogger Chris Mueller and his wife, this family of five specializes in chant and polyphony and has toured in Poland, Italy, and the United States. Perhaps the greatest part of that celebration of Lauds was the lesson, which was chanted clearly, confidently, and beautifully by the Mueller’s 8-year-old son. That brief, chanted lesson proved to me again that children are better nourished with truly sacred music than with sentimental sacro-pop.
It was my pleasure to present a paper entitled, “Is Beauty Subjective? Establishing Criteria for Beauty.” This study began with a philosophical consideration on the objectivity/subjectivity of beauty, proceeded with the identification of several criteria for beauty, and concluded with the application of these criteria to Gregorian chant in order to show how chant is an exemplar of beauty.
Following is just one brief excerpt from my research:
So, is beauty objective or subjective? The foregoing philosophic exploration supports the contention that beauty has a fundamentally objective basis. However intuitive beauty may be, it remains primarily intellectual. Understood properly in this way, beauty is objective and can be judged by reason, such that the mind can even discern the criteria of beauty. It remains true, of course, that one’s perception of beauty is subjective; this element of subjectivity might well be called “taste.” One’s tastes, however, cannot disregard the objective criteria of beauty without devolving into the irrational. For this reason, it is important that we form others—indeed, that we form ourselves!—to be able to recognize the qualities of authentic artistry. The ability to perceive the beautiful and to recognize it as such is, in part, a natural ability of the human person. This capacity can be cultivated, though, through education and training. The varied ability of persons to appreciate beauty often accounts for the situation in which a particular thing appears beautiful to some people but not to others. The richer one’s formation in beauty, the more prepared one becomes to perceive the splendidness of intelligible forms and to delight in their beauty.
Although a publication of conference proceedings is not planned, many of the presentations will appear as articles in forthcoming issues of Sacred Music. I highly encourage anyone interested in liturgy and its music to consider subscribing to this important and accessible journal.
Congratulations to Dr. Jennifer Donelson and the Archdiocese of New York for organizing this tremendous event. It is to be hoped that this conference will bear much fruit in the ongoing work of the attendees!