HE OTHER DAY, something struck me in a powerful way: by observing someone’s sense of humor, I can discern what type of person I’m dealing with. For example, when I stumble across the social media feed of an emotionally disturbed Catholic, I often discover an endless barrage of sarcasm and hatred. While I have no problem with a little sarcasm from time to time, someone who seemingly lives for nothing else is horrific to behold. Saint John Vianney spoke of people “who are never so happy as when they are spreading scandal and gossip”—and when we examine today’s social media accounts, we encounter far too many who cannot go five minutes without attacking someone else, always by means of “funny” sarcasm and hatred. Ha ha ha. 1
They say Don Bosco was hilarious to be around: always smiling and joking. Many other saints—Thomas More and Antoine Daniel, for example—were famous for their wit and jovial attitude. Those of us who have had the pleasure of meeting one of the church music giants, Fr. Robert Skeris, will have a difficult time calling to mind a more hilarious fellow, although his erudition is peerless (I realize that sounds contradictory). By the way, this “saintly” joviality has nothing to do with goofy inside jokes we come across on platforms such as Facebook. Moreover, the happiness I’m speaking of genuine, not fake. As Fr. Rutler reminds us:
The “jolly good guy” kind of pastor can be an irritant. […] Ministers of the Gospel are not used car salesmen whose heartiness is a mile wide and an inch deep. A bemused layman told me that a bishop joked with him, but turned away like a startled deer when asked an important question…
Fake happiness is harmful, but healthy humor can help choirmasters survive.
HOSE WHO WOULD SERVE as choirmasters must be prepared for trials, setbacks, and crosses. Sooner or later, you will have to deal with an immoral priest. Sooner or later, you will be yelled at by an irate parishioner. Sooner or later, you will run into jealous colleagues who don’t accept the teachings of the Church. Sooner or later, you will encounter choir members who promise you the world…but then lose interest and disappear. Indeed, sometimes the very people you’ve shown the most kindness will betray you and even spread lies about you or your choir. You will be tempted to “retreat” and stop showing people kindness, but you must never succumb to this temptation.
Never lower yourself by trying to “get even” or fight fire with fire. Be scrupulous in guarding your integrity. Most importantly, remember we are serving the LORD, who said: “Blessèd are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy” (Mt 5:7). And our Savior also said: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me” (Lk 9:23).
Father Paul Ragueneau describes the interior life of holy Noël Chabanel as follows:
When, in addition, God withdraws His visible graces and remains hidden, although a person sighs for Him alone, and when He leaves the soul a prey to sadness, disgust, and natural aversions—these are the trials which are greater than ordinary virtue can bear. The love of God has to be strong in the heart not to be snuffed out under such circumstances. Add to this the danger, present at every moment of the day, of being attacked by a savage enemy armed with fire and flames and unheard-of torments, who would more often force you to suffer a thousand deaths before you met death itself. One certainly had to have the strength of the sons of God not to lose courage in the midst of such desolation.
I would never compare the struggles of a choirmaster to what St. Noël Chabanel underwent—none but a fool would do so. However, those of us who struggle to restore authentic sacred music can relate to Fr. Ragueneau mentioning “the trials which are greater than ordinary virtue can bear.” That is why we must never fail to invoke the intercession of St. Noël Chabanel.
On a practical level, I recommend participating in something like the Sacred Music Symposium (which still has a few spots available) because you will become friends with people undergoing the same struggles you are.
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 The scariest thing is to come across someone who never (authentically) laughs. This is absolutely terrifying—and extremely perverse. But I will speak about that another day.