EVERAL YEARS AGO Duncan Stoik penned an essay entitled “A New Renaissance: The Church as Patroness of the Arts” (Challenging the Secular Culture: A Call to Christians; Franciscan University Press: 2016), proposing a three-pronged initiative that the “Church as an institution, as well as individuals, can do to promote a culture of beauty, truth, and life.” I would have preferred his initiative to have been fleshed out in greater detail, but perhaps Stroik, ever the masterful architect, simply chose to lay a good foundation for others who might come after and wish to build upon it.
Stroik briefly traces the history of Church patronage of the arts and the meritorious effects that serious patronage has had on the lives of countless individuals, including hardened atheists and agnostics. As he rightly notes, even the most troubled soul is touched by the sight of the Sistine Chapel or Notre Dame Cathedral, as we witnessed just over a year ago when the historic icon of Christendom caught fire and nearly collapsed. He also discusses the difference between the Church as patroness of the arts and the Church as a mere purchaser of art, because, as he rightly notes, it isn’t enough just to spend money on “art” (Mohoney’s Cathedral in Las Angeles is a prime example), the Church must evangelize, baptize and catechize the artist in order that his art might become a participation in the divine act of creation.
Unfortunately these seem like mute talking points due to the serious lack of serious artists in the Church, even should She ever wish become patroness of the arts again, but this is the conundrum Stroik addresses in his essay and where I want to spend the majority of my efforts before applying his thoughts to the world of the church musician.
(1) Foster the Work of Talented Artists
Mr. Stroik stresses the importance of the Church seeking out the greatest artists in the worlds of architecture, stone, glass, metal and music and putting them at the service of the Faith. He recounts Moses’ hiring of Bezalel to fashion the Tabernacle to house the Ark of the Covenant as well as the famous account of Abbot Suger rebuilding the Abbey of St. Denis north of Paris, the choir of which is considered to be the first full flowering of Gothic architecture and art. In seeking out the artist the Church enters into a relationship with the artist, learning about his art and his trade in order to appreciate it better, but also “deepen[ing] the artist’s theological knowledge and at the same time allow[ing] the artist to deepen [the Church’s] knowledge of art.” Stroik challenges the artist to remain close to the Church’s greatest artistic traditions while he is young so he has the opportunity to be fully formed in them. Then when he his older he will have the knowledge and wisdom necessary to build upon the tradition rather than knock it aside for the sake of his own solitary and paltry efforts.
(2) Create a Market for Great Religious Art
Stroik acknowledges that for this to happen artists need to look upon the Church as a great client and that half of this battle is financial. All too often the Church expects to pay the lowest amount possible and then gets what it pays for. “This was explained to me many years ago by a famous structural engineer, who said that churches are such terrible clients that when church committees came knocking on his door he would give them money and recommend they hire his competitors.” The church needs to offer competitive rates to the best artists and artisans, who are paid handsomely for their work in the secular world.
(As an aside, I personally think the problem is not so much a lack of money or an unwillingness to spend it, but rather a lack of supernatural vision that leads one to place spending on comfort before all else. I have witnessed inordinate amounts of money spent on items of little value, or at least of lesser value than objects of transcendent beauty, and pastors not bat an eye at the figure on the check they write. As much as I love air conditioning and am extremely thankful for it in church every summer, I find it amusing when a pastor readily pays $100,000 for a new air conditioning unit (again, I’m really not complaining) but can’t find $12,000 for a part-time church musician in his budget. I think the question of finances has just as much to do with where we find value as it does with how much money we have.)
Stroik believes budgets should allow artists to work with the best materials available and that churches could easily offer competitions “in which the artist is straining to build the most majestic exterior, the tallest interior, the most spiritual iconography and the most beautiful building possible. Works of art should be out of the ordinary, of the highest artistic standard and with the largest budgets. They are like the expensive ointment the woman in the Gospels anoints Christ’s feet with, not just some cheap oil bought from the drugstore.”
(3) Establish a Sacred Art Academy at a University
Simply put, Stroik outlines three goals for such an academy: “1) Train students who can produce Catholic art at the highest level; 2) Give artists a theological vision for ennobling our artistic culture; and 3) Give artists the ability to create classical art for the secular realm.” He rightly points out the effects of such a school on civilization and cites the examples of the “school” of artisans at the court of Lorenzo de Medici or France’s École des Beaux-Arts, originally founded by Cardinal Mazarin. Of course, Stroik, professor of architecture at Notre Dame University and probably American’s most nationally recognized proponent of classical sacred architecture, is having the same effect on many of his own students.
The reality is that if we want great artists we must have places to train them in the best of the tradition and be able to crown their studies with a deeply imbued Catholic ethos. In the area of architecture, for example, it is imperative that students spend time in places like Rome and Florence in order to move and breathe among the architecture—to live in these buildings and to pray in them, to think in them and to experience the effect they have on one’s spiritual and intellectual formation.
Unfortunately, the general attitude today toward great art and artists in the Church in one of apathy at best or disparagement at worse, where opponents level the charge that “that money could have been spent on the poor,” as if artists and those touched by beauty (and who isn’t) are somehow unsympathetic aesthetes who unmercifully trample the poor under foot in the rush to worship in beautiful churches. But we needn’t fall prey to the scourge of the modern charge of either/or—instead we need to embrace the Catholic notion of both/and, which allows the Church to offer God Her greatest musical fruits AND place the same fruits within earshot of all of her children so that Christians poor and rich alike might have their minds and hearts lifted on the wings of sung prayer.
I mentioned earlier that Stroik’s article merely lays a foundation for a possible flowering of the sacred arts and the return of Church patronage and here I wish to build on that foundation, especially as it concerns sacred music at the parish level and engaging those who might not otherwise experience not only the beauty, but spiritual depth and richness of the Church’s sacred music.
It would be old news, especially at Corpus Christi Watershed, to rehash all the ways in which past and current pontiffs, saints or Church councils have encourage, promoted and at times demanded truly sacred and holy music to be used within the Church’s liturgical rites, and as good as each of these exhortations are, they must be accompanied by a plan of action or else they fall on deaf ears. As musicians we must ask ourselves what our plan of action is to accomplish a renaissance in sacred music and as always, I want to offer the model of the schola cantorum (or choir school, choral foundation, song school, etc.) Wether in a great cathedral, humble parish or anything in between, the schola cantorum offers a model to reengage the best musical artists with the Church and to offer the fruits of those labors back to God and to all those present along the way.
(4) Foster the Work of Talented Artists
I am amazed at the raw talent present in even the smallest of parishes. During one of my first “real” jobs I directed the music for two small country parishes with a combined school of just over 60 students, where I was able to cobble together a choir of 14 children. All I knew, and it wasn’t much more than the students themselves, was to get them to sing in their head voices and to start and stop together. Even now I can go back to the one recording I made and acknowledge that there were some great things going on in that little group even though its leader was highly inexperienced and wet behind the ears, and much of it was due to the copious amounts of talent right there in that average group of boys and girls no different from anywhere else. The goal is to engage that talent and connect it to the living tradition of the Church’s music.
The teaching sister of yore understood this. How many organists today in their 60s and 70s were volun-told by Sr. Cecilia or Sr. Mary Gregory that their piano proficiency merited them the honor of playing the organ for Holy Mass? This rarely happens today!
(5) Create a Market for Great Religious Art
Great composers, or even really good ones, rarely write for Catholic Church choirs, especially children’s choirs, because there are so precious few worth writing for. More than anything a composer wants his music performed, which would reduce him to writing at the level of This Little Light of Mine in order to engage the musical proficiency of the average Catholic chorister. But if a composer has a really good choir to write for (especially if he can be paid to do so), he will pour his heart and soul into composing for the ensemble.
As always, money is part of the problem, but not because there isn’t enough. The heart of the issue is convincing a pastor or finance council that spending money on good music is worth the sacrifice. If a parish commits to a real program of formation in liturgical music (i.e. a schola cantorum) a generous number of the faithful will be more than willing to financially support it, and the better program becomes the more resources they will find to engage more great composers, instrumentalist, soloists, etc.
(6) Establish a Sacred Art Academy at a University
This is naturally beyond the scope of the average parish, but by establishing a good schola cantorum, such a parish participates in forming the next generation of church musicians who will then enter high school and university better trained and more conversant in church music than any other undergraduate church music students. It would prepare young Catholics to take the best places in the best institutions and offer them opportunities that would have a lasting effect on the liturgical life in our parishes.
The schola cantorum, as a community of musicians, exists within a particular parish or cathedral for the work of fostering the Church’s musical arts and placing them at the service of that same community. With proper formation and liturgical catechesis, choristers are imbued with that Catholic ethos that is not only necessary for their work as our future church musicians, but for their own spiritual lives. This is the kind of community that will breath new life into our tired and sagging music programs and give the people in the pews hope that good sacred music consists in more than 1970s ditties played on the organ, spruced up with a few trumpets and timpani.
As I have mentioned in the past, if each diocese in the United States had even one schola cantorum/choir school, and each school or program graduated just 10 students every year, that would be 2,000 students in one year, or 40,000 students in one generation (20 years). Church musicians can talk until they are blue in the face about papal documents and council teachings, but until we create a groundswell of support from people who not only want good music but who know how to make it, we will continue spinning our wheels and hoping for a few scraps from the master’s table.
What’s the bottom line if you are a pastor? Nothing more than a fair salary for a great music director. The choice is yours.