Oddwalk Ministries

The Liturgical Composers Forum: Pointing to Jesus

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Starting tonight, Orin (today’s blogger) will again be attending the 20th annual Liturgical Composers Forum in suburban St. Louis. This gathering was begun by Fr. John Foley, SJ two decades ago, at the time a program of the now largely non-existent Center for Liturgy at SLU.

These few days bring together some of the most familiar names behind much of the most familiar music sung at Mass, along with a number of other folks whose names and music might be less familiar but whose efforts at helping the Church pray through song are no less important.

A discussion at these gatherings often arises – sometimes formally (as part of the agenda) and sometimes during breaks and social times – as to the intersection of what might be generally called “popular culture” and the sacred. There are many vectors to this discussion, and to me, the core of the matter is always this: at what times and to what extent the Church should practice inculturation and alternatively stand counter-culturally. That is, more simply, at what times should, in this case, liturgical music embrace aspects of the more secular culture, to let it inform the Church and the Church inform it, and at what times should the Church stand opposed to the secular culture and be different from it.

As you can expect, there is no area of the matter that escapes these thoughts if one truly ponders things deeply, and, similarly, there is little black-or-white to the matter either. The most obvious discussion, on the surface of things, is one of style and instrumentation: what types of contemporary music and instruments are suitable for the liturgy and in what contexts? Much real and digital ink has already been spilled over the matter; suffice it to say I find myself most times as a “both-and” kind of guy: there are lots of types of music from most every place and time that are both exactly what is needed for a given liturgical moment or ought never to be at liturgy in any circumstance.

Digging deeper: often times the writers and publishers of liturgical music disseminate their newest creations in ways very similar to any popular music out there today. Slick recordings are made and often videos too; marketing engines often hail singer/songwriters in ways indistinguishable from any secular counterpart. This is a particular struggle of my thought-processes and my very heart. In a faith where one model of holiness, John the Baptist, tells his followers “I must decrease, he must increase,” what is the role of marketing and what might be called “celebrity” in the domain of Church ministry, be it music, speaking, or any other tool of evangelization? Which components (said another way, gifts) of a more secular approach to marketing should the Church embrace and use, and which might it stand counter to, and why?

I have no particular answers to these questions, I hope you didn’t come here for that! I will note a couple more points though. It does seem that some of my peers have either not become aware of this tension and the possible difficulties of such things, or perhaps have pondered and prayed their way through them and have arrived at a different conclusion than I think I might, ultimately. Also, ultimately, I think any final conclusions must be vested in this question: is what I’m doing, whether writing a piece of music, using it at liturgy, or trying to allow or even persuade others to do so to – is any and all of that pointing solely to Jesus? If not, more prayer and pondering may be needed.

Lastly, one more note about the Liturgical Composers Forum specifically. It has existed for a few years now as a group no longer affiliated with SLU and on a shoe-string budget. It really does wonderful work and is beginning to thrive on its own, but still needs support. To that end, there is a concert this Thursday night which will feature many of the attendees of the forum and their pieces: many familiar to us all, and many one might call “hidden gems.” My piece on the program is titled “To Know Darkness,” one we’ve mentioned here and had a chance to pray with at various events several times. I hope you consider coming – visit this link for more info and to get tickets, which must be bought in advance, no sales at the door apparently.

Thanks for reading!
—Orin

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