Today Saint John’s Abbey and University gave its highest honor, the Pax Christi award, to David Haas, Marty Haugen, and Fr. Michael Joncas.
When it comes to liturgy and music, St. John’s is probably known for traditional hymns more than trap sets, Gregorian more than guitar, and polyphony more than piano. But far beyond all such categories and distinctions (distinctions which, I’m sure, the choristers in the National Catholic Youth Choir would say are “so five minutes ago”), my deepest hope is that St. John’s be known for its humble striving to live out the Kingdom where all are welcomed with an embrace, all differences are reconciled in the love of Christ, and every human stronghold is pulled down as God is all in all.
As the award recipients spoke at the ceremony and led us in singing their music, my thoughts oddly turned to my organ teacher many years ago in Vienna, Peter Planyavsky, then principal organist at St. Stephen’s cathedral, the famous Stefansdom. As a classically-trained cathedral organist particularily schooled in Baroque performance practice, Plany nonetheless took a fundamentally positive attitude toward contemporary styles of church music. He once wrote, “The dear Lord also created blue notes, and syncopation, and five-eight meter, and the cluster, and vibrato, and shouting, whispering, laughing, and clapping.” And this: “Baroque organ and electric guitar have acknowledged that even if they cannot always play together in unison, in the long run there must be a working together of all of us making church music.”
If today’s award presentation reinforced that sort of working together then let it be, please God, a sign of the Kingdom.
The Pax Christi award has as its purpose to honor those whose lives exemplify Benedictine ideals. One of those ideals is liturgical renewal, especially active participation of the people – and who has done more for that cause than the “Minnesota Three,” David, Marty, and Michael? It was a well-deserved recognition, and it was time for St. John’s to give it. And the occasion called for the musical forces of the National Catholic Youth Choir, the St. John’s Boys’ Choir, the abbey schola, and – most importantly – a church full of people raising the roof in united song.
The award ceremony after Mass was in the Great Hall (the old abbey church.) As David Haas took the stage to speak, he said that he had stood and made music on this very spot many years ago, in 1980, at the regional convention at St. John’s of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians. His lofty role was… to provide background music while people registered! Something has come full circle.
This memory will stick with me a long time: Marty Haugen said to me after the award ceremony that St. John’s is for him a “thin place.” I didn’t know the phrase. He explained to me that it is used to refer to Iona, a place where the divide between here and above is thin, where heaven and earth seem to touch. I got a glimpse of heaven on earth this morning as I heard hundreds of people singing together the music of the Pax Christi recipients.
Or as the National Catholic Youth Choir sang this morning in the piece by Edgar Bainton, “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth. … And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes…” (Revelation 21) As the choir sang that last line I shed a tear – funny how that works.
I won’t attempt to reconstruct here everything said by the award recipients in their powerful, inspiring acceptance speeches. Suffice it to say the main themes sounded were humble gratitude, ecumenism, liturgy and mission, peace-making, justice, youth ministry, the church’s heritage of choral music, and music ministry. The pieces the three recipients selected for us to sing were “All Are Welcome” and “A Great Cloud of Witnesses” by Marty Haugen, “Blest Are They” by David Haas, and “Deep and Lasting Peace” and “In Christ We Come to Offer Thanks / Ubi Caritas” by Michael Joncas.
Here’s an inside joke about today’s Mass known only to me, NCYC conductor André Heywood, Sister Delores Dufner, and God. I wanted a Latin chant introit that would tie into and introduce the opening hymn, David Haas’ “We Are Called.” I went with Vocati sumus facere iudicium, Mode VI. No, you won’t find any setting of that text from Micah 6 in any chant book or manuscript. No one set it in the Middle Ages. I had to set it myself. So: of all the music sung this morning, the most recently-composed piece – June 12, 2017, to be exact – was the Latin chant Gregorian introit.
A close second for the most recently-composed piece today would be Michael Joncas’ “Deep and Lasting Peace,” copyrighted 2017 with GIA. It was the piece Michael chose for us to sing after his acceptance speech. We had more “heaven and earth” material in the text of the refrain: “In the breaking of the bread: deep peace, deep peace; heaven’s feast on earth is spread: deep and lasting peace.” Amen to that.
Congratulations, huge congratulations, David, Marty, and Michael. Thanks, and again, thanks for your work. Ad multos annos.