Universa Laus Meeting 2013

I am presently enjoying a week of fascinating discussions on liturgical music at the Universa Laus 2013 gathering, meeting this year at Worth Abbey, quite close to Gatwick Airport near London, England.  On the beautiful grounds of this monastery and school, nearly 50 participants from Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Moldova, the Netherlands, Slovakia, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States have gathered to explore the over-arching theme: “Sacrosanctum Concilium Perspective and Possibilities.”

After a simple Opening Prayer, welcome and socializing Monday evening, 19 August, the work of the group began in earnest on Tuesday 20 August.  The Italian language group led us in Morning Prayer, consisting of the usual “Deus, in adiutorium” dialogue, followed by a graceful five stanza Italian hymn (text: R. Poretti / music: L. Casani) with the Refrain: “Scendi su noi ancora, / Spirto creatore: / per te sorride il mondo, / per te renasce l’uomo.” (Descend upon us again, Creator Spirit: through you the world revives; through you, human beings are born again.”).  John 14:15-17 was proclaimed in Italian followed by a brief time of silence.  The leader invited the community to chant the Lord’s Prayer in Latin and concluded the service with a collect in Italian and the following dialogue: “Lavoriamo in pace.  Nel nome di Cristo.” (Let us work in peace.  In the name of Christ.).

Fr. Peter McGeary, an Anglican priest serving in parish work in London, presented the first major address: “Sacrosanctum Concilium 50 years on: reflections from an Anglican.”  He noted that “some ideas promoted by Sacrosanctum Concilium had already been part of Anglican life for centuries such as the celebration of the liturgy in the vernacular, the reform or simplification of the breviary, or daily office, and the restoration of the cup to the laity…. In these aspects, Anglicans tended to think that Roman Catholics were just catching up on what we put into practice four years earlier.  But there were other changes to liturgical life which we Anglican learned from the Vatican 2 reforms.  I will mention two: the shape and ethos of the liturgy, including the development of roles of ministers and people in worship and the reform of the Church Year and Lectionary.”

Fr. Giuseppe Ruggieri, Professor emeritus of theology in Catania and author of Ritrovare il Concilio (Rediscover the Council) published  in 2012 by Einaudi of Turn, offered “Interpretazioni del Vaticano II,” in which he attempts to answer the question “What was Vatican II, really?”  To that end, 1) he clarifies the “global” interpretations of the Council offered by theologians and historians; 2) and by the churches.  He then 3) tries to establish the situation of the Church at the present, in order to 4) return to a brief comparative analysis of the interpretations.  He concludes 5) by putting forward his own reading of Vatican II and what it still means for the Church today.

After lunch and a music rehearsal for Evening Prayer and Mass the next day, the membership was treated to a fascinating report on some 20 liturgical songs “from a Belgian viewpoint,” many of which we sang through under the direction of a small instrumental ensemble.  The compositions were chosen to illustrate the influence of 1) popular music; 2) Negro spirituals (in French!); 3) jazz (!); 4) Byzantine chant (especially Andre Gouzes’ music); and 5) Baroque and classical music, as well as songs with accompanying bodily gestures, intercultural initiatives (a Thanksgiving song sung in Swahili [refrain] and French [verses]), and some contemporary compositions.  While many of these pieces could be transplanted fairly easily into some North American  worshiping communities, some (such as Didier Rimaud’s exquisite “Pourquoi l’homme”) would demand much of the translator: “Pourquoi le vent, S’il ne sème au hazard? / Pourquoi la mer, si ce n’est pour le sable? / Pourquoi le feu, s’il ne prend aux broussailles? / Et pourquoi l’homme…. Pourquoi le pain, S;il n’est jamais rompu? / Pourquoi le sang, s’il n’emplit nulle coupe? / Pourquoi le corps, S’il ne dit la parole? / Et pourquoit l’homme?” (Why the wind if it sows randomly? Why the sea, is it is not for sand?  Why the fire, if it does not scrub?, And why human beings?….Why the bread, if it is never broken? / Why the blood if it fills no cut? / Why the body, if it does not speak the word? And why human beings?”).

After discussion on the morning’s presentations in respective language groups, the East European/German group led us in Evening Prayer (mostly in English).  Beginning with the usual “God, come to my assistance” dialogue, we sang, standing, a Taizé composition “Venite, exultemus Domino” and sat to sing a Psallite setting of Psalm 103 with the antiphon “Merciful and tender, faithful is the Lord” and each of the succeeding verses of the Psalm sung to a psalm-tone in a different language: English, German, Italian, French, and Slovak (I think).  James 3:17-18 was proclaimed in German, English, French, Italian, Slovak and Russian, followed by prayer in silence.  The intercessions were offered in German, Dutch, English, Italian, French, Russian, and Czech, with a litanic refrain sung SATB “Exaudi nos, exaudi nos” after the cantor’s cue: “Te rogamus, audi nos.”  We then sang the Lord’s Prayer in Latin chant, heard the collect for the feast of St. Bernard in English, and experienced the usual blessing text “May the Lord bless us.”  To conclude Evening Prayer we again sang a Taizè ostinato: “Sanctum nomen Domini magnificat anima mea.”

The day ended with a listening-singing session at which I presented certain examples of musical inculturation from my Missa ad Gentes, Reghina Nadkrenicinaia presented a setting of “This is my commandment” by Georg Gsel sung in Russian as an example of relatively recent (1990) music sung by all Russian Christians from Poland to Kazakhstan, Alan Smith presented the Penitential Act and Lamb of God from his Holy Redeemer Mass, and Grégory Notebaert presented an Offertory round with cantus firmus bass and a setting of Penitential Act B with Kyrie eleison in French and Greek.

As the reader might guess, it was a very full day, but rich in shared prayer, opportunities for conversation over meals, and a true appreciation for diverse cultural expressions of our common faith.


  1. Wow!! Thank you for that beyond comprehensive description of the day – it was almost like being there – the only thing missing was actually hearing the music offerings (although I know what the Psallite 103 and your “Ad Gentes” sound like!!) The melding of the languages must have been amazing to hear!
    I hope you will be as descriptive of your own presentation!

  2. Thank for the reflections and what wonderful words from the French translation to make me think. Let’s sing it in English. It’s got that in your face rhetoric that would make a high schooler own it in a heartbeat without realizing it was asking the question of them.

  3. The main papers will in due course be available on the Universa Laus website (www.universalaus.org). May I add that Mike’s own presentation (I hope he will refer to this in a further report on the following days’s work, was extremely well done, well received, and provoked some interesting discussions. It is very good to have him here at the meeting!

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