Interviewing Liturgical Leaders: Margot Fassler

Pray Tell continues its series of interviews with liturgical leaders, loosely inspired by a series in Time Magazine. Interviewees are invited to be witty, engaging, and humorous in their responses. The views expressed are not necessarily those of Pray Tell.

fasslerLifetime so far in liturgy and music – any regrets?

MF: Not really. I wish I were more skilled in art history and in architectural history. I wish very much that I knew Coptic.

What are you most proud of in your scholarly work?

MF: Proud, I don’t know if that is a word I would use. The most difficult thing I ever wrote was the book The Virgin of Chartres: Making History through Liturgy and the Arts (Yale, 2010); the most useful book may be Music in the Medieval West and its Anthology (Norton, 2014). I look forward to the second printing in order to tend to some typos. If the sounding model of Hildegard’s cosmos we are making for the Digital Visualization Theater (at Notre Dame) comes out the way Christian Jara and I hope, and eventually reaches a broad audience, who knows, I might be proud of that.

Any book you wish you had written?

MF: Yes, a history of music and worship in the USA: at least I get to teach this subject!

Three things to fix the liturgy – what would they be?

MF: “fix” is not a word I would use, but I’ll try to answer:

1.  Church musicians in every parish who are paid a living wage; they need to be musically skilled and liturgically informed, and they need to be good at observation, at taking the pulse of the people they serve, and able both at leading and at being led. They can offer the kinds of skill and friendship necessary to encourage vibrant prayer, in every tradition and culture. A great church musician pays for her/himself in five years, and the ultimate “payoff” is in building the church through its worship life, and strengthening the prayer lives of every participant as well.  In this way, then, both communal sound and individual voices go out the door and into the world. There is no other way, and until we get this piece in place, we won’t “fix” anything. Nor will we have successful evangelization. It all goes back to a hermeneutic of praise. This relates as well to the environment, for music and praise are deeply satisfying, filling a need that is built in to what it means to be human. Sacred music in a person’s life takes little and gives so much, gives everything, really. But in the Western Christian tradition, it depends on a cadre of great musicians, servants of the people, doing God’s good work.

2.  More children’s choirs, with musical training for children in all Christian traditions. Also children learning each other’s various traditions would/could be a beautiful thing and an important aspect of cultural life. Director Dr. Mark Doerries is trying to do this in the Notre Dame Children’s Choir. Choirs can be the antidote for the poisons of the media that seem to promise to bring people together, but often really divide. If there were only some way to make more hours in the day for children and their parents, with music as a part of daily routine. I was speaking this week to a parent of two choristers in St. Thomas’s choir school in NYC; the students sing upwards of twenty hours a week as part of their curriculum. That’s about right! But how can most of us do this?

3.  Each tradition should seek to uncover a creative balance between its musical heritage and well-crafted new works that are theologically and aesthetically sound. Chant for Catholics, chorales for Lutherans, spirituals and Gospel for African Americans, hymns for Methodists are examples of some great traditional repertories. To know them is to understand a wealth of liturgical/worship music throughout the ages and to be directly in touch with past generations; at least some new works should be rooted in these traditional repositories of congregational song. We need well-trained composers who can bridge the gaps between the old and the new and help our congregations find their voices, and church musicians who are good at arranging and even at composing, to create musical fabrics that nurture congregational life and foster praise.

Pope Francis: good for liturgical renewal or not?

MF: He is the first Pope ordained a priest after Vatican II, and therefore formed entirely by the new liturgy. All his liturgies are the renewed liturgy. He is good for renewal because he understands it and can help with its full implementation, seeing this as a creative and ongoing movement.

Is the Vatican II liturgical renewal secure or endangered?

MF: Under Pope Francis it will prevail.

Anything good coming out of Summorum Pontificum?

MF: Like every other reform in history, the recent reform of the liturgy involved both gains and losses. In order to restore balance going forward, future reforms of the Roman rite will need to be able to access the pre-Conciliar tradition, not merely as a text in a book, but as a living form. Therefore, the small and rare communities that are willing to invest the necessary time and effort in training, formation, classical language-learning, historical knowledge, arts and music that are essential to celebrating the old rite, should be able to do so, and are performing a service to the whole church as guardians of part of our collective memory. That being said, I am a Vatican II RC, and participation with full heart and full voice is crucial to my worship life and to my work in training people with vocations as church musicians and for other roles in service to the church and its communal life.

Is liturgical ecumenism still alive?

MF: Unfortunately, I think it needs a great deal of thought and ultimately of energy that doesn’t seem to be coming to it at present.  I hope we can do better in the immediate future decades. I advocate more ecumenical prayer services, with a vibrant psalmody as the heart of our common prayer. These could be well worth the time and concentration needed, as we would learn from the planning as well as from the praying.

Is academic liturgical study relevant to the real world?

MF: Of course. It is not only relevant, it is crucial. Knowing the liturgy and its sources and how to use them for building the church is the most important work we theologians have to do. Sacred music is often seen as ancillary to theology; I think this is ridiculous.  It is at the heart of liturgical practice and of understanding how people relate to God, and also of fathoming the nature of God. If that’s not theology, I don’t know what is.

Do you advise young people go into liturgical/study?

MF: Young people should do what they love. The rest will take care of itself, ultimately.


Margot Fassler is the Keough-Hesburgh Professor of Music History and Liturgy and Director of the Program in Sacred Music, University of Notre Dame; Robert Tangeman Professor Emerita, Yale University, and former Director of the Yale Institute of Sacred Music.


  1. The “fix” seems to amount to “money.” Good liturgical music requires money. But the whole reason we need fixing to begin with is because we lack the money. The reforms sacrificed quality for quantity. Fine but rudderless, it’s taken on a life of its own creating a culture of mediocrity. We recognize that now and there are valiant attempts to correct the culture as best we can but the funding issue remains.

    1. @John Mann – comment #1:
      There are certainly many specific cases where a parish simply cannot afford to support a music director. At the same time, many, many parishes have enough resources to support such a position with ease. IF, that is, they would make music a real priority. I worked at one parish where (when I announced I was leaving due to graduation) the pastor came to tell the choir that there just wasn’t enough money in the budget to hire a full-time music director. That same fiscal year, the parish put 200k profit in the bank (to add to the 2 million already there, in a parish with no debt). And the following year the parish completed an 8 million dollar capital campaign to build new office space for the parish staff, parking lot updates, etc. And I think, in all charity, that that pastor truly believed he could not afford a music director, in a parish with a yearly budget of 3.5 million dollars. It’s a question of priorities, which is what true stewardship is all about.

      Fassler makes a bold claim, that we will not have successful evangelization without attention to liturgical music. I tend to agree, but of course as a music director I’m pretty biased!
      Her other two points, on children’s musical education and new composition, are excellent as well.

  2. I am the “part-time” music director who succeeded Jared, and previously served (years back) at the same parish as the full-time music and liturgy director. The fiscal details he described are spot-on and continue to the present.

    I returned to the parish because I know (and love) the parish, because I knew that the pastor wasn’t going to hire a full-time director, because I didn’t myself require a full-time job, because I was asked to return and serve, and because I felt an obligation to step in and assist, believing (in all humility) that I would serve dedicatedly and decently, even if part-time (things had always gone well in the past).

    Working with accomplished keyboardists (who are paid per Mass), my role as choir director and director of cantors has gone quite well. However, continuing to develop the parish repertoire and trying to form the parish liturgically has proven to be a longer-term project.

    Part of the problem, to be honest, is that there really is no such thing as a “part-time” parish music director in terms of “practicalities” (a parish usually never lacks a service musician simply because the director is only part-time). And so, because things “function” well-enough, no one sees a need for anything more committed (or costly).

    However, would that each parish community have available – full-time – someone whose liturgical and musical education, training and experience could more substantially serve the greater community life of the parish instead of just “in church” on Sunday mornings. I was certainly a better staff resource for the parish when I was employed there full-time. Part-time music and liturgy directors simply cannot yield the same “greater” harvest as can those whose parishes have committed to providing full-time worship staff members (though we certainly try to do what we can, to be sure).

    Of course, full-time doesn’t always guarantee a “greater” harvest. Pastoral and ministry skills are as crucial and musical and liturgical skills.

  3. Professor Fassler, thank you for your interview. I wholeheartedly agree with you that all Christian traditions should, perhaps even must, rediscover the musical traditions which have come to define their distinctive forms of worship. Current day pan-western-Christian hymns possess a strong and effective didactic quality. There is much to be said for learning the Bible through structured hymns. Still, this might not be a form of musical catechesis native to a tradition.

    I also want to thank you for be gracious to traditionalists. There are more of us than you might suspect. Nevertheless you are right that traditionalists are, in some sense, preservationists of a previous era of western Catholicism. I would confidently say that Catholics who have been traditionalist for many years do not view themselves as curators of a dying missal. My spiritual life lives within and through the Tridentine tradition as if this tradition has never ceased to live. Musical traditions and even the imponderable immersion into silence (such as at quietly-said low Mass), are not mere window-dressing. The vestments, the gestures, what is not said — these essentials of Tridentine liturgical piety cannot be easily replicated in the reformed liturgy. The challenge of carrying forth Tridentine musical traditions into the current era is the not the use of chant or polyphony per se, but the inevitability that musical traditions designed for one liturgy might not fit well with another both on a practical level and a pietistic level.

  4. I loved this interview! What wonderful points, and well-reasoned! As a parish musician, I, of course, would tend to agree with the idea of a full-time, living-wage musician in as many parishes as possible, although this is harder to implement in smaller rural parishes, even those that come about a generous endowment to that end. Also, “full-time” does not always result in “living wage”!

    What struck me particularly, though, was the point about the use of Psalms as common prayer in ecumenical worship. This seems like an obvious point, but rarely done. Having grown up in a small town and attended many ecumenical gatherings as a youth, these often took on the “flavor” of the host church, and I suspect that that is often what happens. Also, I have attended ecumenical gatherings that take the form of a series of lovely speeches from clergy, rather than common worship. The singing of Psalms, in a variety of musical forms, would seem to me to cut through this. Last fall, I took on directorship of an ecumenical choir of about 60 people from 40 different churches (many of them Catholic, but many not). When I proposed that our spring concert be an exploration of choral Psalmody, I was met with great enthusiasm from all corners, so there is something to this! We are even attempting Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms”, which adds an interfaith element. (Also a challenging piece for church choir folk… Pray for us!)

    I also agree heartily with the point about children’s choirs. One has to be patient with such endeavors, though, especially when starting from scratch, and must be willing to try new approaches to recruiting all the time. If the program is not already established, it will take time for it to appear worthy of families’ already busy schedules. Musicians must also be willing to sacrifice their time for this when the program is still “in the nest”. Can be a tall order, but worth it!

  5. What a wonderful interview, I wish it were longer. She has great insight and her views are very worth considering. I wish more would realize the centrality of music and those who practice it to our faith.

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