Irish Church Music Association – Summer 2019

I had the privilege of being part of two events sponsored by the Irish Church Music Association this summer in celebration of its 50th anniversary of founding. Held at Maynooth University, the National University of Ireland, and co-sponsored by the ICMA and the National Centre for Liturgy, the two events consisted of a conference (1-2 July) followed by the annual summer school (3-5 July).

The conference theme was “Rejoice and Sing – Celebrating 50 Years of Irish Church Music – Remembering, Celebrating and Looking Forward.”

The first day consisted of three papers delivered by three presenters.

  • I sketched the major trends in liturgical music practice from Roman Catholic and United States perspectives in “From Sacred Song to Ritual Music.”
  • Fr. Thomas R. Whelan, CSSp, discussed “Serving 50 Years of Christian Ritual Music in Ireland”; his obvious love for and immersion in the topic made it clear that we would need at least another week to explore all that Fr. Whelan unearthed.
  • The Rev. Dr. Lizette Larson Miller, Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Huron University College, Ontario, Canada, treated the attendees to a fine discussion of trends in contemporary liturgical studies in “Remembering and Giving Thanks as a Christian Practice.” Her paper helpfully focused on characteristics of history, the use of history in theological reflection, and historical “justifications” for particular musico-liturgical practices. More than one attendee remarked on what a blessing it was to have an Anglican scholar speaking with such understanding and obvious love for Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, the “first fruits” of Vatican II. Professor Larson Miller reminded us that the Second Vatican Council was not an event for Roman Catholics only, but has had profound effects on many Christian denominations.

Characteristic Irish hospitality shone through the wine reception that concluded the evening.

The second day of the conference moved from remembering to celebrating and looking toward the future.

  • After Fr. Martin Browne, O.S.B., concisely and wittily summarized the previous day’s input, I led an in-depth study of Chapter Six on sacred music from the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. Some participants remarked that it was a salutary exercise to return to the “Magna Carta of the liturgical movement” to remind all those involved in liturgical ministry of the foundational theological perspectives underlying the Council’s decrees.
  • Rev. Dr. Larson Miller then delivered a paper “Looking Toward the Future” consisting of four “snapshots” of liturgical life in Eastern Canada, moving to a description of how the recent Anglican Consultative Council meeting in Hong Kong attempted to facilitate conversation on fraught issues, citing Judith Berling, Paul Murray, and Elizabeth Drescher as theorists whose work in theological conversation, receptive ecumenism and describing the spiritual lives of “Generation Zed” (also known as the “nones”) might give some models for our own discussions of liturgical polarization, and concluding with a passionate plea for appropriate liturgical formation for clergy and the rest of the baptized. The paper provided quite a stimulus for three designated respondents (Philip McKinley, Karen O’Donovan and myself) as well as discussion by the mass of the attendees facilitated by Fr. Browne.

The conference concluded with a celebration of the Eucharist that simultaneously opened the summer school.

The three days of the summer school followed the same basic structure.

  • We began with Morning Prayer (sometimes following the format of Morning Prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours and sometimes the format of a Word Service) led by a deacon or lay person offering a homily or reflection on the scriptures and the feast.
  • A music rehearsal of the pieces we would sing for liturgy the rest of the week then followed.
  • I offered a three-session workshop based on the General Instruction of the Roman Missal’s description of the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite.
  • After a break for coffee, participants could attend a variety of workshops (Irish composers including Ephrem Feeley, Marie Dunne and John O’Keefe; music with young people led by Bernard Sexton, Geraldine Flanagan, and Ciaran Coll; or choral skills with Orla Barry) each day.
  • The early afternoons of Wednesday and Thursday were devoted to perfecting choral repertoire of Marian motets; the same time on Friday was devoted to a workshop by Liam Lawton.
  • A second musical rehearsal for the liturgies we would celebrate during the week occurred in late afternoon, followed with Eucharist on Tuesday (mentioned above) and Evening Prayer on Friday.
  • Each evening had a different event: Tuesday evening I led a guided meditation on the gift of sound manifest in speech, speech plus music, and pure non-texted music; Wednesday we were blessed by an evening concert from a choir led by Mary Peddar Daly; and Thursday we had a chance to revel in the artistry of the Marian compositions we had practiced earlier in the week.
  • A truly festive Eucharist and banquet marked Thursday evening, celebrating the powerful community established over the years among the members of the ICMA.

I came away from these events profoundly grateful to the organizers for inviting me. I learned that there were reasons for concern and reasons for hope about the liturgical renewal in Ireland a half-century after Vatican II.

Reasons for hope include:

  • powerfully successful “indigenization” of Irish spirituality as expressed in song, especially manifest in two settings of the Lord’s Prayer in Irish by Sean O’Riada and by Fintan O’Carroll (of “Celtic Alleluia” fame);
  • increasing reception of and familiarity with the liturgical music of Irish composers;
  • the dedication of the participants to helping their communities sing their faith over many years despite often sparse resources, of money, singers, instruments and instrumentalists.

Reasons for concern include:

  • how the (Gregorian) chant and polyphonic heritage might be preserved not just as museum pieces with occasional performance in cathedrals but in parish worship as well;
  • how popular devotions and liturgical services might be better integrated;
  • how liturgical formation for both laity and clergy might be extensively promoted;
  • how a collaborative approach to liturgical planning might be fostered;
  • and how young people might be encouraged to engage the liturgy (part of a deeper concern about the number of middle-aged through Generation Zed baptized Catholics who have abandoned Catholic Christian religious practice).

All in all, I was deeply heartened by the dedication of the participants to the “full, conscious and active” participation in the sacred liturgy by all the baptized called for by the Second Vatican Council.


  1. In praising the other speakers so warmly, Fr Joncas has been shy about the excellence of his own inputs to both the conference and the summer school! It was a splendid week and he was a blessing to us all.

  2. Thank you Michael for the wonderful overview, your talks were so clear and helpful…I have only one complaint, my praytell blog for next week just went into the little trashcn icon!

  3. Did anyone talk about Laudato Si’?
    I’ve been impressed at the action of the Irish bishops to divest from fossil fuels.
    The liturgical connection with the climate emergency we are facing globally is not often explored but I wondered if awareness is higher there than in the U.S.

  4. Dear Rita,

    As far as I know, no one explicitly addressed “Laudato Si’” or the ecological crisis, but the theme regularly occurred in the intercessions/preces of Morning Prayer, Mass and Evening Prayer.

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