Saturday, August 19, 2017

When It's Not Just a Shout Out...

It was an evening long-awaited, and in some ways, fraught with a tinge of anxiety.

Even as long as eighteen months ago, Fr. Gerry Kane, Parish Priest at Our Lady of the Rosary (otherwise known as Harold's Cross Church), was objective – almost brusque – about the fact that he was to be assigned to a new parish in the summer of 2017.  A tireless administrator and utterly superb pastor, he threw himself into Harold's Cross and made it a beehive, building a parish centre, reinvigorating the liturgy, and, in the last two years, making his community a home for Teach Bhríde, the House of Brigid, when it made its first foray into the city of Dublin.

But this night, this evening, was his last at Harold's Cross, and the parish did what only they could do: allow him to preside over the liturgy one last time, and then have a colossal tea party in the parish centre next door.

My wife and I had been asked, early on, if we could partake in these festivities, and join the choir for the Mass.  And so, my trusty backpack encasing my guitar, we set off on the Dublin 16/Ballinteer bus for church.  John Egan was at the helm of the choir – and all I had to do was sit in the tiny gallery and play the accompaniment for The Mass for Our Lady – and a few other things I might just know.

What impressed me, though, was the fact that, in the midst of all the acknowledgements of gratitude to Fr. Gerry, three names came up: Geoff Burdell, Emma Fleming, and Biz Honeywell.  These three were the members of the House of Brigid this year, and they were mentioned by name as the closing accolades were festooned over Fr. Gerry.

It's one thing to come into a parish and make an American splash – or even, in my case, to come in as a celebrated composer and hear your music being sung.  It's quite another when you hear the description of a decade of devoted parochial service, and in that roll call are these words: "the joyful welcome of our Notre Dame students into the parish."  And then came their names: Geoff, Emma and Biz.

(Yes, Biz, I know you are a Terp.  But I hope you will forgive Harold's Cross this one instance of grouping you with your effervescent leprechaun colleagues).

Clearly, this was not just a shout-out.  These three, and the two previous years of Dublin House of Brigid members who came before them, held such an emotional bond with these parishioners that they made the honour roll of memories for this beloved pastor.

There are now watchwords in the Holy Cross lexicon, and they have become part of the verbal DNA of that religious community: "known, loved, and served."  To Geoff, Emma and Biz: clearly, you were and are known to this parish.  Clearly, they loved you, and you loved them.  And clearly, none of this would have taken place had you not served them with selfless devotion.

I stand in awe of my colleagues in the House of Brigid this night.  What began as a tiny dream almost a decade ago is touching the lives and changing the hearts of whole parishes.  It is nothing short of a grace to behold such a thing.


Monday, August 14, 2017

The Naming of a Choir

It has been a long, long time since I named a choir.  Thirty-seven years, to be precise.

Back in 1980, when a certain choral ensemble I know was in an embryonic state, we were searching for a name.  There were eight of us and no choral library (except a very large pile of illegally photocopied music of the St. Louis Jesuits). The keyboard used was an eighty-eight key Fender-Rhodes, a beast that had to be lugged up the icy stairs from the basement of then-Sacred-Heart-Church in the winter.

It was dangerous stuff, hauling all that gear in the frozen February waste of Northern Indiana.

It was also dangerous to name an ensemble. Seriously, the Notre Dame Folk Choir?  

Critics are found everywhere, and many years down the road I still hear from people who objected to that four letter word, "folk." They thought I was creating an homage to a genre, or to one of my favourite trinities. Was it Peter, Paul and Mary? Crosby, Stills and Nash? Larry, Curly and Moe?

I'll never tell!

But in truth, back then that four letter word was actually a reflection on the powerful import of the Second Vatican Council: music needed to belong to the people.  "Full, conscious, active," was something I embraced from the documents of the Council from the start, and I still do.  So this choir was to be a reflection of those encouragements.  The repertoire had to belong to the people, to the folk.  Liturgy was not to be a concert – at every possible turn, we would do our best to involve the assembly in everything we did.

And it paid off – in vocations, in volunteer service, in a repertoire that spread in many directions.

Now, in the year two thousand and seventeen, I have the opportunity to name a choir once again.  It is a process I take seriously, something that I've given careful thought to over the past months of making Dublin and St. Stephen's Green my home.  And like the choir that was named before this one, you only get to do it once, just as you can't change the name of a child a few years down the road. ("Well, I thought we were going to name him Henry, but now, two years later, I've changed my mind....").

Nope.  You get one chance.

So where has my thought led me? I've walked this land for nearly a year, and visited it for almost two generations.  I find our American past and Irish histories to be both unique and similar: we both fought the British Empire and eventually won.  We both were taxed and silenced to the point of humiliation.  And we both cherished the notion that we needed our voices – that government meant nothing if we had no voice.  The Americans coined a phrase: no taxation without representation. The Irish couldn't even coin a phrase: they had been stripped of their language.

I believe the same principles are at work in religious expression. Our lives aren't worth much if we have no voice. And we've proven, generation after generation, that we'd rather go to our graves than remain silent.  As with government, so with spirituality: it all hinges on whether we have a voice or not.  Does our ecclesial institution simply ask us to "pray, pay and obey?"  Or are we called to something more sublime?

All of this leads to the naming of a choir.

At University Church, on St. Stephen's Green, we've created a new musical community of young professionals.  Some are career organists and singers.  Some are already in other choirs.  Some are mathematicians, some are architects.  But all of them have been breathtakingly committed to creating an intentional gathering, choristers one and all.  We started with three singers, and now are past one dozen, four months in. It will continue to grow.

They have been named the Newman Vocare Ensemble.  "Vocare" is the operative word, for it is caught up in a calling, a receptive response to another's voice.  It is the root word for vocation.  And as such, it clearly marks a compass point as to what we are attempting to do with this tiny, city-centre assembly, week after week:

Cultivate the call.  Nurture the voice.  Acclaim and praise.  Foster that attitude in those who gather with us.  And always, always, help unleash the power that arises when human beings own the joy of life in the Spirit.

No pictures for this chapter.  If you want to hear what we are doing, click here.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Behold the Wood, chapter the last


For about two months, quietly, and mostly in the evening hours, a young artist from Romania has been working on a new Taizé cross for University Church here in Dublin. Watching her work is a bit like my own work in music composition – working on layer after layer, reworkings, refigurings, entering deeply into the art, stepping away. It has been a fascinating journey, watching this process evolve.

First, there were scores of discussions: what would the face of Christ look like?  What disposition?  Anguish?  Pleading? Resignation? Pain? Detachment?  And what saints were to be included on either side of the corpus? Traditionally, this would always be depicted with Saint John and Mary flanking either side.  But this was to be an Irish cross...

And what other symbols might be involved?  These discussions were largely about hagiography – how saints' images are depicted, what symbols are used and how.  Every detail was important.


The decision was made to use Irish saints on both sides of the crucifix, a reflection of the country and tradition where the cross was to be housed.  Patrick on Christ's right hand, Brigid on the left.  Both had their own symbols of association: for Patrick, the shamrock as a sign of his teaching of the Trinity, and the snake at his feet, illustrating the story of his expulsion of the reptile from this island nation.  Brigid is most often depicted with two symbols: the crozier (pay attention to this, men!), and her cradling the Church in her hands.  Combined with that is her own symbol of the oak leaf, which hearkens back to Cill Dara – Kildare, the church of the oak.

Our artist, Mona Damian, deftly wove these signs around the two saints – both appearing in their shepherd staffs.

Then there was the face of Christ.  Here, the face has the look of quiet resignation – not anger, or desperation, or even remorse.  The love is still in the eyes, not extinguished in the face of torture, pain and betrayal.  The ability to capture this expression is one of the many compelling parts of this portrayal of the Crucifixion.

Mona also seized upon one of the hidden artistic components of University Church.  Woven subtly throughout the lunettes of the saints in the nave are small pieces of glass – now so old and aged that they look more like stones than pieces of glass.  The decision was made to incorporate these shards of glass into all the haloes of the cross: the Saviour, both of the saints, and even high above the cross itself, as a representation of the wingéd hope of the Advocate.

Week by week Mona worked, moving from the blank white palette which she sketched out on day one.  Layer after layer, the corpus emerged, as if being released from a tomb. The Cross began to find small tendrils emerging from it – signs of growth emanating from the Tree of Life.  Then came the saints, gazing up directly into the face of the Saviour.  Finally, the symbol of the Trinity: the hands of the Father, the heart of the Son, and the wings of the Spirit, all looking down on the Sacrifice of Calvary.

Now it is all done, curing, hardening in the gallery of University Church: all the layers of paint and lacquer and glass.  Ageing, as all art does, becoming darker and more compelling as the days and weeks and months slip by.  By September, it will be brought down into the heart of Newman's Church, at the end of the nave, surrounded by candlelight, held in place by the granite communion rail that marks off the altar where the Sacrifice is repeated, day after day.  As we enter into the autumn days, we will be ready to have this new work of art become the focal point of our Taizé prayer, a new project stewarded by our incoming members of Dublin's House of Brigid, Teach Bhríde.

Behold the wood. The wood of the Cross. Behold our salvation, which even in the darkest hour, holds the promise of grace and beauty and deliverance from all that would cause us to lose hope.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Whispered Voices at Kafka's

It was an ending to a great saga – and a beginning, too.

My good friend and ministerial colleague, Geoff Burdell, was on the threshold of leaving Dublin, after serving here for two years as first a member, and then House Director, of Teach Bhríde here in the city.  Geoff's parents and his parish priest invited us to dinner, down the road in Rathmines, at a restaurant called Kafka's.

It was a great night of catching up, enjoying one another's company, listening to stories of the last two years, talking about golf (the men played 18 holes that day), and answering the myriad questions from the Burdells about life in Dublin's fair city.

Throughout all this merriment, about halfway through our Guinness, a young couple came in and sat at the table next to us.  I didn't notice them much, save for the fact that the woman seemed to be from South America (at least, that's what I guessed from the accent).

Just as the food arrived, we did a simple thing, instinctive to us who labour in the vineyard.  Someone suggested grace, we clasped hands quickly, bowed our heads, and entered into a bit of gratitude: not only for the great food, but for the precious gathering of friends, the completion of much good work.  We didn't think a moment about it – just doing what we normally do.

As we were preparing to leave, at the end of the evening, the South American lady (I was right; turns out she was from Brazil) leaned over and said a few words to Geoff's mom, Jeanette.  It went something like this: "I was so inspired that all of you said grace tonight.  I've wanted to do this here in this city, but never thought I could.  Seeing you do this – now I am going to say grace at restaurants as well."

Jeanette shared this with me as we left Kafka's.  The significance of it was not lost on me – what a moment of quiet, seemingly insignificant witness can do to shape a landscape of prayer.

Two days ago, Geoff concluded his time in Dublin, boarding an airplane, heading back to weddings in the Midwest, and soon after that to seminary studies with the Congregation of Holy Cross.  I shall miss him greatly.  And I'm sure he could speak of the many theophanies that took place over the past two years.  But I'm also dead certain that the most important ones are the smallest – the searing, naive inquisitions by his school kids, the conversations after mass, the unheralded moments when divinity broke through in unexpected ways.

A lot like Kafka's, where whispered voices announced gratitude and grace.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Behold the Wood, Part 2

At least when you're watching an artist, you can see something tangible, something discernible, taking shape every day.  I wonder about that when it comes to the craft of music composition, pushing notes and lyrics around on a page.  Only those literate in this language can comprehend a piece of music in their heads.

But the visual arts are different: the work is there to behold, to take in, to affect the senses.  So it was that even on day two of Mona's work on the Taize cross, already there were things to behold, directions I could tell she was headed, ideas that would eventually come to the fore.

You can see a "rough" of what will take shape under her hand.  On either side of Jesus are the images of Patrick (on the left, treading on a snake) and Brigid (on the opposite side, holding her traditional symbol, a bishop's staff).  Above, looking down on the Cross, is a heart shaped image, around which will appear the words "Cor ad cor loquitor" – "heart touches the heart," the motto of Blessed John Cardinal Newman.

There are weeks left on this project, but the changes between days one and two are dramatic.