Ever since 1998, I've had the extraordinary privilege of taking a trip the last week of January. By hook or by crook, I somehow find a way out of the frozen climes of northern Indiana and make my way to the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri.
But the destination isn't what beckons me to the banks of the Mississippi River in the wintertime; it's those who gather here.
About fifteen years ago, a dear friend of mine, John Foley, S.J., got the idea of gathering writers of sacred music from around the globe. He dreamed of a week of camaraderie, combined with prayer and study. And in many ways, John's vision has shaped the repertoire of the American Catholic Church. For as we gathered and got to know one another, we did what the church usually does: we began to work together. Pieces of music began to be written, this time with a couple of names attached. Collaborations, collections, began to take shape.
Over the years, John and his superb assistants have gathered names from every discipline, and have orchestrated lectures by these guests on music, theology, or poetry. We've had visits from Alice Parker, the famous colleague of Robert Shaw; Brian Wren, the superb poet of sacred song; Ronald Rolheiser, the gifted chronicler of the spiritual journey; and this year, we were honored to have the superb Old Testament Theologian, Walter Brueggemann, speak to us of Lamentation in the Scriptures (more on that later).
But to be in the same room with people whose music has shaped my own spiritual journey is something hard to put into words. I'll list just a few of these folks – and the songs they have created that have been foundational to my own ministry:
There's Bob Hurd (Ubi Caritas Est Vera), Roc O'Connor, s.j., (Jesus The Lord), Marty Haugen (OK, about forty songs), Rev. Mike Joncas (the same), Rory Cooney (Canticle of the Turning), and Paul Inwood (Center of My Life). There's Bob Dufford (Be Not Afraid) and Jaime Cortez (Somos El Cuerpo de Cristo). There's M.D. Ridge (I Sing A Maid) and Rufino Zaragoza, o.f.m. (Jesus, My Only Desire). There's David Haas, (You Are Mine) Carol Browning (Lead Us to Your Light) and Christopher Walker (Out of Darkness).
As I said, to be in the room with all these creative, passionate, wonderful souls – it is a grace, a humbling, wonderful oasis of prayer and song.
Some of my own pieces were first heard by these, my friends: "Make of Our Hands A Throne" and "Lead Kindly Light" are two songs that I brought to my colleagues here for an initial listen. And a few years back, I brought along a draft of "¡Escucha! Put It In Your Heart" to my great friend Jamie Cortez, who added his own creative touches to the setting. These are my own stories. But there have been hundreds of them, all launched because that wonderful priest from St. Louis, John Foley, dreamed the dream of bringing us all together in the first place.
There are times when I feel the Church has been reduced to an object of abuse, a Catholic piñata, as it were. And sometimes the abuse has been self-inflicted as well, when, despite our best intentions, we just go and shoot ourselves in the foot.
But when I am with these men and women of faith, these wizards of word and tune and sacred longing, I am bound more closely to the hope of the Church. They bring passion, creativity, boundless dreaming, humor, gentility, gutsy commitment, and unparalleled aura of promise to their labors.
And I get to sit with them, dreaming up what songs might come next.
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