Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Hand(bells) Across the Waters

Advent bring changes to everything – purple and rose, wreath and candle, even the very light that surrounds us, bargained with every day as we slip toward the winter solstice.

And if those who move in the circles of sacred music are doing their best, there are changes in our own sonic landscape as well.  Restraint, hushed joy, anticipation: these are the unspoken attributes we try to encourage in our song.

Over the years, there have been a few acoustic colours I've adopted as we make our way through this season.  The elements are intentional: moments of pausing and yearning on the guitar, texts that are wrapped around minor modes, all heralding the images put forth by Isaiah: calf and child and wolf and viper, mountaintops and clear highways.

One sonic technique, used in the past, conveys a beauty that is perfect for the Advent season – the use of handbells.  Without a word, bells convey an immense richness.  We use them to mark our time. They are usually rung from on high (drawing our heads away from this world and into the heavens). Merely striking them creates a resonance felt in the soul.  When we hear them, we know something is about to be announced: the birth of a Saviour, the death of a loved one.  And their ringing, even when it is random, has the ability to convey an aura of peace.

Take that peal of the handbells, and wed it to an ancient chant tune, and you have a piece of music that perfectly conveys the season of joyful anticipation.

Now, this is all well and good – if you have handbells.  But my little ensemble is not equipped with such things.

Thankfully, I just happened to know a resource: the Notre Dame Handbell Choir, directed by my long-time colleague, Karen Kirner.  So two weeks ago, I wrote to Karen, and asked if she could record a three-minute peal of the bells, in E-flat major.  And last week the MP3 file arrived in my mailbox.

All I needed to do was download the file, and then plug an iPhone into Newman Church's sound system.  And there it was – a soothing, compelling tintinnabulation, gently reverberating through the nave.  Couple that with an evocative violinist and a text admonishing the assembly to "prepare the way" – and we were off.

It was a moment when one choir assisted another, even though thousands of miles and an ocean divided them.  And it was a gladsome thing, to know that the peals and tones and overtones that were created in Northern Indiana could find their way into a house of prayer on Saint Stephen's Green in Dublin, Ireland.  Handbells across the waters.  What a fitting lead up to Gaudete.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Theology at Carluccio's

It's Saturday of American Thanksgiving weekend, and a favourite little pastime in the morning is to take a stroll on Dawson Street, inspecting the artwork in Patrick Donald's gallery, and grabbing a latte to go.

Today's coffee stop was at Carluccio's, a bustling beanery across from the former residence of the Lord Mayor of Dublin.  I walked in, and was deluged with smells of pastries and scones, all decorated up for the holiday season, wrapped around the aroma of roasting coffee beans.  It was a perfect sort of prelude for our plunge into Christmas preparations.

I approached the cashier and ordered a latte.  And jovially, I asked, "Don't you just love this season? It's such a marvel!"  "What season?" asks she.  And dumbfounded, I replied, "The holiday season! All these colours, smells and packages, and anticipation!"

To which she just shrugged and said, "All days are the same for me.  I don't much care about the seasons."

I left with my latte, in a thoughtful mood, reflecting on my own belief that all days are not the same for me.  Tomorrow we will put out purple and rose candles, and start to hold our spiritual breath for the days of the Incarnation.  On the way home, walking through St. Stephen's Green, I took delight in watching hundreds of pigeons flying in a spontaneous but perfectly synchronous ballet around the entrance to the park (I suppose that delight was due, in part, to the fact that they left nothing on my head). Grafton Street was sparkling with lights and ribbons and evergreen and holly.  This day was not like any other day. Nor would it bear resemblance to those yet to come.

I grew up near Underhill, Vermont, the home of one of my local New England heroes, Snowflake Bentley.  A pioneer in the craft of photographing delicate flakes, he finally advanced a theory: no two of these snow crystals are alike.  So far, no one has been able to disprove his theory.  He called the uniqueness of snowflakes "little miracles."  Other scientists, while uncomfortable with his theological overtones, could not dispute the awesome theory he advanced, a creativity beyond mathematics, impossible to comprehend, all taking place within a fraction of an inch.

You can look out on a field of snow and see white.  Sad, monochromist perspective.  You can also look out on the same field and see a quadrillion miracles.

Whether it be snowflakes or days of our lives, the person who took my money at Carluccio's gave me a lot to ponder, here on the threshold of Advent.  Every day is a miracle: seasons, colours, songs, flights of birds – they all advance the mystery.  Each nuance of life is a point of inspiration, a dawning of wonder.  And here we are, poised to enter a new Year of Grace.  It will not be like last year, from the very second we awake.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Door of Humility

I've never been to the Holy Land, but I've heard that, in Bethlehem, there is a very small opening of stone that serves as the ancient portal to the Church of the Nativity.  For centuries, that doorway has been called the "Door of Humility," for in order to enter you must, by mere necessity, bow down very low.

It may not be as ancient, and certainly not as prestigious, but in order to make your way to the place where I work and dwell, you must also enter what I've come to call my own "Door of Humility."

As you stand in front of the entrance to Newman's University Church on St. Stephen's Green (and be advised if you wish to visit – you can walk by this facade and not even know you've passed the church), as I said, as you stand there you can see, to the left, a set of heavy wooden double doors, painted black.  These doors can be opened with great labour, and a long tunnel greets you, a tunnel that goes underneath the building to the east: Newman House, maintained by University College Dublin, the place where Blessed John Henry taught.  It's also the place, by the way, where the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins passed away.

But back to the doors and the tunnel: the double doors were seldom opened, usually when the priests and their guests came in by horseback.  There are still metal rings in the inner courtyard walls that point to this practice, the places where horses were tied.  In order to make pedestrian passage easier, a small, lower door was built into the larger set.  It's only about three feet high, occupying the lower half.

So each day, as I go out and come home, I must bow and bend low.  Whether I'm about to meet a new composer or church musician, whether I'm coming home with things from the grocer (I want American peanut butter back in my life!), whether I'm conferring with a priest or religious who wants to "mark my card," (Irish for "giving counsel") – in all these settings and so many more, I must exit and enter by stooping low in order that other things might be achieved.

Our friends and guests who've visited us thus far are amused and delighted by this portal.  Eilish, our parish secretary, calls it something far less glamorous: she calls it the "donkey door."  My wife sometimes refers to it as the "hobbit door."

But for me, it will always be the "Door of Humility," a reminder that not all I want to accomplish can be done on my own terms or on my own timeline.  There are greater forces at work here, and my best stance, more often than not, needs must be a posture of bowing down and bending low, that I might understand completely the holy ground upon which I walk.

Sunday, October 30, 2016


For many years in our home on Woodhurst Road in Granger, Indiana, we had a plaque that was on the wall next to our living room fireplace.  It read, in Irish:

N'il aon tentéan mar
  do theintéan fein.

The translation is, "there is no fireside like your own fireside."

It is an old Irish saying, and this weekend both the poetry and the pertinence of this saying came back to visit us in a very real way.  

We had been working our way through a month of settling in here in Dublin, with all the calamity associated with such things – phones, bank accounts, repairs, more repairs, missed contractors, unfinished work... and then, out of the blue, our dear friend Fr. Denis Lennon rang in from Wexford. "I've two tickets to the Opera Thursday next," said he.  "Would ye like to be my guest?"

Of course we would.  We boarded a bus after the daily 1:05 mass and hightailed it down to the sunny south east.  Going to Wexford last weekend was like going home to family – the warm embrace of parishioners we'd known for years, the effervescent joy of a town as it hosted the annual autumn opera pilgrims, the warmth of the seaside and the hum of the parish we had come to love so well.  
Our home from the south, facing Iveagh Gardens

And then, 48 hours later, it was over, and we were headed – home. Walking through the Door of Humility (more on that later), we approached what has become our new home in Ireland.  The shoes of this label, "home," are beginning to fit: here was our kitchen, our pictures up on the walls, our dining room, our little hovels where the computers and reading materials are tucked away.  

And there, next to the fireplace, is the little plaque that used to sit next to our hearth in Indiana.  It is now perched next to another fireplace, now in the heart of Dublin.  

Home is different now.  We awake in the morning to seagulls (they gather in Iveagh Gardens in the dawn); when the winds are from the east, you can catch a tinge of salt air from the Irish sea.  You have to look a different way when you cross the street (not doing so is at your own peril). Church, and office, are only a dozen steps away from our front door.  But even with this proximity, there are miles and miles of work to be done.

"Home." In the midst of a move, it can become an even more powerful symbol than the four-letter snippet we throw around when everything is comfortable.  The hearth becomes an anchor.  The kitchen becomes a rock.

And all of these – hearth, home, roof, rootedness – are mere flickers of a flame, compared to the home we have in God.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Musician and Emmaus

Today marks four weeks since we landed at Dublin airport at 4:45AM, luggage galore, not knowing by a long shot what was awaiting us at Newman's University Church.

Long before we embarked, I had made many comments to my friends in the States, emphasising that it was necessary to "meet them where they were."  It was, and is, a statement to stand by.  And it also carries with it a whole host of challenges.

This is where the musician is likewise on the road to Emmaus, meeting them where they are.  Jesus had that storied encounter with the two people who'd decided they'd had enough of Jerusalem.  And he met them where they were – not demanding a discussion in his own language or a route on his own terms.  He walked with them, in their midst, entered their pain, explained things, broke bread with them.  No doubt it was an act of both patience and pedagogy –  the first real catechetical session, perhaps, after the Resurrection.

I've not had to think about retooling myself in a long, long time.  Essentially, "meeting them where they are" means just that – retooling.  At Notre Dame, I was free to experiment, always having the secure ground of the Folk Choir and a willing assembly.  But there's a new road – a new landscape.

For one thing, University Church is in Dublin's city centre.  Our "core assembly" consists of a lot of folks who are very faithful to daily mass – but they make this mass part of their lunch break.  So we have to be very careful to honour that period of their day – mass seldom goes beyond about 25 minutes.

This is the most important ground to walk, that of daily liturgies.  Many of the same Irish faces are there every day.  We get to know them, pray with them, walk with them through the seasons of the Church.

Even in that short amount of a lunch break, there have been touching moments.  The other day, as I was turning to exchange the Sign of Peace, a woman stretched out her hand and said "God bless you and all you're undertaking here."  It was a quiet but powerful moment.

And even given the time restrictions, there are a few musical moments.  Each day I play a quiet piece on the guitar while the assembly receives communion.  It adds no time to the liturgy.  But those who come are beginning to come forward and be grateful for the bit of music that's there.

From here, we build.  We meet them in their landscape and walk with them.  As Patrick once dreamt, we are here to walk among the people.

It's taken a few weeks to get settled, let the paint dry, connect up the wifi (still working on that), take over the choir (still working on that, too).  But life in Dublin is grand, and there's a host of things to write about.

More to come.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Go Irish: From Home at ND to Home in Dublin

At long last, the surreal waiting has come to an end.  Tuesday afternoon, Michele and I boarded Aer Lingus Flight #122 from ORD to DUB, along with five insanely packed suitcases and a Martin guitar.

And we lifted off for Ireland.

These past few months have been such a roller coaster: convinced of a new direction, understanding in your heart what's meant to take place.  And yet the mind still hasn't quite caught up with all the realities yet.

We bid good-bye to Notre Dame over a beautiful fall weekend, surrounded by friends.  Reality set in when we watched the Irish crumble to Duke, but this was a small pittance by way of what we carried in our emotional backpacks. We attended the 11:45 Mass, heard the Folk Choir singing one last time from the pews, and broke bread with supportive friends.

Now, at 550mph, we were being transported to a new culture, a new home, new pastoral realities, new music.

We had incredible tail winds, which put us into Dublin an hour earlier than our expected 5:15AM arrival. Deep in the night, the jet banked over Dublin harbour, bringing the lights of the city into view.  Down, down, into the dark – and then we landed.

Home.  A new home.

At 6:45AM, true to his word and in the emerging dawn, Pat O'Kelly met us in front of our new home, the "mews" of University Church. He gave us the keys, brought us into the kitchen, showed us the basket of provisions he'd brought in for us. ("It would be a sin if you came to us and found an empty fridge," said he.)

Up all night, the new home still filled with contractors and construction folk, Michele and I took to the streets of Dublin to purchase things for our new digs.  We walked through St. Stephen's Green, the stunning city park that is now our front yard.  We discovered new stores, bought plates and cutlery, and got back in time for the 1:05 daily mass at University Church.

There is a large black wooden gate that faces St. Stephen's Green, and when doors are opened up, it brings you to our courtyard.  That gate has a small silver plaque on it that says:


To my knowledge, we're the first lay people to ever live in this Presbytery.  For that matter, I wonder if we're the first lay people to ever live in a Catholic Presbytery in Ireland.

Those tail winds that brought us to Ireland are the winds of change.  Some things are now beginning to change for the Catholic Church in Ireland.

Here is a picture that I took this morning of the nave of Newman's University Church, 87 Saint Stephen's Green, Dublin 2, Ireland.  Having left our home at Notre Dame, my place of work for the last 35 years, this is now my new home, my new place of prayer, and my new vineyard.  This week I'll be meeting with parish musicians, choristers, and sacristans.  The labours will soon begin.

"Go Irish!"  The phrase means something else to me now – something far more serious than a rallying cry at a football game.  This is no game.  

Friday, September 16, 2016

Isaiah 64 – And a Daughter's Hands

These days leading up to our departure from the States have been a real blessing.  And one of the greatest of these gifts: the chance to have intentional time with family and friends.  Each day is precious, and has lent itself to a great set of memories.

Here's what took place a few evenings ago:  My daughter Jessica took me to a local pottery studio where she's set up shop.  Jess has devoted herself, over the past several years, to becoming a skilled potter.  Her house is filled with vases, cups, dishes and bowls, all made by her own hand.

So after dinner the other night, she dropped a great question: "Dad, wanna throw some clay?"  Vaguely understanding the invitation, I went ahead and said yes.

I'd never been at a potter's wheel before.  I've frequented craft fairs and admired the artisans who've shown off their finished products, but the opportunity to get down and dirty (literally) with a lump of clay is an experience that's never been afforded me.

The first thing to note about manipulating a hunk of clay is just how intensive and complex a labor it is.  As I smashed down my clay on the potter's wheel, Jessica urged me on:  "Dad, the clay is your domain.  You own that domain.  Don't let the stuff push you around.  Use your palms, your fingers, and insist on centering it and fashioning it the way you want, not the way the clay wants to go."

Simple, right?  But hardly.  I found working with this stubborn earth to be a delicate dance of upper body strength, focus, balance, and artful movement of palms, fingers, and wrists.  It was not an easy task in the least.

As I was working with my daughter's encouragement and practical guidance, I found myself going back to a Scripture passage that I've heard through the years – the quote from Isaiah 64:
  "Yet you, Lord, are our father.
  We are the clay and you our potter;
  We are all the work of your hand."  Is. 64: 7

There is nothing like entering fully into an analogy to find all the nuances of its meaning.  I'll never be a potter, at least one to match my daughter's skill.  But I'll also never forget what it means, how it feels, or what it takes out of you to craft a lump of earth into a bowl for my porridge.

This brief human experience makes me marvel all the more at how the potter's image works for God the Creator – how much it takes to craft a human being, to be fashioned according to the Creator's image, to be the result of God's hands and palms and wrists.  Am I receptive to the divine movement of focus and balance, the strength to keep things in alignment so that an inimitable work of life might be achieved?  I contemplated how often we resist the touch of the Potter's hand – just like that stubborn lump of clay – content to be spinning around, off-centre. And just like the clay, we are not complete until we subject ourselves to the creative and parental set of divine hands.

And in equal measure, when I'm with my grandchildren, it makes me appreciate all the more what it takes out of parents to mould their children as well.  Days spent raising children, while not a potter's wheel per se, bears a striking analogy to what takes place with lumps of clay.  And come sundown, the exhaustion that follows their efforts to is very plain to see.  Parents, like the Creator, spend a lot of time at that would-be potter's wheel, creating what is to come.

Finally, a shameless plug:  Looking for some great pottery?  Think of my daughter, and check out her work by clicking here!

Monday, September 12, 2016

What You Can Learn from a Key Chain

So, this is limbo.

Eagerly awaiting the new assignment, feeling a bit like a horse in the gates before a race, pawing at the ground.

And while this span of time is a bit confusticating (Tolkien's word, not mine), there are lessons to be learned in this quiet, liminal landscape.  One of them, curiously, came from an ordinary key chain.

Before I had completely shut down my office in Coleman Morse on ND's campus, I went through a series of purges.  These had nothing to do with the obvious ones – goods, or cars, or clothes, or any other belongs: the "stuff" of this world, if you will.  It had to do, rather, with keys – the real badge of engagement at an institution.

Over the span of a couple of weeks, one by one, I gave all these material means of access away – the key to the choir loft, the storage room in the sacristy, the door to the Log Chapel, CoMo's basement, the choir rehearsal rooms, car keys, my own office key.  (And hey, I even gave back my access card to all the ND security gates!  How noble!)  As each one was handed to the appropriate steward, the action carried with it a sense of liberation... and more than a little vulnerability.

It's interesting how we hold on to certain things to provide some definition of our lives.  Most of these things have to do with the "stuff" – credit cards, favourite restaurants or watering holes, familiar routines, work spaces, environments.  But take a leap off the cliff, and all these compass points disappear pretty quickly.

Watching the ND football game last weekend, I was inundated with a commercial message:  "What's in YOUR wallet?"  I could accurately say, "Not much!"  And I now have a key chain with only two things on it: the first is a tiny fob with a caricature of Saint Brigid.  The second is a key that, quite honestly, I'm clueless as to what it unlocks.  I'm keeping it there, though. It's a telling reminder of the fact that, in many ways, I'm uncertain of what will be opened in the months and years to come.  But I'm fairly confident that letting go of all these props has something to do with a journey of grace, and that the lessons learned from this time should be kept close to the heart.

Jesus urged his band of disciples to head out without a whole lot in their backpacks.  And probably, by 21st century standards, my wife and I are moving in the right direction.  I'm a long way from just a walking stick and a pair of sandals.  But a lot has been let go of in the past three months.  And there's much to be learned in this journey of abandonment – starting with a simple key chain.

Friday, September 9, 2016

The Summer of the Long Good-Bye

The ND Guitar Pilgrim blog has been silent since the twentieth of June.  It was at that time that I announced to readers and friends that, after thirty-five years at the helm of the Notre Dame Folk Choir, a new opportunity had made itself known on my ministerial horizon.

It is an opportunity fraught with opportunity and challenge, in a land and with a people that, throughout the touring history of the Choir, I have come to love and cherish.  And so I said yes – yes to the chance to work in downtown Dublin, Ireland, in an historic church whose founder I have admired for most of my ministerial career.  I've studied his words, even put his poetry to music.  It took very little convincing to sign me up, that I might walk and work in the church built on the legacy of John Cardinal Newman.

My silence on the blog was rooted in the simple fact that, for the past two and a half months, we have been packing, allocating, choosing what to keep, what to send, and what to let go of.  A pod of precious books and resources is on its way, by boat, to Dublin – even as I write this.  Some of our furnishings went to family members.  Some things on the walls of office and home went to longtime friends.  And a good many things were simply given away or sold in a weekend-long estate sale.  But all the time, for the past ten weeks, we have been letting go, letting go, sorting through what was deemed essential and what was not.

All of this is, of course, took place within the practical vision of moving a household from Granger, Indiana, to Dublin, Ireland.  But there was another lens that made itself equally manifest over these warm summer days… the lens of friends needing to say good-bye.

Throughout the weeks of June, July and August, my wife and I were humbled to have countless doors open to us – friends who had regularly gone to the 11:45 Sunday liturgies during the academic year or the 9:00PM Summer Folk Choir celebrations.  Each time we entered a household, we were greeted with warm embraces, not a few tears, eager questions, reflections on the ministry and song of an ensemble that had become so very close to their hearts.

It has been the Summer of the Long Good-Bye.  And I doubt that, even after sixty-two years of living on this earth, something like this could ever be experienced again.  Every day was a holy experience, walking with friends who had been touched by the song of these exceptional singers and musicians.

I suppose, when you name an ensemble after the assembly (for that is what the tag "Folk" has always pointed to in the choir's title), that very assembly will make its voice heard – especially about its Director and the direction he is taking with his life.  Throughout these weeks, I've been surrounded by a familiar theme:  "Notre Dame's loss will be Ireland's gain!"  "I am overjoyed for you – and heartbroken for us!"  These were the thumbnails.  But woven into these themes were personal stories: memories of a particular song, moments of grieving or gladness that had somehow been better illustrated by the repertoire and witness of the Folk Choir.  All these stories needed to be shared.  And Michele and I became the recipients, the place where all those stories were collected.

As of Tuesday after Labor Day, everything was disposed of – home, cars, property, kayaks, excess clothes, furniture, even a precious collection of compact discs.  We will soon be on our way across the Atlantic, and only the necessary things will do.

But we carry other things with us – far more powerful things.  And these things weigh nothing.  They are the stories, the sacred memories, the legacy of almost two generations of singers and the witness they created.  We carry these with us, these precious chapters that will need no suitcase.

And as we make our way toward the shores of the Emerald Isle, we can hear the song of these past few months – the song of a Summer of the Long Good-Bye.  Please God this song will be an encouragement when we arrive at Saint Stephen's Green at the end of September.

Monday, June 20, 2016

It's official!

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has announced the establishment of a new centre for dialogue between faith and reason, between Church and society.  The American Notre Dame University, one of the most distinguished Catholic Universities worldwide, will steward the initiative at University Church in Saint Stephen’s Green in Dublin.  Newman’s University Church in Dublin is a unique icon of the place of faith in Newman’s vision of university formation.

Archbishop Martin said, “I see the establishment of the Notre Dame – Newman Centre for Faith and Reason as an opportunity for University Church to return to its original vocation as a focal point for reflection on faith and reason.  It is an opportunity for Dublin to take a lead in today’s changed social context in something which is part of the rich heritage of Newman’s presence in Dublin.   I appreciate especially that centre will not be just an intellectual debating centre, but will also work in the formation of an active and committed faith community of young people”.

He added, “We live in the context of wanting to be a modern Irish Church authentically present in – but never completely at home within – contemporary Irish society. Pope Francis constantly recalls us to be a Church which is out in the world in service and in dialogue.  He does not want a fearful Church obsessed just with the evils of the world.  He does not want a Church in which we try to keep Jesus locked up within our own categories.”

University of Notre Dame President Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., said, “We are honored by Archbishop Martin’s invitation to expand the University’s presence in Dublin. Notre Dame stands in a proud legacy of uniting faith and reason, and Cardinal Newman is a giant in that pursuit. We are grateful for the opportunity to deepen appreciation for Cardinal Newman and his writings, and to bring the University’s mission to an iconic church on the Dublin cityscape.”

Built by the then-rector of University College Dublin, Blessed John Henry Newman, University Church opened in 1856 and has since been an iconic landmark in Dublin’s city centre and a testament to the harmony of faith and reason. Newman would later be named a Cardinal of the Catholic Church, and was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010.

The new Centre’s operations will begin later this year, and will have a special focus on outreach to young people in Dublin, many of whom have not otherwise been drawn to the Church. The centre will give particular attention to excellent liturgy and music, a lecture series and other intellectual activities which aim to integrate faith and reason, service to those in need and cultural events inside and outside of Newman University Church.
Father Jenkins has appointed Notre Dame lecturer in law Rev. William R. Dailey, C.S.C., as the Director of the centre.  Father Dailey has served as a Lecturer in Law an the Notre Dame Law School since 2010, as the St. Thomas More Fellow of the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture since 2013, and as Rector of Stanford Hall on the Notre Dame campus for three years.  In 2009, he returned to Columbia Law School as a Scholar in Residence. Father Dailey’s teaching and scholarly interests are in the areas of Jurisprudence and Legal Ethics.  He has appeared frequently on MSNBC to comment on faith and culture and has written for the New York Times and Washington Post on faith issues.

Steve Warner, the Director of the Notre Dame Folk Choir for the past 35 years, has accepted the role of Associate Director of the Notre Dame – Newman Centre for Faith and Reason, and will have special responsibilities regarding music, liturgy and outreach. In his nearly four decades with Campus Ministry at Notre Dame, Warner established the Folk Choir as a vital component of on-campus worship, and has played a significant role in Notre Dame’s liturgical traditions.  His liturgical music compositions are published exclusively through World Library Publications.

The Notre Dame – Newman Centre for Faith and Reason will complement an array of Notre Dame University activities already active in Ireland, including a portion of which is mediated through its network of Global Gateways. The University’s five international Global Gateways—located in Dublin, Beijing, Jerusalem, London and Rome—provide academic and intellectual hubs where scholars, students and leaders from universities, government, business and community gather to discuss discover and debate issues of topical and enduring relevance.

Additionally, the University’s Keough-Naughton Institute for Irish Studies is a teaching and research institute dedicated to the study and understanding of Irish culture. The Institute supports undergraduate and graduate students in their pursuit of Irish Studies and provides opportunity for language study, travel classes,  summer study in Dublin, internships in Dublin, conference support and more.

In 2015, Notre Dame entered into a partnership with Kylemore Abbey in Connemara, County Galway, to create a centre to advance their shared spiritual, cultural and educational missions. Notre Dame operates the House of Brigid in Ireland, a post-graduate service program focused on parish-based liturgical and catechetical ministry.

Friday, June 10, 2016

The Parting Glass: Coda and Finale

As I write this, I am on Aer Lingus flight #123 back to the United States of America. It is Thursday, June 9th, a full week after the end of the Notre Dame Folk Choir’s tour to Scotland, Ireland, and Northern Ireland. 

In the span of that week, the landscape has changed a lot. 

Now it can be said: what I have been holding, quietly, secretly, in the depths of my heart for the last two months, now can be shared. 

For three or four years now, my Maker has been urging me on, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. And at this point, what has been created at the University – a jewel to reflect the glory of our God – is ready to pass along, into the hands of another steward. 

One of my first directors of Campus Ministry, Fr. David Schlaver, challenged me with a quote after he left his post for Ave Maria Press.  That quote stayed perched on my cork board for many years – until I had burned the words into my heart:
"Missionaries go to a place when they are needed but not wanted,
and leave when they are wanted but not needed."

Some are asking, “why would you ever consider leaving the Folk Choir?” And the answer is really quite simple. Many people have expressed their want for me to stay at Notre Dame – but the reality is that there are far greater needs in other places.  And that beloved ensemble has really been given everything they need to succeed for many, many years to come.

Years ago, at an NPM convention, I spoke about how hearts are broken – not in the romantic sense, but rather that hearts are broken apart so that they can hold so much more. My sense is that the choir has done this, collectively, for years – participated in the fractio, the breaking apart, the very human fraction rite of our liturgy, so that many, many others may be fed.  And we are all called to this.  Myself included.

The Folk Choir, contrary to what many generous people are saying, was never something I created. Nor was it, or should it ever be, primarily about music. It was, and is, the creation of the Creator, and it was, and is, kindled into being every time we've look into each others’ eyes and hearts, and witnessed to one another’s voices being given over to the courage needed to take up the song. All we can ask is to be good stewards of this gift.

Come September, Michele and I will be moving to Dublin, Ireland, and I will take on a new title, given me by the University, a reflection of the work that, God willing, will bring Irish people closer to their Creator. But I will also inherit a second title as well – that of Director Emeritus of the Notre Dame Folk Choir. I gladly embrace this title: it is a reflection of the more than six hundred amazing people I’ve had the privilege to stand before all these years.  And, quite honestly, it gives me the opportunity to invite them to the other side of the Atlantic, to take part in some liturgical and musical opportunities in the future.

We live in a society that all to often robs us of permission to be spiritual, to share our sacred songs, to pass our divine dreams on to our children. And yet, all we need do is cling to the Rock. No storm can deter God’s will if such is done. We simply need to find the courage to sing. Keep singing about that great mystery of Love that has the last word – in the heavens, and on earth. 

Nunc dimittis.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

The Mists of Rostrevor

It was as if we saved the best for last.

A tiny village just over the border, in Northern Ireland, a village that nudged up to Carlingford Loch, almost as if it came from another place a time;

A clean and hospitable retreat house where we could all be together for our last night;

A community of singers...  for the beginning of our concert (and what was, in actuality, the launching of the Rostrevor Choral Festival), small children, teenagers, and the village elders literally singing us into their midst;

A warm, intimate welcome to the Folk Choir by none other than former Irish President Mary McAleese, who calls Rostrevor her home;

Friends from near and far (e.g., North Belfast and Edinburgh) who traveled down to this tiny village to be part of our final, musical hurrah;

And finally – there, in the first pew, none other than the great American composer of sacred music, Morten Lauridsen, who was attending the festival as well.

So many things coming together in one place!  It was as if the chalice of sacred music was being poured into, and out of, over and over again.

The children, their singing, their gentle presence; the booming voices of the men of the community; the fabulous embrace of our assembly to the music of the Folk Choir;  the moment, after Ubi Caritas et Amor, when Morten Lauridsen led the ovation from the community; the beautiful welcome - spoken in Irish - by Mary McAleese, as she recalled her days at the University of Notre Dame, her celebration of St. Patrick's Day on our campus, and her resolve to bring the Folk Choir to her home town.

At the end of it, all I could do was weep, knowing what had just transpired, knowing that this would, in many ways, be the capstone and the conclusion of so much work, so much joy, so much encouragement for ministry and song and witness.

Emma Fleming, this year's Folk Choir tour coordinator, had worked long and hard hours to make sure every detail worked out such that the ensemble could enjoy themselves.  She bore many, many everyday burdens to assure the comfort of the ensemble.  This year's officers: Ellyn Milan, Marisa Thompson, and Rose Urankar, held the group together and guided them through the myriad activities of the year.  Joe Moran and his business team kept busy selling our CD's (and dancing through our finale selections!  Don't think I didn't spy you from the corner of my eye!).

And finally, there were those blessed, grace-filled fifty singers and instrumentalists, who breathed fire and enthusiasm into the hearts of every single person who heard their music.  It was a breathtaking two and a half weeks, the likes of which we will more than likely not encounter again.

Our song, our travels, our witness – all of them fell under the protective mantle of Our Lady and the cloak of Saint Brigid.  It was almost the time to whisper "Nunc Dimitis" – Now, Lord, let your servant go in peace.  For go we shall, from this gentle land, that holds in honor the musicians in their midst.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Start of the Parting Glass

Wednesday, June 1st, 2016

As if we couldn't include anything else in a 24-hour cycle filled with exceptional events, the day after our labors at Harold's Cross brought us to two different places:  one the backbone of Irish hospitality and culture; and the other, the backbone of the magisterium of the Church.  In some ways, putting these events at the beginning and the end of the day made for a perfect, though perhaps unique set of bookmarks.

We started out at the Guinness warehouse.  That's right!  And here's a fun personal fact: for all my years of traveling to Ireland and most especially Dublin, I've never darkened the doorstep of the place (oh, wait – we shot straight up to the Gravity Bar for the ND/Navy 2012 weekend, to provide a little music while the choir was there).  But again, never the warehouse proper.

So we learned all about the barley, and the hops, and the almost-lost art of how to make a barrel out of oak planks.  Everyone had a great time (even before pouring a pint), in part because we had worked so hard the day before at Harold's Cross – for not not only did we videotape an exceptional liturgical celebration (see yesterday's post), but that evening, we gave our last concert in the Dublin area, again hosted by Harold's Cross parish, and quite nearly packed.

Walking through the Guinness exhibits illustrated just how strong is the link between this brew and the people of Ireland – their history, their accomplishments and failures, their philanthropy.

That afternoon, we convened in Harold's Cross Pastoral Centre for what was the beginning of our closure together on tour.  Every year, we intentionally schedule several hours with the choir so that the seniors can look back, exhort their fellow singers and instrumentalists, and – to be frank – grieve and be grateful for the rich experiences of the year.  This year was no exception, with wonderful remarks, heartfelt tears, great moments of laughter – all leading to a sacred sense of thanksgiving.
My favorite quote was offered by Alex Hanna, in Irish:  An áit a bhfuil do chroí is ann a thabharfas do chosa thú.  "Your feet will take you where your heart is."

Then it was off to our final Dublin destination:  the Nunciature, or Papal Residence of the Nuncio, Archbishop Charles Brown.

We've met up with Archbishop Brown several times over the past few years.  He's a big fan of the House of Brigid, having been down at Clonard and witnessed the work of Laura Taylor and her colleagues last year.  He was also on Notre Dame's Campus a year ago January, when we invited him to a rehearsal.  And after that rehearsal, he proclaimed, "Party at my house!"  And so – this was the party.

Once again, a beautiful group of friends and benefactors joined us.  And as expected, the good Archbishop welcomed us with great joy and hospitality.  He's a Notre Dame graduate (so happy for that kinship!), and so was amongst his own for the evening.  For our part, the lovely reception hall had fabulous acoustics, and we put them to good use, singing "Rosa Mystica" and "Come to the Living Stone."  A great night was had by all!

We were now into the last couple of days of our journey.  Echoes of "The Parting Glass" were becoming stronger in my mind.  Such a glorious group of men and women, bound together by song and faith and joy.  But there was one stop left.

The Convergence

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Over the years, people have often commented on the gifts that the Folk Choir brings to their work with assemblies around the world.  And chief among them is a spirit of participation in the liturgy: not just mute observation, but a desire for the human voice to be a vital and joyful part of prayer.

If this is so, then a unique convergence of resources was about to take place, and it was to happen at our next stop, in Dublin: Harold's Cross Parish, home of the second Teach Bhríde (House of Brigid).

We knew the following:
-  we now had a beach head in Dublin, established by three great new members of the House of Brigid with whom to work – Geoff Burdell, Rikki Koebbler and Susanna Floyd;
-  all three of these volunteers had a strong relationship with and access to the two elementary schools within their parochial boundaries;
-  the Folk Choir would be in their neck of the woods, and more important would be there on an important Marian Feast, the Feast of the Visitation;
-  we had a long runway to both teach some of our music and to learn some of the Marian repertoire from their own sacred tradition.

In addition to this, because the Folk Choir had provided the music, years ago, at Dublin Castle (for the 2012 Notre Dame/Navy game weekend), we also had a great relationship with Finbarr Tracy and the media people at Kaiross Communications – the broadcast specialists who routinely provide video for RTE's televised Masses.

So what would happen if we worked across the waters with this parish community, learning their Marian songs, while at the same time using our own recordings and You Tube clips to teach their kids some of our own repertoire (specifically, the Mass for Our Lady)?  We knew that the young children in grade school adore spending time with American college students.  Could we not use that admiration to create an amazing celebration of song and prayer?

And most important – could we get the whole thing recorded and filmed, such that it might become a teaching tool for Irish grade school children in years to come?

Once again, we were rolling the dice.  We were hoping that we could have access to the students in the grade schools, that they'd be open to learning some of our music, that the House of Brigid volunteers would be willing to add this task to their already busy schedule.

And then, of course, that we would find a way to pay for the broadcast company to show up and put the event in the can for us.

But bit by bit, issue by issue, the planning came together.  Guided by some of our Irish friends, we learned some beautiful Marian hymns (new for us, ancient for the Irish).  We put together some homemade clips of the Folk Choir singing portions of the Mass for Our Lady, so that the school kids could learn their parts.

And on May 31st, on the Feast of the Visitation of Our Lady, a grand convergence took place.  The broadcast trucks rolled in the day before, running video and electrical cables through every nook and cranny of the church.  We had a perfect day for the event with sunny skies, and the grade school kids in high spirits.  Just as we had done in many other Irish and Scottish churches leading up to this event, we spread the choir out, sprinkling them in the midst of the school children, electing to use them as leaven, and not as a show or performance ensemble.

And as a bonus, on hand were a group of Notre Dame friends and supporters to witness the labors of a year of liturgical planning.  We raised the rafters with songs like "When Creation Was Begun" and my friend Feargal King's "Dominican Magnificat" – both chosen under the guidance of our Irish friends.  And the kids in Harold's Cross parish sang their hearts out with this new Mass setting that had been shared with them by their American friends.  The Parish Priest, Fr. Gerry Kane, gave a magnificent homily about the "half door" of Ireland and it's significance for the Feast of the Visitation.

It was a liturgical celebration to step back from and admire with great wonder.  We had, once again, taken a great risk.  But in the midst of that risk, great reward was given.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

"All Right, Sisters: Blend IN!"

There was this marvelous moment in Sister Act (1) where the divine Maggie Smith, in her role as Mother Superior, exhorts the members of her convent to invade a Las Vegas casino.  "All right, sisters," she tremulously exclaims, "blend in!"

A few years later, I heard an extraordinary homily by none other than my musical counterpart in crime, the late Fr. Chrysogonus Waddell, o.c.s.o., and he was commenting on the same scene.  How, you may ask, did a Trappist monk watch this crazy movie?  Because he was a movie and television junkie, and he found plenty of creative ways – most notably on international flights – to catch up on any and all pop culture he could get his hands on.

That homily did a lot for me as a church musician on tour.  I realized that sometimes the worst thing you can do is set your ensemble apart from the assembly: it's rather like writing an insurance policy that all your efforts are going to land in the domain of a performance.

For several of the events we were present for in the Diocese of Ferns, we "blended in."  At the Corpus Christi Vigil Mass at Our Lady's Island, at mass the next morning in our beloved Clonard Parish, and later on that evening in Enniscorthy Cathedral, the choir was carefully placed, either in the midst of everyone, or in the case of Enniscorthy, actually behind the assembly, so that we could sing into their midst.  (By the way, we did the exact same thing for Sunday Mass in Edinburgh, and for Vespers the following day in Belfast).

The results of this kind of choral placement were stunning.  It brought the music, the students, the message of the texts, close to the hearts and ears of the people.  And at moments when we asked their participation, because we were doing something new and not rooted in performance, that was all the more successful as well.

Enniscorthy Cathedral was our last event in the great Diocese of Ferns – a place that is no stranger to the Notre Dame Folk Choir.  We leave behind a veritable pile of great memories: the Opera House, Our Lady's Island, walks around Wexford Town, and singing in the church where part of the movie "Brooklyn" was filmed.

But I'll contend that while some of our best experiences were had when we were up on some stage or in a sanctuary, it was still when we were in the heart of the people when things were the most powerful.

For maybe we're at our best when we're blending in.  Thank you, Whoopi Goldberg.  And whoever else thought up that script!

Oileán Mhuire

Saturday, May 28th, 2016

It is, perhaps, one of the most perfect acoustical spaces the Folk Choir has ever sung in.

It is one of Ireland's great pilgrimage points – in the sunny Southeast of Ireland, tucked away at the edge of the island.

And it is the place where the Folk Choir had the great pleasure of offering a workshop, a mass, and a glorious concert.

One of my dear friends, Fr. Michael Driscoll, once said to me "Whenever you sing in a room, the room wins."  He was commenting, of course, on acoustical design.  And one of the wonders of the parish church of Our Lady's Island is that its design is spot-on perfect: the Folk Choir, singing from the sanctuary, barely had to breathe to be heard, the room was that responsive.

The ensemble has sung in many, many venues over the past 35 years.  And it is a rare thing that I will remember the acoustics of any given place.

But not with Our Lady's Island.  This beautiful house of prayer is a gem above all others.  And even the beauty of their stained glass windows (which depict all the attributes of Our Lady found in the Litany of Loretto) combine to make the place a haven for sung prayer.

A few other bonuses for the day:  the opportunity to make a quiet, prayerful rosary pilgrimage around the perimeter of the island.  And before the sun went down, we were treated to the BEACH.  How can you beat a day like this?

We owe a huge debt of thanks to our hosts, Olga Thompson and Fr. Brendan Nolan, P.P.  Their hospitality, love of the liturgy, and advocacy of our ensemble knows no bounds!  I hope we'll be able to collaborate again with these lovely people.

Monday, June 6, 2016

The Great Risk

A couple of years ago, knowing that we were going to head back across the Atlantic, an idea was proposed of immense potential – and huge risk.  The idea was this:  what would it be like to form an Irish choir, suggest a repertoire, work on it simultaneously on each side of the Pond, then put the whole thing together while we were on tour?  Further, what would it be like to do such a thing in a really prestigious place?

That place is easily found in Ireland, and it was right in our backyard (almost literally) when we were in Wexford County.  The venue was the National Opera House (formerly the Wexford Opera House), one of the most prestigious places to offer music in all of Ireland.

But the risks were tremendous: could we fashion a trio of choirs (a Wexford Children's Choir, a Ferns Festival Choir, and the ND Folk Choir) into a single unit, given that we only had an evening and afternoon rehearsal to work out the details?  Could we put together a slide presentation that would be compelling and fitting for the concert goers?  Would our instrumentalists be able to merge their sounds into a cohesive whole with such short notice?

And – would anyone show up?

We had help from around the diocese – most notably, from Olga Thompson and her team of singers from Our Lady's Island.  Fr. Denis Lennon, the PP at Clonard Church, made sure that there were huge signs at many of the roundabouts heading into Wexford.  Laura Taylor, the director of the House of Brigid in Wexford, threw herself into keeping up morale and walking with her Notre Dame colleagues every step of the way.

And when it was all over, on Friday night, there were more than four hundred enthusiastic supporters of our venture – including a small army of Notre Dame friends and supporters who'd been following us from place to place.

We owe a lot to the good people of the Church of the Annunciation, and most especially to Laura Taylor, the outgoing director of this year's House of Brigid.  Against huge odds and obstacles galore, she managed to pull together a formidable group of musicians who reflected her own marvelous instincts of music serving the prayer of the Church.  All of us in the Choir were immensely grateful to her, and to the parish she serves, for making us welcome and supporting our song, on each step of the journey.

Bucket list event:  singing in the National Opera House with the University of Notre Dame Folk Choir!  Checkmark!

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Surrounded by beauty, embraced by mosaics

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Tulla was now behind us – the echoes of the Irish harp, fiddle players, the smell of turf fires in the village but a memory.  We were now headed into another demanding weekend of work in the sunny Southeast of Ireland, in the Diocese of Ferns.  But first:  a stop along the way, at University College Cork, where we offered an afternoon concert and workshop in the stunning Honan Chapel, in the heart of the University campus.

We were lucky to be hosted by a former member of the Notre Dame Folk Choir, Nathan Williams, who had graduated from the ECHO program the year before.  Nathan had done yeoman's work, sending out leaflets, notifying local musicians, and the results of that labor were evident when we sang our first measures – the chapel was chock full of people from around the diocese.  Presbyters, lay folk, students, even curious concert goers all crammed into the chapel for our midday offering.

The format for the presentation was a mixture of elements.  While we wanted to provide concert repertoire, we also wanted the afternoon to be pedagogical in nature – a chance to teach songs, talk about the principles of sacred music and liturgical celebration, constantly encourage and admonish our Irish hosts to look towards participation as the key to spiritual renewal.

It turned out to be one of our more successful gatherings.  In part, because at a certain point I asked the choir (who were dispersed among the assembly) to gather in the center aisle to sing certain portions of the event.  I conducted in the very center of all of them, our feet standing on the mosaic stream of the waters of life that are so beautifully part of the Honan Chapel's mosaics.  That incredible choral sound, welling up (pun most certainly intended) from the middle of the assembly, was something that easily moved hearts and souls.

Our ensemble will not again, I think, encounter a place of such architectural and pictorial significance as what they experienced at University College Cork.  Hours could be spent exploring the mosaics that grace floor and sanctuary and walls of this esteemed house of prayer.  But for a few precious hours, we stood surrounded by the beauty of it all.  It was a welcome stop on our passage to Wexford and the labors that await us – the National Opera House, Our Lady's Island, the the good people of the Diocese of Ferns.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Rolling the Dice with Mother Nature

I can write about this now, because the event is past – but a few days ago we ventured into the West of Ireland, heading to the little village of Tulla (home of Ireland’s first ceilidh band) and the wonders of West Clare. 

But heading out to the Burren and the Cliffs of Moher are always something of a crapshoot: if the weather is splendid, they are jaw dropping.  If the weather is miserable, then – you’re soaked from head to toe, and little to show for your labors except a head cold.

Perhaps this is naiveté, but I’m always ready to roll the dice with Mother Nature when it comes to showing our students the wonders of the West of Ireland.  The day before we departed for our out-of-doors jaunt, the weather looked promising: 68 degrees predicted and not a cloud in the sky.  But the elements are fickle out west, and whatever the weatherman predicts is not always what is thrown at you.

So it was with great joy that, when we left Tulla early that morning, the sun was in her glory, the winds were light, and the air was warm.  We decided that the weather was so beautiful that we wouldn’t simply drive to the Cliffs – rather, we made the journey to Liscannor, and let the Choir approach the landmark from the south, so that, bit by bit, the majesty the ocean and the rock formations would be made manifest.

It was a perfect day.  The sun was so bright that the ocean was reflecting back a hundred shades of aquamarine.  Mother Nature had deigned to smile down upon our band of joyful singers.