“What do you do at Notre Dame?” This is the question I am asked the most when people find out I work at Notre Dame. I would try to explain to them what I do, but every explanation that I would come up with was lacking. I would list my duties, and try to explain what they entailed but this was met with puzzled looks and many, many follow up questions. I’ve tried over the years to simplify my answer as best I could, sometimes just giving the definition of a sacristan right out of the Merriam – Webster dictionary, “a person in charge of the sacristy and ceremonial equipment.” This approach didn’t work and nothing I could come up with seemed to adequately describe what I do at Notre Dame.
Even now, after thirty-one years of being a sacristan at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, I still think about how to explain my job to someone. I’ve begun to think about a different point of view to explain what I do, a personal point of view. Not just the description on a job posting. What do I think I do at Notre Dame? How do I answer this question when asked of myself?
I unknowingly began to answer this question for myself three years ago while on a pilgrimage to France. Throughout the pilgrimage, we visited churches large and small from LeMans to Paris. A few of the churches we visited were in small, out of the way villages, farming communities. At these small village churches, we were warmly greeted and welcomed by the parishioners. We would visit the church, have Mass with the parishioners and then there would be a reception for us in a parish building, or sometimes in the church itself. Food and drink were offered to us, even though they had never met us. There was very little in the way of verbal communication, they spoke no English and the majority of us spoke little no French, but we did communicate. A smile, a handshake, a polite nod towards the food and drinks, the raising of a glass in thanks and the return acknowledgment. We didn’t have much in common except our mutual faith.
After I returned home from the pilgrimage to France, I saw my work at the Basilica in a new and different way. Besides focusing on the day to day tasks and whatever special service we were having in the Basilica, I started to think about the people coming into the Basilica. I remember how good it made me feel to be welcomed into a strange place. How at home I felt in a foreign place from just a handshake and a smile. Most of the people I see coming into the Basilica are visitors, pilgrims, just like I was in France. My work at the Basilica is a welcoming to these people. The worshipers, the visitors, the pilgrims, everyone should be welcomed and feel welcomed in God’s house.
As I go about my work at the Basilica, I really do enjoy the thought that most of the people I see every day are new to the Basilica and the University. I have the opportunity to impact their visit to the Basilica and the University, for the good.
Jonathan Hehn, Choral Program Director and Organist
So often, making music we have found a new dimension in the world of sound, as worship moves us to a more profound Alleluia! (1)
Why do I minister? Because I love leading the song of the Church. More than any other time, it is while leading congregational song that I find a profound sense of joy and purpose, and, thanks be to God, it is there that I am also able to encounter the world’s deep need.
People often ask me about my job, and at Notre Dame especially whether I love playing the Basilica organs. Those questions give me an opportunity to consider what exactly it is about my vocation that keeps me going. Do I love playing the organ? Yes. The organs here on campus are magnificent. Do I love directing choirs? Absolutely yes, and Notre Dame has some of the best collegiate choirs in the country. But what I love most is leading the song of the congregation. Congregational singing is at the core of my identity as a pastoral musician because I believe congregational singing does some things that other types of music making cannot.
The Power of Congregational Song to Promote Empathy
First, congregational singing brings the whole assembly into sense of empathy with one another. Of course, one could think about that empathy theologically. To paraphrase the General Instruction to the Roman Missal, singing together in worship fosters our unity as the gathered People of God and tunes our thoughts into the joyful mysteries of the liturgy. But one can also think about that empathy scientifically; indeed researchers are discovering that singing together not only builds stronger social/psychological bonds, but that singing together for an extended period of time actually causes people’s breathing and heartbeats to synchronize. Singing together creates literal, physiological empathy.
When I’m at my best leading song from the organ, I also get to experience that empathy. It’s a mystery to me how it is, in a Basilica filled with a thousand people, that I can feel them all breathing together between phrases of a hymn, but I often do so from my perch in the organ loft. Similarly, whenever one of the stanzas of a hymn has a particularly rousing text, I can feel the congregation instinctively making a praise-filled crescendo, which I can then seek to match with a crescendo from the organ. The experience can be intense, and often I can sense the presence of the Holy Spirit in those times, moving us all to a more profound expression of praise.
Jonathan leads the opening hymn from the 2018 Lenten Choir Concert at the University of Notre Dame’s Basilica of the Sacred Heart, March 3, 2018.
The Power of Congregational Song to Express Diversity and Hospitality
People sometimes remark to me that the Roman Rite has too little room for creativity, or that it’s too narrowly Western/Italian/Roman in its structure and aesthetic. Depending on the day, I might agree with them. But in reality, there is a tremendous potential for flexibility in the Roman Rite, and, fortunately for us musicians, most of that potential lies in the realm of music. What I love about the flexibility of music in the liturgy is how it can help us celebrate the diversity of creation and offer hospitality to the “others” in our midst. That’s the second thing I think congregational singing can do in a way that other musics cannot.
When I was a kid, the congregation I was part of, though it was almost completely homogenous, made an intentional effort to sing music from a wide variety of Christian cultures around the world. At the time, I just thought that it was fun to sing songs from Brazil, or Tanzania, or Singapore. But what I realize now is that those songs were teaching me about the diversity of God’s people. I was learning that there were people different from me who shared my faith, and who were no less created in the image of God than I. As a leader of song, I want to pass on to others that same idea: the more we reflect the diversity of creation in our music, the more we reflect the image and glory of God.
In a place like Notre Dame, we have an obligation to both uphold our musical tradition and to reflect the diversity of the university’s increasingly global community. That’s part of why I minister, because I love using congregational song to help my community sing its solidarity with other Christian cultures, cultures which can teach us much about how to live the Christian life, and which help us broaden our image of God.
A wise colleague of mine once reminded me that, for our increasingly diverse congregations, including different genres and cultural musics in worship is also a matter of hospitality. Choosing to sing music only from the majority culture in our churches is missing the opportunity to show the “other” among us that they are valued. It’s also a way in which we can enable visitors to the liturgy who are not familiar with our language or songs to participate with us in prayer. As a leader of congregational song, if I can help enable the congregation’s celebration of diversity and its sense of hospitality, then I will.
The Power of Congregational Song to Capture the Human Experience
Lastly, congregational song can enable us to sing through the full range of our experience as people, and can help us have difficult theological conversations. Singing the praise of God is a good and noble venture, of course, but praise is not the only function of congregational song. Hymns and psalms are also there to give us voice when we mourn, or when we are angry at God, or when we feel confused and frustrated by what is going on in the world around us. They are a means of having a theological conversation.
When I choose music for the liturgy, I constantly look for opportunities to bring people into those theological conversations. When our hearts are overflowing with emotion, with grief, with anger, with frustration, we often find ourselves at a loss for words. Songs can be a means of helping us process those emotions, and open us to the presence of the Holy Spirit, who is with us in the act of singing and who intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words alone.
One congregation I served some years ago held an annual “Blue Christmas” liturgy. It was a modified service of evening prayer meant for people who have a hard time with the holidays because of difficult relationships, deaths of family members, or a host of other reasons. One family in particular that I knew planned to attend that service one year was struggling with the death of young child. I also knew based on my conversations with others at the church that many were struggling to make sense of the ongoing school shootings that plague our nation even today. There was an opportunity there to use congregational song both as a tool for healing and as way to give voice to the pain felt by those around me. That year we decided to sing a song gifted to the Church by the Scottish minister John Bell. We sang it quietly in the middle of the service, with resolve, with simultaneous grief and hope:
There is a place prepared for little children, those we once lived for, those we deeply mourn those who from play, from learning and from laughter cruelly were torn.
There is a place where hands which held ours tightly now are released beyond all hurt and fear, healed by that love which also feels our sorrow tear after tear.
There is a place where God will hear our questions, suffer our anger, share our speechless grief, gently repair the innocence of loving and of belief. (2)
At other times, our anger might call us to sing loudly, crying out in discontent, whether in the church or on the front steps of the state capitol building. Recently, more and more people of faith have discovered the power of singing together in and about the public square using texts like this one from Carolyn Winfrey Gillette:
The children come, not sure where they are going; Some little ones have seen their siblings die. They’ve traveled north — a tide that keeps on growing, A stream of life beneath the desert sky. Their welcome here? Detention, overflowing. O Lord of love, now hear your children’s cry!
The children come in search of something better; They’ve traveled here with nothing in their hands. On one boy’s belt, a number carved in leather Leads to a phone, a brother here, a plan.
They come alone — or sometimes band together; They bring a plea that we will understand. O Christ our Lord, you welcomed in the stranger; You blessed the children, telling them to stay. Be in the desert, with the tired and injured; Be at the border where they are afraid. Be on each bus where children sense the danger, As angry crowds are shouting, “Go away!”
God, let each one know justice, peace and welcome — And may your gift of mercy start with me. For unto such as these belongs your kingdom, And in each child, it is your face we see. May we, your church, respond in truth and action, And with you, Lord, say, “Let them come to me.” (3)
These types of powerful texts and these opportunities — to promote empathy, to celebrate diversity, to create a sense of hospitality, and to enable us all to sing through the full range of our human experience — these are why I minister. These are why I spend countless hours in rehearsals and staring down the pages of a hymnal index. Leading the song of church gives me purpose, gives me joy, and most of all, gives me an opportunity to witness to the grace of God in Christ Jesus. I know that, by that grace, the Holy Spirit will continue to guide me in my work here at Notre Dame, so that worshipping together as one, we may sing to the triune God an ever more profound “Alleluia.”
(1) From the hymn “When In Our Music God is Glorified” by Fred Pratt Green, 1972.
(2) From the collection When Grief is Raw: Songs for Times of Sorrow and Bereavement by John L. Bell and Graham Maule.
Karen Schneider Kirner, Choral Program Director and Organist
So often we’re in the routine of doing things that we forget to stop and take stock of why it is we’re doing what we’re doing. We get so caught up in our busyness and keep charging ahead with everyday routines. That’s why I’ve particularly enjoyed this “assignment” of offering a reflection on why I minister at Notre Dame as an organist and choir director. I’ve come up with a “top ten” list to share, but this is in no way comprehensive.
Reason Ten: Gotta love the diversity of skills required for someone working in music ministry! Not only do I direct choirs, play the organ, and occasionally compose music, but I also work with teams of students and colleagues. Other requirements are people skills and inviting students to join in our ministry, along with planning upcoming events. There is never a dull day in the office.
Reason Nine: The words we sing in Church remind us of our values and beliefs, and help keep us on the right and true path where we need to be, oriented towards God. This is why a church musician’s job of selecting texts that we put on the lips of the faithful is so crucial and important. We are more apt to stand up for justice if we are regularly reminded of our values. I see a very high percentage of our choir members going into service-related careers after graduation, and that’s something to be celebrated, living in a world that often seems to lack a moral foundation.
Reason Eight: Saint Augustine had it right when he said, “To Sing is to Pray Twice!” Music has a powerful way to ingrain texts within us and deepen our understanding of them, particularly when they’ve been set to music by inspired composers. Fostering the prayer of any gathered assembly has always been a top priority. Music can easily become a distraction, and the intent is always to keep the focus on the texts being sung, and put these texts on the lips of the assembly.
Reason Seven: We can instantly unite people coming from different cultural backgrounds by doing music of diverse music styles and time periods, languages, and through incorporating a diversity of musical instruments. As part of the universal Church, we want to ensure that truly “all are welcome.” We have a broad palette of music to choose from that can unite us. We’ve seen in recent years how much our country is torn by disunity, so it’s time we all took a stand for unity through whatever means we are able!
Reason Six: Serving as a musician at our Basilica of the Sacred Heart has always been a joy and privilege, that never gets old. The Basilica is truly the heart of our campus, where our community of N.D. and the community of the wider Church gathers to celebrate mass, highlighted feasts of the liturgical year, births, marriages, where we mourn our dead, administer the sacraments of initiation, and ordain men to the priesthood, representing the future of our Church. What a privilege and grace to experience so many powerful moments that really matter, throughout the entire year!
Reason Five: Unity. Liturgical music, whether singing/participating in it, powerfully connects people to one another, whether its with a group of people who know each other as in a choir that meets regularly, or a disparate group of people who will only all be together a single time, coming from many different places and walks of life. Music is a God-given instrument that connects us not only to each other, but us to God. It seems that people have grown more isolated with the rise of technology that was oddly designed to connect us, so we need music more than ever to bring us together. Did you know that scientific studies show that when a group of people sing together, their heartbeats often align? Singing is also found to decrease stress, depression, and anxiety, and gives us a sense we are part of something much bigger than ourselves, which is the Universal Church!
Reason Four: Music does save lives! This may seem like an overstatement, but I’ve witnessed this countless times. For those battling addictions, depression, loneliness or anxieties, not only does the act of singing elevate our spirits, but choir members are held accountable to the larger group, where it’s important to show up on a regular basis, and members are instantly part of a loving, nurturing group that wants to see each and every member succeed. Singing in a choir or making music with another group of people is one of the best ways to stay healthy and be emotionally supported when we are living in very challenging times.
Reason Three: It’s all about the PEOPLE. When I reflect back on my twenty years in music ministry here at N.D., it’s the names and faces of those I’ve worked with that matter the most. So many students who were involved in sacred music here have continued lives of service after they leave this place, whether they are doing this full-time or part-time. Numerous couples have met/married through participating in our choirs. A good number of men have entered the priesthood. Through our choir pilgrimage tours domestic and around the world, we almost exclusively stay with families from the parishes we are visiting, who give us unique insights about their own Christian communities. What a gift!
Reason Two: Plain and simply, for evangelization! Pope Francis said this best in his 2013 document, Evangelii Gaudium, or The Joy of the Gospel. If you haven’t read this yet, it’s well worth a read. In my case, I’m serving countless pilgrims who make their way each year to our beautiful Basilica of the Sacred Heart, connecting young people more deeply with their faith through music and participation in our choirs, or taking our choirs to sing for our brothers and sisters who are incarcerated or homeless. God is with us in every situation we may find ourselves in life, and my most powerful experiences have often been going “off the beaten path.”
Reason One: FAMILY. Family is created through our choirs and working closely with colleagues. The great thing about N.D. is that people keep coming back to this place, not only for football, but for things that really matter, like weddings, baptisms, for the Triduum, and times of loss, to be grounded anew in what drew them to this place initially: our faith in Jesus Christ. We are rooted in our Catholic faith, sent forth with hope, love and joy to bring to the world!