the Saint Louis Jesuits, and you

By Diogenes (articles ) | Oct 11, 2006

Jeffrey Tucker has a thoughtful and balanced review of a book by one Mike Gale titled The St. Louis Jesuits: Thirty Years on the Musica Sacra website. For the benefit of those who partake of the Mozarabic Rite or who have converted to Catholicism within the past half-hour, it may be well to explain that the St. Louis Jesuits are a group of musicians, at one time all Jesuits, who composed and published the chirpy, folk-guitar-based music that has become the standard idiom of Catholic parish liturgy in the English-speaking world. Says Tucker:

Partisans of sacred music might argue that the whole period is best forgotten, the same way the fashion industry would like to forget the leisure suit or patchwork platform shoes for men. But this is not yet possible, for their music is still very much with us at liturgy. Their music continues to dominate contemporary songbooks. Of all the hymns in the mixed-repertoire, mainstream Heritage Missal published by Oregon Catholic Press, 24% are by a member of the St. Louis Jesuits, with 70% written in the style they pioneered. The 2000 edition of Glory & Praise, "the most popular Catholic hymnal ever published," according to OCP, contains 100 songs written by them. One member of the St. Louis Jesuits serves on the US Bishops' Subcommittee on Music, which is working toward naming a common repertoire for parishes.

I admit up front I'm not an unprejudiced judge. I find the SLJ music painful: sugary, trite, rhythmically clunky. The lyrics, though ostensibly biblical in inspiration, have a smarmy mock-modesty about them that is lethal to any attitude of devotion: "What a lucky deity you are, Yahweh, to have such cute and talented disciples as us caroling your praises!" You've all known teenage girls who are in love with the idea of being in love, and stand humming and sighing for hours before the mirror; transpose that woozy self-absorption onto vinyl and you've got Earthen Vessels: The Album.

Though their music be dreck, and the hills turn to dust, professionally the SLJ have always been considerably more modest than their partisans, and have never been bumptious self-promoters. Tucker points out that their popularity was due to forces beyond their control, or even their interest:

To their credit, and despite their recent concertizing on the occasion of their reunion, they avoided giving concerts. They were concerned that their music be used in prayer sessions -- not necessarily in liturgy, at least not initially -- but not as a venue for popular acclaim, though even by that time folk music had become common in Mass.

This is a fair point, and it should be recorded in defense of the SLJ that it wasn't their fault -- at least not entirely -- if music written in the course of a meditative swoon was wrenched from its proper location on a burlap prayer mat and given pride of place in the Oakland Cathedral (and your parish church as well). Keeping this in mind doesn't make their music any better, but it goes far to absolve them of deliberate malice.

What's interesting about the SLJ is the partisanship (and its opposite) that has formed around them, and to large degree in spite of them. They've become a kind of shibboleth in the Church, dividing Catholic Ephraimites from Catholic Gileadites. Tucker quotes a number of puffs from the book -- not, as we'd expect, blurbs on the dust jacket, but candy-grams addressed to the SLJ personally and included in the main text. "You have made a great and lasting contribution to the liturgical life of the Church," writes Cardinal William Levada, giving his first and only sign of a sense of humor. "Your creativity and dedication," says Jesuit Superior General P.H. Kolvenbach, "have brought church music to the people and the people to church music." Charitably, he failed to remark on the results of the collision.

Other congratulations are cited from Fr. Virgil Funk, Bishop Remi de Roo, and Bishop Donald Trautman. The list goes a long way in justifying Tucker's mischievous assimilation of the SLJ to leisure suits and platform shoes. These churchmen are men of the 1970s. And the Catholic culture war in which the shibboleth is invoked concerns the question of whether we must remain stuck in the 1970s forever: with burlap banners and glass chalices and warpainted feminism and epicene ministers of music coaching us in social justice. The phenomenon of the Saint Louis Jesuits is, quintessentially, a phenomenon of the 1970s. In every detail -- from their acoustic guitars to their chumminess with "Yahweh" -- they announce that they could belong to no other era.

You'll remember that the Saint Louis Jesuits (not all of whom remain Jesuits, or priests, or Christians, according to Tucker) assembled to provide the music for the Justice & Peace-themed liturgy at the last Religious Education Congress -- itself an extended orgy of 1970s nostalgia. Bishop Donald Trautman was the celebrant, and he had been invited to the Congress precisely to call a halt to progress in liturgical translation. The result gives the effect of one of those paperweights in which a miniature world is frozen in Plexiglas. Think Mario Cuomo. Think Msgr. Dan Hoye. Think Cardinal-designate Bernardin, and Jackie Onassis, and Richard McBrien still with dark sideburns. The brief shining moment!

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  • Posted by: - Dec. 31, 2007 12:36 AM ET USA

    I agree with unum. As one of the little people in the pews, I have found "SLJ" music to be anything but trite and clunky. The music has endured because it has touched hearts and helped people to focus on the meaning of both Scripture and the Liturgy.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 22, 2006 9:00 AM ET USA

    In high school we started the folk music. It wasn't too off the wall, just guitars, we were fortunate to have sensible priests and sisters who didn't add other instruments to detract away from the Mass. I am not against that type of music, I think all can share in worship, I am against putting the choir out front 'leading the people in song'. The congregation aren't coming to a songfest but to worship AlmightyGod in The Mass!That picture of the orchestra up front the altar behind them so wrong!

  • Posted by: unum - Oct. 17, 2006 10:28 AM ET USA

    Gil and Charles, The "little people" in the pews are very lucky the Church has experts like you to decide what music will inspire them. Obviously, they lack the education and experience to decide for themselves.

  • Posted by: Oedipus Tex - Oct. 16, 2006 10:29 AM ET USA

    The most telling paragraph from the review: "But what did the St. Louis Jesuits know of the Gregorian music of the Roman Rite? How much did they really know of Catholic music in general? How much had their training dealt with this subject in any serious way? What in their individual backgrounds had prepared them to correctly understand how music and liturgy are related? How much did they know of the Graduale? The answer is nothing, in every case, at least nothing that this book reports. "

  • Posted by: Vincit omnia amor - Oct. 16, 2006 12:05 AM ET USA

    nice pics...fits the music, I guess. glass pitchers, wicker bread basket, some w/o chasubles, folks standing for the Consecration... at least there's a Crucifix in the sanctuary! (must be an accident)

  • Posted by: - Oct. 12, 2006 3:12 PM ET USA

    That was music? There are very few masses which have liturgical music. Those that do need to review the standards for liturgical music. It should be uplifting for the mind s of the faithful-not some heavy beated semi-romantic nonsense such as the faithful have been subjected to in the past. Does any parish have an organist any more?

  • Posted by: Gil125 - Oct. 12, 2006 2:59 PM ET USA

    Unum, I fear your screen name may be well chosen. You may not be the only one, but you seem to be in a very small minority. Count me on Diogenes' side---firmly.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 12, 2006 1:33 PM ET USA

    Coming from an Episcopal choir that sang Mozart, Palestrina, Stanford, Handel, Lauridsen, Bach, etc every Sunday (big piece during offeratory plus 3-4 softer pieces during communion), I am here to tell you that the songs sung in Holy Mother Church around here are bad poetry, weak theology and unsingable music. Flat ugly. I am ashamed to tell that it delayed my conversion by about 10 years. I feel like I left Mozart for the True Presence. Not a bad swap, but I shouldn't have to.

  • Posted by: Charles134 - Oct. 12, 2006 12:41 PM ET USA

    It is necessary, but not sufficient, to use sarcasm to denigrate this kind of music. I've said, time and again, the locus classicus for how to handle this situation is the scene in Animal House where Bluto smashes Stephen Bishop(!)'s guitar against the wall. Go, thou, and do likewise.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 12, 2006 11:57 AM ET USA

    Wow, I was not aware that all divine inspiration for music ceased with the Council of Trent! Stringed instruments like the lyre (an ancestor of the guitar) have always been a part of the Latin Rite so has 'contemporary' music. It is just as wrong to throw out everything post-Vatican II as it is to ignore everything pre-Vatican II. Unless there is something theologically bad (i.e. "Gather Us In") newer music and styles must be allowed. That is the Latin Rite tradition.

  • Posted by: unum - Oct. 12, 2006 11:30 AM ET USA

    Diogenes, Are you saying that there is something wrong with music that draws some of us closer to God, and is it necessary to use sarcasm to denegrate that kind of music? We are all unique creations and therefore we have unique tastes in music. In my opinion, any kind of music brings us closer to God is acceptable and glorifies God, even if composed and recorded by the St. Louis Jesuits. Some of us find inspiration in many kinds of music. I don't find your criticism of SLJ to be helpful.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 12, 2006 11:03 AM ET USA

    Success as a record company always comes from deciding which music is good and which is crap. They don't hace a contract...

  • Posted by: - Oct. 12, 2006 10:18 AM ET USA

    I have no clue what you are talking about. My parish is definitely NO yet we do not use Glory and Praise nor do we permit guitars. We have a fine choir, a terrific organist, and a few classical musicians playing along -- including me on trumpet. The music found in Traditional Choral Praise and the People's Mass Book is well written and very reverent. During the liturgical year we rotate between Mass of Creation, Community Mass, People's Mass, and Mass of Redemption. Maybe I'm spoiled?

  • Posted by: Michaelus - Oct. 12, 2006 10:14 AM ET USA

    "Schutte was ordained but left the priesthood (though he still works in campus ministry). " This about sums it up for me.

  • Posted by: Andy K - Oct. 12, 2006 8:29 AM ET USA

    Dear Medicus mentis, No, he wouldn't. This is evidenced by the Divine Liturgies within the East that do not use a word of Latin.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 12, 2006 8:14 AM ET USA

    I wonder if Jesus would insist on Latin Masses and Gregorian chant for all.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 12, 2006 1:13 AM ET USA

    Hello Eagle, Here is a possibility of what you are looking for: English Chant for Liturgy

  • Posted by: Sterling - Oct. 11, 2006 11:34 PM ET USA

    This here ain't no new thang. When I was growing up in the 50's, when the mass was Tridentine, there was PLENTY of TERRIBLE church music. Like the music of SLJ's, the melodies were modeled on popular tunes, though from a different era - think of tunes like "Only a Bird in a Gilded Cage." It wasn't all Gregorian chant or Palestrina by a long shot, there was perfectly dreadful stuff, and lots of it.

  • Posted by: Gregory108 - Oct. 11, 2006 8:53 PM ET USA

    Eagle: Such music already exists: in the vernacular, holy, lovely and psalm-based, composed by people who know the Lord, have given their lives to Him and seek only to glorify Him, and who actually had music school training before they started! The problem is that I can't sell it here! The comment would be booted (and rightly so!) by the censors, so you and the Church will just have to keep searching til you find it! I myself have found it already!

  • Posted by: - Oct. 11, 2006 7:38 PM ET USA

    At Holy Mass following a 1982 workshop for music ministers given by the SLJ, the closing hymn was sung by one of them solo and acappella; Holy God We Praise Thy Name. It was an edifying act of humility, IMHO, and instructive to those in attendance about how to inspire reverence for God. Uncle Di may be right about their intentions.

  • Posted by: Ignacio177 - Oct. 11, 2006 6:12 PM ET USA

    Music in English? Negro Spirituals and some gospel music are as profound and as contemplative as you get. Who among us has not wept a tear at Amazing Grace, or Swing low Sweet Chariot? Perhaps you can not write good religious music unless you suffer.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 11, 2006 5:39 PM ET USA

    Dear Diogenes, I always enjoy your column; this time in particular, however, your remarks are especially witty and on the mark. I doubt if anyone could sum up the men, the music, and their era more concisely or entertainingly. A priest currently serving in the military chaplaincy (but a die-hard traditional Catholic priest despite it all)

  • Posted by: Eagle - Oct. 11, 2006 5:35 PM ET USA

    To say "cheesy" and "trite"as a description of this music is apt. But, "will ye, nill ye", the Novus Ordo is here to stay, even when the Tridentine Mass is restored as a universal option. With the Novus Ordo remaining in the vernacular, there needs to be a contemporary vernacular alternative to Gregorian Chant which will bring a sense of reverence and the sacred. Is there any institution, or person, who would sponsor some contest to compose such music? Is there any vernacular alternative?

  • Posted by: - Oct. 11, 2006 4:14 PM ET USA

    During college and a number of years after (mid-70's to mid-80's), I and my guitar inflicted much bad liturgical music on our parish a la SLJ. Then I joined a group performing Kingston Trio music around So Cal (often for $$) and no longer felt the need or desire to play at the Liturgy. A deepening faith in the Real Presence and sacrificial nature of the Mass made me realize it's about Him, not us. Except for the lack of striped shirts, the photo above could be of my old KT wannabe group...

  • Posted by: - Oct. 11, 2006 3:06 PM ET USA

    This music is so bad you won't find a parallel in any of the Presbyteiran hymnbooks of which I am familiar. Presbyterians love their choirs given their centrality in worship for that denomination. They seem to understand what is good music and what is bad music. The only time you will ever hear anything resembling the SLJ/Haugen/Hass saccharine music is the annual service conducted by the kids, and then only because they aren't allowed Christian rock. They resort to this "music" in protest.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 11, 2006 2:42 PM ET USA

    As a ‘50s vintage cathedral choir boy, I’m generally appalled by the music that assaults my ears when I’m forced by my convert spouse to attend a New Order “gathering.” At her parish, they use the Heritage Missal and almost always sing the SLJ Mass -- a sing-song collection of corrupted liturgical texts. That, combined with the silly hymns, is somewhat amusing, but certainly not worth the long periods of agony that are punctuated by frantic gesturing and frequent glad-handing. Pro multis!

  • Posted by: - Oct. 11, 2006 2:16 PM ET USA

    It was the SLJs who for the first time started the practice of singing as if you are God. eg. Here I an Lord (verse: I am the lord of sea and sky) I am the bread of Life It all fits in with whole trend of horizontal worship and glorifying ourselves. The music is cheesy. As Thomas Day pointed out, "Here I am Lord" is a rip-off of the Brady Bunch theme. The end of their era is long overdue.

  • Posted by: Charles134 - Oct. 11, 2006 2:12 PM ET USA

    The photo could be a still from a PBS pledge-drive special.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 11, 2006 1:25 PM ET USA

    God have mercy upon us and save us from bad 70's folk mass music.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 11, 2006 12:52 PM ET USA

    As a former 70's teenager I cannot discount their entire body of work just because it is post Vatican II. (80% maybe but not all of it.) They albums are like bags of refined sugar. A small amount when mixed with the proper ingredients (solid sermon, reverent Mass, "traditional' music, etc...) is digestible. Taken raw in large volumes it will only yield spiritual diabetes.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 11, 2006 12:51 PM ET USA

    I am admittedly not an expert on music, much less liturgical music. However, your attack seems uncharitable, maybe even mean-spirited, Diogenes. One of the sins hardest to avoid for us "real" Catholics is that of pride. Diogenes, I just don't get your fixation on this matter. I'm really not just trying to play dumb. Maybe I really am (dumb).

  • Posted by: - Oct. 11, 2006 12:00 PM ET USA

    St. Ignatius Loyola has to be turning over in his grave!! If I knew they were so close to Chicago (geographically), I would have run over to St. Louis and pulled their plugs. Guitars, I mean...

  • Posted by: - Oct. 11, 2006 11:49 AM ET USA

    "You have made a great and lasting contribution to the liturgical life of the Church," writes Cardinal William Levada end quote. There is a scene in HBO's Barbarians at the Gate where one of the investment bankers, in the midst of a $26 Billion takeover of a tobacco conglomerate, says that he "hates smoke". The response of F Ross Johnson's executive, who utters a risque Anglo-Saxon epithet that would curl the hair of Sister Adidas, is one that springs to mind when I hear Levada opine.