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The Message
Evansville, Indiana
September 25, 1987     The Message
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September 25, 1987

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Faith Today Supplement, The Message, Catholic Diocese of Evansville, September 25, 1987 1 L__/Faith TodaY By Cindy Liebhart NC News Service S ome years ago, Mercy Sister Suzanne Toolan's high school students thought she was the author of St. John's Gospel. "They would come in on Monday and tell me that one of the readings at Mass on Sunday was from one of my songs," the composer laughs today. That wasn't all bad. In fact, Sister Toolan related, some of the same students have come back to her over the years and told her those songs "have helped them through trying times of their lives." For a composer who tries through music to make the words of Scripture come alive in peo- ple's lives, that might be con- sidered high praise. Perhaps best known for her 1970 song "I Am the Bread of Life," Sister Toolan recently cam- posed an entrance song m incor- porating 20 languages spoken in the San Francisco area -- for Pope John Paul II's Mass in Candlestick Park. Music has the power to unite a worshiping assembly, she believes. "Music is a language that crosses through other languages and cultures. Good music passes through the barriers of age and race and social status." Music also "helps us to use our whole person -- voice, breath, emotions -- in a way that pulls us beyond ourselves," she said. "My sound is united with the sounds of others and together it makes a sound you couldn't do by yourself. It is a way of communal- ly expressing faith in a deep, deep way and yet a very earthy, bodily way." E]E]D Scripture also forms the base for much of the liturgical music 00eroan/s o sin Father Michael Joncas composes. "The Psalms, for example, which are the backbone in my prayer and the prayer of the church... eventually will well up into a song," he said. Father Joncas, a priest of the St. Paul and Minneapolis Archdiocese, jokingly describes some of his ear- ly works, heavily influenced by popular folk music of the 1960s, as "The Mamas and the Papas Go to Mass." Today he regards his musical style as "very American" and "eclectic." He counts the work of George Gershwin and Aaron Copland as influences upon him, along with Broadway music and Appalachian folk music. A bit of the blues even creeps into his songs. But the music is always ground- ed in the text, he said. "I try to allow a worshiping assembly to grasp the meaning of that text and then express it themselves." His much-loved song "On Eagle's a I A supplement to Catholic newspapers published by NATIONAL CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE 1312 Massachusetts Ave. N.W,, Washington, D.C. 20005. with grant assistance from The Cathohc Church n=XTENSION so,y 35 East Wacter Dr., Cicago, Illinois 60601 All contents copyrightt987 by NC News Ser,4ce. 32 Wings" provides a good example. Father Joncas attributes the im- mense popularity of that song to two main factors. First, the scrip- ture text that underlies the song, Psalm 91, "is stunningly beautiful" with its image of God as a mother eagle protecting and caring for her offspring, he said. Second, the words are clothed in a grand melody that "mirrors the strength and confidence of the text." Quite simply, it moves people. "There are all sorts of worship- ing communities struggling to ex- press their faith," Father Joncas noted. The question for com- posers becomes "how do you find a way of giving expression to their faith, their struggle, their search, their spirituality." [313[] Music is an "integral and necessary part of worship," Father Joncas said. "It allows certain ritual acts to take place that without music could not take place." He pointed to the acclamation sung just before the Gospel reading as an example. When the Alleluia is sung jubilantly, people "'experience the meaning of the text. Singing it engages the whole person -- and the whole assembly -- in praising God." Both Father Joncas and Jesuit Father John Foley, also a com- poser, draw distinctions between their music and "personal witness music" or the "Christian easy listelng" often heard on the radio. That kind of music is in- tended much more for private reflection and meditation. Music at Mass is meant to be an expression of the faith of the community, said Father Foley, whose songs include "One Bread, One Body" and "Dwelling Place." During the liturgy "you do not ordinarily have personal testimony," he said. Likewise, the music is not intended to express the faith of the individual alone, for "we have gathered to listen to and to express 'our faith.'" Liturgical music "knits together the many into one," Father Foley added. Said Father Joncas, "Composers in the mainline liturgical churches are servants of the assembly. They write for a singing church." (Ms. Liebhart is associate editor of Faith Today.)