Music For Advent, Heaven, & For Life01 December 2016 Written by By Father Robert Rien
Published in December 2016 Articles
More than any other season of the year, Advent is a time for celebration, merriment, and especially for music.
By the time December 25 rolls around, however, some people have become satiated by innumerable renditions of such iconic pieces as “White Christmas,” “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” and “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.”
Nevertheless, especially during this time of the year, many of us have a fresh attitude towards life and are prepared to be invigorated and motivated to make positive changes. Fine music can play an important role in helping people actually move forward in their lives. At St. Ignatius of Antioch Church we have spent the past 12 years emphasizing the role that music can play in worship and reflection. Parishioners and guests alike are treated to music and song of the highest caliber, performed by top-class musicians, and leading to genuine moments of inspiration, authentic worship, and life-changing spiritual renewal.
Our music-based worship is particularly effective at St. Ignatius because it is both led and accompanied by a world-class musician, Don Pearson, who plays our pipe organ. The organ is itself one of the finest instruments I have ever seen.
We’re moving against a musical tide because most churches, both Catholic and Protestant, have allowed their organs to go silent in favor of “praise” bands. At St. Ignatius, however, we’ve embraced the king of instruments as our preferred and primary instrument for worship, as well as for enriching and inspiring the wider community with the sounds that only a quality pipe organ can produce. Our “hybrid” instrument includes the digital voices of an entire symphony orchestra.
Don is able to utilize the power of the instrument to lead, inspire, and lift worshippers and to move us all into a deeper relationship with God.
Catholic churches have a generally deserved reputation for poor quality music and singing. St. Ignatius of Antioch is only one of three churches in the diocese that uses a pipe organ as the primary instrument for worship. People who come for the first time are always moved and often overwhelmed by the combination of musician, instrument, and congregational singing. Don has honed his craft over the years. He’s laid hold of the nearly magical ability of the instrument to perform the music of any period and any style.
During the eight years that Don has been here, he has transformed the worship of our religious community. In addition to the quality of our worship, we are able to share our gifts with the wider community through an annual concert series that we have been hosting for the past eight years. As many as 500 people attend the concerts, which have been wonderfully varied with the organ performing as a solo instrument, in a musical ensemble with other instruments, accompanying soloists, or performing with our choir.
Our concert series features not only classical and traditional music, but Don sometimes plays magnificent accompaniment to silent films, during which he demonstrates his astonishing gifts for musical improvisation by varying tempos, rhythms, ranges, and volume to suit the action taking place on the screen. He brings films to life without a single piece of sheet music. A number of people who come for the concert series — from many religious traditions or none — are often so moved by the music that they join us in worship on the weekends.
I’m the only priest in the parish, so I am continually busy with liturgical responsibilities and attending to the needs of my flock. However, when I get an opportunity to do so, I play the organ for my own enjoyment as a way of uplifting my own heart and soul and to maintain the skills that I developed during years of practice and playing.
We are moving church music to a higher level at St. Ignatius of Antioch Church. The music, in turn, is lifting us to higher levels of worship and service.
I’m one of the few native born-and-raised-in-Oakland priests. My folks moved to San Lorenzo in 1957, when I was ten years old and for the next six years, I took private piano lessons. In high school, I began to take lessons on the pipe organ and continued studying the instrument for the next 12 years. My musical abilities enabled me to serve as the organist for Berkeley’s Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church, which paid for my education through college. I also served as substitute organist in churches of many denominations, and played for weddings and funerals. I pursued music into academia, earning a double major in Choral and Keyboard from California State University in Hayward.
I was raised Lutheran but converted to Catholicism in 1969. At the time, the Catholic Church was undergoing the greatest renewal of its 2,000-year history. The Second Vatican Council had recently opened its arms to embrace other faith traditions in a global-wide community of love and respect. Our Lutheran Church and the nearby St. Felicitas Catholic Church cooperated at many levels including youth groups, choirs, and ecumenical gatherings. We began to share resources and each church assisted in growing the other church’s congregation.
My world was upset in a serious way when James D. Burns, who had been my best friend since childhood, sacrificed his life to save his platoon by taking out a Viet Cong bunker. Six months later, while I was still dealing with Jim’s death, my father died. During that terrible time, a Catholic priest — Msgr. Manuel Simas, who was pastor at St. Felicitas — supported my family and me through our months of grief and loss. Msgr. Simas’ example inspired me. I began to spend time with him and at his church. As I began to learn about Catholic doctrines, principles, and practices, I realized that my own inner person was more attuned to Catholicism than Lutheranism, so I made the decision not only to embrace the Church but to study for the priesthood.
The call of God to shepherd His flock was higher than to be a musician, but throughout the subsequent 43 years of ministry, I used the gifts, talents, and abilities from my musical background to enrich the music ministry of every parish I was assigned to. In each church, I left a legacy of wonderful new instruments, talented musicians to perform on them, and a congregation that was attuned to the important role of music in life and worship.
My musical revitalizations suited a Catholic Church tradition, which is much more than hymns and gospel songs, but involves all the members joining in full-throated singing of the liturgy. In that way, worship is no longer a spectator event in which an audience watches priests and acolytes perform the various parts of the liturgy. Instead, congregation members themselves become the performers. In that case, perhaps we can picture God as the “audience” — the One in whose honor and for whose glory they are performing. At any rate, our services conducted in this musical fashion have the power of deeply touching the hearts of any in the audience who are receptive to the energies surging around them.
“Santa Claus is coming to town,” so let’s welcome his jolly presence. After all, as Yeats reminded us, “The good are always the merry; save by an evil chance.”
However, let’s also welcome the coming of that Precious Child back to our world and into our lives. Join us, if you can, in receiving Him with praise, song, and with a joyful heart.