Liturgist John Flaherty talks Music

JKF 2013 Congress Opening Event 2

John Flaherty conducts the orchestra at the closing liturgy of the 2013 Los Angeles Religious Education Congress at the Anaheim Convention Center

Extension instructor John Flaherty has been involved in liturgy and educational ministry for over 35 years. During that time he has published, lectured and helped to shape the rich, liturgical life the Church in Los Angeles is known for.

Given his work as the director of liturgy and music at LMU’s Office for Campus Ministry and as liturgy committee chair of the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, it was no surprise that John was tapped to facilitate the new Pastoral Liturgy programs at the Center for Religion and Spirituality, which has educated dozens of pastoral liturgists in its short history.

Beginning in January 2014, the Center will launch a new program under John’s instruction – the Pastoral Music certificate program – a professional course completely concerned with liturgical music.  On the eve of this new course, John explains the importance of music in liturgy and the need for proper formation of liturgical musicians:

Should music be given more attention in the study and practice of liturgy?

Music and liturgy are inseparable.  The Eucharistic Liturgy is, at its very core, intended to be sung from the Sign of the Cross to the Final Dismissal.  If we pastoral musicians – choir directors, cantors, choir members, ensemble directors and members, psalmists, instrumentalists – hope to understand just how important and intertwined music and liturgy truly are we must commit ourselves to knowing and mastering not only music skills, but the ritual for which we shape the community’s music.

Since Vatican II, there has been an explosion of creative activity related to liturgical music.  What do you think accounts for this and do you think it will continue?

The Council fathers determined in their wisdom, and guided by the Holy Spirit, that the mass would be celebrated in the vernacular which changed a practice that was in place for hundreds of years.  This was akin to a “Pentecost” moment in the life our Church.  To celebrate mass in the vernacular is to understand that this principle doesn’t exclusively pertain to language, but also, music and culture.  The subsequent teachings of John Paul II and Benedict XVI support and further the inculturation of the mass as outlined in the documents of the Second Vatican Council, most especially, Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy).

In 1963, we didn’t have a body of ritual music written in the vernacular ready to be published and distributed. It was out of this incredibly exciting time that composers such as the St. Louis Jesuits, the Dameans, Bob Hurd and others began to write music for our Church.  Some of the composers writing in the 60’s, such as those mentioned, had degrees and formal training in theology, while many others did not.  We must remember that in every age, including Bach’s time, much music was written – some music was excellent and solidly structured and other music was not.  It is the same in our time.  Additionally, there are some pieces we pray that are in our Catholic Christian DNA because they were gifted to us at a pivotal time in the life of the Church – On Eagle’s Wings and Here I Am, Lord are two examples.

With Francis being named Pope, I believe that this spirit of creativity will be revitalized.  Remember Holy Thursday last year when he celebrated mass in the juvenile detention center and stooped to wash the feet of 12 detainees, including two women?  The visual images were powerful, however the piece of ritual music being sung during the foot washing was a telling sign of what this papacy might bear.  The music being sung was not Gregorian chant or a strophic hymn as was the heard at the Holy Thursday foot washing at St. Peter’s for the past several decades.   It was a simple liturgical song being played on a guitar, sung by the assembly and led by a small “folk” choir.  In this case, folk meaning “of the people.”  So in answer to the question, yes, I do believe that this creative activity will now continue.

We often hear differing opinions as to what constitutes “appropriate” music in worship.  Is there such a thing?

I was mentored by Jesuit Father John Gallen, founder of the North American Academy of Liturgy.  He constantly reminded students of the importance of knowing the rubrics and what the liturgical documents had to tell us not to restrict, contain, limit, and control people and the liturgy, but to inform us of the possibilities. There are so many well-intentioned musicians who have years of musical training coupled with some experience working in liturgy.  However, experience is not synonymous with formation.  It is important that musicians study and know the ritual so that the music they shape supports the ritual action and most importantly, the assembly’s voice.  This is a paradigm shift away from choosing what songs to sing at mass.

Tony Alonso wrote a compelling article that contained a wonderful descriptive stating, “the whole world is filled to the brim with song”.  In this article, he reminds us of the prophet Isaiah’s cry in 55.12: “The mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”  What might be deemed appropriate in one setting may be wholly inappropriate in another.  When choosing music for Catholic worship, we make final judgments based on three principles – pastoral, liturgical and musical.  In my 35 years as an educator, I have always taught the youngest pupils some Gregorian chant and the most mature of students, some of whom who are in their 70s, the most recent music the composers of our time have to offer.  Our Church’s history and tradition are rich with culture, music, and art and the preparation of the community’s worship, that is liturgy, belongs in the hands of the trained and formed poet and artist, not the rubricist.

What do you consider some of the best liturgical work composed in the past 50 years?

I don’t even know how to begin to answer this question.  There are so many great composers, musicians, liturgists, and practitioners I hold in the very highest regard and who have positively impacted the worshiping life of the Church these past 50 years, including Roger Wagner, Paul Salamunovich, Bernadette Farrell, Bob Hurd, Tony Alonso, Marty Haugen, Morten Lauridsen, Pedro Rubalcava, and Rufino Zaragoza.  Each of the aforementioned along with a great many others have contributed in their own unique ways to the field.

You will offering a new course this Spring specifically on liturgical music.  What do you hope to accomplish?

When I was a young pastoral musician and Catholic school music educator, I was confident in my musical skills and in my ability to teach.  I was confident when directing the parish choir at Our Lady of Malibu.  I knew what I knew and thought I knew it well and then I met John Gallen.  He opened my eyes and revealed to me the Church’s prayer in ways I had never known.  To put another way, he ruined me for good.  I began to see and understand music and liturgy with new eyes, ears, and a new way of being.  Before this, I was happy and content in my ignorance and didn’t know what I didn’t know.

I only hope to provide this opportunity that others might also be ruined for the better.  Finally, this way of seeing ritual is not only limited to Catholic worship.  I’m frequently called upon to shape, plan, direct, produce and oversee all types of civic events and services because of the skills, knowledge and experience gained in this field of study and practice.  These are events attended by religious and civic leaders from the Papal Nuncio to the Vice President of the United States to the firefighter’s wife who lost her husband in the line of duty and for whom the service is celebrated.  Ritual is ritual and we can find these movements in time and space all around us if our eyes and ears are but open and alert.

The new Pastoral Music certificate program is a seven-month professional certificate program beginning January 13 in LMU Extension.  Registration is currently open.  Click here to visit the Web site.


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