Feature

Preaching from the choir
Greg Daly learns about a new project for music and liturgy in Dublin’s city centre

“I don’t think the archbishop asked us here to maintain the status quo,” says Steven Warner, associate director of the Notre Dame Newman Centre, based since last autumn at the University Church on Dublin’s St Stephen’s Green. “I can’t speak for his mind, but I certainly think that he did not intend to have things remain the same – he wanted us here to help add to the landscape.”

Born in New England, but an adoptive Midwesterner after 35 years at Indiana’s University of Notre Dame, Steven’s role at the centre is focused on music and liturgy.

“We call this the Centre for Faith and Reason,” he says. “I’ve been working on the faith-liturgical front, while Fr Bill [Dailey] is working on the lecture/reason/philosophical side of things. To that end, he’s bringing in speakers starting this year, and will highlight philosophy and contemporary issues in the Church, the way Newman would have wanted this place to be – a place where people can have articulate, adult conversations about things that are going on in the contemporary world.”

Composition

From a liturgical viewpoint, the centre aims to draw together Irish and American musical composition in way that involves the whole congregation with sensitivity to the church’s history and living reality, and a constant eye to the Mass of the day.

“Music is a sign of hospitality, and if there’s any culture that understands that better than most, I’d say it’d be the Irish,” Steven says. “What we’re trying is to say is that your voices are welcome here – your singing voices, your praying voices – and we do that through a variety of ways, choosing music that we think the assembly will resonate with.”

Cantor Sharon Lyons has been involved with the church for the past six years, and says since the establishment of the centre, “The church has moved from a very small parish-like congregation and choir to a much bigger scale.” Noting the differences driven by a new priest and director of music, she says, “there’s always been a sense of community in this church, but the changeover has been very pastorally sensitive, and it has worked very well”.

It’s been a priority for Steven to study Irish sacred music and familiarise himself with the Mass settings people know well, rather than coming in as “a loud American, and bringing in a lot of American music”. Explaining how as director of music he hopes to blend continuity and innovation, he says he was already familiar with Ireland’s liturgical composition scene through visits as director of the Notre Dame folk choir, with his new role allowing him to step much more deeply into it. 

“Partly, Sharon’s been a great guide for that for me, and also a conduit of talent,” he continues. “For instance, we have a St Patrick’s Day Mass coming up, and the way you do a St Patrick’s Day Mass in America is not the way you do a St Patrick’s Day Mass in Ireland. There are definitely songs that must be done here. For instance in America you would rarely hear ‘Hail Glorious St Patrick’, and over here… it would be a faux pas not to include it! For me this has been a very instructive period, and I don’t think that instruction will ever end.”

Howth-born Sharon says years working in the Archdiocese of Dublin and a long experience of the Irish church music scene have given her a good sense of what’s going on in terms of church music here. “I suppose the biggest difference in what’s happening here is there’s a support system in place, there’s an actual defined role for a musical director that gives it value and purpose and leads into the preparation and execution of a very rounded liturgy.”

Support

Many local parishes lack that kind of support, she says, pointing out that not every parish has access to musical equipment or can afford to print out beautiful music sheets for the congregation every week. “To see what’s possible here is great. It’s a lovely model, and maybe it might encourage or inspire more change,” she says. 

A major challenge, of course, is to encourage congregations to sing, which Sharon sees as largely a matter of habit. “If it’s continually encouraged, and musically speaking in keys that are friendly for people to sing in – it’s impossible for people to sing too high or too low – people appreciate that. I think if it’s consistent, people will sing,” she says, adding, “I know lots of parishes where congregational singing is happening, but it’s from a consistent effort.”

Roscommon-born organist and tenor Derek Mahady says resources for congregations make a real difference. “Sometimes the cantor can just get them started, give them a note or two, and then let them go,” he says. “Resources come in many forms. Having a cantor, having something of an invitation like a leaflet going in, and I think even the addition of the music, not just the words is important too.”

Describing this as “another invitation as well”, he says, “It’s almost giving the congregation respect, recognising that they are more intelligent, and they are able to get involved and get engaged.”

Agreeing that basic music reading is quite intuitive, Sharon adds, “If you listen while you’re watching, you can figure it out.”

Such an emphasis on musical literacy may not have been quite what Blessed John Henry Newman had in mind when he called for a well-educated laity, but it definitely can help active participation in the Mass. 

Disagreements about music can often be a source of tension in parishes, but Steven says this isn’t surprising. “When you think about the phrase ‘those who sing pray twice’, that means there’s a lot on the line, and if there’s a lot on the line, people have strong feelings about it. 

“I don’t think it’s lost on any of us, that the pieces that we choose are really in a sense the furniture that goes into the spiritual house, and so it’s not just picking up a tune, it’s affecting their spirituality. And so we take that responsibility with a tremendous amount of weight.”

One of the things the centre hopes to do is to help other church communities develop their liturgy, Steven says, explaining that Sharon is not merely a cantor but a vocal coach too. “That’s very important because we’re also going to be bringing in other singers down the road, and Sharon is going to be the mentor for them,” he says. “The goal here is not just to keep it amongst ourselves but to spread it out.”

First, though, there’s the St Patrick’s Day Mass, to be televised on RTÉ, where the centre is taking advantage of its proximity to the National Concert Hall to include a string quartet along with a guitar and organ and such cultural emblems as the harp and uilleann pipes. 

“The way I see it, it’s a musical feast for the day,” says Steven, saying the centre wants “to give it back to the nation in nothing but admiration and prayer”.