The Unhealthy Liturgical Obsession with Self

N OBSESSION with self-affirmation can lead to problems in everyday life. Those who do not need it, even in the face of adversity and criticism, tend to be happiest. (This is no easy thing and requires a lifetime of struggle.) Those who are in service to others tend to also be happiest.

But those who require self-affirmation, especially immediate attention, are at risk of covering up real emotions. They are at risk of masking pain from unaddressed problems, which can lead to a host of dire consequences.

Please note, none of this is a judgment. I struggle with these very same things as I am mindful of the myriad planks I should remove from my own eye. (I often joke that I write these articles because I am emotionally needy, and I seek affirmation from the Internet.)

If an obsession with self-affirmation is something contrary to personal happiness, then why does this crop up in the liturgy so often?

It is not found in the Roman Rite. It is not there in the scriptures. We are in fact inserting such self-obsession. The ubiquity of self-congratulatory lyrics and added sentiments (not in the Roman Missal) has normalized this mindset. No, we have not gathered to celebrate ourselves, but the Sacred Mysteries, which are eternally present, now and always. This is the sacramental reality of the Eucharist. This is worth celebrating with joy far beyond our limited human understanding.

Avoiding self-focus does not preclude building a welcoming parish. Reverent prayer and being inviting are not mutually exclusive in the least. In fact they go together beautifully. Placing Christ at the center is a dynamic agent of change in our hearts and therefore change in the world.

Furthermore, a need for self-affirmation is quite different than underscoring service to our fellow parishioners. The latter is vital to a successful parish and key to the concept of Lex Vivendi, which is the law of how we live our lives according to our prayer and our beliefs.

OUNTERINTUITIVE PERHAPS is that the more focused we are on God—and less on ourselves—the happier we may be. As such, the more a community makes Christ the center of their prayer, the stronger its bonds. This in turn helps a community be of greater service far beyond the four walls of the sacred worship space.

As a leader—as a choir director—one must never make the liturgy about oneself. Yes, we are entrusted with decisions, but it must be in the service of God and others—not an affirmation of self-worth as a musician.

INALLY, THE IMPORTANCE of hymnody with solid Roman Catholic theology cannot be overestimated. Better still, sing the propers whenever possible. Sing the Mass. In doing so, we are singing the scriptures. In doing so we put God at the center.

Then watch what happens deep within our soul.

Soli Deo gloria

The Power of Wordless Presence

passages have contained an interesting exhortation—one somewhat outwardly uncharacteristic of Jesus himself. Jesus tells a parable of the difficulty of passing through the narrow gate. When those knocking on the door, asking to be let in, not once, but twice, the master of house says, “I do not know where you are from…”

A few days later, the Gospel contains Jesus’ parable about the ten wise virgins. Again, they knock on the door asking to be let in. The bridegroom replies in nearly the same fashion, “…I do not know you…”

While each parable has a larger lesson—one of humility and the other of readiness—there is an beckoning to “know” the Lord.

Knowing another human being requires an investment of time and an investment of oneself. I suppose “knowing” God is quite similar. The masters in these stories are unlike Jesus in that we are told over and over in scripture that the Lord knows our every need and has known us before we were born. Psalm 139: “Your eyes saw me unformed; in your book all are written down; my days were shaped, before one came to be.”

This is the value of simply being in the presence of God or of one of his children. Our our pastoral roles, this is much harder work than dealing with the music alone!

Many of us are gearing up our choir programs at this time. There has likely been an enormous amount of planning that has taken place during the summer. We are getting into “recruitment mode.” There is no end to preparations and implementation.

Yet if we do not invest of ourselves time to “know” the Lord, our work may be for our own glorification rather than for God’s. (I write this as a reminder to myself.)

Each year, I am astounded to learn something new about a choir member or parishioner. These are people that I thought I knew well. It often involves a unique cross that individual is carrying. It changes my perspective, and hopefully more towards mindfulness of greater mercy. This only came about while being “present” to know the person.

Likewise, spending time with music—even over a period of years—allows that music to take hold in our hearts, and not just in our minds and voices. Such presence, such being, lends to service of others. This is the value of rehearsal.

Finally, my happiest times with my children are probably times in which I am simply present for them. I try to do this because my parents—and my father—took time to be simply present with me, especially at stages of difficulty.

No words were shared. Just presence. I remember these times, and I hope my children remember them too. Do this with others in our pastoral work, and the impact may be beyond something we will ever know.

If we know God, he knows us. Remember this, even if swamped with work and obligations. Remember the power of accompanying others in their struggles. Remember the power of wordless presence.

Five Things Directors and Choirs Must Remember This Week

This article originally appeared on Corpus Christ Watershed’s, “Views from the Choir Loft” — published March 27, 2015.

ELCOME TO Holy Week. For many, preparations have been well underway and are still ongoing. But once the onslaught of liturgies begins, it’s a bit like the morning of a final exam: One can’t study or prepare anymore. Just be in the best mental and physical state possible. For us, that also includes spiritual.

So, why do we work so hard to prepare? Beyond the technical preparations, musical and liturgical, there are five essential things music directors should remind themselves, their choirs and instrumentalists:


There are those who walk through the doors of our churches who carry burdens unknown to us. Sorrow, struggle, and suffering permeates our fragile existence, but so does joy. There is great opportunity for comfort, compassion and love. In prayerful, loving song, you may forever change the lives of someone you do not know in a way you will never know.

Furthermore, for Elect and Candidates of the Church, the Easter Vigil is a night of life-changing importance. Your prayerful support, now, and during the period of mystagogy is critical.


While individuals may be experiencing different things in their personal lives, we are united in the Body of Christ. We are not only part of our local parish, but part of the Universal Church. This unity and universality is, in part, why our worship is ritualized. We are connected not only with our neighbors beside us, but with our brothers and sisters around the world. We are connected not only in the present day, but with the old Covenant with Abraham to the new Covenant mediated by Christ, so that we “may receive the promise of an eternal inheritance” (Heb 9:15) in the future.

In part this unity is why our sacred music ideally conveys a sense of timelessness and universality. Christ yesterday and today… All time belongs to Him…

Likewise, in this unity, everyone in your choir is important—not just those with more beautiful voices. We’re all singing and praying together.


This is the Martha side of things. There is an overwhelming amount to do, but be mindful that all the tedious work and attention to detail is in service to the liturgy. It is in service to God and a great service to your sisters and brothers in the community.

But when the time comes, don’t worry about mistakes. Glitches will arise. Move on in prayer and don’t look back.


This is the Mary side of things. Being constantly busy is its own kind of addictive drug designed to distract us from pain and even sometimes from joy! (Being emotional is hard work.) At the end of your pre-liturgy warmup or rehearsal, be sure to leave the choir several minutes for quiet reflection and prayer. If desired, part of that time can also be used to look over a score of the first piece or two. Sing the incipit in your head. Then close the book.

Remember to allow room for the Spirit, for both musical and prayerful inspiration. Place yourself in the center of the music and revel in every moment of prayer that comes forth. In achieving this end, the value of stillness and silence cannot be underestimated.


Expressing gratitude should become a mindful habit. Choirs can never be thanked enough. Of all the ministries of your church or parish, those in the choir usually volunteer the greatest number of hours all year round. So, thank your choir now, and always.

Consider how lucky we are to have people in our lives not only to make music with, but to pray with. To do so at the same time is an extraordinary privilege. Don’t forget it, and never take it for granted.

So, get on your knees and thank God for the gift of music, through which we may sing His praises, comfort the distressed, and experience the boundless joy of God’s love.

And while you’re at it, thank your choir. Again.

Have a blessed Holy Week!

The Lord Is My Shepherd | SSA Choir

HE LORD IS MY SHEPHERD is now available for digital download.

Composed for SSA choir and piano, it can be learned quickly in one or two rehearsals.The text from Psalm 23 is taken from the universally known King James Bible.

You may purchase a downloadable Digital PDF of the score. Upon purchase, you will receive an email from which you can download the score.

    • ($39.00) Digital PDF copy comes with reprint license limited to use for one choir. You do not have permission to disseminate the score.

Listen here to a recording by the Boston City Singers, recorded live at mass at St. Cecilia Parish in Boston.

Mardi Gras and Burying the Alleluia

HE HEBREW WORD, “הללויה” or “Hallelujah,” is a word of unsurpassed joy. It is an acclamation of praise, thanksgiving and victory.

“Hallelujah” is really a two–word phrase meaning “Praise Yah.” It is a joyous and unabashed song of praise to God and appears many times in the Book of Psalms, most prominently in Psalms 111-117 and 145-150.

Untranslated by the early Christians, we have adopted the Hebrew word “Hallelujah” as our own. Using it again and again, most notably during Eastertide, we joyfully sing our praises for Christ’s triumph and victory over sin and death. Christ’s Sacrifice has become our Paschal meal. The tomb is empty. Alleluia! Alleluia!

Free Download:
PDF • “Alleluia” (for SAB Choir; Dedicated to Fernando Mavar-Ruiz and Melissa Malvar-Keylock)

However, this Sunday, (and for some on Tuesday at daily mass) we sing our final “Alleluias” as we prepare to begin our Lenten journey towards the Easter celebration of Christ’s glorious Resurrection. Likened to the exile of the Israelites in Babylon, the practice of “fasting” from singing or saying the word “Alleluia” began in some places perhaps as early as the fifth century. The popular practice of “burying the Alleluia” had its beginnings in a lay-led ritual, which included a solemn procession to the church cemetery with a scroll or even a coffin inscribed with the word “Alleluia.” The “Alleluia” was literally buried in the cemetery, leaving the people with the hope and anticipation of its Easter Sunday resurrection.

Where does that leave us this coming week during Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday? Affectionately known as “Fat Tuesday,” Mardi Gras is not merely one day, but a carnival season ending just before Ash Wednesday. “Fat Tuesday” is our last night of eating richer, fatty foods before the ritual fasting of the Lenten season. It is on this day that we express our last superlative praise of God by exclaiming “Alleluia.”

Just as on Mardi Gras we savor one final taste of indulgent sumptuousness, let us savor these last “Alleluias” as we would a last joyous meal with friends, confidants, family, and dear loved ones. Sing out and delight in this final sumptuous exuberance of God’s praise. Let its memory sustain us through the balance of this bleak winter; let its power strengthen us as we carry our own burdens and shoulder our particular crosses.

The hymn Alleluia, Song of Gladness (The Hymnal 1982, #122, 123; Words: Latin, 11th Cent.; trans. John Mason Neale) evokes the exile of the Israelites in Babylon as well as the fasting from singing “Alleluia” as we enter into Lent. Beginning with verse 2:

Alleluia, thou resoundest, true Jerusalem and free
Alleluia, joyful mother, all thy children sing with thee;
But by Babylon’s sad waters mourning exiles now are we.
Alleluia though we cherish and would chant for evermore
Alleluia in our singing, let us for a while give o’er
As our Savior in his fasting pleasures of the world forbore.

In the final verse, we patiently anticipate singing “Alleluia” in our Easter joy:

Therefore in our hymns we pray thee, grant us, blessed Trinity,
At the last to keep thine Easter with thy faithful saints on high;
There to thee for ever singing alleluia joyfully.

After this Sunday, our Alleluia is buried for the next six Sundays, not to be sung again until the Great Vigil of Easter when we stay awake and keep watch for the Resurrection of our Savior, Christ the Lord.

Ascent to Freedom

True freedom does not rise from the capacity to fulfill all desires. Freedom is captivity, followed by battle, followed by faith, followed by wisdom and compassion as seen through the eyes of love.

Of this struggle, true liberation is born.

The Boston Music Intelligencer writes:

“… Its five movements are quite accessible, sometimes displaying a French influence. The last three movements made imaginative use of, respectively, the Lutheran chorale If You But Trust in God to Guide You, the spiritual Go Down, Moses, and the hymn How Can I Keep From Singing. There was some compelling musical illustration in the spiritual movement when tortured chromaticism and crunchy reed chords gave way suddenly to diatonic harmonies on the solo clarinet accompanied by string celeste: the effect was like a release from bondage.” — The Boston Music Intelligencer

Reviewed from this Live Performance on the 1875 E. & G. G. Hook & Hastings, Opus 801, Cathedral of the Holy Cross, Boston, MA

VIEW SAMPLE SCORE: Ascent to Freedom 

  • Purchase Downloadable PDF copy ($19.95) comes with reprint license)
    As recorded on the 1999 Smith & Gilbert Organ, St. Cecilia Church, Boston:

The Thoughts of His Heart

HAVE LONG BEEN FASCINATED with the text of the Introit for the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Cogitationes, Ps. 33 (32): 11, 19: “The thoughts of his heart stand from generation to generation: that he might deliver their souls from death, and nourish them in times of famine.”

  • Digital PDF copy ($8.95 comes with reprint license for the buyer only.)  

HE THOUGHTS OF HIS HEART is an organ work based on Cogitationes. The chant is quoted in its entirety in the pedal with an 8′ oboe stop. (Even the psalm verse is quoted, with a return to the incipit.) This is played over an ostinato accompaniment in the left hand, with interjected improvisatory figures in the right hand. Within the realm of interior prayer, there is rest and comfort to be found, yet at the same time a restless joy exposed by the unusual harmonies and imposed melodies. Ultimately, it finds repose and peace.

The heart is resilient and complex. It leads us to Jesus and to his Heart.

Free Communion Propers for the Easter Season | Years ABC

HIS COLLECTION of communion propers for the Easter Season is an update which now includes settings for all three liturgical years (A, B, C).

To sing these texts is to journey from Christ’s Resurrection to the descent of the Holy Spirit. It is quite an emotional experience when one realizes just HOW MANY ALLELUIAS are in all of the Easter propers! After abstaining from “Alleluias” throughout Lent, it is a blessed relief to sing “Alleluia” over and over again within these beautiful texts from scripture.

Free Download:
PDF • “Easter Season Communion Propers | Years ABC” (for Schola, Organ, SATB)

• Includes seventeen settings from the Easter Vigil though Pentecost Sunday.

• All are chant based in style.

• Includes a setting for the Seventh Sunday of Easter in those dioceses in which The Ascension of Our Lord is not transferred to Sunday.

• Can be sung with cantor or schola with organ. There is enormous opportunity for optional SATB singing, designed to offer contrast with unison singing.

• Optional congregation inserts for worship aids found after page 37

• Antiphon texts are English translations of those found in the Graduale Romanum. (You will find variation with the Communion propers found in the Roman Missal, especially during the Easter Season. A MUST READ article regarding Antiphons in the Roman Missal vs. the Roman Gradual is written by Jeff Ostrowski.)

HESE ANTIPHONS SHOULD ALWAYS BE SUNG with forward, yet unhurried movement, and often with an air of lightness—not always in color but in spirit and energy. Even the intensity of the Pentecost antiphon should be sung with light forward motion, yet still unhurried (despite the “rush of a mighty wind”!). Do not be afraid of engaging in mystery and energy in chant!

Each antiphon colors the text simply and occasionally with symbolic gesture. For example, the Easter Vigil / Easter Sunday antiphon ends a half step below the tonic — unresolved and evoking the mystery of the empty tomb. The Pentecost antiphon uses a similar device, bookending this collection. Another example is found in the Sixth Sunday of Easter, which utilizes an augmented fifth chord—three equal intervals representing the Trinity — the augmented fifth, symbolizing the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, on Ascension Thursday, the final chords in both the antiphon and verses are unsupported by the root, but instead by the third providing a sense of elevated motion.

For future reference, here are Communion propers for Lent and Advent:

Free Download:
PDF • “Twelve Communion Propers for Lent”
(for Schola, Organ, SATB)

Free Download:
PDF • “Advent Communion Propers”
(for Schola, Organ, SATB)

Have a blessed Lent and Holy Week!

Requiem pour une américaine à Paris

NE OF THE MOST powerful spiritual experiences I ever had was the Requiem Mass in the Extraordinary Form at the 2012 Sacred Music Colloquium in Salt Lake City, Utah. This is saying a lot, as many of the liturgies at the Colloquia, whether in the Ordinary or Extraordinary Form, have shaken me to the core; I have been overwhelmed with an unspeakable sense of awe, mystery, and joy. Even these words are inadequate.

Requiem pour une américaine à Paris is a direct outgrowth of this experience. It is based largely on the Gregorian Chant Propers of the Requiem Mass. It is dedicated to the memory of my beloved aunt and Godmother, Anita Cipriani, who passed on The Feast of the Sacred Heart, just prior to the 2012 Sacred Music Colloquium. It was premiered on All Souls Day in 2012.

A seven-movement work composed for trumpet and organ, it is reminiscent of an early Twentieth Century French Romantic style. Although quite faithful to many of the Gregorian Chants, this is not a liturgical work, but a concert work. It would be difficult to match the music to the liturgical action. However, I hope this may be a helpful and hopeful meditation on God’s merciful love, and our hopeful expectation of eternal life in the words of Credo quod Redemptor: “I believe that my Redeemer lives, and that on the last day, I shall rise from earth and in my flesh I shall behold God my Savior.”

The CD is available for purchase ($9.99) and for download ($6.93) (Amazon, CD Baby, iTunes, etc.). Or you may listen and follow the scores below on YouTube. (Score available at RJC Cecilia Music)

Free Sample from Score:   PDF • VI. Lux aeterna

YouTube:  I. Introit | Requiem aeternam”
YouTube:  II. Gradual | Requiem aeternam
YouTube:  III. Dies Irae
YouTube:  IV. Jubilis!
YouTube:  V. Offertory | Domine Jesu Christe”
YouTube:  VI. Communion | Lux aeterna
YouTube:  VII. Last Farewell

HIS WORK WAS COMPOSED for Richard Kelley, trumpet. (Additionally, BSO Organist, James David Christie has asked me to arrange a version for English Horn for him and Robert Sheena, Principal English horn player of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.) Certainly, the trumpet is rarely, if ever associated with Gregorian Chant. However, Mr. Kelley possesses unusually extraordinary grace, dignity, and humility, all which sing beautifully through his playing. (Listen especially to IV. Lux Aeterna and the quote of “In Paradisum” in the VII. Last Farewell.)

The one movement, which is a departure from the Requiem mass, is the “IV. Jubilis!” It briefly quotes the Tract (which of course comes before the Sequence in the mass–the order is reversed in this concert piece.) It is also loosely based on the Post-Vatican II addition of the “Alleluia” The “Jubilis!” theme returns at the end of the final movement, in hopeful expectation of eternal life in heaven.

ICHARD KELLEY, TRUMPET was a soloist with the Boston Symphony and Boston Pops 1984 and 1985 at the age of 16 and 17. He studied at the Juilliard School in NYC, he is a former member of Boston Brass Quintet and a current member of the Brass Band of Battle Creek. His credits include Broadway shows in NYC, TV ads, and film soundtracks. He has performed with artists such as Andrea Bocelli, Ray Charles, Steven Tyler, James Taylor, Glenn Close, Bernadette Peters, Jennifer Aniston, and Vanessa Williams. Conductor of the New England Swing in Nashua New Hampshire, he now plays frequently with the Boston Pops.

NITA CIPRIANI was a French teacher at Hunter College Elementary School and Convent of the Sacred Heart, both in Manhattan. A consummate educator, she studied in Paris and spent much of her life there. In 1992, she was honored by the French Government at the French Consulate in New York as a Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Palmes Académiques, a decoration founded by Emperor Napoleon I to honor outstanding academics. Her joy of life and her deep faith in God sing on.

• Pictured: Anita Cipriani and Richard,  New York City, 1996

• CD Cover Photography by Rev. James Martin, SJ | Window from St. Mary’s Chapel, Boston College
• Recording Engineer: Evan Landry
• Mastering: Paul Umbach
• Richard Clark played the 1999 Smith & Gilbert Organ Recorded at St. Cecilia Church, Boston

Two Lenten Meditations

The Ash Wednesday Collect from the Roman Missal refers to Lent as “this campaign of Christian service…” Through this campaign, Lent is marked by two themes: preparation for baptism and penance. But Lent is also a joyful season with its expectation of resurrection and as a time of healing. In the Introit for Ash Wednesday, Misereris Omnium, it is deeply significant that the very first prayer of Lent speaks of God’s infinite mercy: “Your mercy extends to all things, O Lord, and you despise none of the things you have made. You overlook our sins for the sake of repentance. You grant them your pardon, because you are the Lord our God.” –Wisdom 11:24-25, 27; Psalm 57 (56)

Two Lenten Mediations  was premièred a St. Cecilia Church in 2002 by Marco Facchin, organ, Michael Calmès, tenor, and the St. Cecilia Schola.

I. Misereris Omnium–Atonement, Transformation is based on the Introit for Ash Wednesday. Here the schola sings the Intoit, followed by organ variations. The transformation and variety of colors in the organ indicate that through the Lenten season, we do not end up in the same place that we started. Beginning with the thick and rich clarinet stop in the tenor, the piece explores many colors, ending with very light 4′ flutes, in anticipation of Christ’s resurrection.

II. Lover of Souls also takes its text from the Ash Wednesday Introit, with the added line from scripture Wisdom 11: 27: “But you spare all things, because they are yours, O Lord, Lover of Souls.” This work with contemporary classical harmonic language is beautifully sung by Michael Calmès, ternor.