The Hero of the Mighty Musical Struggle

Several years ago, I received a note from an older man who had been battling much of his life for good Church music, particularly Gregorian chant. He did this in terrible times following the Second Vatican Council when the cultural ethos warred against any settled liturgical forms. He had plenty of scars to show for his work, but not much progress emerged until recent days.

He wasn’t writing to congratulate me on my more recent work for chant. Instead, he wanted me to know that my writing generally got on his nerves. He noted my own optimism about the progress we were making to restore chant to its proper place in Mass, to publish vernacular settings of sacred music, to train up choirs.

And all this bubbly optimism from my writing he generally found annoying simply because I don’t  seem terribly aware of the contribution that an earlier generation made to even make this moment possible. Was I ungrateful for what he and others did? Was I completely blind to the terrible conditions that his generation faced in the 1960s and 1970s to make it possible for us to hear and sing great sacred music today?

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I was obviously taken aback by his comments. And yet, in some ways, he was right. We are too quick to forget the past. Every generation just imagines that the world it inherits is as it should be and could not be any other. I see progress because I know how far gone we were and therefore how much improvement could be made. He lived through nothing but disaster from the 1950s through the 2000s. His world collapsed. It’s all a matter of perspective.

And yet there had to be a bridge between the depths and the recovery. He and his generation served that role. They kept the chant going during the worst of times. They trained whomever was willing. They maintained the handful of choirs that kept singing. They kept the faith as others lost it. And today, we are beneficiaries of their efforts. The flame was never extinguished and now it is growing again.

We are prone to forget the sacrifices others made to make our present moment better than it would otherwise be. This tendency to forget—to take all things given to us as some kind of birthright—is why Catholicism has made the study and reflection on history extremely important in education. This is a facet of the lives of the martyrs and saints. They allow us to broaden our minds and learn to have a more intense appreciation of the sacrifices of those who have gone before.

So let me do propitiation for my smug optimism by discussing a man who did extraordinary things to bridge the gigantic gulf between the dark and the light. His name is Msgr. Richard J. Schuler, and he is most known as the man who persisted in building and running the nation’s most famous sacred music program following Vatican II. He was pastor of St. Agnes in St. Paul, Minnesota and the head of the Church Music Association of America. Even today the entire congregation knows the complete Kyriale music book of the Roman Rite. Even today, this is a parish where you can go to hear and experience the music that was recommended by the Council.

It was not easy for him. It’s hard for us to imagine the scene in 1969 when he took over as pastor of St. Agnes when he implemented his program. This was the Age of Aquarius. Chants books were being tossed in the garbage. Children’s choir programs had been dismantled. Churches were being “wreckovated” with high altars between torn down. Anyone with a guitar and a groovy spirit was considered more qualified for providing music at Mass than a conservatory-trained organist. As for well-trained choirs, they nearly melted in a matter of a few years simply because good musicians could hardly bear the dreck that was being trotted out as “ritual song.”

It took incredible conviction and courage in those days to continue singing Gregorian chant, Palestrina, William Byrd, Mozart, Haydn, and Schubert—Mass in the Roman and Viennese tradition at the same time that the world was slogging in the mud at Woodstock and the folk Mass was sweeping all before it. They laughed at him. They called him a relic. They said he was a dying breed. They regarded him as the last holdout, the very embodiment of everything that the post-conciliar revolution was supposed to destroy.

Still, he marched onward. He took the helm of the Church Music Association of America and kept publishing its journal Sacred Music. He trained young men in the seminary. He mentored musicians. He traveled to speak and teach. He would write for any publication that would print his words, and never seemed to doubt that people would someday come to their sense.

The core of his claim really came down to the assertion that there is something called “sacred music” that is particularly suitable for liturgy, and there is another kind of music that we might call profane music that is certainly unsuitable. Sacred music is marked by its use of the liturgical text, it’s seriousness of purpose, its universal appeal, and its holiness. Profane music is marked by its non-liturgical, non-religious character.

These may be simple distinctions but they are hugely important. Msgr. Schuler argued that no music is either sacred or profane in an inherent way. They take on the connotation by virtue of the time and place. Hence, a music can be profane in one era and sacralized in another. He demonstrated with deep scholarship that in times of profound faith, Christian communities had greater confidence in their capacity to absorb certain styles from the secular world, but that in times of loss of faith, this was guarded against and even heavily condemned.

And yet, given all this borrowing, there are certain styles that are bound up with the sacred and unmistakably so. Those styles are mentioned specifically by the Council as being chant and polyphony in the Renaissance style. This is not a matter of doctrine, so to speak, but of pastoral practice. And we all know this from experience. I could grab anyone off the street right now, play either style to the first person I see and ask: what does this music signal? The answer: Church.

In a time of widespread nihilism, doubts about the truth of Christianity, cultural despair that any form of art could actually be considered uniquely holy, he maintained his position. What’s more striking, he had the confidence that the truth he believed would eventually be widely embraced—even if it was long after he left this earth.

So far as he was concerned, the Church had spoken on the matter and that was all he needed to know. As Rev. William E. Sanderson said in a homily given at St. Agnes a year after his death, Msgr. Schuler actually believed the words of the Council:

  • “The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as a combination of sacred music and words, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy” (n. 112).
  • “The treasury of sacred music is to be preserved and cultivated with great care. Choirs must be assiduously developed, especially in cathedral churches. Bishops and other pastors of souls must take great care to ensure that whenever the sacred action is to be accompanied by chant, the whole body of the faithful may be able to contribute that active participation which is rightly theirs” (n. 114).
  • “The Church recognizes Gregorian chant as being specially suited to the Roman liturgy. Therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services” (n. 116)

Perhaps it was the time in which he was ordained and trained in music. From his years in seminary and after, he had learned the chant and experienced its glories in the liturgical context. He knew a time when musicians aspired to write for and perform in the Catholic liturgy. He was there when musicians of the highest caliber were drawn to her service, and when the Church celebrated musical excellence as an example of the highest praise she could offer God.

And he was there during the Council and saw that it raised the cause of sacred music to the forefront of liturgical reform. He knew that the goal was to push the liturgical text to the forefront and move away from the “low Mass” culture of non-engagement. He loved the Latin Mass but embraced the move to the vernacular, calling English a gift from the Church to everyone.

He knew all of this and this surely animated his decision to depart from the crowd and go the way he knew to be true. But there was more. It also took personal courage. Clarence Darrow once said that “A thousand men will march to the mouth of the cannon where one man will dare espouse an unpopular cause.” And it’s true that the social pressures must have been incredibly intense. But he persisted.

Now we look around the Church today and see that scholas are being formed everywhere. The chant is heard again. New books of vernacular propers are being published. It is possible now to move to any medium or large population center and have several major music programs to choose from—and this is after nearly all were gutted in the 1960s and 70s. Schuler made a gigantic difference because he kept the vision and the dream alive when few others had the stamina.

We don’t think of ourselves as the beneficiaries of his labors but we are. He died in 2007, just as the new sacred music was getting going. It had to wait for 40 years but in those years, he was leading people out of the desert into the promised land. We aren’t there yet but we are headed in the right direction.

This is why I’m so pleased to be a speaker at a conference honoring the memory of the great Msgr. Richard Schuler. It takes place October 13–15, 2013, at the Church of Saint Agnes and Cathedral of Saint Paul in Saint Paul, Minnesota. The conference marks the 40th anniversary of the residence of the Twin Cities Catholic Chorale, founded by Msgr. Schuler, at the Church of Saint Agnes in Saint Paul. The conference seeks to explore, through critical analysis, former and present efforts to revive the Church’s sacred liturgy and music, particularly as exemplified by Msgr. Schuler’s work.

Let us remember and appreciate, and never take for granted, the gifts our generation has been given. We are here today only because of many battles and sacrifices of the past. Sacred music lives today because we are blessed by brilliant workers in the vineyard that have come before.

Editor’s note: The photograph above depicts Msgr. Richard J. Schuler conducting the Minnesota Orchestra and Chorale during an Easter celebration of the 10:00am Latin High Mass at St. Agnes Church in Saint Paul, MN.


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