Singing the Body electric

Author: John Nagy ’00M.A.


Ruairi Byrne is the director of the parish choir at Clonard Church of the Annunciation. He speaks of Clonard Church as an exemplary parish. When Catholics come out to this suburb of Wexford, a small city in southeastern Ireland, they chatter approvingly about things they’d like to see happen in their own parishes

There is not, however, a hymnal to be found in the pews. And, with the curious exception of the Lord’s Prayer, Byrne says he can’t get the faithful to sing. “I just think that’s kind of an Irish thing,” he muses. “Irish people are very inhibited in the Church.”

After a dozen tours of England, Ireland and Scotland, Steve Warner ’80M.A. can testify to that. “The normative liturgical experience for Ireland is non-vocal and non-musical,” the director of the Notre Dame Folk Choir confirms, noting the irony that in Ireland, known the world over for its tenors, its folk music and the Friday night céilidh at the pub, the Celtic Revival stopped Sunday morning at the church door.

A year ago during a tour stop at Clonard, Warner and the folk choir’s vocal coach, Carolyn Pirtle ’08MSM (pictured above), had a brainstorm. People had opened their homes to Warner’s groups for years, and the folk choir has recorded his arrangements of traditional Irish hymns as well as several original compositions the island’s music has inspired. Now, they said, it was time to give back.

The result is Teach Bhride, or “House of Brigid,” a lay faith community of four recent Notre Dame graduates that Warner says Pirtle will direct “with the goal to go back and re-evangelize our roots.” The Domers will work to form a second choir for the vigil Mass and a children’s choir, and begin an outreach ministry to teens and young adults in the parish.

“People are always excited to see them coming,” Byrne says of the ND Folk Choir. “When they proposed that, we jumped at it because we would love some fresh ideas.”

Servant song

Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Pope John Paul II’s 1990 articulation of the principles structuring and animating Catholic higher education, identified “an institutional commitment to the service of the people of God and of the human family” as an “essential characteristic” of a Catholic university.

When Teach Bhride (pronounced “chalk breed”) officially opens in August, 2009, it will take its place among hundreds of ND programs and people serving the Church, extending the University’s Catholic outreach around the world. For Carolyn Pirtle, the door to that service was opened by Notre Dame’s Master of Sacred Music (MSM) program, launched by faculty in the theology and music departments four years ago.

Pirtle grew up in Wichita, Kansas. Wrapping up her studies in piano performance, music theory and composition at Kansas State in 2005, she had settled on a career in liturgical music and intuited that her Catholic school education might not suffice as theological preparation. The new program at Notre Dame seemed like the way to complete her training, but she had missed the application deadline.

Rev. Michael Driscoll, director of the MSM program, suggested she attend the inaugural session of SummerSong, a two-week workshop he leads on campus each year for music ministers who come from all over the United States. Participants begin the day at 7:15, pray together, take a two-credit liturgy course, break for Mass and lunch, and attend music lessons in the afternoon and spiritual conferences in the evening. “They work very intensely,” Driscoll notes with a grin.

Pirtle returned to Wichita after SummerSong and picked up part-time work cantoring at her parish and playing the piano and organ at a Methodist church. When she entered the MSM program in autumn 2006, she also took up Driscoll’s offer of a dorm assignment for her ministry practicum, a program requirement. Pirtle became an assistant rector at McGlinn Hall and began leading the music at the Sunday night dorm Mass.

She has since built up a liturgical music ministry that attracts as many as eight volunteer musicians each week. “It just makes my job so much more joyful,” she says.

While the practicum takes them to dorms, the basilica or churches in the South Bend area, Pirtle’s peers polish their vocal, instrumental and conducting skills through individual lessons. They also study sacred music, beginning with chant. Their coursework rounds out with the liturgical studies they undertake alongside graduate students working toward academic and pastoral degrees in theology.

Notre Dame boasts one of the oldest liturgy programs in the country but hadn’t offered training for church musicians in decades. The new program offers an organ track and a vocal track, responding to demand Driscoll says is coming directly from the Church.

“Music is . . . a sign of God’s love for us and of our love for him,” the U.S. Catholic bishops wrote in Sing to the Lord, their recently renewed call for excellence in liturgical music. “I think many places are starting to see the wisdom that if you have good music, it’s very attractive,” Driscoll says. “Granted, there’s going to be a lot of smaller churches that will never be able to afford to pay musicians. But the larger parishes are starting to budget for that.”

Last fall, the College of Arts & Letters announced the hires of Princeton-based scholars Peter Jeffery and Margot Fassler to help fine-tune the program and build up its vocal track the way music Professor Craig Cramer has done for organists. “They’re a married couple, both chant scholars,” Driscoll says. “In one fell swoop, the geography of chant studies has now shifted to the Midwest. It’s going to make this a leading center.”

That should not alarm Catholics who prefer the contemporary scene. “I’m interested in elevating the level of liturgical music in all genres,” says Driscoll. While rolling out the MSM degree, he and his colleagues also created a minor in liturgical music ministry designed to train a cohort of “learned amateurs” among the undergraduates.

“The administration wanted Notre Dame to be making this contribution to the life of the Church,” Driscoll says. He sees it as part of a commitment manifest in Geddes Hall, the 64,000-square-foot future home of the Institute for Church Life and its best-known initiative, the Center for Social Concerns, nearing completion next to the Hesburgh Library. “I mean, that’s a huge statement right there.”

Making ND user-friendly

John Cavadini jokes that he learned the subtleties of body language by teaching a confirmation class at his South Bend parish. After watching teens fail to hide their boredom for a year, Cavadini invited three ND theology majors for a miniretreat, asking them to talk about their faith.

“I might as well not have taught the whole confirmation class,” says the chair of Notre Dame’s theology department and director of its Institute for Church Life (ICL). “I might as well just have had that one retreat because those students were so effective.”

Cavadini says his confirmation students were stunned by the enthusiastic witness of “people close to their own age, who were kind of ‘cool’ people in some ways, willing to talk about their faith. . . . And I thought, why can’t we package this? This is what the Church could have, if they’re willing to pay for it.”

So “Echo” was born in 2004 as a faith-formation leadership program housed in ICL’s Center for Catechetical Initiatives. Think of it as a peace corps for U.S. Catholic parishes, a two-year post-graduation service opportunity for “apprentice catechetical leaders” who take courses at Notre Dame in the summer and continue their formation online while serving at parishes in partner dioceses with the blessing of the bishop.

“I want them to cultivate what I call a renewed pedagogy of the basics,” teaching Christian doctrine as found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church in a way that’s compelling, Cavadini says.

Echo apprentices live in community houses and take on assignments as varied as adult faith formation, youth groups and “welcome home” ministries to estranged Catholics. Notre Dame even trains their mentors, who could be a parish priest or a lay employee.

“Parish ministry is rough-and-tumble,” Cavadini observes. Past apprentices have thrived, however, and many have gone on to work in the Church as teachers, youth ministers and diocesan program leaders. One is now a Dominican seminarian.

Echo is just one program administered by the ICL, a brainchild of Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, University president emeritus. Cavadini says the Institute for Church Life “exists as a function machine: You put in different units of the University, and they come out more user-friendly to the Church than they were before.”

ICL also includes the Center for Liturgy, home to Driscoll’s SummerSong, as well as a biannual outreach program to bishops that designs educational programming at their request and convenes large groups of them on campus for closed-door conferences and workshops.

The Institute for Church Life also hosts the ND Vision program, which draws up to 1,600 high school students to campus each summer for week-long conferences that help them “think about their life choices as responding to a call from God.” A parallel conference for youth and campus ministers provides the theory behind what their students are getting. As many as 75 undergraduates participate as ND Vision counselors each year, after taking a course on the theological notion of vocation in the spring.

Separately, Cavadini and the ICL are collaborating with more than a dozen other Catholic colleges and universities to create “With What We Hold In Trust,” an “executive seminar” for trustees to help them better understand their roles and responsibilities. The idea, he explains, isn’t for Notre Dame to teach other institutions how to be Catholic, but for the schools to work together to help fashion each other’s Catholic identity.

The ICL also expands the accessibility of theology courses to nontraditional students through its STEP distance-learning program — online courses in Catholic doctrine, Christian life, Church history, liturgy and Scripture taught either by a Notre Dame professor or a STEP staff instructor. Students enrolled in the theology department’s summer M.A. program can apply up to four online courses toward their degree, sparing them time away from their families and their parish or diocesan jobs. STEP staffers also tailor continuing education classes to meet the needs of partner dioceses.

Parables of talent

Say “service” at Notre Dame, and Domers likely think of the abundant outreach initiatives of the Center for Social Concerns or the Alliance for Catholic Education’s teachers program. But the inclination to share talent and expertise with the Church anywhere from South Bend to Rome stretches way beyond the familiar.

“I think folks at Catholic universities do have a special calling to be thinking about — consistent with academic freedom — how what we do can be of use and service to the Church,” says law Professor Richard Garnett.

A First Amendment expert, Garnett was invited to Rome in January to speak at a conference on U.S. church-state relations sponsored by the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See. The diplomatic corps was peppering then-Ambassador Mary Ann Glendon with questions after Pope Benedict XVI had publicly praised the American model and recommended it to European countries that, Garnett says, are “trying to find the right balance between secularism and religious freedom.

“Religious freedom is an idea that matters a lot,” he adds. “If I can help get that idea right out there in the public sphere, then I believe I am doing something good for the Church.”

Garnett is far from alone at Notre Dame Law School, where colleagues are advancing legal knowledge on areas of keen public policy interest to the Church, from abortion and bioethics to immigration and various forms of social discrimination. Others are consulted on matters of canon law or play important roles in such groups as the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars and the Catholic Common Ground Initiative.

Notre Dame’s emphasis on interdisciplinary research has further strengthened its outreach. Centers and institutes attracting scholars from across the University’s six colleges and schools host massive conferences on the Catholic intellectual tradition and medical ethics; fight poverty in the developing world; cultivate networks of Catholic peacemakers in regions rent by violent conflict; build bridges between Catholic leaders in the United States and Latin America; extend a welcome to Latino immigrants; foster dialogue on evolutionary theory among scientists, philosophers and theologians; and bolster the resources of Catholic universities struggling to thrive in Eastern Europe.

Then there’s Robert Brandt, an architecture professor and wood sculptor who leads the school’s furniture design concentration. He has fashioned shrines, gifts tables, a presider’s chair, ambries for holding holy oils and ambos for reading the word of God to be placed in new churches and in restoration projects often led by an ND colleague, either Professor Duncan Stroik or Professor Thomas Gordon Smith.

A lifelong Catholic, Brandt says his church commissions are especially fulfilling because he knows where his pieces are going to go. But he views his entire craft as a gift he’s received from God. “It’s a very spiritual thing for me.”

Give and take

Cavadini stresses that the service bond between Church and academy is mutual. That dynamic of exchange is very much on Ruairi Byrne’s mind as he thinks of the role music and Domers might play in reviving his parish. The Diocese of Ferns, where Clonard Church is located, was the first under the hot lights when the clerical sex abuse scandal broke in Ireland. Children and young adults practically vanished from the pews.

“We went through a number of dark years, put it that way,” Byrne reflects. He finds the open faith shared among Folk Choir members infectious. “In a way you’re kind of jealous, because you’d love the same thing to be over here. And we would hope when [our] young people see other young people practicing their faith and not being shy about it, it may encourage them to become more outspoken or want to participate more.”

Reaching out to young parishioners will mean evening office hours for Carolyn Pirtle and company in local pubs. Clonard’s pastor, Father Denis Lennon, insists there will be no better way for them to meet their new neighbors, especially the younger ones.

Pirtle and Steve Warner are aware that Teach Bhride will face difficulties. “It would be a very bad thing for this community to go over to Ireland and say we have all the answers, and they’re American,” Warner says.

Instead, they’ll take their missionary cues from Saint Brigid. A floor-to-ceiling tapestry depicting the medieval abbess and patroness of Ireland with her familiar cross of rushes and bishop’s crozier — hand-sewn by local artisans in brilliant colors — hangs in Clonard’s day chapel. Details remind the faithful how Brigid won converts by using the materials that daily life, local custom and nature provided. Ireland, it seems, has much to offer, too.

Warner sees a lifetime’s work in playing an active role in the revival of the Church in Ireland, where 25 of 26 seminaries have closed in recent decades.

While the three students selected to join Pirtle have committed just to the first year of that, Pirtle herself is in it for at least two or three. After that, she thinks, it could be home to a parish job in Wichita, or maybe Denver where she worked one summer. Or, she says, she may just throw a dart at a map: “There’s always a need.”

John Nagy is an associate editor of this magazine.
Photo of Carolyn Pirtle by Matt Cashore.