Interview with Fr. Michael O'Connor, O.P.
You are a member of a religious order called the Order of Preachers (the Dominicans.) What concern does the preacher have with beauty and the liturgy?
A preacher is someone whose life is dedicated to sharing and proclaiming the truth – the truth that is Jesus Christ. The preacher must remember, however, that while the truth speaks very powerfully to the mind there is also the heart that must be addressed. Benedict XVI has pointed out that beauty is the language native to the human heart. He once said: “The encounter with the beautiful can become the wound of an arrow that strikes the heart and in this way opens our eyes so that we can see the truth more clearly.” Benedict XVI has insisted that truth and beauty belong together and that they must be presented together. He does so because he knows how much man needs both truth and beauty in order to appreciate and live the fullness of the Christian life. God is not only true, He is also good and beautiful.
Beauty serves the sacred liturgy by expressing the honor and glory due to the Triune God we worship, as well as by appealing to our own hearts and convicting us of the Truth that we encounter in the sacred liturgy. Benedict XVI wrote, “I think that the great music born within the Church is an audible and perceptible rendering of the truth of our faith. In listening to sacred music – suddenly we feel: it is true!” The preacher, in his mission to communicate the truth of the Gospel, finds an indispensible ally in the power of beauty to move human hearts to embrace the fullness of the truth. As Benedict XVI once exclaimed upon hearing a piece of sacred music: “Anyone who has heard this knows that the faith is true!”
How did you become involved in the St. Michael Hymnal?
Before entering the Dominican Order I worked as a church music director. The pastor of this church wanted to improve the state of liturgical music at the parish and we decided that in order to do so, we would need to buy a new hymnal. I learned about the St. Michael Hymnal and immediately found it to be in a class of its own because of its concern for unadulterated language, its promotion of Gregorian chant, and its rich collection of hymnody. Our parish purchased the hymnal and was greatly enriched by it.
In the process of buying the hymnal, I became acquainted with St. Boniface Church in Lafayette, IN where the hymnal was created and with Linda Schafer, the editor and creator of the hymnal. I told her how enthused I was to find a hymnal that was faithful to the Church’s vision of sacred music, and at the same time actually usable in a parish that did not have a strong or traditional music program. I also offered to help with the project in any way that I might be able to. She accepted my offer and I began working on preparing the choir edition of the St. Michael Hymnal.
The choir edition was completed after a few years, and just as it was, it was announced that a new translation of the Ordinary of the Mass in English would be promulgated. This, of course, meant that the English Ordinaries of the Mass in the present edition of the St. Michael would become obsolete. It was decided to take this opportunity to prepare a new edition of the hymnal (the 4th Edition.) I was asked to be the music editor of this new edition and I have greatly enjoyed working on the project over the past few years.
Three of the new mass settings in the fourth edition of the St. Michael Hymnal are your own compositions. How did these new settings come about?
One of Pope Benedict's dominant themes in talking about the Church's liturgy has been the notion of continuity. In the Body of Christ, the Church, we are deeply connected to all that has gone before us. In my own compositions, I am most interested in sounding this note of continuity. I am drawn to beautiful melodic themes and ideas from the past which might be used to serve the sacred liturgy today.
The Eucharistic acclamations of my Siena Chant Mass are simply based on the opening notes of the traditional Gregorian chant Mode VII psalm tone. The rest of the setting is inspired by other Mode VII chant motifs. The rhythm of these mass part is intended to be "chant-like" - something of a blend between plainchant and metered music.
The Mass of St. Michael grew out of two very strong and beautiful melodies from the Ukrainian chant tradition. The lyrical and solemn character of these melodies provided a perfect basis for a new metrical setting of the mass. This mass is dedicated to the honor of my patron saint, Michael the Archangel, also the patron saint of the Ukraine.
I have always loved Mendelssohn's oratorio, Elijah. I find it to be a deeply spiritual and exceptionally beautiful work. As I was listening to it one day and heard the great angelic chorus sing "Holy, Holy, Holy is God the Lord" I couldn't help but think that this would make for a wonderful Sanctus. Using themes from "Lord, God of Abraham," "Cast Thy Burden Upon the Lord," and "O Rest in the Lord" as well, the beautiful melodies of Mendelssohn's oratorio provide the basis for my Mass of the Great Prophet