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Online Edition - Vol. IV, No. 1: February/March 1998
NOT TO US, LORD
Seton high school choir records a musical pilgrimage
Reviewed by Father Jerry Pokorsky
After celebrating a Saturday Mass on a cold January morning, I was approached by a parishioner who handed me a CD recording. It was "Non Nobis Domine, Hymns from the Liturgical Year at Seton School". A high school choir. Of course, every high school has the best band, the best theater troupe, the best football team, the best choir--in the eyes, at least, of fond parents. I thought I would listen to the CD as I worked on parish correspondence.
I should explain that I'm not a musician. In fact, I have difficulty carrying a tune. I seldom sing at Mass, although I would like to. But during my years as a priest I have observed what music is conducive to prayer and what fails. I think many of our choirs are failing.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has written that a choir might symbolically take the place of the angels in the singing of the Sanctus. But this is not what we ordinarily expect to hear in our churches.
Liturgical music has become far from angelic. Many years ago, when "contemporary folk style" music was introduced into Catholic worship, it was argued that this would appeal to youth who, it was claimed, found traditional hymns boring or "irrelevant" to their lives. (Everyone knows that boredom is the arch-enemy of youth, don't we? Maybe also to the middle-aged disciples of Peter, Paul and Mary!) I rather enjoy folk music myself, though not at Mass. But even if liturgical music could stop boredom or compete with pop music for the attention of young Catholics, should this be its purpose? What message are we trying to convey with music? Is the purpose of singing at Mass to entertain?
Such thoughts were in my mind as I put on the CD of the high-school choir. I confess I did not expect what I heard. Even as a non-expert, I can say with conviction that Non Nobis Domine is extraordinary. Happily the Seton High School Choir is not under the influence of church music fads or the entertainment industry, although the title hymn was popularized by the movie Henry V. The Seton choir sings the Henry V arrangement as well as the chant version of this ancient hymn based on the Psalm of David that begins with the words Non nobis, Domine--"Not to us, Lord, not to us, but to thy Name be glory".
That the Seton choir chose this as their title and theme is not without significance. The recording was made while the choir, directed by Peggy Gregory, was on a pilgrimage to the Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Emmitsburg, Maryland. (The students asked to have this noted on the album cover.) The collection of 29 traditional Catholic hymns was recorded in a single day--almost a miracle in itself! The exuberance, ability and genuine devotion of these young singers comes through in their performance, and proves that the tradition of great Church music is very much alive. Mrs. Gregory demonstrates that we can expect great things from our young Catholics if they are introduced to authentic Catholic worship.
Most of the hymns of Non Nobis Domine are sung a capella, that is, without instrumental accompaniment. As a parish priest accustomed to the organ and the guitar, the crisp unaccompanied chant and beautiful lyrics of the recording are blessedly soothing as well as inspiring. As I listened, I found myself longing for such hymnody at Mass because it is music that inspires prayer.
The selection of hymns is outstanding. From O Sanctissima and Panis Angelicus, to "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming", the selections transcend the culturally restricted church music of the post-Vatican II era, which often sound more like secular love-songs masquerading as religious music. The Seton choir does not alter the words for so-called "inclusive language" or "political correctness" purposes. Other classic Catholic hymns, now too rarely heard, include "Jesus, My Lord, My God, My All", "Immaculate Mary", "Soul of My Savior", "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel", "Be Joyful Mary", "O Lord I am Not Worthy". Older Catholics may also remember the rousing anthem, "For Christ the King", composed by the famous Jesuit youth evangelist, Father Daniel Lord. It happens to be the Seton Hall school song.
The varied collection of hymns and the clear, harmonious singing of fresh young voices opens a welcome window to renewed possibilities for church music in ordinary parishes. The hymns are accessible to most congregations precisely because they are musically traditional and intelligible. The lyrics are memorable and entirely free from the distractingly questionable theology in many contemporary hymn lyrics.
The quality of the recording is surprisingly good. Some of this is to the acoustics of the Shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. But the voice range--from the young sopranos to the mature bass voices--along with admirable diction and timing, make the recording irresistible. The organ accompanies a few hymns, but the pristine quality of the well-balanced choir made the organ seem superfluous.
How does this album compare to the Irish best-selling Faith of Our Fathers, Classic Religious Anthems of Ireland? Very well. Of course, few can compete with Frank Patterson and the Monks of Glenstal Abbey. But the singers of the Seton High School Choir do not overwhelm. Rather, the choir invites the listener to join them in hymn and prayer--just as the ideal parish choir might do.
Director Peggy Gregory's Seton High School Choir presents a true gift to the Church. Non Nobis Domine would be valuable for youth groups and parish musicians, and is a must for every Catholic family. The music not only pleases, it inspires. It leads one to believe that an extra voice--even the unpolished voice of a non-musical priest--can do no harm and, mysteriously, may even add to the beauty and harmony of communal worship through song. This fine album, available on CD or cassette tapes, is too good to miss.
Non Nobis, Domine may be ordered from:
Seton School, Attn.: Peggy Gregory
9314 Maple St., Manassas, VA. 20110
$20.00 CD plus $3 S/H (for additional items, add $1)
$12.50 Tape plus $3 S/H (for additional items, add $1)
Father Jerry Pokorsky is a member of the Adoremus Executive Committee, and is a parish priest in the Diocese of Arlington, VA.
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