FOCUS on Beauty: the Liturgical Heart of Missionary Zeal
Editor’s note: Leah Sedlacek serves as Music and Worship Program Manager for Fellowship of Catholic University Students, or FOCUS, a youth-driven evangelization apostolate on college campuses. One of the American Church’s most vibrant missions today, FOCUS finds the liturgy at the heart of its work. Adam Bartlett, President and Editor of Illuminare Publications and a regular contributor to Adoremus Bulletin, spoke recently to Sedlacek about the place of liturgy, music, and beauty in FOCUS’s mission.
We see the Way of Beauty as a powerful way of evangelization on college campuses and in our parishes.
Adam Bartlett (AB): What has inspired FOCUS’s recent journey to explore more deeply the liturgical documents put forth by the Church?
Leah Sedlacek (LS): The liturgy and music have always been an integral part of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students’ mission to know Christ Jesus and fulfill His Great Commission. Our music team was founded in 2009 to provide high-quality and appropriate music for events in FOCUS. Our most prominent events are our national conferences, where thousands of young people seek to grow in their understanding of their faith. We are continually striving to respond to the Church’s call in every aspect of our lives, with the celebration of the liturgy being at the center.
It is our desire that liturgies at FOCUS events help participants move from devotion to the truly transcendent, public prayer of the Church.
In 2010, we were inspired to take a deeper look at sacred music after some members of our music team were invited to Birmingham, AL, by the Sisters of the Eternal Word to discuss music within the liturgy after they had attended one of our FOCUS national conferences. Up to this point, we had been choosing hymns for Mass that corresponded to the readings of the day and were easily sung by the congregation. At this gathering, we were introduced in a profound way to the word “antiphon.” It was a life-changing word. My teammate Shaun Garrison and I had heard of the antiphons before, but we had never realized their importance in the celebration of the liturgy. With others present, we started to discuss the liturgical documents and what the Church was asking of her musicians in the Sacred Liturgy. These discussions were the beginning of what has become a beautiful journey toward a more complete understanding of our role as musicians in the Church, and especially the role of beauty and its connection to the New Evangelization.
Introducing the sung liturgy to our apostolate has been a gradual process that is gaining more acceptance and enthusiasm from our millennial audience.
AB: How is FOCUS employing the beauty in its efforts to evangelize?
LS: In an effort to respond to the Church’s call for a New Evangelization, FOCUS invests in college students and equips them for lifelong Catholic mission through “spiritual multiplication.” Spiritual multiplication refers to a way of evangelizing in which we not only teach others the faith, but we teach them how to teach others (2 Tim. 2:2). Jesus evangelized to large crowds, but the plan he gave for reaching the whole world was to do so through his disciples (Mt. 28:19-20). He invested deeply in 12 men, and more specifically in three: Peter, James and John. These disciples then invested their lives into others, who then did the same with others, repeating the process through multiple generations.
Within FOCUS, we are exploring new means of evangelization through authentic beauty to aid our current missionary efforts to spiritually multiply. This new project is called “a beauty initiative within FOCUS.” This effort has enriched our conviction of the central importance of the liturgy as the primary source of grace and of all true beauty, which animates our efforts in evangelization.
One of the greatest challenges we have found is that the world, and particularly our college student audience, is confused about the word “beauty.” Many people today reduce it to a mere and hollow aestheticism or twist it into a cult of the ugly. On the college campus, students at large suffer from these reductions, but artists and creative people especially suffer from the presentation of beauty as mere self-expression and not as the expression of objective reality. This misguided formation unfortunately leaves millennial artists believing that they must choose between their faith and their art form, that beauty and truth are at odds with each other. This demonic twisting of beauty is tragic because if we as a Church abandon the call to create authentic beauty, the culture will be led by our artists into deeper relativism.
In response to this challenge, we are answering Pope John Paul II’s call in his 1999 “Letter to Artists” for creatives to rise up and become missionaries of beauty. This call was not only to encourage artists to authentically participate in the creative action of God, but also to become saints. As John Paul II wrote, “All men and women are entrusted with the task of crafting their own life: in a certain sense, they are to make of it a work of art, a masterpiece.” The Holy Father points out that the highest call for any person is to be a witness to the person of Jesus Christ through the beauty of his or her own life of holiness.
AB: Every pope since the Second Vatican Council has spoken of the importance of the via pulchritudinis, or the Way of Beauty, in the Church’s efforts to evangelize the world. Pope Benedict XVI spoke of it as a “privileged path” for the New Evangelization, and Pope Francis recommends it to all in Evangelii Gaudium. What are beauty’s greatest benefits in the work of evangelization on college campuses today?
LS: People in today’s world—and especially college students—do not want to be told how to act or behave, or what to believe, but they do not have these defenses up against beauty. It has a unique power to bypass the head and speak directly to the heart. St. Thomas Aquinas called beauty the “radiance of truth,” and when a person encounters authentic beauty, goodness is formed within his soul. If beauty is truly present in the world, goodness will be present and people will be more open to the explicit proclamation of the gospel. John Paul II reminds us that not only artists but all Christians are called to bring this beauty of Christ into the world through our very lives. And so, we see the Way of Beauty as a powerful way of evangelization on college campuses and in our parishes.
AB: What are your hopes and goals for the Beauty Initiative within FOCUS?
LS: Understanding the challenge, the call and the impact of beauty, our goal is twofold: Through study, collaborative projects and creative apprenticeship, we aim to craft a community that inspires artists and creatives to take their unique place in the Church and inspire everyone to live a beautiful life, ultimately to be a saint.
Our first collaborative project, released in January 2016, was an album entitled “Origin,” recorded by the FOCUS Collective and produced by Papercastle Records. The goal was to explore how beauty can inspire people to know Jesus Christ, who is the source of all beauty. Our hope is that “Origin” inspires people to create art that allows others to encounter Christ through the power of beauty, as the Church has done through her rich tradition in promoting the arts.
Ultimately, our hope for the beauty initiative is to engage two audiences: artists and Catholics at the same time, helping both groups to see that beauty is about our salvation and the salvation of the world. This is why “a beauty initiative within FOCUS” has started with the liturgy, because it is the source and summit of all of our missionary efforts and our lives of faith. It is in the liturgy that we encounter Christ most fully and are formed into Himself. Having encountered Beauty himself, we can then be witnesses of his beauty to the world. For more information about “Origin” and the Beauty Initiative, visit http://focusoncampus.org/beauty.
AB: In recent years, how has FOCUS implemented the vision and principles proposed by the Church as it relates to the liturgy?
LS: We understand that the sacred liturgy is the source and summit of all our efforts in the work of the New Evangelization. FOCUS is not a parish or a movement, but Mass and Eucharistic adoration are central to our missionaries’ lives. In light of Musicam Sacram, we strive to celebrate Mass following a model of progressive solemnity [choosing which parts of the liturgy to sing based upon their individual importance and according to the celebration’s overall significance] so that the form of celebration of the Mass each day reflects the character and solemnity of the day.
Our first effort to implement this model began at our national conference in 2013 when we included sung entrance and communion antiphons in the celebration of the Mass. We encounter many different pastoral situations, so depending on location and particular circumstances, we follow some type of progressive solemnity and try to sing the Mass to the fullest extent that we are able.
Our fullest expression of progressive solemnity can be found at our New Staff Training (NST), held at Ave Maria University in Florida. For six weeks in the summer, more than 500 FOCUS missionaries gather together for prayer, formation, and fellowship to prepare for the upcoming year’s mission. Before training, our music team arranges a progressive solemnity schema for use throughout NST. One element of the schema is the chanting of the entrance and communion antiphons at every Mass, with less solemn Masses using a simple psalm tone method and with feasts using a fuller, through-composed setting. On feast days, the congregation sings the full antiphon or a simple response derived from it in alternation with verses from a psalm. Our staff sings the antiphons with the help of a custom liturgical resource that we created in collaboration with Illuminare Publications, specifically for our staff training event. This resource helps everyone in the liturgical assembly to visually see the antiphons and the different parts of the Mass, which I believe encourages them to participate more fully in sung prayer.
We continue to take steps to follow more closely the vision and principles proposed by the Church. And we hope to equip our missionaries and staff with a deep liturgical formation and with resources to help them encounter the beauty of Jesus Christ in the liturgy, who is the source of all our efforts to evangelize on college campuses and in parishes.
AB: How have you balanced the use of sacred music in the liturgy with the music that many college students respond so powerfully to in times of conversion and in the formation of their relationship with Christ?
LS: We understand that devotion is an important element in our spiritual lives, and the praise and worship music of today helps foster powerful devotion in our millennial students, just as more traditional hymns and songs have helped others to pray devotionally at different times. The introduction to Guardini’s The Spirit of the Liturgy states that “it is from personal ‘private devotion’…that ‘liturgical prayer’ in its turn derives warmth and local color.” In a time where students feel a disconnection between life and faith, this “warmth” brought about through devotion is often a critical experience for them to encounter Christ.
Time and time again, we hear stories of students responding powerfully to praise and worship music. The response is usually a moment of surrender during an important juncture in their spiritual life or an understanding that they are personally loved by the Lord. I, personally, had this moment of giving my own “yes” to the Lord while singing a praise and worship song during a high school retreat. This “yes” 15 years ago was the beginning of my intentional discipleship with the Lord, which has led me to be a full-time missionary for him.
Devotional music has had a great impact in our ministry to millennials. We also know that sacred music draws us deeper into the prayer of Jesus Christ to the Father in the sacred liturgy. It is our desire that liturgies at FOCUS events help participants move from devotion to the truly transcendent, public prayer of the Church.
Our national conferences are a time of encounter with a wide variety of our students from across the country. They may never have experienced chant in their lives, and we need to meet them where they are devotionally and then lead them deeper into the prayer of the Church. To foster this experience, we provide devotional hymns at appropriate times during the Mass which relate to the proper celebration and then move seamlessly into the proper chant given for that Mass. For example, a typical FOCUS liturgy begins with a carefully selected hymn followed by the antiphon of the day and the appropriate verses when the priest and servers arrive at the altar. A simple response is often added and the words are projected on a screen so that the congregation can easily participate in singing the antiphon. Former FOCUS Board Member Monsignor John Cihak is a priest of the Archdiocese of Portland and papal master of ceremonies. Monsignor Cihak describes this model well, which incidentally is also used in the Papal Masses in St. Peter’s Basilica.
“It works rather well,” Monsignor Cihak says, “because the chant has a way of quieting and focusing the heart for prayer.”
The Communion chant is sung similarly. The antiphon is sung first, after the priest celebrant receives communion, and then a hymn follows the singing of the communion antiphon with its psalm. We typically alternate between schola and “worship team” for each Mass, though the basic musical structure remains the same at all Masses.
We take exceptional care to play all instruments in a style that does not drive the music rhythmically or percussively, but rather uplifts our minds and heart to the Lord. Our aim for instrumentation is not to overwhelm the voices. People notice this special attention to detail regarding how things are played. The way that the worship team approaches instrumentation in the Mass takes as its model the flowing nature of chant. We are grateful for your assistance, Adam Bartlett, in helping us introduce sung antiphons in our conference Masses. The resources made available by Illuminare Publications have been invaluable, especially in helping the congregation join in this form of sung prayer. (Adoremus readers should know that Bartlett has also offered formation and training for our cantors and has opened for us the theological richness of the chant tradition in the midst of practically learning to sing the chants of the Mass themselves.)
Our efforts to introduce sacred music gradually into the liturgy has not only been successful, but has also been well received. I cannot describe the joy and blessing of hearing the power of 13,000 college students singing in unison a communion antiphon at our SEEK2017 conference. I am especially grateful to be part of these liturgies because, for these students, this singing is truly prayer and is a participation in a prayer that is bigger than this time and place, reaching into eternity.
AB: How are millennials responding to these initiatives?
LS: Our efforts to celebrate the liturgy according to the documents put forth by the Church have prompted millennials to start asking important questions about music in the liturgy. Whether they are inclined to immediately agree or to resist, they ultimately are seeking the truth, which leads them directly to the Church’s teaching on the liturgy. Introducing the sung liturgy to our apostolate has been a gradual process that is gaining more acceptance and enthusiasm from our millennial audience. Through discussion and teaching, our staff, and especially our musicians, were moved and spiritually uplifted by the depth of prayer found in the sung liturgy. They shared that praying with the antiphons helped them participate more deeply in the Mass.
Our national conference participants have had similar reactions. Many of the young clergy in attendance have asked about ways to use our music model for their parishes and Newman Centers, and we are seeing the influence we are having in the way that the liturgy is being celebrated in other Catholic conferences across the country as well.
This past February, the FOCUS Collective provided music for the Mount 2000 high school retreat at Mount St. Mary’s University, MD, following the FOCUS national conference musical model. Without hesitation, the congregation of millennials sang the antiphons right back after hearing them only once. Their voices were so strong and prayerful that we could feel the power and the presence of the Holy Spirit. It was a very powerful experience. After the weekend was over, many seminarians of different liturgical backgrounds and experiences thanked us for our musical witness. It was a very powerful moment of unity and unification. Overall, the millennial response to our initiatives has been positive. And, more significantly, it has shown that the beauty of the sacred liturgy has the power to inspire lives of missionary discipleship, both on college campuses and in our parishes.