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‘Music Clothes the Text in Beauty’

Meet Linda Shafer, the driving force behind "The Saint Michael Hymnal."
by Joseph Pronechen | Source:

As choir director at St. Boniface Catholic Church in Lafayette, Ind., Linda Shafer little realized that the sacred hymns and liturgical music she was choosing and compiling to use for the large parish would quickly turn into The St. Michael Hymnal.

First appearing in 1998, this popular hymnal is currently in its third edition, with tens of thousands of copies in parishes coast to coast, including St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.

Schafer worked with parish organist Scott Kemmer and their pastor Father Timothy Alkire to reclaim the Church’s musical heritage according to the directives of the Second Vatican Council and the standards set by Pope St. Pius X in his motu proprio from 1903, Tra le Sollecitudini (Instruction on Sacred Music). The result grew into The St. Michael Hymnal.

Currently working on the fourth edition, Schafer recently spoke about the hymnal and sacred music with Register staff writer Joseph Pronechen.

Tell us a little about your background.

I do not have a musical background. I have a master’s degree in English literature. I grew up in the Baptist church and played piano there. I was received into the Catholic Church Easter 1979. My musical training began after I became a choir director.

How has that become a plus in working on The St. Michael Hymnal?

There are two components to every piece of music we sing in church. One is the music itself, and the other is the text. The Church has always said that the purpose of the music is to clothe the text in beauty. The text is and always has been primary. For that reason, my background as a literature major gives me more competence as an editor, because the first thing I look at in choosing the hymns is the text.

With your background, what problems did you confront that later led to the hymnal?

I became choir director at St. Boniface nearly 20 years ago, probably at the very crest of the changing of the words to feminist political language. I would never sing those words. They were disrespectful of the text, the Church, the original authors and composers.

They distorted absolutely beautiful texts, beautiful poetry by world-class poets, to make political statements. It takes a lot of nerve to bowdlerize this beautiful poetry.

You obviously started correcting the situation by bringing back rich traditional hymns and liturgical music. How did it lead to The St. Michael Hymnal?

First, we would print sheets. It got to be a lot of trouble and expense. The organist and I approached the pastor to consider we do a more permanent supplement.

My pastor said this was such a beautiful collection we should make it a hymnal. Before we got it into the pews in 1998, we already had people inquiring about it.

Who was inquiring?

We discovered tons of parishes and priests around the county who were looking for such a hymnal, who also don’t want the words changed with every edition. They wanted to maintain the integrity of the doctrine, the original intent of the author and the integrity of the poetry.

What specifically do you look for when choosing a hymn?

I look at it for doctrine, ease of singing, and, certainly, for the beauty of its poetry.

Secondarily, for the music. I think that is backwards from the way most editors approach the task.

Most editors are “music first,” and most have no background in literature. That’s too bad, because the text is the more important of the two. The Church always said that.

But the best [liturgical] music is the one that perfectly marries the two — they both have to be excellent. And what most perfectly marries the two is chant.

Why does Gregorian chant receive the “pride of place” as Vatican II, John Paul II and St. Pius X say?

The three mains reasons are obedience, obedience, obedience.

If the Church says Gregorian chant should be given pride of place and people started singing folk music, what does that mean?

What I was seeing at church was so different than what the documents are saying. The people in the pew who didn’t read the documents were led to believe the Church did away with Gregorian chant.

Why is chant so important to worship?

Because it’s so suited to the words and it’s specific to the Church. When you hear Gregorian chant, you never associate it with a ball game, a nightclub — anything other than being at the Mass. It only belongs to the liturgy. It is a sacred music.

The other thing it does is diminish ego. So much of the music written currently encourages the cantor to become ego involved. We’re all subject to that temptation. Chant discourages that involvement.

What effect do you see Pope Benedict XVI having on liturgical music?

Good liturgical musicians think we’re in heaven because of Pope Benedict.

He is such a musician. He understands how important music is in the liturgy and has begun a wonderful reform with the music. I think we’ll hear more changes, more Latin, and higher quality music in the next 20 years through his inspiration.

He has always had such a deep understanding of the liturgy and what music should do to serve the liturgy. In Feast of Faith (1986), he saw the problem where music was going after the Council. In his papal Masses, there is more chant and more traditional music.

Pope Benedict came at a time when people are ready to go back to the more substantive music of the Church, the more classic Church repertoire. The experimentation has run its course like a fever, or like effervescence.

People are more hungry for substantial music. And Benedict, who understands music, is giving us guidelines how to incorporate this music back into the liturgies, for the sense of the sacred and being in the presence of God.

What are your hopes for Church music?

I’m very optimistic about where the music is going for the next generation, because the young people love Pope Benedict and they listen to him.

Staff writer Joseph Pronechen
writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.

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