There are times when the judgment of history reverses itself in the living memory of one generation. It is a thrilling thing to witness, if only because the occurrence undermines the historical determinists who slavishly attach themselves to a Whig view of progress and emboldens those who believe that what is true and right can have a presence in any age, provided some people take a principled stand.
In our own time, we’ve seen this happen with regard to Catholic liturgy. There were those—they were overwhelmingly in power and history seemed to be on their side—who said after 1965 and following that all liturgical traditions had come to an end, to be replaced by a new invention of a new generation.
It was widely believed and taught that in the new age, all the unique associations people have had with the best of Catholic liturgy—Latin, Gregorian chant, solemnity, beauty, piety, decorum, truth claims, rubrics—belonged to the past and would never return, and had been replaced by new forms drawn from the existing culture. It just had to be. Anyone who doubts it would eventually be buried.
Do you know about one of the most extraordinary American holdouts? His name was Monsignor Richard Joseph Schuler. He was born in 1920 in Minneapolis as the second generation descended from immigrants from Austria and Southern Germany. He was ordained in 1945, and died in 2007, after a lifetime of championing the unfashionable cause of traditional Catholic liturgy.
Three months following his death, Pope Benedict XVI issued Summorum Pontificum, a motu proprio that not only liberalized the preconcilar form of Mass but said explicitly that new liturgical trends must be linked with the past and must not represent discontinuity in any way. Msgr. Schuler was the champion of the cause of continuity, standing firm when all the winds were blowing the other direction.
He was pastor of St. Agnes of St. Paul’s, Minnesota, from 1967, and through all those turbulent years, he maintained the highest standards in music and liturgy, particularly with his use of the standard-setting Twin Cities Catholic Chorale that he had founded in 1957. He was active in the Church Music Association of America, editor of Sacred Music, and a champion of the Latin Mass at a time when everyone said it was outmoded.
If you thought that all things in the Catholic world in the 1970s were about guitars and bad folk music, consider this. After 1974, Twin Cities Catholic Chorale became exclusively attached to St. Paul’s, presenting every week a program of music that was nearly unique in the entire American Catholic world at the time for its majestic embrace of the words of the Constitution on Sacred Liturgy.
The choir used all Gregorian propers, and kept alive the great polyphonic tradition of the Renaissance. They developed a specialization in the choral Masses of the 18th and 19th century, giving presentations of these in a liturgical context that was otherwise unheard of in the United States and even in most all parts of the world. Now, this was at time when the overwhelming weight of opinion was that these Mass settings constituted a violence of the spirit of the Council, simply because they require the choir alone to sing the Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus. Today, this approach to integrating liturgy and music are likely to be heard at the Vatican and in ever more places in the United States. In this way, Msgr. Schuler provided a glorious bridge from his time to the past and toward our future.
Keep in mind that Msgr. Schuler was of course saying the Missal of Paul VI, but in a way that he believed was consistent with the vision of the father of the Second Vatican Council. He explained his rationale in a long series of articles, some recounting the history in great detail and others containing powerful polemics in favor of solemnity at a time of widespread collapse and seeming liturgical revolution. His writings reveal him as an excellent scholar who wrote what would lather become the tableau of Benedict era.
All through these years, and despite his radical outlier status, his own parish thrived in a way that was incredible to behold. The parish produced vocations year after year, at an increasing rate, during a time when vocations were on the decline nearly everywhere else. Parish life was ebullient and vibrant at every step, the very picture of the model and ideal that the “progressives” claimed the way but were never able to create.
So, yes, there can be no doubt that he was subjected to a great deal of private sneers and ridicule, seen as a Last Knight of an age gone by. But look at his legacy now. Who was the real progressive? One can only marvel at what he saw that so many missed. He knew that he had found himself in the middle of time of departure from tradition but he had every confidence that it was a passing fad that would come and go. He was right.
That’s an easy thing to observe in retrospect but much harder to actually accomplish in real life. It takes remarkable courage and intelligence and stamina to stand so firmly rooted against the cultural trends of your time, but even more so because he received so little support within the culture of the American Catholic Church.
It is interesting to reflect on the centrality of music to the life of this great priest who did so much to point the way out of the morass and into a bright future. He earned the M.A. degree from the Eastman School of Music of the University of Rochester, N. Y., in 1950, and in 1954 he spent a year of study of renaissance music at the Vatican Library on a Fulbright scholarship. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota in musicology in 1963.
Even when the financial times were hard, he never compromised in his dedication to paying musicians as professionals. And he paid them in a way that was consistent with the value that they were adding to the liturgy (which in standard parlance was “union scale”). Again, this was not because he was believed in giving them a “living wage” but because he wanted excellence in music to adorn the sacred actions in the liturgy. The financial commitment reflected a priority place on beauty in all of its liturgical manifestations.
In this respect, Msgr. Schuler was departing in a dramatic way from what had become standard practice in the American Catholic Church of not budgeting for music and expecting that all musicians to “look for their reward in Heaven” (to quote a music catechism published in Boston in 1936) while not demanding the same of those who build the churches, provide the electricity and water, and repair the roof when it is broken.
This is an aspect of his vision that has not be replicated in parishes around the country but should be – for a change in the financial practices concerning music will stop the talent drain from the Catholic Church and start attracting the best and brightest to our ranks. So while it is true that Msgr. Schuler has been vindicated but we are a long way from learning all we can from his lifetime legacy.
In closing, I have no doubt that Msgr. Schuler would be thrilled to know that his own parish now offers the extraordinary form of the Mass alongside the ordinary form. It is a tribute to him that even longtime parishioners don't notice the difference between the two.