Several years ago, I received a note from an older man who had been battling much of his life for good Church music, particularly Gregorian chant. He did this in terrible times following the Second Vatican Council when the cultural ethos warred against any settled liturgical forms. He had plenty of scars to show for his work, but not much progress emerged until recent days.
He wasn’t writing to congratulate me on my more recent work for chant. Instead, he wanted me to know that my writing generally got on his nerves. He noted my own optimism about the progress we were making to restore chant to its proper place in Mass, to publish vernacular settings of sacred music, to train up choirs.
And all this bubbly optimism from my writing he generally found annoying simply because I don’t seem terribly aware of the contribution that an earlier generation made to even make this moment possible. Was I ungrateful for what he and others did? Was I completely blind to the terrible conditions that his generation faced in the 1960s and 1970s to make it possible for us to hear and sing great sacred music today?
I was obviously taken aback by his comments. And yet, in some ways, he was right. We are too quick to forget the past. Every generation just imagines that the world it inherits is as it should be and could not be any other. I see progress because I have seen the worst and it couldn’t but improved, and I’ve lived through that improvement. He lived through nothing but disaster from the 1950s through the 2000s. His world collapsed. It’s all a matter of perspective.
And yet there had to be a bridge between the depths and the recovery. He and his generation served that role. They kept the chant going during the worst of times. They trained whomever was willing. They maintained the handful of choirs that kept singing. They kept the faith as others lost it. And today, we are beneficiaries of their efforts. The flame was never extinguished and now it is growing again.
We are prone to forget the sacrifices others made to make our present moment better than it would otherwise be. This tendency to forget—to take all things given to us as some kind of birthright—is why Catholicism has made the study and reflection on history extremely important in education. This is a facet of the lives of the martyrs and saints. They allow us to broaden our minds and learn to have a more intense appreciation of the sacrifices of those who have gone before.
So let me do propitiation for my smug optimism by discussing a man who did extraordinary things to bridge the gigantic gulf between the dark and the light. His name is Msgr. Richard J. Schuler, and he is most known as the man who persisted in building and running the nation’s most famous sacred music program following Vatican II. He was pastor of St. Agnes in St. Paul, Minnesota and the head of the Church Music Association of America. Even today the entire congregation knows the completely Kyriale of the music book of the Roman Rite. Even today, this is a parish where you can go to hear and experience the music that was recommended by the Council.