Saturday, November 26, 2022

An Interview with Abp Cordileone: The William P. Mahrt Sacred Music Chair (Part 2)

Last week, we published a guest article by Roseanne T. Sullivan about the recent establishment of the William P. Mahrt Chair in Sacred Music at St Patrick’s Seminary in the archdiocese of San Francisco. We follow up with her interview with His Excellency Salvatore Cordileone, the archbishop of San Francisco, about the new chair, and what he hopes to achieve by instituting it. Our thanks once again to Mrs Sullivan for sharing this with NLM.
Roseanne T. Sullivan: 
Your Excellency, what can you tell about how this new chair came about?

Salvatore Cordileone: I have had this in mind for a long time. The seminary already has a course in church aesthetics and history of the liturgy, which covers the principles of sacred music, architecture, and art.
(Note from Father Mark Doherty, Rector of St. Patrick’s: The course in Church aesthetics has been taught by Father Samuel Weber since he arrived at the seminary about a decade ago. The course is mandatory, situated at the front-end of formation, in pre-theology, precisely because the course content is so central to a man’s overall formation for the priesthood.)
SC: Out of those three, music is highest in the order of priority, because priests will be dealing all the time with music in parish life, at least on a weekly basis, to ensure the music for the Sunday Masses is suitable.
The other two are also important: architecture, because priests may at some point need to build a new church or renovate or restore a parish church they’ve inherited. So they need to know the basic principles of church architecture and have good taste and good judgment in that area.
And they’ll also be furnishing their churches and other spaces with art. So they also need to have knowledge of art.
But most especially music—because it’s such an important part of worship, because music has such a strong effect on people’s experience of worship, and priests will be dealing with music all the time.
It’s reasonable that the priest should have an understanding of our tradition of sacred music, that they know about the principles of Gregorian Chant, its origins and how to sing it, and that they have an understanding of polyphony and that whole tradition.
Now, granted, almost all parishes use contemporary music, but I think this kind of a formation deep within the tradition of the church’s musical heritage will help them to have better judgment about what is, on the musical side, worthy of worship.
And just by the aesthetics of it, the music of it, their theological formation will also give them good judgment about what words are appropriate for worshiping and not. So they need both aspects to get that with their theology courses, but they also need to have the musical formation to make those judgments.
St Patrick’s Seminary
RTS: What made you decide to name the chair after Professor William Mahrt?
SC: Professor Mahrt is a revered world class scholar in sacred music. He teaches at Stanford University only a few miles away from our seminary. He’s contributed so much to the Church’s musical life, no one would be more appropriate to honor in naming this chair.
For decades at St. Thomas Aquinas Church, also nearby in Palo Alto, the St. Ann choir Professor Mahrt directs has been singing beautiful sacred music at Novus Ordo Masses, according to the current edition of the Roman Missal. He demonstrates how this kind of music is not something that the Church left behind when changing the form of the Mass, but it is actually in keeping with what the Vatican II taught. It’s something to be treasured and used so that people can experience its beauty. So he’s realized that vision there and has been doing so for ages.
RTS: How was Professor Jennifer Donelson-Nowicka selected for this position?
SC: I first met her in 2015 at the Sacra Liturgia Conference in New York, which she organized. And so I became aware of her tremendous gifts and her ability to teach. She was teaching at the seminary at Dunwoodie in New York. She had great experience in educating Church musicians, principally seminarians but lay people and priests too for that matter. When I first met her back seven years ago, I would have loved the idea of her teaching at my seminary. To be honest, I didn’t think it would be possible. And now it’s happening.
I’m very grateful for some large bequests we received for Catholic education, which are helping us to get this chair established.
RTS: What should people realize about the significance of there being a chair in sacred music at a diocesan seminary?
SC: Music and the arts in general are not sort of a luxury, an optional add-on after we take care of everything else. They are essential, central to evangelization.
I refer a lot to the three transcendentals: truth, beauty, and goodness. We need all three to evangelize this culture that’s getting further and further away from God.
We need the Church’s witness of care for the poor, the Church’s ability to transmit the truth and help people understand the truth and how that sets us free. But also, again, the area of beauty. And again, the area of music is paramount when it comes to people’s everyday experience in the pews. So we need beauty. As I also like to say, goodness feeds the body, truth feeds the mind, and beauty feeds the soul. People need their souls fed as well.
Beauty has this power to elevate the soul and to unite people and touch upon the transcendental in a way that we can’t with truth, because, in this age of relativism, you know, we argue, “You have your truth, I have my truth.” But when something’s truly beautiful, it cannot be denied. Beauty circumvents that whole denial process. It touches us in a different way. And I think it kind helps to prepare the soil for the seeds of truth to be planted, so people become more receptive to the truth.
To produce seminarians better formed in this whole area of the Church’s musical heritage will add a lot to enhancing the experience of beauty and reverence at liturgies.
There’s been a lot of talk about this lately, since Pope Francis has been focusing a lot on liturgy in these last couple of years. The arguments about the Traditional Latin Mass aside, he is decrying liturgical abuses, encouraging more reverent and beautiful celebrations of the Mass. And this will certainly help us to do that.

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