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    A View from the Pew

    St. John the Evangelist: Not Just Anyplace 

    Almost fifty years ago, the Second Vatican Council envisioned the “full, conscious and active participation” of the faithful as a “right and duty by reason of their baptism.” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 14). The council prophetically visualized the church’s liturgy as “the summit toward which the activity of the church is directed.” (SC 10) This morning, I visited St. John’s Church in Attleboro, MA where my long time friend and colleague Sheryl Walsh serves as the director of music for robust program. Not just anyplace, St. John’s really shines in its understanding of its role as ‘church’.


    St. John’s adult choir includes approximately thirty-five members. The choir provides pastoral music for the 10:00 am Sunday liturgy from September through June and for major feasts and other significant liturgical celebrations throughout the year, including liturgical concerts. St. John’s also boasts a healthy youth choir that sings on the first Sunday of the month as a family liturgy and other sacramental celebrations throughout the year. Sheryl’s vast experience as a premiere musician and one of the pioneers of the liturgical music movement guides and works with the other members of the music staff, which includes two fine assistant pastoral musicians and a volunteer team of capable cantors. Sheryl also often collaborates with the parish school’s music teacher, which serves as a feeder system to the liturgical music program. Sheryl’s command of liturgical repertoire, vocal and keyboard skills and her diligence as a pedagogue and pastoral presence provides a wealth of skill, knowledge, spirituality, compassionate ministry and solid direction for the people of St. John’s.

    As I pulled up into one of the last parking spaces for the 10:00 am Mass, people smiled and nodded to one another and to me, greeting one another as the bells tolled a call to worship. Ah, I thought. Here it is - the church, alive and well, starting in the parking lot.  

    Met at the door by a very gracious minister of hospitality, I entered the St. John’s magnificent nave and joined a diverse gathering of about 750 people. An adept reader warmly welcomed the community and gave a brief survey of the Second Sunday of Lent before worship began. He named the people who would serve as liturgical ministers. We stood as organ summoned us to prayer.

    A potent gathering hymn echoed through the nave as the procession snaked its way down the aisle. The song’s strong reminder of our discipleship catapulted us into the readings, some of my favorite scripture passages within this liturgical cycle. However, the choir’s psalmody really caught my attention. The choir led a beautifully phrased and reverently executed responsorial psalm from the loft. When I commented that a sung four-part psalm isn’t something that I usually encounter when I visit a parish, a choir member responded, “Oh, we sing the responsorial psalm just about every week.” I marveled.

    So often, choirs spend hours, even weeks, learning songs, hymns and anthems for Mass while the premiere acclamations, the cornerstones of the liturgy, go unrehearsed and even omitted. A back to basics reminder may be in order here: the music serves the liturgy, not the other way around. The dialogues and responses still hold pride of place over every other kind of music for liturgical use and demand our attention and rehearsal. The “requisite musical skills and a commitment to the established schedule of rehearsal” (STL 28) required to issue a responsorial psalm of this kind of prayerful, liturgical and musical quality demands meticulous planning on the part of the director and extraordinary dedication on the part of a music ensemble. Not only does a choir’s musical knowledge need refining in harmonic structure, diction, and phrasing. A music director must take the time to liturgically catechize the theology behind why we sing what we sing with a choir. The outcome of that kind of diligence pays off with the elegant psalm that I sang and prayed this morning.

    Here’s the criteria from Music in Divine Worship for prayerful psalmody:

    Sing to the Lord states that the psalmist should possess “the ability for singing and a facility in correct pronunciation and diction.” (Lectionary for Mass 44) Additionally, STL continues, “As the one who proclaims the Word, the psalmist should be able to proclaim the text of the psalm with clarity, conviction, and sensitivity to the text (STL Liturgical Judgment), the musical setting (STL Musical Judgment), and those who are listening.” (STL Pastoral Judgment) When the choir serves the liturgy as the cantor, all of these dynamics must be factored into a music rehearsal so that “the whole body of the faithful may be able to contribute that active participation which is rightfully theirs… (SC 41). A music ministry’s commitment to excellence bears abundant fruit in liturgical worship through faithful and consistent music rehearsals, sound liturgical catechesis, excellent musical skills and strong pastoral leadership.


    Always a find presider and preacher, I really needed to hear Fr. Roy’s homily this morning. The road becomes long and we occasionally get a glimpse of the mountain top. We want to stay up on the mountain but Jesus insists that we go back down to the valley and carry on the long haul work of the Gospel. True that. The communion processional song recapitulated the message in Jerusalem, My Destiny. Carry on.

    A light hearted moment occurred when Fr. Roy summoned the catechumens for their dismissal. Approximately ten people and their sponsors walked toward Fr. Roy for a blessing before they left to break open God’s Word together with the catechumenate team in the parish center.  A man sitting behind me said, “Who are these people?” When I told him they were seeking the church through baptism, his eyebrows arched. “New Catholics?” he asked gruffly. I smiled and nodded. He smiled back. “Good for us. He’s a good guy, isn’t he?” he grinned, nodding at Fr. Roy who dismissed the elect as we prepared to sing May the Word be a Lamp for Your Feet. I agreed wholeheartedly.

    As we sang a post communion song, I looked up and found myself profoundly moved. Fr. Roy sat with his eyes closed and sang the song by heart, deeply engrossed in prayer in the presence of his people. That’s great leadership. People know it, acknowledge it and are profoundly grateful when they find it. This morning, three different people told me that ‘this parish has been blessed with really great pastors.” May St. John’s always continue their tradition.

    A welcome place

    After Mass ended, I walked up to the loft to thank the choir for their ministry. Sheryl invited me to parish center, where the community gathered after worship for pastry and coffee at round tables. “Everyone’s welcome,” a choir member smiled. The pastor mingled with the community and pastoral staff. Sheryl and her husband Peter saved me a spot at their table for a bit of conversation.

    “To what do you attribute your success here?” I asked her.

    Sheryl thought for a moment before she answered. “Longevity may be one key. I’ve been here a long time and people know me. Another factor may be in how I approach the work as a ministry. I always tell my musicians that it’s not my choir – it’s our choir, our music program. We work together.” Spot on. And here’s another reason. People not only recognize and appreciate pastoral presence in their pastors; they know, love and recognize it in their pastoral staff, where everyone’s particular gifts become Christians charisms that make a parish like St. John the Evangelist not just anyplace.

    Let’s make everyplace not just anyplace.