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    A View from the Pew

    Where Did Everybody Go? 

    I remembered an old friend this morning. Michel Labens served as the music director for St. Anthony of Padua Church in the north end of New Bedford,MA for approximately fifty years. A brilliant musician and one of the loveliest people I ever knew, “Monsieur Labens” studied with famed organist and composer, Flor Peeters in their native Belgium. Every week, Monsieur Labens climbed the six steep flights of stairs required to get to the organ loft to play the magnificent French Casavant Freres Pipe Organ (Op. 489 (1912) until illness forced him to retire in his seventies. To support his family, he taught piano, organ and violin to young musicians who found a sterling pedagogue, mentor and  enthusiastic cheerleader for young artists in their teacher. The parish community gathered weekly to hear Monsieur Labens play a beautiful organ fugue, conduct a choral ensemble that included violin and viola and accompany a singing assembly who sang in English and French.

    Blind in one eye, Monsieur Labens could still read anything that I placed in front of him to accompany me as a singer for an occasional wedding, funeral or special event. I began to sing with him when my own career as a pastoral musician began in the ‘60’s and Vatican II launched the Church into the new landscape of liturgical and musical changes with challenges driven by political, social, economic, and technological revolution. Although he admittedly found the new terrain disconcerting, Monsieur Labens stayed open to conversation and new liturgical music. Always delighted to make music of any kind, I introduced him to many of my musician friends and contemporaries and we would create lovely small ensemble music for liturgical celebrations. Monsieur Labens died in 1999 after fifty years of service to the church. Throughout his years of pastoral music ministry, thousands of people worshipped, sang, listened, prayed and feasted in this church, built by French immigrants and sustained over the years by faithful stewards like Monsieur Labens, who loved his God, his church and his ministry. I still miss his warmth, his humor and his musicianship.

    As I worshipped at St. Anthony’s this morning, I wondered what Monsieur Labens would say about the changing landscape of the parish and the of the church that he served so long and so well. This cavernous place of worship seats 2,000 people in the nave alone, not counting a first and second tier choir loft, where the ‘choir’ of religious sisters who taught in parish elementary and high school sang the liturgy in the years when the parish thrived.  Additionally, the choir section inside the colossal sanctuary could easily serve as a worship space on its own, boasting another choir section that seats approximately 100 people. The guest presider, a missionary, could easily have invited us all to sit in the choir seats within the sanctuary, creating a small ecclesial community in a far more intimate way. This morning, at the 10:15 AM liturgy, I counted approximately 60-70 of us who worshipped together at the principle liturgy of the weekend.

    This magnificent edifice FILLS to hear a live performance of a Bach cantata, Mozart Requiem, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, or even a Paul Winter SOLSTICE concert. No seats stay empty, even in the first tier choir loft. People pay for a costly ticket to some to soul stirring music. Always hungry for beauty, the body will search for the food that nurtures and cultivates its spirit. So this morning, as I looked around at the empty church, I wondered: where did everybody go? The question of this huge and almost vacant worship space begs a deeper look than where to locate a diminutive assembly. Why is the church empty? What keeps people away from liturgical worship rather than drawing them in?  (Check out a report called “Leaving Catholicism” by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (January 15, 2011.)

    In 2010, St. Anthony’s printed its own hymnal and began to use the ICEL chants from the new Roman Missal as the sung liturgy. This morning, the organist, choir and cantor led us in well executed and very straightforward revised ICEL chants, some accompanied by the organist and others sung a cappella by the cantor and choir. About a quarter of us sang the chants; the rest of the assembly stayed mute. The Sanctus was the same musical setting that Monsieur Labens sang throughout his years as the music director, with revised language from the new Roman Missal. Will these ICEL chants reinvigorate worship in this post modern culture? How will musicians use creativity, musicianship, pastoral sensibilities to issue these chants in a new and perhaps ingenious way that stirs the hearts of the people of God? Even beyond that, how will parishes retain their current parishioners through the use of beauty and the arts? What will outreach to those who live in the periphery, those in the margins, the people we see only at major feasts, the ones who only come to bury their dead, look like in this time of change and renewal? What music will draw people in, draw them back, keep them? Will the church say in ten or twenty more years, “Where did everybody go?” and will the music we issue be just another reason that they left?