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Thursday, September 13, 2018

The Vincentians and I

Faculty residence, St. Mary's in Perryville.
Photo by Mark Scott Abeln, 2007.
Many of my readers know that as high school and college student between 1965 and 1973 I was among the members of the Congregation of the Mission, commonly called the Vincentians. During that time, I went to high school in Montebello, California, novitiate in Santa Barbara in 1969-70, and then in college at Perryville, Missouri, until 1973. None of those institutions are still in existence as institutions of learning, so let that be a lesson to you. I also spent college summers in the weird and wonderful environs of a place called Camp St. Vincent near Cape Girardeau, which I only recall now as a cross between a M*A*S*H set and Meatballs (the Bill Murray movie), located in a Deliverance look-alike area on the St. Francis river in southeast Missouri. Fortunately, cutting into possible extended time in the Swamp, we also attended summer school at Southeast Missouri State (at that time) College, and then DePaul University in Chicago, where I first learned to desire life in the second city. For the seminary faculty, it was a dangerous gamble (gambol?), those six weeks of co-ed bliss among the belles of the Ozarks and the head shops of pre-yuppie Lincoln Park, and they hastily scrambled to explain to us again what "celibacy" was, but we had already stuffed our ears Zigzag paper and missed the warnings.

I had come to know the Vincentians early in life. When Mom and Dad moved to Arizona in 1958-9, there was no Catholic church per se in our area of Phoenix near 51st Ave and Osborn, but there was a quonset-style building used by the Byzantine Rite Catholics which they let us use on Sunday until the RCs could organize a building drive. The parish was given to the Vincentians, and was called St. Vincent de Paul Parish, occupying about 1/8 square mile of the area along 51st Avenue southwest of Osborn Road. The parish, unlike most institutions with which I've been affiliated, is still there, and now it's within easy walking distance of the Milwaukee Brewers baseball park, used for Spring Training. The ghosts of Montgomery Ward and Co., S. S. Kresge, and other retailers that once existed at the intersection of 51st and Indian School wonder, with me, what took baseball so long to get to Maryvale, and why it wasn't the Cubs instead of the cheating Brewers. My brothers and sisters and I attended the school at SVdP, where I was a choirboy, altar boy, sacristan, and ne'er-do-well, but I got straight As and my teachers loved me. And by "my teachers" I mean the Daughters of Charity, who, in those days, still wore the amazing white winged-hats they were famous for. And I still see, occasionally, two of my teachers from those years when I get to St. Louis where they live, and occasionally hear from another who is in Bloomfield MI. And yes, they really do love me.

All kidding aside, I owe the Vincentians so much for the quality of the education I received in Montebello, Santa Barbara, and Perryville, but also the spiritual formation in the theology of the Second Vatican Council, and the modicum of liberty we were given in which to make its word become flesh. It's also true that I have been shaped, from a very young age, to some degree, by the Vincentian charism of love for the poor, and have tried in my life to take seriously the call to receive the good news and share it. Without claiming anything like an exemplary life, I have tried to be generous with what I have been given and advocate for and work in different ways to promote a more just world and a more equal sharing of the goods of the earth. In addition to all the gifts I received as part of the community, even after leaving college early after three years and two summers, St. Mary's of the Barrens Seminary conferred on me a college degree about a dozen years after I left there. The story of that is further down in this article.

I wanted to give a brief survey of the explicit musical inspiration that has come from my relationship with the Vincentians, because this year is a double centenary for them. In the global community, from last year, the Vincentian Family is celebrating the 400th Anniversary of the Vincentian Charism. This commemorates both St. Vincent’s preaching of the “first mission” on January 25, 1617 on the Di Gondi estate in Folleville, France; as well as the founding of the first Confraternities of Charity in Châtillon-sur-Chalaronne, France during the summer of 1617. The Congregation of the Mission is also celebrating 200 years in the United States, recognizing the journey of the first 13 Vincentians from Italy to France to Baltimore to Bardstown, KY to St. Louis & Perryville, MO over a two year period from 1816 to 1818.

Of course, my earliest compositions were done while I was with them in Perryville, MO. Early psalm settings like "Psalm 40: Here I Am" and "Psalm 72: Justice Shall Flourish" were written there; I wrote my versions of Psalm 89 ("Forever I Will Sing") and Psalm 126 ("I Had a Dream") at DePaul in the summer of 1972, all of which were published about 20 years later in the two Cries of the Spirit recordings I did with OCP, produced by Tom Kendzia. For the baccalaureate mass when my class graduated (without me, of course) in 1974, I wrote, in collaboration with my former English professor at St. Mary's, Sr. Josephine Burns, D.C., a song called "Kenosis Hymn" that appeared ten years later on my first NALR album, You Alone, both times with the great Bill Fraher (a year behind us in college) playing organ. Sr. Josephine paraphrased the kenosis hymn  of Philippians using iambic hexameter, a form of heroic meter. I set it as a kind of musical gradient, beginning with unaccompanied pseudo-chant, adding a simple accompaniment, then moving into a strophic hymn section, and finally into a four-part canon with organ and timpani. I had only ever heard the piece in my head before the graduation mass, and i completely broke down during the singing of it and could barely compose myself by the Gloria. I'm sure there was more than just the joy of recognition going on there, but it has not been often I've been so out of control as (kind of) an adult.
Not my mss...too neat. Back in the day,
I was inspired by the fine organists we had.

While a student at St. Mary's of the Barrens, probably in 1971-2, I had also written a song based on some of the liturgical texts used for the feast of St. Vincent. More or less by default, it became the go-to song for Vincentian feast days. Cleverly and memorably called "Song of St. Vincent," it took for its refrain the verses from Isaiah 61 that include the Vincentian motto, "Evangelizare pauperibus misit me":
The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me,
He has sent me to bring tidings of joy to the poor,
To forgive all the contrite of heart.
Verses were taken from the mass of the day, both the psalm and the communion antiphon (Psalm 107: 8-9 and Psalm 112, 1, 8-9).

In 1985, at the suggestion of John Gallen, S.J., in conversations about my participation in the Corpus Christi Center for Advanced Liturgical Studies that he was working on opening in Phoenix, I wrote to Perryville about possibly getting my BA awarded with some possible "life credit" for the hours I had not finished, I guess for good behavior or time served. So I wrote about my work in Phoenix and my budding career as a songwriter for liturgy (at the time, we were working on our second album, Do Not Fear to Hope), knowing that there was some urgency because the seminary itself was closing its doors and all the students were being moved to a house of studies at DePaul University that fall. The Dean wrote back to me and said that the college would be delighted to do so, and, as part of my credit, would like me to write a song for the closing of the seminary.

The closing mass was going to be held in the Easter season, and so I had a quandary about how to write a song appropriate for the closing of such an important institution for the Vincentian community, a pantheon of mixed emotions, during the joyful Easter season. What I hit upon was the song "You in Our Day," which later appeared on our third album, Mystery. I give the long version of the story of its creation on my SongStories post that can be found here.

One other song that we have published that is directly a result of my Vincentian contacts is the "Mission Song," which can be heard on our Vision CD from 1992. My friends at the Vincentian parish in St. Louis, choir director and pastoral associate Dennis Wells and associate pastor (now pastor) and seminary chum Fr. Ed Murphy (classmate of Bill Fraher, seminary organist and one of the music directors for many years at Old St. Patrick's in Chicago) asked me if I'd write something for the  150th anniversary of their parish which was to take place in 1994. I looked up some of the writings of St. Vincent, again drawing on the spirit of Isaiah 61 as well with its words that became the motto of the Congregation of the Mission (evangelizare pauperibus misit me.) I don't think I could reconstruct all of the exact quotes from Vincent, but one that stuck with me was his saying that "It is not enough for me to love God if my neighbor does not love Him," and he goes on to say that the way the neighbor learns to love God is when we love our neighbor properly, i.e., as we love ourselves, as we would want to be loved ourselves. This helped to shape the lyric of the song, which was translated into Spanish by Frank Dominguez, a classmate at the Corpus Christi Center.

All of this brings us to the final song that I want to feature, which has yet to be performed. The Midwest Province Vincentians invited me to write something for the double centenary mentioned above, to be sung at a liturgy on the Feast of St. Vincent de Paul, September 27, at the old cathedral in St. Louis, which was built by Vincentians from whom came the first bishop of St. Louis, Italian-born Joseph Rosati, C.M. (Fun fact: Bishop Rosati also founded, presumably to the never-ending consternation of  the Jesuits, St. Louis University. Second fun fact: the feast of St Vincent is also Terry Donohoo's birthday. Who says heaven isn't paying attention?)

The new piece is entitled "I Was a Stranger," which is the theme of the international Vincentian celebration. The American theme is "Walking with the Poor." Once again, I approached the text with more words of St. Vincent in my mind, particularly his famous dictum, "Go to the poor and you will find God." As I reflected on the background material I had been sent, thought about the journey that had brought the first Vincentians to the US, first to Bardstown, KY, then on to St. Louis, I remembered them as missionaries but as immigrants as well. I drew on insights I'd gotten from reading a Jewish author writing about Yiddish in the diaspora, and how exile, or more precisely, being "away from home," from the Holy Land and Jerusalem, was at the heart of Jewish spirituality. It led me to think about how God "left heaven," if you will, and emigrated to creation, at least in our imagination, to be among "the family," to be with us in the flesh.

In form, I think of the song as a processional in two parts: first, a hymn that could be sung as a prelude by choir and assembly, and then an extended ostinato on the text, "I was a stranger and you welcomed me." I hope that, as we sing the refrain over and over with various vocal and instrumental parts terracing in and out, we will come to experience somehow that in that gospel text, part of Matthew 25 in which Jesus identifies with outsiders and the poor, we are all the "I" and "me" in that sentence, and so is God. The song begins with two soloists singing, "Go to the poor and you will find God," and ends with those words being sung as a descant over the ostinato.

I'll let you know how it goes in St. Louis on the 27th, at least, if it goes well! One does what one can. To close this long blog post, I'm posting the text of "I Was a Stranger." To all my friends in the Daughters of Charity and in the Congregation of the Mission (C.M.s), I wish you a happy anniversary, with deep gratitude for your service everywhere in the world, especially in the little corners I've occupied for the last 66 years. Too many blessings to list, but greatest of them all are the friendships.

I Was a Stranger by Rory Cooney 

Leaving unimagined realms
Like no other god before you,
Wandered with us in the Sinai,
Walked to Babylon in chains,
Planted in us like a memory
Of a place still uncreated,
Walk among us unashamed
A god among the poor.

God’s most clearly spoken word,
Learned your mother’s song of freedom,
Learned to walk among the conquered,
With no place to lay your head.
With your parables of mercy
Touch of healing and forgiveness,
You, the glance and grasp of God,
A god among the poor.

From the cross’s cruel embrace
Breathe a final breath to hover
Over oceans of our sorrow
And create another world
As you vanish from our presence
Leave the ember of a vision
Of a people bound to you,
A god among the poor

In the hunger of the starved,
In craving of the thirsty,
In the loneliness of prisoners 
In the fear of those in pain
In the powerless and naked
In the outcast and the beggar,
Still rejecting every throne,
A god among the poor.

I was a stranger and you welcomed me
I was a stranger and you welcomed me
I was a stranger and you welcomed me
I was a stranger and you welcomed me

Copyright © 2018 Rory Cooney. All rights reserved.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Just past the silence (Second Thoughts on "Ephphatha" - B23O)

Open up.
Break out.
Snap out of it.
We’re here to help:

Say something.
Don't just sit there.
No one's stopping you now.
Take a stand, say it.
I'm listening. We're listening.
Don't be afraid.

Listen to me.
Listen to the earth.
Listen for the birdsong, the breeze.
Hear the beggar’s plea,
The baby’s cry,
The choir, the traffic.
Let it all in.
Don't cover your ears,
Snap out of it.
We’re with you.

Unfold. Bend. Reach up.
Open up.
Break out.
Open a window, open a door.
Scale a wall,
Break down a wall.
Prophesy to the wall.
Touch me, take the outstretched hands,
Hold on.

Stretch. Walk. Run. Reach.
Listen to the word,
then speak it.
We’re with you. Be the echo.

Don't be afraid.
Hear me. Say after me,
Open up.
Break out.
Come along, call the rest.
It's gonna be OK.
We're going somewhere new


the silence. Let's go. Open up,
Listen. Say it.