James Martin, editor of America magazine, shared a tribute to the most influential 20th-century American musicians you’ve probably never heard of. It’s by staff writer Jeannette Cooperman of St. Louis Magazine, and it was picked up by the National Catholic Reporter. Unlike most media profiles, it gets into the craft — and the musicality — of songwriting. I thought it was fascinating.

And it gave me a new appreciation for the St. Louis Jesuits, who celebrate their 45th anniversary this fall. We sing quite a bit of their music in my Lutheran church, and it’s a nice compromise between the watered-down Jesus-is-my-boyfriend pop ditties of so much contemporary worship music and what one of the Jesuits calls the “old, wheezy church-organ hymns.” In fact, it was one of their hymns that first introduced me to the liturgical renewal movement, which in turn got me interested in Lutheran-Catholic ecumenical relations.

But first, a little background on the musicians. And their music.

When you hear the name St. Louis Jesuits, you might think of a gospel quartet. OK, maybe a Catholic gospel quartet, but a performance group anyway. But that’s not what they are. Instead, they’re all about congregational singing, and they’ve been very successful at promoting it. In a sidebar to her article, Cooperman says:

The St. Louis Jesuits are, figuratively speaking, rock stars. They’ve written 571 songs all told, done 13 albums together, received five Grammy nominations and a slew of awards. Their songs have been translated not just into Spanish and German but into Latvian, Samoan, Cantonese and Finnish, among others. Yet they started simply, as a handful of Jesuits in various stages of formation who all happened to be at Saint Louis University in the early ’70s. 

Possibly their most widely known song is “Here I Am, Lord” by Dan Schutte. According to the Hymnary.org website, it appears in 50 hymnals, from the African American Heritage Hymnal (in alphabetical order) to Worship in Song published by the Friends General Conference. (One of the 50 is Evangelical Lutheran Worship, where it’s No. 574.)

The lyrics are Schutte’s, but they’re the product of a group effort. Cooperman explains the dynamic, quoting Fr. Bob Dufford, another St. Louis Jesuit:

When Dan Schutte wrote “Here I Am, Lord” (in the throes of the flu, because somebody needed a song for a diaconate ordination), his second line sounded a wee bit arrogant, the group informed him. Grumbling because he knew they were right but had no clue how to fix it, Schutte went back to work. What if it were a question? That simple change let him sum up all the eager uncertainty of a prophet’s first response to God in four words: “Is it I, Lord?”

“Oh, my God,” says Dufford, “it changes everything. Could it be I ? Could you have really called me? And then, instead of ‘Take and lead me,’ it’s ‘I will go, Lord, if you lead me.’ “

Here I am Lord” — Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church Chancel Choir, Fort Lauderdale.
Dr. John L. Wilson, Conductor; Flute; Lisa Wilson, Piano; Samuel Metzger, Organ

Other St. Louis Jesuits include Tim Manion, Fr. Roc O’Connor and Fr. John Foley, whose work I know from “One Bread, One Body” in ELW (No. 496). They’ve been workshopping songs like that since the 1970s. They met as students at SLU, and several of them went on to be ordained as Jesuit priests. Cooperman says:

They were studying philosophy or theology, but on the side, they were trying to write post-Vatican II liturgical music that would counter the smug, shallow stuff that had flooded into the void. On Sundays, they sang their songs with the college community, and people grabbed for copies of the lyrics. Because SLU was home to the Institute for Religious Formation, which drew spiritual directors from all over the world, the music spread around the globe before it was ever recorded.

What I like most about Cooperman’s story is the way she weaves together a rounded picture of how they could take a passage of scripture and “use those psalms and verses in a way the old hymns never had”:

Sometimes they quoted verbatim, Foley says, wrapping music around the syllables. Sometimes they rephrased in a way that was more contemporary and conversational (Schutte was a master of that) or smoother, with more lilt and cadence. And sometimes they took off from the meaning of a passage, carrying it further.

In the critique sessions, they forced each other into a discipline of rhythm, meaning and tone. Manion says it was Foley’s emphasis on stress and syntax that taught him to work lyrics. “What do you mean, you don’t read poetry?” the older Jesuit had snapped. “You’re trying to write songs and you don’t read poetry?” Schutte now thinks that “the words and music being so wedded together made the music seem natural to people. I think it helped people feel at home with our music.”

“The whole thing was extraordinary,” Manion remarks, “but the doing itself was oddly workaday. The music frequently rose out of the fact that we needed a song for the psalm response the next Sunday.” So that people could sing along, they ran off “purple poop sheets” (his fond name for the tediously mimeographed copies). Soon those purple sheets were in such demand, it took an assembly line to crank them out. 

I remember those purple “ditto sheets,” as we called them. They were a staple of my school days in the 1950s, and they were still around when I started playing the mountain dulcimer in the ’70s. They were what we had in the days before copyrighted dulcimer tablature arrangements. But I didn’t hear about the St. Louis Jesuits until much later. In fact, I was hearing their music before I ever took much of an interest in liturgical music.

In fact, the St. Louis Jesuits have something to do with why I took an interest in liturgical music to begin with. At least one of their songs has.

I know I’ve told this story before, but it’s worth repeating. In the late ’90s before I joined a Lutheran congregation and sang in the choir, I went to church with my mother on Reformation Sunday. That’s the last Sunday in October, and it commemorates when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany, on Oct. 31, 1517. I was expecting something more rah-rah, and I’m sure we sang “A Mighty Fortress is our God,” which I think of as kind of a 16th-century fight song. But one of the communion hymns that day began “One bread, one body / One Lord of all,” and ended, “Throughout the earth / We are one body in this one Lord.”

And I looked down at the bottom of the page in our Lutheran hymn book, where the credits are, and I read it was by Thomas J. Foley, SJ.

That was wholly unexpected, and it was quite a revelation.

I was a child of the ’50s, growing up in another mainline Protestant church where we followed what I later learned was the Western rite liturgy. But we fought, or my elders fought, about what was — or was not — “too Catholic,” and all the Catholic kids in my little town carpooled 20 miles down to Knoxville so they could go to a Catholic high school. (We were required by state law to read at least 10 verses from the King James Bible in our home room every morning, and for doctrinal reasons I didn’t quite understand they must have felt like there was good reason to avoid the public schools and their Protestant bible.) I was attracted to a “high church,” Anglo-Catholic liturgy as a teenager, and that just-beneath-the-surface undercurrent of discord between Protestants and Catholics was one of the things that turned me off so thoroughly on organized religion as soon as I was old enough to leave home.

So 40 years later in another Protestant denomination, I wasn’t expecting to be singing a communion hymn by a Jesuit musician in a service that celebrated the Protestant Reformation. Oddly enough, it was during Sunday morning services in a Lutheran church that I began to learn about the liturgical reforms of Vatican II. We were using a 1978 hymnal called the Lutheran Book of Worship at the time (aka the “old green book”), and when my attention wandered during sermons or lengthy Pauline epistle readings, I learned about the call for “full, conscious participation” in worship and where the Lutheran tradition of congregational hymnody fit into it. It whetted my interest, and the rest is history. Or hymnody.

None of this has made me an expert in hymnody, of course, but I wonder if any of it would have been possible without the St. Louis Jesuits.

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