Sacred Music
Fall 2006, Volume 133, No. 3, pp. 27-36

The St. Louis Jesuits: Thirty Years, edited by Mike Gale. Oregon Catholic Press, 2006, 190 pp. ISBN: 1569290741. $30

here’s no accounting for taste, but surely there is some answer to the mystery as to why Catholic music in America went the direction it did after the Second Vatican Council. Some insight arrives via a close look at the central players in this drama, a group that came to be called the St. Louis Jesuits—a phrase that alternatively inspires snickers and disdain in many Catholic observers, and deference and respect in others. One person credits them with wrecking the liturgy and the next person credits them with saving it. Neither side can begin to account for the perspective of the other. For all the talk of community and unity that is invoked on behalf of their simple, popular, folk-like style, this music remains some of the most divisive in the history of liturgical music.

Partisans of sacred music might argue that the whole period is best forgotten, the same way the fashion industry would like to forget the leisure suit or patchwork platform shoes for men. But this is not yet possible, for their music is still very much with us at liturgy. Their music continues to dominate contemporary songbooks. Of all the hymns in the mixed-repertoire, mainstream Heritage Missal published by Oregon Catholic Press, 24% are by a member of the St. Louis Jesuits, with 70% written in the style they pioneered. The 2000 edition of Glory & Praise, “the most popular Catholic hymnal ever published,” according to OCP[1] , contains 100 songs written by them. One member of the St. Louis Jesuits serves on the US Bishops’ Subcommittee on Music, which is working toward naming a common repertoire for parishes.

The St. Louis Jesuits have indeed succeeded in transforming the sound and shape of Catholic liturgy, so much so that the authentic sound of Catholicism has been largely relegated to the land of CDs and specialized liturgical settings. Their music does indeed constitute the “Catholic classics” of our age, as painful as it is to admit. To some extent, their music has penetrated beyond Catholicism: The Saint Louis Jesuit’s music was played at Ronald Reagan’s funeral and Bill Clinton’s inauguration.

For these reasons, it is in the interest of all sides to gain a greater understanding of who they are, what they were doing, and why they enjoyed such success. To see their music as a product of its time, and their successes as related to a liturgical vacuum that appeared in a highly turbulent period of church history, is to understand their music as an aberrant event that cannot and will not enjoy a lasting presence in the life of the Roman Rite. Their music will always have fans and a market to serve, but a growing realization that this music, as liturgical music, reflected a profound confusion over fundamentals—a cultural commodity bound to a particular generation and time—assures that its domination will go the way of other secular iconography of the period.

The St. Louis Jesuits recently re-united on the thirtieth anniversary of their appearance on the Catholic music scene. A glossy and even hagiographic book of appreciation has been published: The St. Louis Jesuits: Thirty Years (Oregon Catholic Press, 2006, 190 pp., ed. Mike Gale). The book is packed with color photos and interviews that celebrate their emergence and eventual dominance in Catholic liturgy but (typical of the genre) avoids serious questions and only vaguely alludes to the existence of critics. It can make for painful reading at times but it is nonetheless revealing. It cannot fully account for why and how a phenomenon like this group came about and achieved such dominance in Catholic music, but it provides some very instructive clues—clues that point to larger lessons about the future of liturgical music.

The book opens with a series of high-level endorsements of their music and their genre, as if to say “this is not just 70s kitsch,” or to dispel the impression that their music is rogue, unorthodox, or contrary to established liturgical norms. First comes Rev. Virgil C. Funk, president emeritus of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians, an organization that has long supported this type of music in liturgy. “The St. Louis Jesuits were important contributors to the development of liturgical renewal in the Catholic Church in the United States. Not only did they provide music to sing at worship but, even more importantly, they provided a way for the best truths of the Catholic Church to be internalized by everyone who sang them.”

Surprisingly, we also hear from Most Rev. William Levada, Archbishop Emeritus of San Francisco and current Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (Benedict XVI’s successor in that position): “You have made a great and lasting contribution to the liturgical life of the Church. Many have noted favorably the way in which you have drawn from and developed Scriptural themes in your music. We are grateful to you…”

Next: the Superior General of the Jesuit order, Rev. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach: “Your creativity and dedication have helped to bring church music to the people and the people to church music.” The endorsements continue: Bishop Remi J. De Root, retired Bishop of Victoria; Most Rev. Donald W. Trautman, Bishop of Erie, Pennsylvania and Chairman of the US Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy. The reader is overwhelmed: surely this music is legitimate, licit, and unimpeachable.

Indeed, after reading all this, and knowing nothing else about the subject, you might think that their music must exceed the scale and magnificence of Palestrina, Victoria, Monteverdi, Machaut, or even build upon the musical and textual complexities of the Gregorian tradition, with its astonishing integration of text, music, and purpose.

You might almost forget that we are speaking here of the simple, well-worn, and recognizably popular melodies, written in that pseudo-folk style of the period, that have achieved ubiquity in millions of parishes, and can be (and usually is) sung and played by people (usually on guitar) with little or no formal training in music. I am speaking here of such Catholic favorites as “Be Not Afraid,” “Here I Am Lord,” “City of God,” “Sing A New Song,” “Come to the Water,” “For You Are My God,” “Yahweh, I Know You Are Near,” “Though the Mountains May Fall,” “Glory and Praise to Our God,” “Only This I Want,” and “One Bread, One Body.”

These are some of the more familiar pieces, and they are all studied expressions of low-brow tunefulness having nothing to do with the deeper tradition or the transcendent aspirations of sacred music—which would not be a problem by itself but for their use in liturgy. There are hundreds more songs, along with 30 CD collections that continue to sell well in the catalogs of Catholic music publishers. Their composers have countless impersonators, and many of them (such as Marty Haugen and David Haas) offer tributes herein.

And yet there are so many ways in which listening to their music today provides a blast from the composers’ own personal past. The men in question are Bob Dufford, John Foley, Tim Manion, Roc O’Connor, and Dan Schutte. They attended the seminary during the most turbulent times in modern Catholic history. They entered seminary at the time of the transitional Missal of 1965, which had already severed a link from the past with the introduction of vernacular. Their primary educational experience took place during and after the Second Vatican Council. The ordinations of 4 of the 5 followed the promulgation of the Novus Ordo Missae. Tremendous confusion reigned over what music was appropriate at Mass. After the 1965 Missal, there was already a growing sense that Latin texts were not the future. The text of the new Mass had been imposed in 1969-1970 without an attached volume of chants for the Propers or Ordinary. Indeed, the music question appeared to be completely open, as if the past no longer had any bearing on what the future held.

Because of profound misjudgments and missteps following the promulgation of the new rite, Rome provided no clear guidance. Even pastors and musicians who wanted to be faithful to norms were left to speculate on how the Propers fit with the new calendar and structure. The transitional Missal of 1965 had already contributed to the new-era ethos, and, after the New Rite, three years went by with no authoritative intervention while the experimentation took hold. The first word from the Vatican came in 1973 with release of the Ordo cantus missae—with no perceptible effect. Far more attention was given to the 1972 release of Music in Catholic Worship, a non-authoritative document issued by the Liturgy Committee of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. This contained language that seemed to endorse all the US trends, especially that pioneered by the group in question. The document, for example, noted that “good music of new styles is finding a happy home in the celebrations of today” and that “music in folk idiom is finding acceptance in eucharistic celebrations.”[2]

It endorsed the “pastoral judgment” that music must “enable these people to express their faith, in this place, in this age, in this culture…”[3] Most incredibly, “[T]he musical settings of the past are usually not helpful models for composing truly liturgical pieces today.”[4]

Then in 1974, Paul VI released a book of simple chant (Jubilate Deo) and, finally, the Solesmes monks published the Graduale Romanum in accordance with the new calendar and liturgical structure. These two releases provided authoritative and practical guidance concerning the music question—fully five years following the issuance of the new Mass. But by this time, the sound and feel of Catholic liturgy had already been transformed, the student protest movement had radicalized a major part of the student population, popular music had matured in its revolutionary style, and the press claimed that people everywhere were looking for some vague sense of awakening.

At the very time of this musical confusion—the period between the release of the new Mass and the appearance of the musical settings attached to it—the St. Louis Jesuits were in the late stages of studies at the University of St. Louis as part of their Jesuit formation. Like most men in their early twenties in 1970, they played guitar, an instrument on which it is easy to affect a certain competence with some mashed down fingers in the left hand and some vigorous strumming in the right. Everyone, it seemed, played guitar. What made these men different was that they were Catholic and in last years of seminary.

Their first venue was the campus liturgy at the College Church and the Jesuit House of Studies. As Foley, who could play piano but learned guitar in seminary, says “Just at the time, the guitar started to be allowed in the new liturgy. I thought ‘well, they need music, so let’s go.’ ” Indeed, at every step they were encouraged by their superiors to bring the music that they thought of as popular song into Mass. Says Schutte: “I never would have continued these stumbling attempts at music had it not been for the encouragement of my Jesuit peers and superiors.” Hence, they were not seminary’s equivalent of campus rebels. They were cultivated and promoted and encouraged by their teachers and superiors.

To their credit, and despite their recent concertizing on the occasion of their reunion, they avoided giving concerts. They were concerned that their music be used in prayer sessions—not necessarily in liturgy, at least not initially—but not as a venue for popular acclaim, though even by that time folk music had become common in Mass. They were surrounded by models of musical stardom in the secular culture, and the Catholic Church seem to provide an opening for the same. The vogue of “modernization”—alongside the rejection of high art, music, and dress in favor of folk styles—gave their approach a unique appeal in Catholic circles. The music caught on all over the St. Louis area. The men began to use the ditto machine and stencils to make copies. In early 1972 they decided to produce a bound copy of these songs. When they pooled all their music, they had 57 pieces. Their volume was 107 pages, and they decided to record each song.

The result was their first compilation and recording, Neither Silver Nor Gold, as published by North American Liturgy Resources. It was a surprise seller and a huge hit by Catholic standards. It was met with rave reviews from “progressive” publications and disgust in “conservative” ones.

Following this release, members of the group went in separate directions. Dan Schutte and Roc O’Connor left to teach on an Indian reservation as part of their training. Bob Dufford left to teach in Omaha. Tim Manion left seminary altogether. Only John Foley stayed in St. Louis. But by the summer of 1974, the success of their music led their Jesuit superiors to gather them together again, and send them all to Berkeley for the summer to compose music. It was this summer—in Berkeley 1974, which has meaning in the history of popular culture as the most radicalized spot in the country—that yielded a sizeable amount what passes for liturgical music in this genre, including “Be Not Afraid,” “Earthen Vessels,” and the like. The result was Earthen Vessels, which remains a best-selling collection.

This music followed in the same vein as the previous release. It was nearly all unison, sometimes with a predictable obligato. There is nothing there for a serious choir to learn. It is music suited for a “praise band” driven by a non-professional ethos. A parish using it could dispense with its organist and choirmaster. As for the basis of the appeal, it is not difficult to discern. For those seeking a break with the past and the dawning of a new sensibility, the strumming of a rhythmic guitar during liturgy, with melodies and beats drawn from popular culture, must have seemed to be quite a revelation, an audible sign that the Church was taking some unspecified leap into a new time. It signified a clean break from the past.

Two years later, they were singing Masses at the NAPM convention, and by this time their status as mainstream had been sealed. They were often called the Catholic’s own Beatles (indeed Foley himself says their reunion was treated “as if the Beatles had just gotten together”). Tim Manion puts it this way in his interview in this book: “We were pretty big frogs in the small pond of Catholic music…. It was a good run.”

The volume under consideration here makes the very credible claim that they never sought to be big stars. They were only attempting to do what all young Catholics of that age were doing: experimenting towards updating liturgical expression for the new times. The new rite called for new music. And this new music would and should follow the prevailing trend in pop music circles, a notion that the US Bishops not only did not refute but actually seemed to support.

But like all legendary pop artists in mid-career, they began to take themselves very seriously as genuine musicians and liturgists, even though only Foley had the ability to read and compose music (as the book strongly implies in several places). Their entrenchment into the mainstream of liturgical life in the US was sealed with the release of Glory & Praise in 1977, with new releases in 1980, 1987, and 1984. It too was a huge seller and became a standard hymnal in the pew. As Thomas Day notes[5], the songbook did not contain anything preconciliar: not a single chant or hymn. It contained only the music of the genre of the St. Louis Jesuits. It was a repudiation of the past in every respect, a fact which reflected the spirit of the times and the milieu that surrounded the group.

In a scene worthy of the movie “Spinal Tap,” a very strange period in their lives began in 1980. They received a grant to study composition at Seattle University with Professor Kevin Waters, S.J, an expert in the serious avant-garde music of Elliot Carter and Bruno Batolozzi. How or why this happened is a puzzle. The only thing that unites Elliot Carter and the St. Louis Jesuits is that they are contemporaneous; otherwise, their music lies on completely separate planes.

Fr. Waters’s comment on this event raises more questions than it answers:

I vividly recall that I intended that [they] write a lot of exercises to loosen up their compositional joints. They resisted. They were reluctant to waste time and wanted to get right down to writing a finished product. Very few genuine exercises ever got on paper during the time the group spent with me… My responsibility in changing the dynamics of the St. Louis Jesuits haunted me in 1980. Would this group, which had a unified style and approach to music, be altered radically by the workshop? Would the individuality of each composer come to the fore in such a way that the distinctive style of the group began to fade or even disappear? I do not believe that I can answer those questions now. But perhaps the questions have changed or, perhaps they no longer matter.

Also, and consistent with the parable of pop stars who begin to believe in the artistic legitimacy implied by their exalted status, they broke up a year later. Manion became a Buddhist and left seminary permanently. Schutte was ordained but left the priesthood (though he still works in campus ministry). The others went their separate ways and concentrated on giving publisher-sponsored workshops around the country, up to two per month for many years. It was this medium that assured them a prominent place in parish liturgies. Amateur directors of music were attracted by the idea of meeting the men who wrote the songs they use at Mass. They would find themselves enraptured by their personalities and songs and go back to their parishes with an agenda to make the Mass ever more up to date, community centered, and folksy. This relentless work paid off for the style, as pastors found themselves unable to resist the pressure and the older generation of parish goers who resented the upheaval gave in to the demand that music appeal to the young. What was once the “folk Mass” in the typical parish became the family Mass and, finally, the only manner of celebrating Mass.

The volume under review, given its status as a glossy coffee table book, underplays the opposition that they faced. Anecdotal evidence suggests widespread exasperation with the rise of their sound—variously described by critics as “fluff” and “white bread” and far worse—at Mass. But one must also consider the extent to which the opposition was fighting a rear guard battle. The emphasis in those times was on the people and their participation; a superficial understanding of that idea led to demands that the people always be involved in singing in the vernacular, an idea that rules out the Gregorian Propers, which were not initially available for the new rite in any case. What else should people sing but peoples’ music, which, through slipshod thinking, seemed to mean the folk style of the time? All the while, the Church Music Association of America kept up its work but its voice was small as compared with the growing presence of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians. It wasn’t until the mid 1980s when a serious backlash became evident and culminated in Thomas Day’s classic book, Why Catholics Can’t Sing (1990).

It seems clear from this short rendering of their journey that these men never really confronted one central issue in all their years of writing tunes: Is the liturgy merely a text on which music of the times is to be imbedded based on the tastes and preferences of the current generation? If this were true, one might at least make a case for their method and approach, if not their style. After all, if the liturgy were nothing but a blank canvas, people are free to argue about whether the canvas ought to be used for a landscape, a portrait, or graffiti. The correct answer, however, which seems to have eluded them completely, is found not only in the whole history of papal legislation concerning music but also in the General Instruction: the foundational music of Mass is Gregorian Chant. It has pride of place, and any departure from its pride of place must draw from its style and sensibility in some way.

But what did the St. Louis Jesuits know of the Gregorian music of the Roman Rite? How much did they really know of Catholic music in general? How much had their training dealt with this subject in any serious way? What in their individual backgrounds had prepared them to correctly understand how music and liturgy are related? How much did they know of the Graduale? The answer is nothing, in every case, at least nothing that this book reports.

The most substantive comments on their musical influences in the interview portion of this book come from Bob Dufford, who says that his influences were Broadway music, popular music, and popular classical music along the lines of Handel’s Messiah, though this a bit of a stretch: it seems clear that the main influence on all these men was commercial popular music, such as sitcom themes and the top 40. As for musical competence, Dufford says that he had piano lessons for six weeks “but couldn’t stand them. I couldn’t get it and it drove me nuts. I never learned to play an instrument until I was studying philosophy in college.” The instrument, of course, was the folk guitar, as it was for all these men, since this is a “people’s instrument.”

What about singing experience? Dufford started when he was in sixth grade, which must have been sometime in the late fifties. “I started singing in choirs and learned all the chants.” Of course he must have misspoken since learning all the chants would be impossible for anyone but a full-time, dedicated scholar. In this single mention of chant in the entire volume, one is left wonder what chants he heard and learned and how they impacted him. Of the current trends toward more solemn liturgy today, Dufford expresses skepticism, as if it were nothing but a trend toward regimentation that a free people should reject. “There’s concern about the proper, official texts, about the importance of them meeting certain guidelines. I’m not totally convinced that is what people want.”

As for the influences on the others, Tim Manion’s first exposure to Catholic music was at a rogue liturgy (“a cool Mass”) run by the Jesuits at midnight on Saturday night, where he played electric bass. Roc O’Connor mentions only Broadway and rock music, including Pete Townsend, Bob Dylan, and Peter, Paul, and Mary. Schutte talks of Gordon Lightfoot, Rogers and Hammerstein, and Peter, Paul, and Mary. Foley had a broader background, to be sure, and even claims to be a composer of “classical” music as well.

Among them all, only Roc O’Connor seems to have moved on musically. He says that in the mid-1990s, he was studying at Weston Seminary and did a thesis on sacred space. He reports that he had a “growing sense of boredom with” all the music they had done, and began to seek more depth. “A good thing about the current work of the Vatican,” he says, “is its call back to a sense of reverence and transcendence.”

Another interview conducted after this book came out asked four of them specifically about chant[6]. Foley and Schutte answered the question, and only vaguely. Foley: “I love chant. The problem is that not all churches use it, so it’s more limited….” Schutte: “The GIRM calls us to preserve chant, which is appropriate. I would say that no music of any age should be excluded from possible use”—quite a statement considering the imperious agenda of the 1970s and an apt statement of the extent of the retrenchment currently underway.

Friends of sacred music can take some comfort from understanding the historical trajectory of the St. Louis Jesuits. It seems clear that the detour that Catholic music took in those years had much to do with what was not known or understood at the time: that the sacred liturgy and its music is not guesswork or a matter of fashion. It is something handed down as part of the structure of Mass. It is a completely different style and sensibility from the profane. It is rooted in Scripture from prescribed texts. It is integral to liturgical prayer. The normative music is itself prescribed to serve as a model and ideal. The notion that a few kids in seminary with amateur guitar skills could write anything that could equal the theological and aesthetic magnificence of the sacred music tradition is absurdly implausible on the face of it.

An interesting note of optimism can be drawn from this history. In the course of only a few years, Catholic music had been transformed in a way that the previous generation of Catholic musicians could not have imagined, and hence we cannot rule out another transformation along the same lines.[7] In the same way it is always easier to make water run downhill than uphill, the reemergence of sacred music cannot count on the same combination of forces that swept away the old music and brought in the new. It will not be enough to seek popular support for change. Nonetheless, it would be foolish to ignore the need for people in the pews to come to love the sound and feel of chant in a similar way that the generation that came of age in the mid-1970s was attached to the St. Louis Jesuits.

Given the new emphasis from the Vatican that music at Mass must have a link to chant and polyphony[8], we can probably expect some interesting strategic twists and turns in the coming days, including efforts to justify music of the St. Louis Jesuits as not a break from but a continuation of the past. Bob Hurd, for example, writes in Today’s Liturgy[9] on the communion rite, and acknowledges the Church’s preference for the text in the Graduale Romanum. But, he complains, this book “exists only in Latin. Its Gregorian chant antiphons are too complicated for most assembly singing.”[10] Having the choir sing alone ends up “rendering the assembly voiceless during Communion.” But does the celebrant’s homily similarly render people voiceless; do people really desire to have a voice during communion (experience suggests not). He continues, then, to argue that Dan Schutte’s “Only This I want” is “an equally wonderful way to reflect on these Scriptures while receiving Communion. Our biblical piety would be the poorer if his Scriptural song were eliminated from our repertoire, simply because it does not come from the Roman Gradual.”[11] He further recommends other familiar songs by Marty Haugen, Bernadette Farrell, and David Haas—music that most any Catholic listener knows in his heart is as far from chant as a church-in-the-round is from a traditional cathedral.

Writing in the same issue, Don Saliers discusses chant, its “discovery and rediscovery,” with a special focus on Adore Te Devote. He credits the “semiological approach” with giving license to restore “earlier free-flowing Latin forms found in the Triplex“—using terms and references few readers of this publication could possible follow or understand. He invokes the need for “ecumenical sharing of chant forms” and “modified chant in hymns” to eventually recommend popular songs such as “How Lovely is Your Dwelling Place” (Randall DeBruyn, 1981) as suitable substitutes. Thus does his article imply that contemporary praise songs are viable successors to the old chant.

We can expect to see more such efforts to re-render contemporary Christian song as a continuation of chant rather than the break that it truly does represent. Whether or not this effort is successful, it does suggest a last-ditch attempt to salvage the legacy of the changes of the 1970s by implicitly conceding that Gregorian chant is indeed the standard or the paradigm of Catholic music—something that the entire project of the St. Louis Jesuits had set out to deny. But it still begs the question: why accept a substitute when the genuine song of the Church is available to us if we are willing to challenge ourselves to offer the best?

Education in this regard is crucial, and workshops—of all sizes and for anyone who is even mildly interested—are especially necessary. There are language barriers to overcome and a host of psychological fears of old notation. For decades, Catholics have been fed a very restrictive diet of music, and it will take time to broaden people’s understanding of what music at liturgy can and should be. Certainly, there must be transitional measures that include vernacular plainsong and new polyphony. Truly sacred music does have advantages in this struggle. It is the music of the Church and not some interloping foreign voice. It is inspired and true. It demands more of the singer and listener, which means that people are going to be called to a higher sense, and challenged to achieve it. It demands humility and deference to truths we cannot always entirely understand. It calls forth a radical change in our liturgical sensibility. It will be as new to this generation as the music of the St. Louis Jesuits was to the generation coming of age a third of a century ago.

There is a final point that concerns the difference between eternal sounds and temporary fashions. The music of the St. Louis Jesuits was of their times, and its use in liturgy is little more than a microcosm of the upheaval that afflicted Americans in the age of Woodstock, the Vietnam War, and Watergate. Whether the music of the St. Louis Jesuits will continue to hold a place in the hearts of Catholics is a question that will be decided in the fickle marketplace for popular religious song. Whether it should have a normative place in Catholic liturgy is a separate question with an indisputably negative answer. The peculiar rise of this group and its music was then—and this is now.

Jeffrey Tucker is managing editor of Sacred Music. He would like to thank Michael Lawrence, Arlene Oost-Zinner, David Hughes, Thomas Day, and William Mahrt for their comments on a draft.

1. Advertising copy at
2. ¶28

3. ¶39

4. ¶51

5. Thomas Day, Why Catholics Can’t Sing (NY: Crossroad, 1990), pp. 69-70.

6. The Tidings Online, May 6, 2006. “St. Louis Jesuits: ‘I don’t think we’re rebels at all'” by Mike Nelson.

7. I owe this insight to Arlene-Oost Zinner.

8. “An authentic updating of sacred music can take place only in the lineage of the great tradition of the past, of Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony.” Pope Benedict XVI, June 24, 2006, speaking at the end of a concert in the Sistine Chapel.

9. “Making the Text More Efficacious: The Communion Rite and the Communion Song,” by Bob Hurd, Today’s Liturgy, Ordinary Time 2, 2006, pp. 21-26.

10. P. 21.

11. P. 24.