Catholic composer says music helps people pray

ROCK HILL — Dan Schutte believes that humility is the key to planning good liturgical music for Catholic Masses.

Schutte, one of the best known modern composers of Catholic worship music, stressed the importance of a “humble servant” approach for music directors and others involved in liturgy planning during a “Liturgy Day” workshop Sept. 20 at St. Anne Church.

Schutte, who is the composer-in-residence at the University of San Francisco, has written many songs that have become contemporary Catholic standards, including “Here I Am, Lord,” “Sing A New Song,” “Gather Us In” and “City of God.”

Schutte opened the session by asking the crowd of 60 what roles they perform at their home parishes. Those in attendance ranged from music and choir directors to lectors, extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist and instrumentalists.

He said the most important thing music directors and others must remember is to put the needs of the parish community above their own personal preferences.

“The bottom line of what we do is helping people to pray,” he said. “That is going to mean different things in different communities. We need to know something about the people in our community — what is the hunger of their heart? What helps them experience the presence of God?”

He said music directors should realize that Catholics have diverse musical tastes, and one parish might include people who favor everything from Gregorian chant and traditional Catholic hymns to more contemporary songs and praise and worship music.

“It’s about making choices that help people, which means music people can sing,” he said. “If all we do is put in only the styles of music we like, and we give them music that’s beyond their vocal range … that’s not being the humble servant. Sometimes the whole dynamic of the Mass comes down to very practical things.”

Schutte said music is just one element of the liturgy, and it is important to remember that people also come to Mass seeking different experiences.

He suggested five models to describe how different Catholics approach the Mass:

“Picnic” people look for an enjoyable experience and a sense of community.
“Gas station” Catholics want a spiritual “fill up” in the most efficient way possible.
“Classroom” types want to learn something during Mass, and prefer a highly structured liturgy.
“Theater” Catholics want a Mass that holds their attention and captures their imagination.
“Holy ritual” people have a deep love for tradition, and want Mass to include time for silent prayer and contemplation of God’s holiness.
The key, he said, is to make an effort to address these five models when planning the liturgy.

This can be done in many ways, he said, and must include cooperation, when possible, between the music director and the priest, lectors and others directly involved in the Mass.

He said the five different models can be accommodated in very simple ways, such as making time for greetings before Mass to help the “picnic” Catholics,” and including times for silent prayer and reflection for the “holy ritual” people.

He encouraged attendees to read “Sing to the Lord,” a document about music in divine worship released by the U.S. Conferences of Catholic Bishops in fall 2007. He said the bishops rightly encourage music directors to pay attention to the importance of antiphons and psalms, and to incorporate Gregorian chant in liturgies at some point during the year.

“Gregorian chant is part of our story, a reminder that what we do as Catholics is so much bigger than just what we are now,” Schutte said. “Chant is the music of men and women who believed in Jesus Christ and went before us for centuries.”

Schutte was asked how he felt about a recent Vatican directive stating that the word “Yahweh” can no longer be used in songs and prayers during Catholic Mass.

One of Schutte’s best known songs, “You Are Near,” opens with the line “Yahweh, I know you are near.”

Schutte said he was familiar with controversy over the word’s use long before the recent ruling, and has not used “Yahweh” in his writings for many years.

He said “Yahweh,” considered the most sacred name for God in Hebrew, was used in some Catholic songs written between 1968-74 because the word appeared in the Jerusalem Bible, released in 1966.

“The key reason for not using the word is what it means to our Jewish brothers and sisters,” Schutte said. “Orthodox Jews never speak that name, ‘Yahweh.’ They substitute other names for it because the word is so sacred, and it’s considered irreverent to say the word out loud. After about 1974, you don’t hear that word used in Catholic hymns because people became aware of its reverence.”

Schutte said he has revised the refrain of “You Are Near” to include the phrase “Oh Lord, I know you are near.” He also has written an extensive reflection on the song and the Vatican ruling, which can be found at his Web site,