Go to the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., on any given day and morning Mass is packed with young men studying to be priests in the Dominican Order (celebrating its 800th anniversary in 2016). Some of those student friars (distinctive for their black and white habits and study of Thomas Aquinas) have released a CD, In Medio Ecclesiae (in the midst of the Church), of songs covering the liturgical year. Brother Vincent Ferrer Bagan, a former music teacher and director and co-director of the Dominican Schola Cantorum, talks with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about the music and the life.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Who is the Schola Cantorum of the Dominican Friars at the Dominican House of Studies?
BROTHER VINCENT FERRER BAGAN: We are a volunteer group of friars (mostly student brothers but also one priest) who rehearse chants and other choral music for an hour per week. Essentially, we are the liturgical choir for the house; we sing on most major feasts and important liturgical days.
LOPEZ: How did the CD In Medio Ecclesiae come to be? Why the name?
BROther VINCENT FERRER: With a growing number of brothers, and a growing number of brothers with musical background, we thought it would be good to record some of the more advanced repertoire we have been able to do in recent years.
Our repertoire is also not what you hear in most Catholic churches but is very much in accord with what the Second Vatican Council was calling for: continued use of the Church’s treasure of sacred music, especially chant and polyphony, as well as new works written for liturgical use. Most of the music is from the tradition, and the newly composed music is in harmonious continuity with the tradition.
In Medio Ecclesiae is the title of one of the chant tracks on the CD and is the Officium (entrance antiphon) for the feast of St. Dominic. St. Dominic always wanted his order to be “in the midst of the Church,” and we want to present this music as an offering that is not from a group on the fringe, but rather from a group that hopes to be and indeed is in the midst of the Church, doing what the Second Vatican Council has called for.
While much of the music is more advanced than what a typical seminary choir or choir of religious men might sing, it is also not done primarily by professionals, and, therefore, the music on the album is both beautiful and accessible to other choirs that might want to sing it.
LOPEZ: How is it “Music for the New Evangelization”? How does it help reawaken and renew faith among Catholics so that they can know and re-propose what the Catholic Church teaches?
BROther VINCENT FERRER: For many people in our time, the Church’s teachings about faith and morals are very difficult, and this can cause them to have great difficulty in embracing the healing and mercy and truth offered to them in the Christian life. The enduring beauty of this music that has stood the test of time, and the openness it fosters in the soul toward transcendent reality, causes it to continue to be important — and perhaps to take on an even greater importance — in drawing people of our day into the life that the Church has to offer them, which is nothing less than life with God in Christ Jesus, our Lord.
LOPEZ: Is Dominicana Records an actual thing?
BRO. VINCENT FERRER: Considering that we have published the album under our own Dominicana label (see also our blog and journal), and that the possibility of future recordings is present, I would say it is! Or at least we want it to become a thing.
LOPEZ: Your name is beside “Thine Are the Heavens” on the CD. It is described as a Christmas offertory. What’s significant about it?
BROther VINCENT FERRER: This is the text of the last paragraph on sacred music in Vatican II’s Sacrosanctum Concilium:
121. Composers, filled with the Christian spirit, should feel that their vocation is to cultivate sacred music and increase its store of treasures.
Let them produce compositions which have the qualities proper to genuine sacred music, not confining themselves to works which can be sung only by large choirs, but providing also for the needs of small choirs and for the active participation of the entire assembly of the faithful.
The texts intended to be sung must always be in conformity with Catholic doctrine; indeed they should be drawn chiefly from holy scripture and from liturgical sources.
Both Father James Moore and I have intended to do just that. Father James’s new arrangement of the Ubi caritas takes both the text and chant from the Holy Thursday liturgy and sets it in a modern and beautiful style, akin to the setting by Maurice Durufle (1902–1986). My composition was motivated by the desire to have a modern, English-language setting of the text of the offertory chant for Christmas Mass during the day. It is able to be sung by a smaller choir, the text is the appointed psalm verse for that part of the Christmas liturgy. It is also short enough that additional music (e.g., a congregational hymn or organ music) could also be sung at that time, and it is also influenced by the musical styles of our own time.
LOPEZ: There are some uniquely Lenten tracks on In Media Ecclesiae. How can O vos omnes be meditative on Good Friday, Lent, or any day?
BRO. VINCENT FERRER: The O vos omnes [free online here] is a beautiful text based on a verse from the Book of Lamentations that the Church has used for centuries in order to meditate on the sorrow Christ experienced in our behalf in his passion. One of the helpful things that this music does is to stretch out the text of one verse over a few minutes to keep it present in our minds and help us to enter into its profound meaning more deeply. The music is also influenced by the text, depicting its drama with harmonic tension and dynamic interest.
LOPEZ: What’s distinctly Holy Thursday about Ubi caritas?
BROther VINCENT FERRER: The text itself is the appointed text for the offertory of Holy Thursday and focuses on Christ’s love for his disciples both in washing their feet (the Gospel reading) and in offering his Body and Blood (in the institution of the Eucharist as a sign of his passion).
LOPEZ: How can In Medio Ecclesiae help with a proper Easter celebration?
BROther VINCENT FERRER: The piece Terra tremuit is a powerful piece by William Byrd, who set many of the proper texts of the Mass in polyphony in his collection entitled “Gradualia” (named after the Roman Gradual, the book that has the chants for the Mass). This text is the offertory for the Easter Sunday Mass and emphasizes the power and judgment that are revealed by Christ’s resurrection. Byrd’s setting of the text takes less than one minute but includes what could be called a musical tremble to depict the earth’s shaking as a result of the defeat of the Evil One made known to us in the power of Christ’s resurrection.
LOPEZ: And how can “If Ye Love Me” bring Pentecost alive in men and women today?
BRO. VINCENT FERRER: This is one of the gems of the choral repertoire. It is simple but beautiful, and it can be sung by almost any high school or church choir. The sweetness and balance of its harmonic motion dispose us to meditate on the connection between the love of Christ, the keeping of his commandments, and the sending of the Holy Spirit as our Comforter, all of which can offer consolation to souls that are burdened with the complexities and isolation of the workaday world and the vicissitudes of modern life.
LOPEZ: St. Joseph comes up in In Medio Ecclesiae. Do brethren of the Dominican Province of St. Joseph have a special relationship with him? How can he be a help to all men in 2014?
BRO. VINCENT FERRER: We certainly do have a special relationship with him. As the earthly foster father of the God-man, St. Joseph is a model to all of us of a strength that requires few words but strong and definitive action in obedience to the plan of God. For men who are fathers, or for all men who are called to play a fatherly role in some way, St. Joseph, as patron of the Universal Church, can and should be a valuable model and intercessor.
LOPEZ: How did you wind up as a Dominican friar? It seems a bit retro, and yet your numbers are booming, aren’t they?
BROther VINCENT FERRER: If by “a bit retro,” you mean about 800 years, absolutely! For many of us, and certainly for me, we saw both the emptiness and lack of fulfillment that the world has to offer and also the perennial wisdom of the Christian life that is the true answer to the questions that modern man is or should be asking. The witness of communal life stands in contrast to the loneliness of the modern world. The focus on study in service of preaching for the salvation of souls, which is our Dominican mission, allows us to be a witness, both by our lives and by our words, of the joy of the Gospel that comes from accepting the love and mercy of Jesus. For me and, I believe, for many of the brothers here, the Dominican life is just as suited for and important to the spreading of the Gospel in our modern age as it was almost 800 years ago at our founding (1216).
In our province, which covers the northeast part of the country and is one of four U.S. provinces, we have nearly 70 men in formation, certainly the largest number we’ve seen in the last four decades. While the Dominican life itself is a beautiful and attractive form of life, and while the Province of St. Joseph aims to live that life very much in medio ecclesiae, the province certainly can’t claim to have attracted all these vocations by itself. It seems that God is giving us this gift in order to make use of the Dominican friars of our province for the benefit of his Church in ways that remain to be seen.
LOPEZ: What is the life of a student brother at the Dominican House of Studies like?
BRO. VINCENT FERRER: It is good . . . and busy! We are full-time students of philosophy and theology at our own Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception, at which we receive a rich, Thomistic education to prepare us for preaching, teaching, and priestly ministry in the Church. We also have ministry assignments and house chores. All of this is placed into the structure of communal living: We come together in the chapel for Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours four times per day and eat our meals in common as well. Doing things like recording an album are an additional bonus on top of that, you could say.
LOPEZ: What is it about music that draws you to God?
BROther VINCENT FERRER: St. Augustine says, “Cantare amantis est — to sing is of the lover.” Out of love for God, we want to clothe what we say to him in beauty. My middle-school music teacher gave a simple definition of music that has always stuck with me: “organized sound.” The sound is not merely organized for communication, of course, but organized by pitch and rhythm, organized in such a way as to be beautiful to the human ear and to be in turn offered to God as something beautiful given to him in love.
LOPEZ: What’s your view of the world from the priory — just a ride down North Capitol Street from the halls of political power?
BROther VINCENT FERRER: While our life here is essentially the same as it would be in any other major city, we do naturally come into contact with many who work for the government or in politics in various ways. Because the nature of our life and our study focus on the higher things and more universal principles, it is a contrast and a complement to the tendency to focus on talking points and short-term goals that can at times plague the political atmosphere. We hope, therefore, to be a voice of reason and justice for the common good in a place that can sometimes forget those lofty goals of politics. At the same time, the friars find that there are many motivated people with high ideals who are doing good work here, especially among the young. For some of them, our house can provide a peaceful place for prayer.
LOPEZ: Do you have a favorite on In Medio Ecclesiae?
BRO. VINCENT FERRER: If you’ll allow me to pick two . . . the first one would be the title track, the chant In medio ecclesiae. The chant itself is simple but beautiful, and many of us have now sung it enough to have it become a part of us in a way. It is the entrance chant for the feast of St. Dominic and is taken from the Book of Sirach. Referring to Lady Wisdom, the verse reads, “And in the midst of the church she shall open his mouth, and shall fill him with the spirit of wisdom and understanding, and shall clothe him with a robe of glory.” As friars of the Order of Preachers, we strive to imitate our holy founder by being preachers of grace, filled with wisdom and understanding.
The second one would be Victoria’s O sacrum convivium. The text is a beautiful and brief meditation on the Blessed Sacrament by the great Dominican doctor of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas. The music here, too, is simple but beautiful. It is a four-part piece with smooth and flowing melody and harmony. When it is sung at Communion, it lifts the mind to a sense of peace and reverence for this great mystery of the Lord coming down to us to be our sustenance in this life. We receive the Lord, who has come down to us, and this piece captures the spiritual experience of being drawn up to heaven with him.
LOPEZ: Dominicans are known for holy preaching. Does that — or anything distinctly Dominican — come through on In Medio Ecclesiae?
BROther VINCENT FERRER: You might very well find a similar selection of music on other recordings of seminary choirs or choirs of men religious, but I think it does have a particular Dominican character. As you pointed out, three of the tracks are drawn from the Masses commemorating three saints very dear to us: St. Dominic, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Joseph. An additional track (O sacrum convivium) has a text of St. Thomas Aquinas, and the Sub tuum (the oldest prayer to the Blessed Virgin Mary) is arranged by our Dominican nuns in Summit. And our subtitle, “Music for the New Evangelization,” was given to communicate our purpose in making the album: the communication of the Gospel for the salvation of souls.
LOPEZ: You did some borrowing from my friends at the Rosary Shrine in Summit, N.J., — Dominican (cloistered) nuns. Is there a lot of Dominican cross-pollination that happens, particularly with sisters?
BRO. VINCENT FERRER: The setting you mentioned comes from the Summit Choirbook, a hymnal published by the Dominican Nuns of Summit and owned by many of the communities of friars in our province. There is a close bond and a sharing of the work of the Order, though in various modes, between the friars and the nuns as well as the active sisters, so that does result in a decent amount of sharing of resources as well, to the benefit of all.
LOPEZ: What was most surprising about putting together In Medio Ecclesiae? Did you learn things you didn’t know about fellow student brothers and their talents? Did it help with faith?
BROther VINCENT FERRER: All of the music we recorded is music we had already learned for our liturgical worship at the Dominican House of Studies. The idea of recording in order to share this treasure with others, then, was a subsequent idea. While recording requires much patience, it allowed us to achieve a greater attention to the finer points of music-making. It was edifying to see a “volunteer” group of brothers rise to the occasion in that way. For those of us more involved in what followed the recording, we learned how many details are involved in the selection of tracks, the mastering of the album, and publication and promotion. For all of us, the whole process confirmed us in our resolve to be faithful to the Gospel as the foundation for preaching it in whatever way we are able.
LOPEZ: I’m particularly taken with “Round Us Falls the Night.” Could that be an anthem of sorts for our times? So many feel a darkness — depression, loneliness, people who feel abandoned and cast away. How can this lift us into what two popes wrote about this summer: the Light of Faith?
BROTHER VINCENT Ferrer: This is a hymn we sing with some frequency at Compline, or Night Prayer, the last office each day in the Liturgy of the Hours. I think you’re right, though, to say that it can help us particularly in times when the Church and the truth and goodness for which she stands seem to be threatened more acutely and many of the seeming advances of the modern world have left people lonelier and more disconnected from their families. Popes Benedict and Francis remind us in Lumen Fidei that faith is not just a private choice or an ornament on an otherwise secular life but rather is a real way of knowing the truth – and transforms our entire outlook on life. “Round Us Falls the Night,” and the office of Compline in general, certainly re-focus us on that final end of happiness in union with God and the light of faith in Christ, our Savior, as the only thing that can illumine our way to that eternal joy.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and founding director of Catholic Voices USA.