Thoughts on worship, congregational song
and the life of the church.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Re-Post: Reflecting, Planning, and Preparing for "Tree of Life and Love"

This post is reprinted from the Spring 2013 issue of Sine Nomine, the newsletter of the Southern Ontario Chapter of The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada. Visit the Events page to learn more about Hilary's involvement in the Hymn Society's 2013 Annual Conference, Tree of Life and Love: The Blossoming of Song since Vatican II.


With the long-awaited arrival of spring in Toronto comes a renewed excitement for the annual conference of The Hymn Society, this year in Richmond, VA. I was very excited to hear that the conference planning committee had selected the topic of the outpouring of Christian song since the Second Vatican Council in this fiftieth anniversary year. I warmly encourage you to come to Richmond for what promises to be an insightfully designed and spiritually nourishing conference, with no end of wonderful singing (isn’t that the main reason we all come?)

I was even more thrilled to be asked to co-plan the closing hymn festival, which is to be titled “New Shoots and Buds: New Horizons and New Dimensions in Congregational Song.” The planning committee has reached out to pairs of planners who represent Catholic and Protestant faith traditions in their pairings; my planning partner is Cuban-Minnesotan Catholic songwriter and liturgist Tony Alonso. You may notice how many times the word “new” appears in the festival title, and it is not lost on me that Tony and I, both Generation Y graduate students, have been selected for our capacity to represent the next generation of church music, not only though the music we have selected, but through who we are.

I think Tony would agree with me that there is a certain trepidation that comes with being asked to present (and represent) the “next big thing” in congregational song. The good news is, there is no shortage of beautiful and healthy “new shoots and buds” from which to draw when planning a festival of this kind: the last ten or twenty years have seen a wonderful flourishing of new (there’s that word again) songs, hymns, and spiritual songs, not unlike the great English “hymn explosion” of the late twentieth century, though different in its character and circumstances.

Our task, and the conference theme itself, became that much more poignant and timely following the Vatican’s announcement in February that Pope Benedict XVI, the former Joseph Ratzinger, was resigning his position as head of the church, a move not seen in six hundred years of world history. As characterized by the New York Times, the announcement on March 13 of the election of Pope Francis, formerly Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Bishop of Buenos Aires, “sent a powerful message that the future of the church lies in the global south, home to the bulk of the world’s Catholics.” I certainly sensed a wave of electricity pass through the community of faithful, at least as demonstrated by my Facebook feed, which erupted with excited and hopeful messages about this pope’s tenure and the future of the church.

In putting together this festival, Tony and I have been motivated by a few central ideas. The first is that the church in parts of the world other than Western Europe and North America (areas that are referred to as “mission lands” in the conciliar documents) has burgeoned in the last fifty years, and now represents some of the most thriving centres for contemporary Christian faith. This being the case, how can new songs for the church represent these communities of faith, in a way that moves beyond mere “mission” to relationship between and among churches in disparate parts of the world? 

The second idea is related: that despite the amazing contemporary platforms such as email, Facebook, Twitter, Skype, and YouTube – tools that have supposedly created an online “community” – we are communicating, truly communicating, less and less. We are plugged into personal devices and isolated from those around us. The church, the living community of faith, is a place that can provide and build those communal bonds, and congregational song still has a vital role to play in that endeavour.

Finally, though we don’t know exactly what congregational song of the future will look like, we are guided and inspired by the faithful witness of those present at the Second Vatican Council, who looked to the Holy Spirit for prayerful guidance by opening the first council meeting with the ancient chant “Veni, Creator Spiritus.”

This year’s conference has a number of wonderful sessions planned, some of them new formats for the Hymn Society. It’s exciting to me that we will gather in Richmond, the new “home city” of the Society. The Wednesday evening TaizĂ© worship service promises to be a special highlight. 

I am looking forward to connecting with friends and colleagues old and new, and I sincerely hope you will be among them. Veni!

The Dome of St. Peter's Cathedral, Vatican City

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