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In one of the most incisive presentations in the history of National Association of Pastoral Musicians (NPM) conventions, Michael Joncas at the Long Beach gathering in 1989 gave the conventioneers much to digest. The topic was the Psalms, not an unfamiliar one to him as he stated, "Scripture grounds my life as a Christian, a preacher, and a priest." How evident that is when one surveys his musical output with its heavy concentration of scriptural content: "There Is No Greater Love" to--what else?--"On Eagle's Wings."
The appearance of "On Eagle's Wings" in 1978 coincided with his MA in liturgy from Notre Dame, an academic pursuit that has since taken him to the Pontifical Liturgical Institute of the Pontifical Athenaeum, San Anselmo in Rome. During that interim, he was ordained in 1980 as a priest for the archdiocese of St. Paul/Minneapolis. In this Minnesota scene, he collaborated with two of his colleagues, Marty Haugen and David Haas, in producing some of the most effective music for the Church's worship that has appeared in the post-conciliar days. His lovely setting of the blessing prayers at the 1990 meeting of the North American Academy of Liturgy illustrated his understanding of music, ritual, gesture, and prayer. This understanding is not an accumulation of musical trivia strung together, but a disciplined ordering of all of the elements. As he said in Long Beach, "We pastoral musicians do not sing to entertain bored worshipers or to seduce them into brainless ecstasy; we may sing in the Spirit, but we also sing with our minds."
His work causes one to muse over what some historians might see as a "Minnesota school of liturgical composition." It would be even more interesting for the cultural historian to discover the reason why, in the middle of the United States with so many Lutherans encircling the various Catholic centers of middle-European extraction, there exists such a formidable powerhouse of Catholic creativity. The Benedictines at Collegeville, the clean energy of the Midwest, Lake Wobegon--all of these factors confront us when we look at Michael Joncas with his enormous impact on the Church's musical life. Perhaps Horace Greeley was right after all about moving westward.
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