“Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord” Ephesians 5:19
By Eileen Jevis
Editor’s note: It’s a subscriber-only sneak peek! This is the first of a three-part series on some of the liturgical music shared in our diocese. Parts two and three will appear in the print version of The Catholic Sun.
The music that accompanies religious services has distinct purposes and messages. As a faith community, we lift our hearts and voices in song to praise God and to connect with him and each other. Music celebrates a liturgical season, interprets Scripture, and expresses our emotions so that we can grow closer to God. Whether gathered for Mass, a funeral, wedding, Christian holiday or other significant occasions, engaging with God through music conveys celebration, grief, joyfulness and thankfulness. We spoke to various music directors around the Diocese of Syracuse and asked them about their dedication to music and faith, and what it means to worship God through music.
Liturgical music points the way to Christ
Brian Dusell is the director of Music Ministries at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception and the coordinator of Sacred Music for the Diocese. Music, particularly organ music, has been an important part of his life since childhood. As he was growing up, his parents often played their record player. While his older brother listened to the Beatles and the Beach Boys, Dusell said it was a recording of the German organist Helmut Walcha performing Bach’s organ works that caught his attention and ignited his passion for music. “I was home sick from school in first grade. There was something about that record.”
His long career in music includes 24 years serving a Catholic parish and seminary in Chicago and five years as associate director of Liturgy, Music and Interfaith ministries at the University of San Francisco. He began his career in the Syracuse Diocese in February 2022 at St. Bernard’s Parish in Waterville. Soon after, he was offered his current position at the center of diocesan music.
“The Cathedral employs six professional vocalists who serve on a rotating basis as cantors for the liturgies,” he explained. “Equally important are the dedicated volunteer singers who are members of the choir.”
Dusell said he generally practices two to three hours a day, five days a week. He finds joy in playing the Roosevelt pipe organ at the Cathedral.
Parishioners may be surprised at the diversity of the musical experience of the Cathedral musicians, explained Dusell. “Some are lifelong trained musicians, and others join the choir and pick up the skills they need through rehearsals. All of our choir members share a definite love for singing and offering up beautiful music to God’s greater glory.”
‘Bursting with theology’
St. Basil’s Green Melkite Church in Utica serves a diverse population of parishioners of all ages and ethnicities. The church’s leader, Rev. James J. Koury, MTS, said that Mass is celebrated in English with a hint of Greek or Arabic as a gesture to the parish’s origins.
St. Basil’s has a group of 12 dedicated cantors and aspiring cantors who lead the congregation in liturgical responses. “Byzantine liturgical music is bursting with theology, especially theology of the feast and the catechesis contained in the Divine Liturgy, “ he explained. “When participating in a Byzantine liturgy, you always know, by what you see and hear, exactly what the observance is, even if it’s a simple Sunday.”
As is the case with most churches in the diocese, music for funerals and weddings is prescribed and consists of standard chants, prayers and psalms. Sometimes, adjustments are made within the ceremonies to allow for a favorite song, hymn or instrumental to be used.
“The funeral texts speak of and ask God to forgive us our sins, remind us of our redemption in Christ, and keep us focused on the Resurrection,” said Father Jim. “Wedding ceremony texts speak of how the married couple is an image of the relationship between the persons of the Blessed Trinity, and how that couple lives should be witness to all who see them. The never-ending love of the Trinity showered on humanity is its greatest hope.”
Father Jim, an organist himself, said liturgical music is designed to caress the heart, draw people closer to God, and to teach people who God is. “It is there to help us understand God and who we are in relationship to him.” Like all liturgical music, Melkite chant is an expression of its people and heritage, he explained. “It’s a vital element of the past, the present and the future of the varied churches (rites) that make up the Catholic communion.”
Music ministers first and foremost
Rob Morey, music director at Holy Family Church in Fairmount, spends each week putting together a thoughtful and powerful liturgical-music lineup for the weekend.
Morey, who has also served as cantor, said he emphasizes the ministerial aspect of choral singing, helping his fellow musicians understand that they are music ministers first and foremost. “We are here to enhance the liturgy, not perform. We want our music to make a difference in the way people think and feel, not only about themselves and others, but also God. We are here to sing with them, not at them,” he said.
In addition to the traditional music, Morey said he works to stay musically current by introducing new responses and songs. Those who attend 4 o’clock Mass on Sunday will hear upbeat and uplifting music performed by the Praise and Worship Band. Those who participate are artists from a range of Christian faith traditions. Shayne Knight has been part of the band for four years. She explained that while traditional Catholic Mass music features simple choral or soloist accompaniment such as a lone organ or piano, the Praise and Worship Band uses instruments found in rock or pop bands such as guitar and bass guitar, keyboard and drums. “At Holy Family, this core group is often augmented with mandolin, violin and saxophones,” she said.
Knight said there is a close connection among fellow musicians. Many of them have worked in bands at one time or another and three performed in the same band at one time. Morey played the drums in a Beatles tribute band for over 35 years. He also taught himself to play piano and guitar.
“Rob’s ministry draws in professional musicians from across the region and it’s a treat to play with people who perform at such a high level,” said Knight. “I’ve learned so much working with Rob and sincerely enjoy playing and singing harmony with him.”
“It’s not unusual for parishioners to applaud at the end of Mass, come and greet the musicians, and comment on how much they enjoy the music,” said Knight. “Being a member of the band gives me artistic fulfillment, a sense of camaraderie, and brings me closer to God. The sound system at Holy Family is excellent which helps the music sound cohesive and professional. We sound good together — and that’s always a bonus!”