Given at the 2015 conference of Musica Sacra Florida at Ave Maria University.
By the feast of Saint Jean-Baptiste de La Salle the Church provides us today with an opportunity to reflect on the notion of Christian education. Here we do not simply mean the education of young people in a Christian context, but also the formation of saints; transmitting the life of virtue which is necessary for the salvation which, in the light of this paschal season, continues to fill us with joy and with hope.
Saint Jean-Baptise de La Salle was born into a noble French family in 1651 and through his study of literature and philosophy quickly developed a knowledge of the Christian religion which would lead him to priestly ordination at a very young age, receiving the tonsure at the age of eleven. He went to study theology at the Sorbonne and spent time at the seminary of Saint Sulpice in Paris until the death of his parents, when he returned home to educate his brothers eventually founding the “Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools” for the education of boys from economically-deprived families.
At the ceremony for the saints’ beatification in 1890, Pope Leo XIII linked these endeavours in the education of children in the social sciences, the arts, and the normal classroom curriculum, with the wider notion of the formation of the Christian soul. Indeed in the breviary it is the saints’ piety and devotion which is given as the principal reason for his success in the field of education, and for the heroic virtue by which he was to be raised to the altars of heaven. The entry in the breviary recalls the saints’ first offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, which he is said to have celebrated “with the intense faith and love which, throughout his life, he brought to the holy mysteries”. Thus even a great scholar and educator such as Saint Jean-Baptiste de La Salle was himself schooled in the life of Christ, becoming a humble student at the Eucharistic altar in imitation of his master and Lord, whose divine person did not shirk from the apprenticeship of his foster-father’s workbench.
By this we are presented with a challenge as those who, to some greater or lesser extent, are charged with the education of the Christian faithful in the realm of sacred music. Our task is to assist the Church’s pastors in the formation of the holy people of God in the life of Christ through their proper participation in the Church’s cultic worship. The sacred liturgy is an action which is properly always oriented toward God; it is a participation in the life of the Most Blessed and Undivided Trinity. And yet by our entering through the veil and into the heavenly temple we cannot but be changed by the grace which flows from the sacred action of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, to us in liturgical prayer. So we who share in the responsibility of preparing and offering that worship, in conformity with the mind of the Church, must take seriously our duty to assist in the authentic education of our brothers and sisters in the Lord.
And yet we too come to the altar to encounter the risen Christ. Our duties as musicians or clergy cannot be a distraction from that primary task of worship and winning the salvation which is offered to us in that worship. We may be participants in the great work of education undertaken by the Church in imparting the life of beatitude to others in and through participation in her worship, but we must not fall under the misapprehension that we are teachers alone, and not also students. With the fervour of Saint Jean-Baptiste de La Salle we must come to the altar with “intense faith and love” and be schooled here in the way, the truth, and the life, which is the person of Christ. Here we offer our finest music and worship; let us do so with the humility of the magi, offering our gifts always and only as an acknowledge of Christ’s sovereignty over us.