Tuesday, March 30, 2010


The death of Mr. Jaime Escalante, teacher extraordinaire, got me thinking about the teachers in my life, and the way they inspired me to come out of my shell and explore new worlds and and experiences.

Teachers are the real heroes of our culture. They are grossly underpaid and seem to derive their fulfillment from their dedication to their students. How many of us owe our lives and our livelihoods to their selflessness?

In the immaturity of my youth, I probably didn’t say "thank you" to my teachers as I should have. There are a handful of educators who really inspired me and shaped me, and this is probably just as good a time as any to express my gratitude. I have no idea where most of these fine women and men are, or even of they are alive. But somehow, through our cosmic interconnectedness, I hope they can know of my gratitude and appreciation.

Miss Anderson was my second grade teacher at Stoner Avenue School in Los Angeles. She was young, pretty and so affirming. She encouraged me to be my best in everything.

Mrs. Holzer was my fourth grade teacher, also at Stoner Avenue. I had her for two semesters at a time when I was bullied by mean classmates, and she encouraged me to always strive for excellence, no matter what anybody else thought.

Sister Maria Goretti, SNJM: I was a latecomer to catechism classes and I made my First Communion in third grade CCD at St. Gerard Majella Parish in Los Angeles. As a public school boy, the Church was a whole new world that intimidated me. Sister Maria Goretti regaled us “unchurched” kids with marvelous stories about Jesus and Mary and the saints and helped me look forward to my First Communion with a fervor that totally transformed my childhood.

Mrs. Pat Presti was my fourth grade catechism teacher at St. Gerard’s. Her faith, her devotion, and her personal interest in me moved me closer to God.

Mr. Thomason was my music teacher at Marina del Rey Junior High School in Los Angeles. I played flute in his orchestra, back when public schools still had the funds for such programs. His dedication to music and to young people, and his good humor, inspired me to pursue music as a career.

Father Peter Diliberto, CM: I felt called to enter Queen of Angels High School Seminary in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, a whole new world from my public school experience. Father Diliberto was an excellent teacher of math, a subject I hated in junior high. Somehow, Fr. Diliberto pulled me through the haze of algebra and had me mastering the quadratic equation through two fun semesters. I can still do fractions and proportions to this day.

Monsignor Carl Gerken was music director at Queen of Angels when I was just learning how to play the organ and piano. His enthusiasm for life inspired me to take up liturgical music as my vocation.

Father Peter Nugent also taught music at Queen of Angels and at St. John’s College where I attended after high school graduation. Fr. Nugent was dedicated and no-nonsense, but also friendly. I learned to love Bach and Beethoven and Mozart from his music history classes.

Father Ron Wilkinson, CM: Going off to college in the 1970s was like setting foot on another planet. Fr. Wilkinson taught Freshman writing at St. John’s and he helped me to find my voice as a writer. I never would have even thought of myself as a writer if not for Father’s constant encouragement for all the little short stories and humorous essays I was submitting every week. He also helped me discover the wonderful works of John Steinbeck. My life was never the same after a whole year of Father Wilkinson.

Father George Niederauer (now the archbishop of San Francisco): Before he cultivated his reputation as a statesman for the Catholic Church, Father Niederaurer was a professor of English literature at St. John’s who taught his classes with dry humor and disarming wit. From him I learned of Tolstoy and Faulkner and Hemingway. We read Waiting for Godot and The Great Gatsby and saw the movie The Pumpkin Eater, and my life was all the richer. Later, in post-graduate school, he taught Pastoral Theology and I learned to love the Church even more.

There were several more teachers who inspired me, and the years have played havoc on my memory. I was diagnosed with hearing impairment in first grade and Stoner Avenue School had a special program for “special needs” kids. I honestly cannot remember her name, but I had a once a week hearing-specialist teacher through my six years of grade school who taught me lip reading and conversational skills in such a fun way that I never thought of myself as “handicapped.” I am deeply indebted to this wonderful woman who prepared me to cope with a world that wasn’t always receptive to a near-deaf person.

To all these teachers and to all who guided me though my childhood, my teen years, and my college years: Thank you! I wish I could tell each of you how grateful I am for putting up with me and inspiring me. I owe my success to my dedicated teachers! God bless you all!

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Palm Sunday: So Too Must I Die With Him

How quickly the crowd turned against him! On Sunday they were shouting at the top of their lungs, "Blessed are you! Hosanna in the highest!" Now, just five days later, there were cries of "Crucify him!" Yet, this man had done nothing wrong.

The first day of Holy Week perfectly captures this dichotomy. Originally called "Palm Sunday," various liturgical publications now refer to it as "Palm-Passion Sunday," "Passion Sunday (Palm Sunday)," or "Palm Sunday of the Lord's Passion." So, what exactly do we celebrate on this day?

By whatever designation, Palm Sunday is the final Sunday of Lent and the beginning of Holy Week. Although not a part of the Triduum of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday's Easter Vigil, Palm Sunday certainly points to those three days of commemoration of the Lord's passion, death and resurrection. Indeed, for the many people who will not participate in the Triduum, Palm Sunday is their only liturgical celebration of Christ's suffering and death. It affords them an opportunity to complete their Lenten preparation by placing the following Sunday's Easter event within the proper context of Jesus' ultimate sacrifice.

I strongly encourage you to participate in one or all of the Triduum liturgies. These are the most important liturgical celebrations of the year, and I will write more about them in a few days. But if you do attend the Good Friday liturgy, please do not think of it as a rehash of Palm Sunday. The suffering and death of Jesus is too rich and too profound to limit to one day of remembrance. Each has its own emphasis, its own spiritual message for our prayerful consideration. . .

Click here to continue reading on spiritandsong.com.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

For the Sake of Christ

“For the Sake of Christ” has become my most requested song this year. Many people have asked me how I composed it. Here is the story that first appeared on spiritandsong.com.


Arleen Dunne was an energetic person, full of life and ideas and enthusiasm. She was the Director of Religious Education at St. Monica Church in Moraga, California when I became middle school minister there in 1995, and I had the pleasure of working with her on the parish staff. Her daughter Shannon was one of our cantors, and I always looked forward to doing music ministry with her at our Sunday liturgies.

The mid-1990s was something of a golden age at this parish. Our youth ministry was beginning to take off, reflecting the changing demographics of this region in the Diocese of Oakland. Once thought of as a quiet "retirement" community, Moraga was suddenly bursting at the seams with children, necessitating a building boom in local schools. In the midst of this growth, Arleen coordinated a thriving religious ed program for the elementary children, recruiting and training teachers, scheduling overlapping class sessions in our small parish plant, and supporting the parents in their role as the primary religious educators of their children. All this was done cheerfully, and Arleen's smile and laughter were contagious.

Arleen also made time to be a good wife and mother, and the parish watched Shannon blossom as an outstanding singer, growing up from high school musicals and liturgy to a burgeoning career in show business. Arleen and her husband Frank were proud of Shannon and all their children.

One day, the unthinkable happened. Arleen was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease. Also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. The affects in Arleen were gradual but noticeable. As her body moved toward muscular paralysis, Arleen lost her ability to speak. But she did not let this disease prevent her from carrying out her responsibilities as our DRE. Arleen communicated through a wonderful portable voice synthesizer that "spoke" the words as she typed into it. Her teachers continued to be supported, First Communion was celebrated with great joy, and the children grew in their faith. Over the next year and a half, Arleen charged into her ministry with a zest and cheerfulness that struck many of her friends as saintly. ALS was not going to stop her from bringing children to Christ.

I was personally inspired by Arleen's spirit, and moved by how her loving family dealt with these new challenges. I wanted to give Arleen something to show her my appreciation and love. While praying the Liturgy of the Hours, I came across this reading for Friday Morning Prayer, Week III:

I willingly boast of my weakness, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore, I am content with weakness, with mistreatment, with distress, with persecutions and difficulties for the sake of Christ; for when I am powerless, it is then that I am strong.

— 2 Corinthians 12:9-10

I looked up the passage in the Bible to see it in context. Preceding this passage, St. Paul gives this memorable piece of wisdom:

He [the Lord] said to me, "My grace is enough for you, for in weakness power reaches perfection."

Tears streamed down my face as I realized that this passage was personified in dear Arleen. I went straight to my piano and this song came out almost immediately. I started with a chant mode on the words "For the sake of Christ," and the song basically wrote itself after that.

By the time I finished the song, Arleen was in the final stages of ALS. She had to step down from her daily DRE duties, and the parish staff covered for her. I went over to her house and played my new song for her. Afterward, we embraced through our tears. God's word spoke powerfully to us at that moment. It would be the last time I would ever see Arleen in this life.

"For the Sake of Christ" became a Lenten favorite at St. Monica, and a fitting remembrance to a dedicated parishioner and dear friend. I am now long gone from that marvelous parish, but whenever I play or hear this song I think of Arleen and how God worked so powerfully through her to bring children to Christ.

For when I am powerless, then I am strong.


Here is a link to the song on spiritandsong.com. That's Bob Halligan, Jr., of Ceili Rain, singing lead vocal. This version appeared on the Spirit & Song, 2nd Edition CD-library. I later recorded the song myself for my 2009 Doxology album.

The video above features a guitar/vocal interpretation. I have no idea who created this beautiful video but I am grateful.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Growing Up with the Dameans

Note: This reflection first appeared a few years ago in my old artist blog page on spiritandsong.com.

The exhibit area in the convention center was the usual mix of color, sights and sounds, with music and videos blaring out of hundreds of booths, costumed street teams passing out flyers, and countless people bumping into each other. This was the scene at Atlanta in October 2005 at the National Catholic Youth Conference. I had just finished playing bass for the concert of my friend, Angus McDonell, and was looking around for members of my youth group. Suddenly, directly in front of me, there stood a vaguely familiar person.

“Ken!” said the smiling man as he extended his hand to me. “Gary Ault.”

Did I hear that name right? I had to look at his nametag to be sure. Gary Ault! A little older and greyer, perhaps, but still tall, with the same trim collegiate-styled hair and winning smile I remembered from his record album covers. It’s been, what? Over twenty-five years since I last saw him at the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress? Of course, we embraced.

Gary Ault! A founding member of the Dameans, one of the pioneer singing groups of the Catholic Church’s first generation of contemporary composers. In the late 1960s, the Dameans stood out among the increasingly crowded field of Folk Mass artists. Whereas most of those artists were individuals, the Dameans were a group: five seminarians from Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans. How well I remember their names, prominent on the credits of the songs that were beloved by so many of us young Catholics of the time: Gary Ault, Darryl Ducote, Buddy Ceasar, Mike Balhoff, and Dave Baker.

I can still remember when I got my first Dameans record, Tell the World. There they were on the back cover, five handsome young men dressed in the same uniform that I was wearing at Queen of Angels High School Seminary in Los Angeles: white shirt, thin black tie, and black pants. Their photo could have been taken from our yearbook in the way they held their Folk Mass instruments of three guitars, upright bass, and tambourine. I showed the album to my classmates and we had a good laugh. It seemed that all seminarians looked alike back then, right down to the regulation close-cropped hair. But what we heard on the record and saw on the sheet music wasn’t something to laugh at. In fact, it was the answer to our prayers.

By 1969, the Folk Mass was no longer a novelty in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. Although we were one of the last dioceses to finally use guitars and folk music at liturgy, once we got official approval the Folk Mass spread like wildfire, especially in the seminaries. Our early repertoire consisted of the fun catchy songs of Ray Repp, Joe Wise, Paul Quinlan, Sebastian Temple, Peter Scholtes, and a few others. We loved these songs, with their immediately singable melodies, but we wore them out very quickly, too. The Folk Mass repertoire was limited. After all, it had only been three years since Ray Repp was first published. Thus, we experienced an unprecedented phenomenon in Catholic liturgy: the constant need for new music. In our youthful minds, the Dameans’ music was heaven-sent.

“Tell the World” was an upbeat song that seemed to capture the enthusiasm for the Spirit that framed those times. We had fun singing in rounds with “Shout Out Your Joy.” “All That We Have” was the perfect Offertory Song. “Look Beyond,” the song that introduced me to the concept of the major seventh chord, was a seeming rarity: a folk Communion Song that actually spoke of bread and wine as it reflected on the Eucharist passage of John 6:

Look beyond the bread you eat. See your Savior and your Lord.
Look beyond the cup you drink. See his love poured out as blood.

In addition to their prolific songwriting, the Dameans had a great vocal blend. Their intricate five-part harmonies were reminiscent of the Lettermen or the Beach Boys. What a cool sound for liturgy! It was folk music with choral harmonies. We seminarians ate this stuff up.

As a budding liturgist it was great to grow up with the Dameans. When I moved on to St. John’s College in Camarillo, Bob Hurd taught me Gary Ault’s song, “The New Creation.” It was an outright rock song, with that stunning C-G-D power chord riff. But more exciting were the lyrics, which spoke of social justice:

Hear the cry of the needy, your brothers each one.
Too many people talking and nothing gets done.
And you better hurry!
Come along to the new creation . . .

Social justice in a liturgical song! That was groundbreaking in 1971. I wished more liturgical songs would address that theme. As my seminary classmates got closer to our priestly goals, the Dameans had one more song for us that we sang at ordinations and first Masses everywhere: the memorable “In My Name”

I call you from your brothers;
I send you in my name.
I’ll light you with my Spirit’s fire,
to burn as my love’s flame.
I call you for your brothers
and send you in my name.

Seems like there was always a Dameans song that spoke to me at various stages of my teen and young adult life. From them I learned more about music, chords, and songwriting in general. You can imagine my thrill when I finally saw them at the Religious Education Congress in Anaheim, California in 1972. They were giving a music workshop on Youth Day, and the large auditorium was packed with over 1000 hyper teenagers. Gary and company managed to keep the young crowd entertained, singing their terrific songs while telling stories that helped us to enter into deep and meaningful prayer. I met Gary a few times after that. One fond memory I have is from the 1978 Congress, when Gary introduced me to the “new” Gary of the group, a young and eager Gary Daigle, who was apparently fresh out of high school. I thought to myself, “Dang! How’d this kid get so lucky to join the Dameans?” Gary Daigle replaced Dave Baker, who had to move on to other commitments in his ministry.

As time went on liturgical songwriting matured to embrace more scriptural lyrics and ritual awareness, and the Dameans’ music also matured. Remember Your Love was their most successful collection for liturgy and ritual. But their early folk music certainly paved the way. Before Tom Booth and Matt Maher, before Bob Hurd and even before the St. Louis Jesuits, there were the Dameans. We must never forget the enthusiasm and dedication they brought to what would later become known as contemporary Catholic music.

All these memories flooded my mind as I shook hands once again with Gary Ault at the Atlanta NCYC. He was there to chaperone a group of teens from his parish in New Orleans, and I invited them to check out a concert that Jesse Manibusan and I were giving later that day. I saw them in the crowd and was excited to perform in front of someone whom I considered as my composer role model. After our set, Gary was gracious in his compliments. He also had an idea.

Gary was teaching religion at a special Catholic high school in hurricane-damaged New Orleans. This school was special because it was more than just a school; it was SEVERAL high schools combined together out of necessity because of Hurricane Katrina. Gary invited Jesse and me to come to New Orleans to perform for his students, who needed encouragement and support as they dealt with the many issues of hurricane recovery. How could we refuse such an invitation? That gig in New Orleans turned out to be the most memorable performance of my life.

TO BE CONTINUED . . . not here, but in SPIRIT SPOT on spiritandsong.com in the blog, Rummel T: Hurricane Survival Story.

Hear the Dameans’ music on my latest Keep the Fire Burning podcast, either on iTunes or via RSS subscription.

Keep the Fire Burning: The Folk Mass Revolution available at Amazon.com.