Sunday, September 23, 2018

Bay Area Book Tour 2018: Friendship, Music and the Berkes Family

Saturday, September 8

When I was at St. Monica Parish in Moraga in the 1990s, we had a succession of good people who served as youth minister until I eventually said Yes to the job. Through all the changes, there was one constant: Andy Berkes, an enthusiastic teenager who grew up to be a remarkable young man. We could always rely on Andy to lead prayer at our weekly youth group meetings or take charge of the ice breaker. He was a natural leader at our annual summer workcamps where we helped build or repair homes in struggling neighborhoods around the country. We stayed in touch over the years and it came as no surprise to me when Andy decided to study theology at the Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis and became a youth minister himself. He eventually went into a career as a teacher at Catholic high schools. 

In the early 2000s, Andy shared with me his joy in finding his soulmate Unni Elizabeth, and they asked if I could provide the music at their wedding liturgy. How could I say No? Their wedding in San Bernardino was one of my highlights of that decade as I shared in that special day with their family and friends. 

Our lives unfolded in divergent paths but we followed each other on Facebook. Jesse Manibusan and I even did a concert at their parish in St. Louis back in the mid-2000s. Eventually, Andy and Unni resettled back in Moraga and I so enjoyed their annual Christmas photo cards as I saw their three children growing up with each passing year. As I planned for my 2018 Bay Area book tour, I knew I had to make time to visit with the Berkes family. 

I rang the doorbell of their Moraga condo and was greeted enthusiastically by Andy and Unni’s two smiling daughters, Sarita and Sonali. I immediately saw in them their father’s endearing personality. Inside, Daniel was warming up on his clarinet. The three children are budding instrumentalists and they were planning to treat me with a concert. How delightful! 

I was very impressed with the kids’ musicianship. Daniel and Sarita have great tone on their clarinet and flute. Sonali played her piano lessons well and she has a commendable sense of good beat and timing for someone so young. I predict these children will go far as musicians if they stick with it. Then it was my turn. Their parents asked me to play piano and I obliged with some Scott Joplin ragtime, and Sonali kept watching my fingers. We eventually sang my song, “Fly Like a Bird” that I composed while I was youth minister at St. Monica. The kids and their mom sang along and it was a very moving experience. 

As we munched on appetizers, Andy shared with me the challenges and joys of teaching religion at De La Salle, a Catholic boys high school in Concord. Some of the students are obviously only trying to meet a course requirement, but then there are those who are actively engaged and show deep interest in their faith and in what’s happening in the Church today. It was a thoughtful conversation and it did my heart good to see how far this young man had come since our youth group days at St. Monica Parish. 

Then the doorbell rang and Unni’s family walked in to join us for dinner. Her parents and other relatives made the decision to move to Moraga from San Bernardino so they could be with the grandchildren. Andy’s parents also live in Moraga, so the kids have the joy of living in close proximity with grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins. God has deeply blessed this remarkable family! 

Unni’s father, Dr. Joseph Malancharuvil, is also an author, so we had a lot in common as we shared how we do our craft. He gifted me with his latest book, The Spirit of Joy. I have already started reading it. Very insightful and enjoyable! 

The home cooked dinner was delicious and I truly cherished spending this wonderful evening with Andy and Unni’s family. Thank you, dear friends! 

Andy and Unni are also involved in the ministries of liturgy and faith formation at their parish, St. Perpetua in Lafayette. We are in preliminary discussion about the possibility of my giving a workshop at their parish after the New Year. I will look forward to that! 

Friday, September 21, 2018

Bay Area Book Tour 2018: Good Company

Friday, September 7

My friends Kevin and Siena graciously opened their beautiful Danville home to me for the week. It was a great arrangement because I would be house sitting while they were away on vacation to visit family in Philadelphia. Kevin is a friend from St. Monica Parish in Moraga where I served in the 1990s. I played music for their wedding liturgy last year. That was a fun and awesome day!  

Part of the house sitting involved taking care of my friends’ beloved pets: George the Dog, a smiling golden retriever, and Steve the Cat, an equally golden kitten with tiger-like stripes. Dog and cat, together? Yes! They are best pals. George and Steve love hanging out with each other. I’m not really sure they understand that they’re of different species. All they know is that they are four-legged creatures who live together with two loving and caring humans. And now they had a new human to break in. 

I waved to Kevin and Siena as they drove out to the airport on Friday morning. George and Steve were watching them from the front window. I think they realized their humans were going away but they didn’t seem too sad about it. In fact, no sooner did the car pull away then Steve started jumping around all over the living room on top of my boxes of books and CDs that OCP shipped to the house. I opened each box to take inventory and Steve hopped right in. I had to pull him out by the scruff of his neck so he wouldn’t chew on my books. Meanwhile, George was running around in circles with the package stuffing in his mouth. “This will be an interesting week,” I thought to myself as I laughed at their antics. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

BAY AREA BOOK TOUR 2018: Up, Up and Away

Thursday, September 6

If there’s a constant to my traveling habits, it is this: I always pack at the last minute. Always! I’m not sure why. Maybe deep down inside, I’m a homeboy and I really don’t want to go anywhere. But I’m a composer, author and musician, and travel I must. Besides, I have really looked forward to this particular trip, a Bay Area tour to promote my new book, From Mountains High. 

My flight was at a reasonable 11:00am, which meant I needed to be at Portland airport at 9:00am, which meant I had to leave home around 7:00am in order to beat rush hour traffic, which meant waking up at 4:00am to pack. Yes, I need all that lead time to straggle out of bed and get cleaned up. Did I mention that I hate packing? 

My cat Neo hates packing, too. He knows that when I take out my travel bags that means I’m going away, so he protests by climbing into my bag or suitcase, blocking my efforts at packing. It’s amusing but get out of the way, Neo! 

As expected, traffic was awful. This summer, the Oregon Department of Transportation has been in road construction mode, with all major Portland freeways taking turns at a closure that has caused nightmarish backups during the crucial commute times. I have been able to get around the congestion most of the summer by taking alternate routes but this morning I had to be prepared for delays that might make me late for my flight. Hence, the way-too-early wake-up call. 

Bottom line, I made it to the airport, I checked in, and my plane took off on schedule. For me, the best flight occurs when I fall asleep on takeoff and wake up on landing. I opened my eyes after a 90-minute snooze and I was happily in Oakland, California. Yay! Successful flight! 

More to come...

Thursday, June 21, 2018

John the Baptist: Live for Christ!

My middle name is Juan and I was named after my grandfather in the Philippines whom I never met. Over the years, I have adopted a number of holy men named “John” as my patron saint: John the Evangelist. John of the Cross. John Vianney. John of Capistrano. Juan Diego. Lately, on the cusp my senior years, I have turned to Saint John the Baptist. 

He is a biblical saint with no body of writing and no religious community that has preserved his wisdom and traditions.  Our only source on the Baptizer are the four gospels which each have unique and contradictory accounts. All four evangelists speak, in various degrees, of Jesus’ baptism by John. They each speak of John’s ministry as the forerunner or herald of the Christ, citing the Isaiah passage of “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!” (Isaiah 40:3) Luke tells the story of John’s miraculous birth by elderly parents, of family kinship with Jesus, and how John pointed the way to Jesus even from his mother’s womb. Mark and Matthew give detailed accounts of John’s death by beheading at the hands of Herod.

In the Fourth Gospel, John the Baptist is described as the man “sent by God to bear witness to the light,” i.e., the light of Jesus Christ. Indeed, John the Evangelist attributes three quotes to John the Baptist that can be seen as his mission statements. These quotes speak so deeply to me at this time in my life. One grows accustomed to disappointment and unfulfilled expectations as the years unfold. It is so easy to succumb to bitterness and depression, to withdraw into a tiny shell, away from hurt and betrayal. John the Baptist shows me another way: Live for Christ! 

“Here is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” (John 1:29)
Life is full of regrets, of second thoughts for decisions made in haste or under duress, of words said in anger that can’t be taken back. Unfortunately, these regrets can last a lifetime and affect relationships and mental health. John the Baptist points us to Jesus as the Lamb of God, the Paschal sacrifice, whose death upon the Cross brought about the forgiveness of our sins. If God forgives us, why can’t we forgive ourselves? 

“I am not the Messiah but I have been sent ahead of him…” (John 3:28) 
This is something my pastor is fond of reminding us in his homilies: I AM NOT GOD. I do not have the power or the wherewithal to fix everything, to solve all problems, and to make everything perfect. That’s God’s job, in God’s time. Instead of thinking of myself as the Messiah, I can lead others to him by word and example. That’s a tremendous weight lifted off my shoulders! 

“He must increase but I must decrease.” (John 3:30) 
This does not mean putting myself down. I see this quote as the great secret of Christianity. Let Christ be the central influence in my life, the One who motivates my choices and lifestyle. Let Christ shine through me in what I say and do, even when little things irritate and annoy me, or when the big issues in today’s world anger me. Christ must increase. 

By extension, this means the Christ who lives in others. Can I see Christ in the downtown homeless person who is asking for a handout? Can I see Jesus in the face of the co-worker who constantly complains, or in the relative or friend who has seemingly become invisible with each passing year? 

According to the gospels, John the Baptist had a good thing going. His fiery preaching and his baptism of repentance attracted commoners and Pharisees, who flocked to him in sizeable numbers at the Jordan River. We know he had disciples because he sent them to Jesus. In fact, despite his success as an itinerant preacher, he willingly passed on the mantle to his cousin, whose sandal straps he “was not worthy to unfasten.” And then he withdrew from the scene as Jesus’ ministry soared. 

John points the way to Christ even to this day. Consider that his birthday, June 24, falls shortly after the summer solstice, when the days begin to gradually get shorter. Through the ingenuous poetry of the liturgical calendar, on his nativity John the Baptist is pointing toward the nativity of Jesus Christ six months later. December 25 is shortly after the winter solstice, when the days begin to get longer. Thus, through the growing darkness that begins on his birthday, John the Baptist points once again to Jesus Christ, the light of the world who conquers the darkness of sin.

“He must increase but I must decrease.” Amen. 

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"John the Baptist" is a very early song by my friend Bob Hurd, recorded in 1974 for his first album, O Let Him In. Not a liturgical song, this is a Christian folk song on the cult that surely surrounded John the Baptist back in the day.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Robert F. Kennedy: The Dreamer Who Said Why Not

May I ask your indulgence as I quote myself? For historical context, these are the opening paragraphs from Chapter Ten of my book, Keep the Fire Burning: The Folk Mass Revolution (Pastoral Press: 2009). 

In a decade already on overload, 1968 went over the top.  This was the year when the issues, ideals and frustrations of the entire decade exploded into Gotterdammerung.  Nothing was safe from 1968’s unrelenting wave of confrontation and change.

The decade that started out with such bright promise was marching steadily into darkness, and the road was marked with a murdered President, an escalating and unpopular war, racial conflict, urban unrest, college campus demonstrations, and a challenged morality.  America needed light.

As the year began, two beacons of hope were shining brightly.  Martin Luther King, Jr. still had a dream that “we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”

Senator Robert Kennedy, still hurting from his brother’s assassination, had his own dream to fulfill: to help make America great by inspiring its people, especially its young people, to look honestly and compassionately at the problems of the day and work together to build the future.

One of these lights was extinguished on April 4, when King was brutally gunned down while laboring in support of better working conditions for the sanitation workers of Memphis, Tennessee.  On June 5, the other light died when Kennedy was shot in Los Angeles on the night of a victorious California primary election that solidified his position as the Democratic Party’s candidate for President.  With sad irony, his last words, spoken from the podium to his exuberant supporters, were: “I think we can end the divisions within America . . .  the violence.”

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It was the final day of school and we were going home for summer. I was a Freshman at Queen of Angels High School Seminary in San Fernando, California, and 1968 – only half over in June – had already been the most memorable year of my life. Queen of Angels was a boarding school. Underclassmen went home every weekend but my time away was significant enough to alter my family dynamics and move me in a more independent direction than I had anticipated when I first set foot on campus last September. 

Friendships are important for survival in any new school, and this year I made a good friend in Phill Signey. We had in common a love for the Beatles and for comic books, as well as a shared wry sense of humor. We also saw eye to eye on politics, and the Democratic party had given us young liberals more than enough to talk about during this tumultuous year. We both agreed the war in Vietnam sucked and held President Johnson responsible for the thousands of US soldiers who had given their lives for a questionable cause. Many in our generation wanted Johnson out of the White House. When he announced in March that he was not seeking re-election, we were singing, “Ding! Dong! The witch is dead!” 

But now the Democratic nomination was suddenly up for grabs. Senator Eugene McCarthy was capturing the imagination of young liberals but when Senator Robert Kennedy threw his hat into the ring that liberal voting bloc became divided. 

I was a diehard for Bobby. The idyllic memory of his brother, President John Kennedy, was still fresh in my mind and Bobby’s message resonated with so many young Americans. 

“We can move toward further polarization,” Kennedy said in a speech shortly after Martin Luther King’s assassination. “Or we can make an effort, as Dr. King did, to reconcile ourselves, and to love… Violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleansing of our whole society can remove this sickness from our soul.” 

We had no television privileges at the seminary. Tuesday, June 4, was the California primary election, and we seminarians went to bed believing that Bobby had a lock on victory. The following morning, as we gathered in our chapel for the final Mass of the school year, Father Persil, Dean of Students, stood in front of the altar and gave a stunning announcement. 

“I’m sorry to inform you that Senator Robert Kennedy was shot last night at the Ambassador Hotel after he won the California primary. He is hospitalized and is in critical condition. Let us pray for him and his family.” 

I looked at Phill, who was sitting next to me near the back of the chapel. Our glorious pipe organ swelled out the introduction to the Entrance Song and, as the student body rose to its feet to sing “God’s Holy Mountain We Ascend,” my friend sadly removed his Kennedy campaign button from his dark blazer. I hung my head in glum disbelief. 

I was in fifth grade when President Kennedy was murdered in 1963, and I remember crying when I heard the news. After his brother was killed, I didn’t cry – I was too “old” for that – but I was definitely numbed. I was a fairly optimistic teenager and Bobby had awakened such hope in my generation. I didn’t know what to feel that day when Bobby was so rudely taken from us but his death may have been my first taste of the cynicism that would eventually come to cast a shadow on much of my adult life. 

Much has been written about Robert F. Kennedy on this 50thanniversary of his assassination. Many commentators cite Bobby’s murder as the death of hope for the Boomer generation. That’s hyperbolic but I believe there is a grain of truth in that viewpoint. For my generation, the 1960s had been awash in optimism. Anything was possible, and Bobby inspired us to get involved and make a difference right when we were coming of age. His death unfortunately paved the way for the election of President Richard Nixon, for the escalation of the Vietnam War, for Watergate, and for deepening distrust in the political process. That cynicism has, unfortunately, seized control of politics today. 

At one time, public service was considered a noble calling. I cling to the hope that better days are ahead. Can one person make a difference? Robert Kennedy tried. God rest his soul. 

Senator Ted Kennedy spoke eloquently and touched many hearts in his moving eulogy during his brother’s Funeral Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. 

My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.

Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today, pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will some day come to pass for all the world.

As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him:

Some men see things as they are and say why. 
I dream things that never were and say why not.

Thursday, April 12, 2018



I have two Facebook pages and at times they seem like the handiwork of two different people. There’s my Composer/Author page that has regularly scheduled posts centered around daily Scripture; Catholic news of the day; a liturgical song composed either by me or one of my fellow composers; and a daily quote from Laudato Sí,Pope Francis’ recent encyclical on our call to care for God’s creation. 

And then there’s my personal page, which is my forum for outrageous groan-inducing puns, head-scratching abstract art, Godzilla, pop culture, a healthy dose of rock music, and occasional wry slices of soliloquy that may or may not have some kind of spiritual meaning. I actually have a growing constituency of like-minded people who “get” me. Thank you, friends! 

Bottom line: My work and ministry are important and are very much a part of who I am. But I just don’t take myself all that seriously. Hence, my seemingly random non-sequitur postings on my personal page. 

There is an apparent duality in my social media content. Who am I? A Catholic composer/author? Or a secular rock musician who is very much in synch with pop culture? Why does it have to be either/or? Why can’t I be both? 

I am sometimes accused of being off-message at both ends of the spectrum. My Catholic friends are puzzled when I post things about punk rock or Kurt Cobain. My followers who enjoy my jokes and puns scratch their heads when I occasionally post something spiritual or overtly Catholic. 

Re: my seemingly incongruous blending of sacred and secular – I am a committed Roman Catholic but I’m not going to hit my friends on their heads with all things religious. I prefer to share my faith by example. If friends ask me about my faith, I am happy to talk about it but I won’t force it on them. And I enjoy finding the sacred in the non-sacred, even in punk rock. 

(I played bass guitar in punk bands in the 1990s. One of the marvelous mysteries in my life is how I transformed from being a punker to a pastoral musician and composer of sacred music. Another blog for another day.) 

So that’s why I write about contemporary Catholic music, that strange and wonderful experiment of blending the sacred with the secular. It’s a fascinating 60-year history. Read all about it in my books,  Keep the Fire Burning and From Mountains High (to be released in May 2018). 

Monday, April 2, 2018

Some Thoughts on Jesus Christ Superstar: Live TV Concert

Putting aside the theological questions for a moment, let me first say that I think the original record album of Jesus Christ Superstar is a stunning musical achievement. Andrew Lloyd Webber was only 22 years old when he composed the work with lyricist Tim Rice, who was equally young at age 26. The 1970 rock opera was a ground breaker in the way it seamlessly blended such disparate genres as rock, pop, folk, Broadway and classical into a pastiche that transformed musical theatre for years to come. And for maximum impact, the composers chose as their subject matter nothing less than the Greatest Story Ever Told.

I devote a few pages to Jesus Christ Superstar in my new book, From Mountains High, in which I acknowledge the rock opera as part of the “perfect storm” in the early 1970s that had an impact on the Catholic liturgical music that emerged in that seminal decade. Other influences included Jesus rock (“My Sweet Lord, “Put Your Hand in the Hand,” and other secular radio hits), the Charismatic Renewal, and the Jesus movement championed by earnest young Christians who were sometimes known as “Jesus Freaks.” You can read more about this in my book when it’s released this summer. It helps give a cultural perspective that I feel is helpful to understand the emotional impact that Jesus Christ Superstar Live TV Concert had on my generation when it was broadcast on the evening of Easter Sunday 2018.

Jesus Christ Superstar is very definitely a work of its times. Emerging at the crossroads between the protesting social consciousness of the 1960s and the Me Decade focus of the 1970s, the opera managed to somehow make a connection between the excessive popularity of rock music and the celebrity status that Jesus endured, as portrayed in all four Gospels. In the Seventies, the music industry devoured itself with records that went platinum before they were even released (c.f., Elton John’s 1975 album, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy), and bestowed godlike status on emerging artists who had yet to prove themselves (c.f., Bruce Springsteen’s simultaneous TIME and Newsweek covers in October 1975). How different was that from the trajectory of an itinerant miracle-working preacher in first century Palestine who eventually got himself killed at the height of his popularity? There is a reason why the composers attached “Superstar” to the revered name of Jesus Christ.

The young singers and dancers who starred in the NBC television special performed excellently and injected new life into the 48-year-old musical. They also most likely have no idea of the controversy that Superstar generated upon its first release. I was a Catholic high school senior at the time and I remember the priests and nuns who chastised me when I confessed how much I enjoyed the recording. Charges of blasphemy were commonplace, and the weekly Catholic newspaper of my archdiocese ran a series of apologetic articles that outlined the biblical errors of the rock opera, line by line.

Christian leaders of all denominations lambasted Superstar for its sympathetic treatment of Judas, and the irreverent way it portrayed Jesus as an insecure leader of rabble rousing revolutionaries. Most insidious of all was the fact that the rock opera has no Resurrection scene! (Never mind that the Stations of the Cross devotion also does not end with the Resurrection.)

These criticisms missed the point. Webber and Rice merely wanted to pose the question of the place of Jesus Christ in 1970s society. They succeeded. Young people were talking about Jesus like never before. How well I remember the deep discussions on Jesus with friends and classmates. Is he God? Is he just a man? Is he both? I went to Charismatic prayer meetings, prayed in tongues, and witnessed faith healings. I listened to and performed Jesus rock. I eventually studied liberation theology and considered ways that Jesus’ message could change the world.

All this is probably lost on today’s young people who enjoyed the Easter Sunday telecast and respect Superstar as a venerable and proven theatre piece. I have to wonder if they asked themselves the questions that Judas posed in his signature song:

Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ,
Who are you? What have you sacrificed?
Jesus Christ Superstar,
Do you think you're who they say you are?

I can only answer those questions for myself and pray that my witness might inspire others.

Who is Jesus Christ? For me, he is the Son of God. As I slowly but surely advance into old age, I am more convinced of that than ever before. Jesus is my Lord and Savior who gives meaning to my life.

What has he sacrificed? Jesus gave his very life on the Cross, in obedience to his Father’s will. He restored the intimate relationship between God and humanity that was destroyed by sin. Through Jesus’ sacrifice, I look forward to joining him in eternal life when my time on Earth is through.

As for the final question of the song, I do not think it matters to Jesus what HE thinks other people say of him. As he did with his apostles in Mark 8:29, he prefers to turn the question around to the person asking.

“Who do YOU say that I am?”

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From Mountains High: Contemporary Catholic Music 1970 -1985 by Ken Canedo will be released in Summer 2018 by Pastoral Press. It will be available on and on Amazon.