Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
This weekend I had the pleasure of attending a performance of Mozart's Requiem, performed at our church, St. William in central Texas, as part of the parish's ongoing sacred music series.
The event featured an orchestra, a choir of more than 50 people (including two of our parish priests!), four internationally-known soloists, and it was conducted by our own music director, Dr. Gerardo Ramos (you can view a PDF of the concert program here). Also, it was not for parishioners or other Catholics only: It was specifically noted in the advertisements that all were welcome to attend.
As the concert began, and this stirring music filled the nave, it felt like something important was happening. It felt like this church was giving the world something that it had almost lost, and desperately needs.
The printed program offered the words to each movement both in Latin and in English. It was amazing how the sounds of the music made the words the choir belted out so much more powerful, how many divine truths jumped off of the page and pierced the soul when told in this format, in this setting.
Death and nature will be astounded,
when all creation rises again,
to answer the judgment.
A book will be brought forth,
in which all will be written,
by which the world will be judged.
To hear these words, sung in Latin, woven perfectly into the music of the orchestra, is powerful enough. But to experience all of this in a church that is as beautiful as the music itself -- Raphael's Disputation of the Sacrament sweeping across the wall behind the altar, the red candle flickering above the tabernacle, the seven-foot-tall crucifix at the center of everyone's attention, flanked by statues of the Gospel writers -- is to internalize the meaning of it all at the level of the soul.
So what's the turnout for these things like? How much does the modern world really care about classical sacred music?
Our church holds 1,725 people, and it was hard to find a seat. Five minutes before the performance, people were scooting together to make room in the pews. Latecomers had to circle the church to find the last few spots where they could squeeze in. I was surprised by how many young people were there: Not only did lots of families bring kids, but there were plenty of teens and young adults in attendance as well. There were familiar faces from the parish, but also many that I didn't recognize, perhaps folks from the local community. The audience sat rapt the entire time; I think we all felt like this concert was feeding a deep hunger we didn't even know we had.
After the last explosion of sound from the choir and the orchestra, there was a beat of awed silence, and then the crowd rose to its feet. As roaring applause thundered through the walls of the church, I thought of what a powerful -- and underutilized -- form of evangelization this is. There are a lot of different ways to re-inspire Catholics in their faith and to lead others to the fullness of truth, and all of them are important. For example, strong preaching and rigorous apologetics are needed desperately in this culture that is so confused about pretty much every aspect of life. But with all of these kinds of efforts there's always the nagging question, "How do you get anyone's attention in the first place?" In order for a people to hear the truth, they first have to be listening.
This is where sacred art comes in. As I saw at Saturday night's concert, an entire church full of people were moved to the core of their being by this music. I doubt there was a person in the room who didn't feel at least a small stirring within his or her soul, who didn't walk out of that building with a yearning to draw closer to the Source of this experience. It undoubtedly requires a lot of time and effort to keep the sacred music series going at St. William, but I have no doubt that it's having even more of an impact than its organizers know -- for few things will get people to open their minds to God than an experience of true beauty.