“Exhilarating” might be one word for the experience of playing to tens of thousands of young people at World Youth Day in Sydney, Australia.
Curtis Stephan, a rising star of Catholic music who just had that experience, has another description for it: “Really cool.”
“It was a huge venue,” he said. “Our concert followed the Stations of the Cross on Friday. It was amazing.”
At the age of 35, Stephan is watching his career take off. He has performed not only at World Youth Day, but for the National Catholic Youth Conference and the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, as well.
His song, “Winds of Change,” was the theme for the National Catholic Youth Conference in 2005. Add to that his work as music director for St. Ann’s Parish in Coppell, Texas, and as a singer-songwriter for the Spirit and Song division of Oregon Catholic Press.
Spirit and Song, which focuses on new artists and music geared toward young Catholics, has published four CDs of Stephan’s music in the past four years. The albums include “Through the Storm,” “Sacred Revolution,” “Live It!” and a Christmas album, “Born to Us.” Stephan expects to release a fifth CD sometime in 2009.
“It doesn’t have a name yet, but I’m very excited,” Stephan said. “It’ll be a contemporary liturgical CD for praise and worship communities and more. It’ll also be good for use at [Catholic youth] rallies, that kind of thing. It’s giving me an opportunity to see and be part of what’s happening in Church music right now, which is really cool.
“We’re trying new technologies and production methods. Some of the sounds we’re hearing now are every bit as high-quality as what you’d hear on the radio.”
Throughout the heady “coolness” of taking on one project after another, the young Texan singer-songwriter speaks with a cool-headed humility and maturity. He keeps his eyes on his goal: Namely, crafting good music that also shares a message.
“[Music is] another way of evangelization,” Stephan said. “It’s easier to give someone a CD and have them listen to the words than it is to preach or teach directly. It’s undercover catechesis.”
Stephan draws on Catholic tradition for inspiration, while looking to contemporary sources, as well. He received his degree in jazz trumpet performance from the University of North Texas, a school that has nourished some of the country’s top jazz musicians — including the saxophone and trombone players from the original Blues Brothers.
Stephan believes this diverse experience has helped him be a better Catholic musician.
“We’re Catholic; we embrace the Gospel, so [we can] be flexible and incorporate anything from ninth-century chant to something written yesterday or in a different language. … I write from all the texts of the Church, trying to follow John Paul II’s New Evangelization. It’s new in style and new in ardor, new in passion. But it’s not new in content. The content is still the same that the Church has been preaching for 2,000 years.”
As someone with experience in reaching out to young people, Stephan emphasizes the importance of music in that effort. “Music engages people, especially young people,” he said. “Music is the language young people speak. We’ve always got our iPods and radios on.”
The music shouldn’t stop when we come to church, Stephan said, because music “enables us to express our love for God in a powerful way. Scripture says, ‘Sing a new song unto the Lord.’”
Finally, Stephan encourages all young Catholic artists to follow John Paul II’s advice: to “use their art for the Lord and for the Church, whether that be in a liturgical setting or otherwise.
“The Catechism talks about how art is an overflowing, an out-flowing of the Spirit in our lives,” he said. “It’s important for artists to be able to use their talents, and it’s important for the Church, the people of God, to support artists of all different types. ... Let the Spirit guide the Church — let him breathe life every day into the Church and all the arts.”
Katy Carl writes from
Silver Spring, Maryland.