Renewing Liturgical Music: Catholic Sacred Music Project Shares Beauty of the Eternal

The project’s founder and some recent participants discuss how ‘sacred music disposes our hearts and souls to encounter Christ in the sacred liturgy.’

Peter Carter directs a schola at Princeton University in a frame from a film about the project in the making.
Peter Carter directs a schola at Princeton University in a frame from a film about the project in the making. (photo: John Girone)

Under the patronage of Cardinal Robert Sarah, the former prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, the Catholic Sacred Music Project endeavors to bridge today’s gap between music and faith, fostering spiritual and musical formation for Catholic musicians and promoting the renewal of sacred music within the Church. 

“When I was a young teenager, I thought I wanted to be a concert pianist,” Peter Carter, founder of the Catholic Sacred Music Project, told the Register. 

Having grown up in a musical household with piano lessons and sung night prayers, Carter explained that “having a musical culture in the home helped to prepare” him “for the musical culture of the Church and the liturgy.” 

Reflecting upon the Gregorian chant and polyphonic music he first encountered when he joined the choir in his home parish in Atlanta at the age of 14, Carter recalled: “It was the first time I could see the combination of a high level of musical excellence and beauty, which I had really grown to love and appreciate in piano, with worship for the glory of God.” 

Carter explained that he was particularly moved by the talent and faith of his choir director, who was both a church organist and concert pianist. “It was really inspiring to see that both could be united in the Church, religious faith and high artistry, in a way I hadn’t experienced before.” 

After studying organ performance, choral singing and conducting at Westminster Choir College in New Jersey, Carter couldn’t help but notice something was missing. 

“I was able to receive one of the highest levels of choral education and musical formation at a music conservatory, but it was outside of a Catholic context. And so I wanted to bridge that gap and use that for serving the Church,” Carter said. 

In 2021, after asking himself how he could “best use [his] musical gifts and talents to promote the renewal of sacred music,” Carter founded the Catholic Sacred Music Project with an inaugural “Choral Festival” at the Cathedral-Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia, with Sir James MacMillan featured as the festival conductor. 


Promoting Holiness

Founded to provide spiritual and musical formation for Catholic musicians to effect “a widespread renewal of sacred music in the Church,” the Catholic Sacred Music Project has its home base at Princeton University, where it offers conducting, composing and choral institutes every summer. 

“Many people have never heard sacred music from the Church’s tradition,” Carter explained, “whether that is Gregorian chant or Palestrina. They might only know a very small example of the whole treasury of the Church’s tradition.” 

“In order to effect a change in the culture of the Church and the culture more widely, we need to be able to have opportunities, especially for musical leaders in the Church, to learn and become fully immersed in the Church’s tradition of sacred music so that they can build up the local culture of their parish and community.” 

The project, Carter emphasized, aims not only at providing spiritual and musical formation for Catholic musicians, but also at promoting holiness through the Church’s patrimony of sacred music. Indeed, Carter noted, sacred music not only “disposes us to prayer” but “disposes the soul to communion with God.”

“Unlike any other kind of music, sacred music disposes our hearts and souls to encounter Christ in the sacred liturgy,” Carter explained. “Sacred music evangelizes us and brings us closer to Christ, and it also spills over them to not only those encountered in the liturgy, but those outside of the Church and in the culture at large.”

Catholic Sacred Music Project
Sarum Vespers take place in the Princeton University Chapel. (Photo: Allison Girone)


Composing Music Inspired by Faith 

“As a little child, I remember hearing the schola sing the Gregorian chants,” Seattle-based composer Mina Pariseau told the Register. “I would often sit with them, since my dad was in the schola, and that made a strong musical impression on me.” 

It was upon joining the choir and schola for the parish as a young teen that Pariseau “really fell in love with chant and sacred polyphony, not just for the beauty of the music itself, but also as a way of praying, glorifying God, and being an integral part of the sacred liturgy of the Mass.” 

Having developed a special passion for composing, Pariseau had a “transformative experience meeting Sir James MacMillan and hearing the premiere of his European Requiem during my undergraduate studies,” inspiring her to start composing music influenced by her faith

When her parish choir director forwarded her the information about the Catholic Sacred Music Project, Pariseau said, “It was not a question of if I would go. I was immediately so grateful that someone recognized this gap that experienced Catholic composers don’t have a lot of options for developing their craft or learning how to write for the liturgy.”

“The whole week was a beautiful balance of crafting our pieces, personal connection, and time for mental and spiritual renewal and encouragement,” Pariseau, who attended the Composition Institute in 2023, recalled, emphasizing how special it is to now be a part of a wider community. 

“I am honored to now know these inspiring people and be in a community where we can not only collaborate musically but also spiritually, praying for each other and the joint intention that our works may bring glory to God and souls to Christ.” 


Transformative Experience 

“I have never known life without music,” Chase Fowler, precentor and music director at Mater Dei parish in Dallas, told the Register. 

“While I was born with a stammer that has since been resolved through years of speech therapy, singing and music were the main reliefs from my condition. Without music, my ability to communicate as a child would have been greatly stifled. I am who I am today because of God’s gift of music in my life.” 

Describing music as his passion, Fowler shared: “It is through this art form that my soul delights in the Lord’s creation, finds its rest amongst the psaltery of his saints, and prays for mercy. It is through music that I carry my many crosses and tread the Via Dolorosa with the Lord.” 

It was while looking for a conference that “balanced professional development in sacred music and choral conducting at a professional level with Catholicism” that Fowler discovered the Catholic Sacred Music Project via social media. 

After several days of “daily Mass, choral Offices, and faith-driven fellowship” filled with “rehearsals on all the choral repertoire with the conducting fellows, under the guidance of the conducting staff,” Fowler and other participants of the Conducting Institute in 2023 were able to conduct a professional choir


A Vocation to Beauty 

“My vocation to music emerged in high school, when I was very spiritually vulnerable,” Conner David McCain, professor and director of sacred music at St. Joseph’s Seminary in New York, told the Register. “I was at a crossroads in my faith, and music became for me a sign of hope.” 

McCain explained that in all the composition and conducting workshops and conferences that he attended all over the world, “there is no discussion of ‘what the point of it all is,’ and the word ‘beauty’ is frequently spoken but rarely understood.” 

“The Catholic Sacred Music Project stands as a sign of contradiction to other music workshops,” McCain, who also attended the Conducting Institute in 2023, shared. In addition to creating a community amongst its participants, McCain added, “it also helps to form and support the entire person of the musician, not just that person’s technical skill, but also feeding that person’s spiritual life inside of the unique vocation of the artist.”

“My vocation to beauty requires more than just a technical understanding of music,” McCain argued. “It requires a devotion to the Beautiful One. How can we call ourselves artists when we cut ourselves off from the Source of beauty?” 

“Music has never been for me about technical prowess, innovation or fame,” McCain added. “It has always been an art form integral to my own being. This is what a vocation is, after all.” 

What McCain found unique about the Catholic Sacred Music Project is that the participants are united by a shared faith: “Even if they aren’t all Catholic, they understand the power of music at its core to be a window into the eternal.” 

While “great musicianship is oftentimes thought of in opposition to fullness of faith,” McCain suggested, “the Catholic Sacred Music Project works to integrate faith and music in the lives of its participants, and that is its greatest value in my eyes.”