Surrounded by the divine in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart and aided by superior acoustics and an attentive audience, the National Lutheran Choir performed on Thursday evening, Feb. 28, at the University of Notre Dame. A special feature of the choir’s 2019 Winter Tour performance was “The Holy Spirit Mass,” a stirring musical setting for voice and strings set to the traditional Mass parts and created by Norwegian composer Kim Andre Arnesen.
In attendance and offering a welcome at the performance were Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend and Bishop William Gafkjen of the Indiana-Kentucky Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
The “Holy Spirit Mass” was commissioned in honor of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, as well as 50 years of Catholic-Lutheran dialogue. It followed the spirit of the 2017 document “From Conflict to Communion,” which called upon Roman Catholics and Lutherans, divided by the Reformation, to seek unity rather than that which divides, in order to strengthen what is held in common. The text of the piece includes words from the Mass and those of a hymn, “Veni Creator Spiritus,” that are held in common. The seven-movement work for strings and choir also includes a stanza of Luther’s hymn, “Come, Holy Ghost, God and Lord.”
“Music can be a channel that leads to God and helps us to encounter Him and touches our hearts and uplifts our minds to the One who is the Supreme Beauty. I thank this wonderful choir,” Bishop Rhoades offered. “Listening to you truly lifts our minds and hearts to God, the supreme composer.”
He spoke of the unity, as well as the pain of separation, experienced in the past 500 years, encouraging all Christians to seek Jesus and put Him at the center of the dialogue as they remain open to the power of the Holy Spirit.
“Speaking of the spiritual value of the art of music, I also wish to mention how it instills hope in the human spirit, which is so often scarred and wounded by our earthly condition,” he said. “This is particularly true when I think of the wounds to Christian unity. This concert instills hope – here we are together this evening as brothers and sisters in Christ, listening to a Lutheran choir singing a composition of the Holy Mass here in a Catholic basilica.
“Our division seems small when we pray together and when we are together uplifted by this music to the beauty of our Creator. The ties which bind us seem stronger tonight. The goal of full unity seems closer when we pray together. This is a movement of the Holy Spirit, who is the real protagonist in our quest for the restoration of full communion.”
Bishop Rhoades’ reminder followed in the footsteps of Pope Francis’ historic visit to Sweden in 2017, marking the 500th anniversary and giving Sweden — a country that experienced extreme Catholic-Lutheran turmoil in its history — a new Catholic cardinal.
“It is good to give thanks for the significant ecumenical progress these past five decades,” said Bishop Rhoades. “It is important not to lose our ecumenical resolve nor our hope for Christian unity, but to pray and work with renewed fervor for this cause. This is part of our fidelity to Christ, who prayed to the Father that all His disciples may be one. I thank the National Lutheran Choir for this concert, which not only strengthens the bonds of communion between us but also is itself a great prayer for Christian unity.”
Hailing from the Twin Cities in Minnesota, the National Lutheran Choir is under the direction of conductor, composer, and organist Dr. David Cherwien. The 60-member choir features vocalists with incredible voice, range and ability, and follows the Lutheran choral tradition while including pieces of modernity. Many of the adults in the choir had developed their talents during college, in classic musical training programs like the one at St. Olaf College.
Carolyn Pirtle, Christ the King, South Bend, parishioner and a Catholic musician herself, felt that “the choir and orchestra performed the piece really well, and that the music’s focus on the Holy Spirit made a strong statement in favor of ecumenical unity.
“I was struck in particular by the moment near the conclusion of the piece when the choir was singing almost improvisationally,” she said. “It created an effect like a rushing wind or like the choir was singing in tongues — a pneumatic musical moment.”
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