The Pastoral Musician: Hermeneut, Catechist, Mystagogue

By Joncas, J. Michael | Pastoral Music, October/November 2007 | Go to article overview

The Pastoral Musician: Hermeneut, Catechist, Mystagogue


Joncas, J. Michael, Pastoral Music


A contemporary Christian re-telling of an incident recorded in the Synoptic Gospels tells us that an unnamed theologian infiltrated the band of the disciples surrounding Jesus of Nazareth as the group traveled to Caesarea Philippi. There, at a site hallowed by the confluence of four major religious systems, Jesus says to his disciples: "Who do people say the Son of Man is?" They answer: "Some say: 'John the Baptizer,' others: 'Elijah,' still others: 'Jeremiah or one of the prophets.'" "And you," says Jesus, "who do you say that I am?" Before Simon Peter can get a word in edgewise, the theologian bursts out like a graduate student acing an oral exam: "You are the Eschatological Manifestation of the Ground of our Being, the Ultimate Kerygma in which we find the meaning of our Interpersonal Relationships." And Jesus says: "Huh?"

I tell that story because I suspect many of you feel the same way about the title of this article. I can hear you thinking: "There goes Joncas again. We give him the Jubilate Deo Award and he thinks he has to show off his book smarts. How the heck will using these fancy-shmancy words help me to do the real work of a pastoral musician: making sure the instruments are in tune, the singers' diction is clear, the pieces programmed for Sunday worship connect with the readings and the ritual?"

Now, every art, science, profession, and community has its own particular jargon. That's part of why I love being a Catholic Christian. Boy, have we got the jargon! We can't talk about "walkways" in our churches; no, they're "ambulatories." We can't designate Father's vestment as a "poncho"; no, it's got to be a "chasuble" - or for those with a historical bent, a "planeta." We can't refer to the bishop's "hat and walking staff"; no, we've got to talk about his "miter and crozier." For that matter, we can't even talk about the bishop as "supervisor" or "overseer" which is what episkopos means: We have to call him a "bishop"!

Jargon helps to facilitate communication among groups of humans who acknowledge a world of shared ideas and shared values by the use of shared technical terms. The three terms I share with you today are not taken from the jargon of music, like "tessitura," "embouchure," or "enharmonic modulation." "Hermeneut," "catechist," and "mystagogue" are theological jargon terms, just like "transubstantiation" or "eschatological." I claim that these three terms will point out aspects of our pastoral music ministry on which we might all agree, whether our personal preferences program Palestrina or Peter, Paul, and Mary. I hope that exploring these three aspects of pastoral musicians' ministry might contribute to the theme of this convention: "That all may be one." To that end I will take each term in order, exploring what it means, offering examples of how pastoral musicians function effectively in each area, and concluding with descriptions of common music-making that I hope will embody the term.1

The Pastoral Musician as Hermeneut: Interpreter of Human Existence

The late Urban T. Holmes III, in his posthumous book. Spirituality for Ministry, describes hermeneutics as follows:

Hermeneutics within theology is the discipline of interpretation. It refers usually to the interpretation of the Bible, its exegesis and application to life; but it can typically also refer to the reflection upon any other sacred text (e.g., creeds, liturgies, and doctrinal definitions). But the word hermeneutics has more life to it than this. It comes from the name of a Greek god, Hermes, who was the messenger between humans and the gods. Sometimes thought of as androgynous, Hermes was the trickster. He was a maverick, weird, full of surprises, and a bit irreverent . . . . It is from such a strange figure that we get our word for the solemn activity of interpreting the meaning of sacred texts.2

To say that musicians are hermeneuts, then, is to say that they, like other authentic artists, are interpreters of human existence. …

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