Arts are a tool towards the Jesuit mission goal

By  Fr. Erik Oland S.J., Catholic Register Special
  • September 15, 2011

Having abandoned a career in classical music for the Jesuit novitiate, I was quite surprised in the early days of my Jesuit life to discover it was commonly held that Jesuits and the arts don’t get along.

A stormy relationship with music and the arts had not been my experience as a young music student. I learned in music history classes that such great composers as Palestrina, Victoria, Carissimi and Charpentier had been in the employ of Jesuit institutions. Art history classes taught me of the close relationship between the Society of Jesus and such artistic greats as Bernini and Rubens.

Where did this idea come from? 

In reality, the proverbial “Jesuits don’t sing” is based on a misunderstanding of the society’s dispensation from reciting the Divine Office in common. That is, because Jesuits are a religious order that ministers in the world Jesuits praying the liturgy of the hours together has not been part of our tradition. Ignatius Loyola saw very early on it would be counterproductive to expect each Jesuit to return to his community a number of times a day to pray the office.


Thus, while it can be said that music is less central to Jesuits than it is to the Benedictine tradition, it has always been a key component of the Society’s missionary outreach at home and abroad. In fact, since its earliest days, the Society has been at the vanguard of the Church in promoting music and fine arts precisely because of their potential to move the faithful closer God. 

Through the 16th and 17th centuries, art and music represented the triumph of the human spirit and its capacity to reach out to God. Ignatius Loyola developed the Spiritual Exercises as a tool to foster and inspire the personal journey of seeking and finding God’s will in the world and not apart from it.

One of our mottos is “finding God in all things.” Ignatius’ confidence in each human being’s capacity to interact directly with the Creator is central to the Jesuit vision. Equally important is the clear movement in the Exercises where the individual asks for a personal love of Jesus and a deep motivation to follow Him in his life and work today. 

As a Jesuit artist and musician with quite a bit of experience in giving the Exercises, I am intrigued by some of the parallels between what was going on in Ignatius’ time that mirrors what is happening today. During Ignatius’ time there were major shifts happening in music and the arts. In music there was the shift from Gregorian chant to the rich harmonies of Renaissance sacred works that eventually culminated in the joyful exuberance of Bach, Handel and Vivaldi. In art there was a move from static portrayals in religious art to sensuous depictions by Michelangelo, Caravaggio and Rubens. In architecture there was a move from the “higher is better” sweep of solemn Gothic cathedrals, to bright and open liturgical spaces in which worshippers are no longer locked in a personal cocoon but rather have a sense that they are participating with fellow human beings in the liturgy. 

What are the parallels we experience today? Jesuit Father General Adolfo Nicolàs, during his recent vist to Canada as part of our 400th anniversary celebration, said one of the shifts vis-a-vis spirituality is the focus on Eastern wisdom traditions — Zen Buddhism, for example — and how these traditions help us to shift from a head-centred perspective to a more heart-centred one. He also stressed that, in our intercultural society, it is more and more important to focus on the premise of “unity in diversity.” 

I like to think these contemporary shifts are an invitation to deepen what we have already learned regarding the place of the arts in the life of the Jesuits, and even the Church. Art is, of course, more centred in the heart than in the head. 

With Vatican II it was clear the common person was being invited to participate more fully in the liturgy and life of the Church — the priest facing the people, the liturgy in the vernacular, open worship spaces, music everybody can sing. Almost 50 years later the common person in the Church represents a much broader cultural mosaic than a scan of the pews would reveal in the 1960s. Perhaps there is a new spirit calling us to revisit the best from the past and combine it with new lessons from the present. In the arts this means being open to cultural and artistic expressions that might stray from the European pattern. 

The Jesuits of today are poised to embark on the path of unity in diversity — seeking to combine cultural traditions and to let new forms evolve. While we no longer live in the historical period of the Renaissance and Baroque, our post-modern sensibilities call for a sensuous engagement in prayer — some people talk about “embodied prayer” — and a living of the graces received in the drama of our complex and diverse world.

The Baroque desire to engage the affect, to address our emotional being, by the use of art and music in spiritual and pedagogical practice is in the midst of renewal in the society. For example, Fr. Daniel LeBlond, S.J., is an artist who exhibits his work in Canada, the United States and Europe. He directs the Gesu — Centre de Créativité in Montreal that opens up its ecclesial space to artists who seek to engage the whole person in their interactive works presented in a liturgical setting. 

My role as novice director for the Canadian Jesuits is multifaceted. In addition to helping the novice deepen his vocation to religious life, I look for ways to form our young men to help them embrace the diversity of contemporary culture.  One way is to give them regular classes in music and singing (with a few yoga classes for good measure). The next step will be to have even greater involvement in the rich cultural diversity surrounding our novitiate in Montreal. By fostering a more open attitude to music and the arts the novice is helped to embrace more easily and spontaneously the diversity of cultures that he will encounter.

Drama, music, art, both in and out of the retreat and liturgical setting, are powerful tools to engage, challenge, inspire and, in the end, move towards the goal that was, and still is, so much a part of the Jesuit mission.

(Jesuit Father Erik Oland S.J., taught music and sang with the Canadian Opera Company before entering the Jesuits in 1994. Today he is the Master of Novices for French and English Canada in Montreal.)



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