Richard J. Schuler

 
"In the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims. . . . We sing a hymn to the Lord’s glory with all the warriors of the heavenly army." The Second Vatican Council’s account of empyreal harmony clashes against the sad state of much church music today. Msgr. Richard J. Schuler (1920-2007) said at a liturgical conference in Paris that he was hopeful about music, since it was so bad it could not get any worse. The sounds of the holy city did seem to work its way down from the choir loft of St. Agnes Church, Schuler himself often conducting the orchestra. Whenever youths asked why they had been deprived of the Church’s great repertoire, the pastor of that Austrian baroque church in the city of St. Paul indulged no reverie but rather let the music carry the day. Too Catholic to separate intellect and emotion, or to oppose tradition and transition, he presaged the "hermeneutic of continuity" preached by Pope Benedict XVI, whose election he watched liked an aged Simeon. He latterly said, "I have lived too long," but he was glad to have lived long enough to see a pope playing the piano.

Having stayed steady through the fads of one of the Church’s most fickle generations, sometimes mocked by Philistines either nostalgic or anarchic, he gave sound to Augustine’s "beauty ever ancient, ever new," and did it perhaps even livelier than the great bishop of Hippo who somewhat aridly described music as "the science of melodizing [modulandi] well." Two strains made his cultural harmony, as he was born the grandson of emigrants from Tirol and Baden-Baden and reared in an Irish section of Minneapolis. Otto, the father, had a fine shoe business and saw to it that his son, unlike the proverbial unshod child of a cobbler, should learn piano and flute and never think of music as peripheral to life. The Christian Brothers at De La Salle High School cultivated what Otto and his wife, Minnie, had sown, and he was an accomplished organist by the time he entered the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul. The formation in seminary, which he entered when just 20, was pedantic to his tastes, but he looked on it as a privilege as a world war roared around him. The new priest, ordained two weeks after the bombing of Hiroshima, taught music and history in the preparatory seminary while doing graduate studies at the Eastman School of Music. After studies in Rome on a Fulbright scholarship, he taught in the College of St. Thomas for 14 years and was made a doctor of music history at the University of Minnesota.

By founding the Twin Cities Catholic Chorale, he was able to put theory to practice, innovating the use of classical instruments with the new vernacularism while keeping Latin as the constant reference. As chairman of the Fifth International Church Music Congress in 1996, he began what seemed at the time a losing battle to promote the liturgical intentions of the Ecumenical Council. If the prima donnas of pastiche renewal claimed popular attention, he would make his parish a model of the Council’s decrees, and for the rest of his life as pastor of St. Agnes Church he did just that: High Mass in the church, whose interior decor he refurbished and completed along with a bell named Richard added to the peal, was sung with Gregorian chant, and much of the Viennese school. Before preaching there one Sunday, the Mozart setting for the day was explained to me with unaffected eagerness by a small altar boy from the parish’s school, whose catechism he preserved from external attempts to change.

Seminarians gathered in the rectory on Tuesdays for his counsel, as witty as it was "lux in umbris," and the aroma of a Sunday roast mingled with remnant incense to feed the young men who found their vocations there. Schuler’s parish may have produced more priests than any in the country, and many of them are now serving in an archdiocese whose new life in recent years owes much to the man who was never disoriented in troubled years.

 
Dryden wrote:
 
From harmony, from heavenly harmony,
 This universal frame began:
 From harmony to harmony
Through all the compass of the notes it ran,
The diapason closing full in Man.
 
One such man had faced east at his altar day after day, warrior in earthly scenes — and now, one may well think, not unprepared for the heavenly ranks.
 

 


Rev. George W. Rutler is the pastor of the Church of our Saviour in New York City. His latest book, Coincidentally: Unserious Reflections on Trivial Connections, is available from Crossroads Publishing.

Fr. George W. Rutler

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Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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