To commemorate the Year of Mercy, which began Dec. 8, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee has commissioned two pieces of music to be used in parishes throughout the Milwaukee area.
The commissions are the brainchild of the archbishop’s “Year of Mercy task force,” which felt it would be a unique way to immortalize thejubilee year, said Dean Daniels, director of the Office of Worship.
“When we started to talk about how we as an archdiocese were going to celebrate in song and liturgy the Year of Mercy, it was brought up around the table that we should again commission one piece of music…. I suggested that we do two compositions — one more hymn-like for big celebrations like at the cathedral, and then a song, since most of our parishes use songs instead of big hymns,” he said.
Both pieces are meditations on the meaning of God’s mercy within the context of the extraordinary jubilee year.
The hymn, composed by Brian McLinden, is “big and bombastic with strings and with brass,” said Daniels. Titled “The Face of the Father’s Mercy,” it is intended for use as a processional or recessional in grand celebrations.
The second piece is a song composed by Jesuit Fr. Roc O’Connor, associate pastor of Gesu Parish and a member of the St. Louis Jesuits. “Your Tender and Terrible Mercy” is intended for Lenten use and will be sent to parishes at the end of December.
This is only the third time the archdiocese has commissioned works of music; previously, it has done so to mark the 50th anniversary of the death of Pope John XXIII as well as the visit of Cardinal James Harvey, a priest of the archdiocese.
For Fr. O’Connor, composing a song for the Year of Mercy provided a new opportunity, even after a storied, 40-year career as a liturgical musician and Jesuit priest. He had never taken on a commission, and was excited at the prospect of being able to delve into a subject that was especially intriguing to him.
“I’m concerned … with how we receive and don’t receive mercy, and give or don’t give mercy. I find that interesting,” he said.
In writing the verses for “Your Tender and Terrible Mercy,” he looked to Scripture and was captivated by a line from the Gospel of John.
“In Chapter 21, Jesus says to Peter, when you are older, someone will bind your hands and take you where you will not go. And it’s that part about taking us where we don’t want to go that I find is mercy, and merciful,” he said. “So instead of simply confirming our personal status quo, it’s more about being led into conformity with Christ…. That’s kind of where I’ve been considering and preaching and praying, and the struggles around that, and how that is mercy itself to be drawn out of our comfort zone, as it were.”
The basis for the song’s refrain came to him one night while he was washing dishes.
“All of a sudden (it came to me) – ‘we are the clay, though we would be the potter,’” he said, reciting the line that became the refrain. “This is the human condition, simply, that we want to be in charge and have a say over our own lives and everybody else, constructing our lives, controlling our fate…. I thought of the passage from Second Corinthians – ‘we hold this treasure in earthen vessels’ – and then I thought about potter and clay that appears in different parts of the Scripture – Romans and Jeremiah and Isaiah – can the clay say to the potter, no, you’re doing it wrong?”
“Earthen Vessels” was the title track on the St. Louis Jesuits’ second album, released in 1975.
“Your Tender and Terrible Mercy” took six weeks to compose. The song’s verses, said Fr. O’Connor, are, in a way, “riskier” than his previous works. As a founding member of the St. Louis Jesuits, musicians and singers responsible for many selections, e.g., “Dwelling Place” and “Like a Shepherd,” in the contemporary Catholic and Christian songbook, he is best known for his simple, folk-like melodies.
That kind of melody will be familiar with “Your Tender and Terrible Mercy,” he said, but the words are “quite out there – but it feels right.”
The musical face of mercy
In composing the festival hymn, McLinden drew inspiration from Pope Francis’ papal bull of indiction for the Year of Mercy, “Misericordiae Vultus” (“The Face of Mercy”).
“The very first sentence said that Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy, and I thought, well, there you go. I thought it was a wonderfully crafted statement and a great place to start,” said McLinden. The first verse of the hymn reflects on Christ’s outward signs of mercy – “Slow to anger, rich in steadfast love and kindness.”
The second verse is rich with Mariology, inspired by Pope Francis’ decision to declare the Feast of the Immaculate Conception as the opening of the Year of Mercy.
“I thought that was sort of fascinating,” said McLinden. “Mary was also the face of the Father’s mercy in saying her yes, in giving her Magnificat.”
Verse three, said McLinden, is “a challenge to us as individuals to also be the face of mercy” – imploring the faithful to be “living symbols of God moving in our lives/feed the hungry, clothe the naked, greet the outcast.”
The fourth verse is a statement of the church’s ministry of mercy throughout the world, defending “voiceless millions who are denied their dignity.”
McLinden wanted the hymn to reflect what he sees as the boldness inherent in Pope Francis’ personal theology of mercy.
“My first thought was, it’s a hymn about mercy so it should be something gentle or maybe even pastoral … but the more I thought about it, thought about the pope’s papacy so far – he’s certainly not been shy and has not been a wallflower in his challenge to the church, and I thought, no, this is more of a call, this needs to be a more direct charge to the church and to its people,” he said.
When people hear his hymn, McLinden hopes that they will consider “the importance of the message that the pope is asking us to talk about.”
“It seems to me that mercy is the quality that is in short supply these days … that we’re in a time where people are angry and defensive and accusatory, and I think that the pope is asking us to shed those things and to look at the example of Jesus Christ as being the face of the father’s mercy,” he said. “I hope that they will come away with a sense that mercy and forgiveness and all the spiritual and corporal works of mercy are at the core of who we are as Catholics.”