Through their ministry, priests console the sick and dying, sitting by their bedsides and praying for them at Mass. Fr. Jan Michael Joncas is more closely aligned than most priests to the helplessness that accompanies serious illness or disability.
In 2003, the composer of more than 300 liturgical pieces, learned as much about pain and suffering as he knew about success and celebrity.
Diagnosed with Guillian-Barré Syndrome, the priest, an artist in residence and research fellow in Catholic studies at the University of St. Thomas, in St. Paul, Minn., well known for popular liturgical hymns, “On Eagle’s Wings,” “We Come to Your Feast” and “I Have Loved You,” spent months in the hospital trying to regain use of his arms and legs.
Guillian-Barré Syndrome occurs when the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks part of the peripheral nervous system. When the disease is severe, the patient is almost totally paralyzed, according to the National Institute of Health.
Throughout his illness and recovery, Fr. Joncas, a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, experienced the helplessness of not being able to move, to feed himself, and to live without assistance. Imprisoned in his body, he could not minister as a priest in the usual way.
“I had to discover what it meant to be a priest when I couldn’t do all of the things associated with ministry, especially preaching and presiding at the liturgy,” he said. “All I could do was pray.”
If you want to go:
Thursday, Dec. 5, 8 a.m. to noon Sister Camille Klieban Conference Center Bonaventure Hall, Cardinal Stritch University, 6801 North Yates Road, Milwaukee.
Admission is $25 and includes continental breakfast. Visit http://tinyurl.com/lmjoldc to register by Nov. 25.
For more information on attending this event, visit http://www.alma-npm.org/. This event is sponsored by ALMA (Archdiocesan Liturgical Musicians Association) in collaboration with: Cardinal Stritch University, Archdiocese of Milwaukee-Office of Worship Mareda (Milwaukee Archdiocesan Religious Education Directors Association) PAMA (Pastoral Associates of the Milwaukee Archdiocese
The long, dark days of uncertainty and vulnerability offered him a greater understanding of suffering and dependence on God and others. The illness changed the way he lives his life and the way he views those with disabilities.
“I now have a personal experience of the God of rescue,” he said. “I realize that many people may be carrying hidden wounds and disabilities that color the way they interact with others, so I shouldn’t be too quick to judge, and I spend a lot less time worrying about minor issues.”
Although it was tested, Fr. Joncas said his faith became simpler.
“I have always loved the liturgy and so the backbone of my faith life came in celebrating Mass and the other sacraments, reading Scripture, and praying the Liturgy of the Hours,” he said. “When I was paralyzed, I could no longer do any of those things, so I had to find different ways of praying and those different ways changed the way I experience God.”
On Dec. 5, Fr. Joncas will be the keynote speaker at the Co-Workers in the Vineyard Breakfast at Cardinal Stritch University. He will give two morning talks on, “Hospitality: A Scriptural Virtue for the Church’s Life,” and “From Sickness through Suffering to Hope: Sharing the Journey.”
Fr. Joncas was ordained at St. Paul Cathedral in St. Paul, in 1980 and holds a bachelor’s degree in English, a master’s degree in theology (liturgical studies) from Notre Dame, and a master’s degree and doctorate in liturgical studies from the Pontificio Istituto Liturgico of the Ateneo Sant’Anselmo in Rome, and an honorary doctor of Humane Letters Degree from Sacred Heart University.
His talk will explore the biblical notions of hospitality, such as God as host and guest, Jesus and host and guest, and Christians as hosts and guests and how they have evolved in the course of history.
“Each community and every social situation differs,” said Fr. Joncas. “But a major step is the attempt to get outside of one’s own comfort zone to try and to imagine how a stranger encountering your community or you for the first time would feel.”
Musically, Fr. Joncas is working on two large projects. The first is a setting of every Responsorial Psalm in a slightly more sophisticated format than currently used in liturgical settings. He is also working on a “Hymn of the Day,” based on the appointed Scriptures for all the Sundays and solemnities of the three-year lectionary cycle for the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite.
He collaborated with the Gichitwaa Kateri Catholic Community in Minneapolis to create a hymn honoring St. Kateri Tekakwitha.
“But I am also writing individual pieces as commissions or as particular liturgical needs arise,” he said. “I think it is so important to have good liturgical music because as music conjoined to scriptural and liturgical texts, it actually becomes the means by which the community enacts the liturgical event, joining itself to Christ in the Holy Spirit to worship God the Father whole heartedly through the unique blending of thought, emotion and spirit, body and soul that music can facilitate.”
Because he was unable to write any music for two years following his illness, Fr. Joncas said he is even more appreciative of his talents.
“I think the psychic and emotional trauma I suffered needed to be dealt with before any genuine creativity could start up again,” he explained. “But when it did start up, I was amazed at how rich the new compositions were. They are best represented by two collections I recorded: ‘In the Sight of the Angels’ (GIA) whose pieces speak a lot of the presence of the Holy Spirit sustaining life and ‘God of Past and Present’ (OCP) whose choral pieces, especially ‘Rorate Caeli,’ seem to reside out of the experience of Guillian-Barré Syndrome.”
When Fr. Joncas attends a Mass or other liturgical celebration in an unfamiliar setting and hears his pieces sung, it gives him great joy and contentment.
“I find myself happiest when I visit a community where I’ve never been and know no one and hear them using one of my songs in their liturgy in such a way that it becomes obvious that they have made it a real part of their prayer life,” he said. “Fortunately, I’ve been blessed insofar as I automatically turn off my music critic’s ear when I’m in a setting of prayer, so the actual quality of the performance of the music is never as important to me as how the community employs it for prayer.”
Fr. Joncas is hopeful guests who hear him speak will leave the talk on hospitality with a sense of hope and re-commit themselves to living hospitably.
“And I hope they leave the talk on my experience with Guillian-Barré Syndrome with a more vivid sense of how suffering tests and tempers faith,” he said.