Bill and Cathy Boren recall being astonished when their then 3-year-old-son, Ryan, came home from Mass and headed straight for a toy instrument. He began playing what he had just heard at church and, according to Bill, even though he was plunking notes on a cheap, toy keyboard, “he was dead on” musically.
Some eight years later, Ryan, 11 – he’ll be 12 on Jan. 8 – continues to make liturgical music, now, however, playing the organ at St. Matthias Church, at the 9 a.m. Masses on Sundays as well as during Masses celebrated for the parish school children.
For about a year, St. Matthias parishioners have been accustomed to seeing the sixth grader accompany David Bonofiglio, director of liturgical music, at Sunday Masses.
“He’s very talented musically, but what I find most interesting is he’s very inquisitive, very serious about his musicianship,” said Bonofiglio about Ryan in a phone interview with your Catholic Herald. “He’s very committed, at a young age, to doing well.”
Alissa Turner, St. Matthias School’s music teacher brought the young talent to Bonofiglio’s attention. A little more than a year ago, she told Bonofiglio of the talented, then-fifth grader who had perfect pitch. Once he learned that Ryan had been taking piano lessons and had an interest in liturgical music, he invited him to participate more fully in St. Matthias Masses, first the school Masses, then the Sunday Masses.
In Ryan, Bonofiglio admitted he saw something of himself. Like Ryan, Bonofiglio, 28, started playing at a young age, about sixth grade, and by eighth or ninth grade, he was taken under the wing of noted archdiocesan pastoral musician Jeff Honoré.
“My predecessor, Jeff Honoré, was my mentor and he did the exact same thing with me as I did with Ryan,” said Bonofiglio, who has served in his current position since October 2007. “I think I was just a little bit older than Ryan, but my grade school music teacher let Jeff know about (my talent) and I started playing at Masses.”
Calling church music something you pay forward, Bonofiglio said he’s happy to bring it to another generation.
And worshippers, he said, have been most welcoming.
“Parishioners love it,” he said. “I think anytime young people are involved at Mass, we are transmitting the faith to those who come after. They see that in Ryan and enjoy seeing a young person ministering in this way.”
Ryan’s ascendance in the liturgical music world has been a unique experience for his parents, neither of whom are musically inclined.
While Ryan displayed the early interest in music with the keyboard, it wasn’t until he was in first grade at St. Matthias that Bill, a litigation technology specialist for Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren Attorneys at Law, and Cathy, a nurse auditor for Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare, arranged for formal music lessons through the school. This fall, at Bonofiglio’s suggestion, Ryan began taking organ lessons from School Sister of St. Francis Mary Jane Wagner, an accomplished organ recitalist who has performed at churches in the United States and Canada, including the National Shrine in Washington, D.C. Sr. Mary Jane, who has served in music ministry at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist, Milwaukee, and St. Mary Visitation Parish, Elm Grove, is director of music ministry at St. Joseph Chapel, Milwaukee, where Ryan takes lessons.
Recognizing his talent and interest in music, the Borens have supported his liturgical endeavors, including the twice-a-week organ practices and weekly lessons. One thing they never have to do, however, is encourage Ryan to practice.
“Ryan plays so much, we never have to ask him. It’s almost constant,” said Cathy, admitting that doing his homework or watching television might keep him from playing.
And even when he has a choice of music, Ryan said, it’s liturgical music he likes best.
“I like the feel of it,” he said, explaining his favorite music is that which is played during the Easter Triduum, with Advent music being a close second. His favorite hymn, he said, is “Pange Lingua,” written by St. Thomas Aquinas for the Feast of Corpus Christi (now called the Solemnity of the Holy Body and Blood of Christ). It’s the solemnness and officialness that draws him to it, he said.
Ryan carries himself with a maturity that exceeds his age, according to Sr. Mary Jane and Bonfiglio.
“He’s a 45-year-old trapped in a sixth grade body,” laughed Bonofiglio, explaining he’s very conscientious, very creative and likes improvisation, something with which not many musicians are comfortable.
“He is precocious in so many ways,” agreed Sr. Mary Jane in a phone interview with your Catholic Herald, yet she said, as with all her young students, she is careful not to force him along too fast.
She sees in Ryan, however, “a very talented young man,” who, she said, has a great ear for music.
“He’s very disciplined, and makes a distinction between what is written and what is not on the page. He’s learning skills playing from the written score, but also improvising, that what is not written comes from within,” she said.
Seeing a young man have such discipline is a source of great hope for her, said Sr. Mary Jane.
“It’s a wonderful sign in this age that has so much confusion and so many conflicting distractions that in this age of distraction, it’s amazing to see young people as focused as he is,” she said.
When she was young, Sr. Mary Jane said, it was not uncommon for a young person to be involved in church music, but she said that today that’s not the case.
“To see young people serving in the church today is a great sign of hope for us,” she said.
She noted, however, that Ryan has not let his talent go to his head. She described a conversation they had recently, a week after a lesson where Ryan’s identical twin, Adam, came to watch.
“So, was your brother impressed? I asked him. He looked at me, and asked, ‘With the chapel or with my playing?,” she related.
While liturgical music is central in his life, Bill pointed out that his son also likes video games, the occasional fishing outings at his grandparents’ home in Crivitz, and serving as basketball statistician for his twin brother’s basketball team at St. Matthias.
“He’s still a regular guy,” insisted his father. “In church he flips into the mature mode, but he likes to have a lot of fun.”
He explained that his son is the honorary umpire for kickball and baseball games during recess. But when asked, he’s happy to share his musical knowledge with his peers. For example, the young man that St. Matthias pastor Fr. Dave Cooper refers to as “the maestro” gave a presentation on the pipe organ to both sixth grade classes at St. Matthias.
“I feel good about assisting others in praising God,” said Ryan when asked what he likes about liturgical music.
His parents, who are also involved in church ministry as a lector (Bill) and extraordinary minister of holy Communion (Cathy), see his music as a way to inspire others to pray and to participate in worship.
“It’s important to get young people interested and involved, and when they see him out there doing that, other kids in his class do respect that, and more importantly, he provides inspiration and hope in the next generation,” said Cathy.
Seeing another generation become involved in worship through music is satisfying for Bonofiglio.
“I really like to see my profession as a sacred musician transmitted to the next generation,” he said. “For me, it’s a beautiful thing to watch.”