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Gail’s legacy

Timothy P. Green | Thursday, March 4, 2010

A visit to ND is always bittersweet for alumni, but this week I experienced a return to campus both more sorrowful and more glorious than usual as we laid to rest my former teacher, mentor and friend Dr. Gail Walton.

The funeral Mass on Tuesday was a testament to Gail’s legacy — the packed pews resounded with the voices of hundreds in attendance. I have never heard the Basilica echo so loudly with such fervent singing of the psalms, hymns, and chants of the liturgy.

The Observer has recently featured testimony from Brian MacMichael and Laura Hoffman — and a beautifully-written article on the funeral by Sarah Mervosh — all of which show Gail’s lasting influence upon this school and her students.

There is one group of students who deserve special commendation for their courage and poise — the members of the Liturgical Choir, under assistant director Andrew McShane, who led the sorrowful congregation in prayer and song as we said goodbye to our friend. Their performance was outstanding and beautiful — not merely in technical proficiency, but in the deep emotions which could be heard and felt behind every note.

It was one of the bravest things I have ever seen. Imagine the football team scheduled to play shortly after their coach died — and then going on to play one of the strongest, most perfect games you’ve ever seen. That’s what it was like to hear the choir sing so well amid their evident sorrow.

There has been much talk lately of the state of the religious identity of Notre Dame. Gail was one of its unsung architects; the music she and her choirs made for so many masses and occasions each year were among the many invisible supports helping to hold together the school’s Catholic character.

Speaking with fellow choir alums this week, several mentioned they have found it hard to explain what it was like to sing with the Liturgical Choir under Gail and why it has had such a lasting influence on our lives. Perhaps if you’ve ever been on a sports team with a great coach who truly demanded the best of his players but also earned their complete trust; or if you’ve been in one of those classes where the teacher challenged you every day but also made you want to do your best; or if you’ve lived in a dorm at ND where the rector was tough on you but always had your back — then you might know something of the same feeling.

As Notre Dame’s greatest teachers have always done, Gail taught her choir students to strive for excellence in a humble, Christian spirit. Their task is not to perform for themselves, but to serve God and others — to make the liturgy an experience that helps people to pray. They work long hours to make beautiful music, all for the greater glory of God and in service to their neighbors. In her own quiet but strong faith Gail taught her students to love this work as a ministry, and to embrace the beauty of the Church’s liturgy, and learn of its rich tradition of sacred music.

There’s a classic film by the great Spanish surrealist director Luis Buñuel in which the main characters are continually attempting to sit down for dinner, but are never able to eat it, and the meal always remains untouched. A satire of bourgeois manners and social veneers, the film and the plight of its characters reminds me of my own life as a young Catholic who really only skimmed the surface of his faith for much of my life. My time with the choir opened up an entire new world — the rich banquet of the Catholic traditions of liturgy and sacred music — and propelled me into a deeper journey into the devotional and intellectual richness of the faith, which I had left untouched for too long.

I end with an entreaty to the entire Notre Dame community, and especially to the students. The richness of the Church’s great tradition of worship and music is all around you at Notre Dame. Come and experience it, and support all the great choirs and everyone on campus who works so hard, even in times of mourning, to bring a bit of the beauty and goodness they have experienced to others.

Hop out of bed just a bit earlier on Sunday to get to the 10 a.m. Mass and hear the choir sing. Or, in the evening, stop by the Basilica to encounter God in the stillness of the meditative evening service of Vespers. There’s no better way to calm down and prepare for the demands of the coming week than to pray and sing in a candlelit chapel on a quiet Sunday evening.

Better still: make plans to stay on campus for Holy Week at least once during your time at Notre Dame to experience the great liturgies of the Easter Triduum: Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the glorious Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday. It is the high point of the liturgical year and the culmination of many hours of extra rehearsals. People come from all over to hear the special music sung only for this occasion. I once met a seminarian from Rome at the evening service of Tenebrae on Holy Thursday. He told me, “They don’t even do it this well at St. Peter’s.”

Gail Walton was a vessel of God’s grace to all who knew her. Come and experience the fruits of her labor in the fine group of young people singing in the choir — in them the richness of the Church’s liturgy and the living tradition of transcendent music are preserved and celebrated. It doesn’t matter if you’re Catholic or non-Catholic, religious or non-religious. The human heart knows beauty.

Come and see — a rich banquet has been prepared. This courageous group of students will show you the best of what Notre Dame is all about. And they will help you to pray, as their director always taught them to do.

Timothy Green is a Notre Dame graduate of the Class of 1998 and the ACE Class of 2000.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.