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Tuesday, 20 November 2012 16:41

Making music in the heart

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These days, musician and Marist Brother Michael Herry is putting the finishing touches to some hymns he has written that will soon appear in the new edition of Catholic Worship Book II for the Australian church. 

It is happy news for those familiar with his work.  Many of his well known hymns will appear in this new edition, including “Prayer of Trust", "Lord, to whom shall we go?" and “From Penola’s Plains”, this last hymn which he co-wrote with Geoffrey Cox for the special  mass in Rome in 2010 to celebrate the life and canonisation of  St Mary MacKillop.

It has been a long musical journey for this Marist Brother who entered the novitiate 49 years ago, after completing his matriculation studies at Marcellin College in Melbourne. At the time, Br Michael presumed that he would spend the rest of his life teaching as a Brother.

About 25 years ago, however, Michael took a slight detour from teaching to devote more time to liturgical music making. As a child, he had begun piano lessons with the Sisters of Mercy in Lilydale, but what he enjoyed most in his school years was sitting in on piano with his father's dance band at their country dance engagements throughout the Yarra Valley of Victoria.  His Dad played saxophone and violin for these dances, and continued to do so into his late seventies, well after Br Michael had entered the Marist Brothers. 

Br Michael went on to pursue a music degree at the Elder Conservatorium in Adelaide where in addition to honing his skills on the piano, he learned both trumpet and flute and even had a term or two on violin.

After receiving his honours music degree in 1976, Br Michael began his teaching career at Sacred Heart College, a boarding school in Adelaide, and was tasked with setting up a new school music program. He put together a band, taught the students how to play instruments, organised specialist teachers for advanced musical tuition and taught music through to Year 12.

“We had mass every week and I was responsible for getting the singing going among the boarders. It wasn’t refined singing for these adolescent boys, but very enthusiastic with emphasis on robust participation.”

“The kids would lift the roof off that chapel with their singing, and that was great,” he said. 

It was only after his sabbatical at the Irish Institute of Pastoral Liturgy in Carlow, Ireland in his 40s that he set out more seriously on the path of liturgical music. This work perfectly brought together his musical talents, his gift in teaching music and his vocation as a Marist Brother.

“As a Marist Brother – and I’m quoting our founder Marcellin Champagnat – my ministry is a clear and simple one, to make Jesus Christ known and loved,” he said. “I do that through music, through writing these little chants and hymns and sharing them with people.” 

For Br Michael, music is not something superfluous to spirituality, but an intrinsic part of his spiritual life. “If we’re really open, music deepens the sense of Scripture and sense of prayer within us, just as a song can often seem more powerful than a poem,” he said.

Speaking enthusiastically about the merits of music doesn’t simply come from a being an excellent musician cloistered in a music hall among his instruments. He is also a Marist Brother who spent six years in East Timor from 2000, during those tumultuous years after the Timorese voted for independence in 1999. 

Those years in East Timor where he worked at a newly established Marist teachers’ college and at an institute for women's development had a profound impact on his spirituality and music. “I believe our faith is meant to challenge us as we make Christ present wherever we are,” he said. “And I believe the challenge of the Gospel can be conveyed very powerfully through music.”

“When you’re singing about social justice, for example, I think that we're really challenged to put our hands up. When you’re singing about it, you’re saying, ‘Yes, I’m really going to do this.’”

It is this belief in the power of music as an expression of prayer and vocation that drives Br Michael to create and share his music. He shares his hymns and chants through his Marist Music website that not only advertises some of his recorded work but also offers free downloads of liturgical songs and chants for use in parishes and liturgical celebrations.

He has also found a way to share music and help people deepen their liturgical prayer life through his seasonal music workshops. He loads his keyboard, guitar and CDs into his car and goes on the road for weeks at a time, stopping at parishes and churches where he spends a day leading the people in song, fellowship and prayer.

No matter what path his music takes him, Br Michael returns to his Marist roots, the source of his musical inspiration and offers it as a gift to the wider Church.

“I think Marists have a lot to offer in how we see, understand and live Church, because our lives are very much centred on family, the empowerment of people and relationship with Christ,” he said.

“The Church is getting a lot of stick at the moment and we’ve got to own that. We need to discern carefully what has gone wrong, and why, and how we might better serve the Gospel of Jesus and help it to come alive in our world.” 

“Being a more listening and compassionate Church has to be part of that call, and I try to write that into my music.”

The Marist Music website, managed by Br Michael Herry, now offers simple reflective chants for the four Sundays of Advent. Download the free audio and sheet music

Download Br Michael Herry's CDs and songs from iTunes.

By Giselle Lapitan