Skip to content
What is it like to compose sacred music?

Paul Jernberg is a composer and conductor who has worked in the fields of ballet, theater and opera.

More recently, though, he has worked to compose sacred music, including music for Mass.  

One of Jernberg’s most recent projects is composing a new fully-sung Mass for Persecuted Christians, which will premiere October 21 at St. John, the Guardian of Mary Parish in Clinton, Massachusetts.

The Mass is intended to raise awareness of and encourage prayer for Christians facing persecution across the globe.

Bishop Robert McManus of Worcester will be present to establish a shrine at the parish, where people of the diocese can come to pray for persecuted Christians worldwide.

The Pillar spoke with Jernberg about what it’s like - both practically and spiritually - to compose music for a Mass.

That conversation is below. It has been edited for clarity and length.

Subscribe Now

You’ve composed a Mass for Persecuted Christians. What does that mean?

Well, basically, I composed settings for the texts that are coming from the Roman missal. That involves what we call the ordinary of the Mass, which are the parts that are repeated almost every Mass - the ‘Lord have Mercy,’ ‘Glory to God,’ etc. And then also what we call the propers - those things like the introit, offertory antiphon, communion antiphon, responsorial psalm, some of the things that change from one Mass to another. These texts are taken from the Roman missal and from the Gregorian missal. They’re all standard texts for this particular Mass.

And so I've composed all the music. For the ordinary, we're using my Mass of St. Monica, which has actually never been sung in its entirety before. That’s something I've been working on for several years.

But then also I've composed the settings of the propers for this Mass for persecuted Christians specifically. All the texts for this Mass are oriented, you might say, towards the plight of those who are being persecuted for righteousness’ sake, as our Lord says.

The hope is that as we sing [these texts], it's a way to communicate them in a more powerful way than just simply hearing it recited…when they’re sung, there's a real power in that to help us go deeper, you might say, and to meditate on these texts. This is something that we're working on in my own organization, the Magnificat Institute. We're trying to help people become more aware of the riches available to them in these texts that were really, at least originally, intended to be sung and that are really important texts.

What is your process as you compose the music for a Mass?

Typically, what happens is with maybe a little bit of trying different possibilities, I alight upon a melody that just seems to fit beautifully. And then I'll sing that through hundreds of times.

When I'm really working intensely on a composition, it's day and night. I mean, I can wake up at three in the morning and it's there with me, and I'm hearing it in four-part harmony very clearly. And I think for any composer or any artist, there's sort of a danger of obsession, because you sort of have to be into it and listening again and again and again.

But what I find to be fantastic and what's just very edifying is that as I sing these words and work at composing the music, it's like they really have power to speak to my soul, to my heart.

So for example, the communion antiphon for this particular Mass is “That which I tell you in the dark, utter in the light, says the Lord, and that which you hear whispered in your ear, proclaim upon the housetops.” In composing the music for that and singing it through maybe 2, 3, 400 times, it becomes part of me. I just say, “What is Christ saying? What is he actually saying?” Because he's not saying just be imprudent, you know, just say anything to anybody at any time. I think it's that aspect of courage, and realizing the responsibility to shed light on the Word of God. And that’s shining in my heart by entering into this text and entering into the music for it.

When I find a melody that seems to work well, and has a sacred character, it really, really helps to internalize these words. I still remember texts I learned when I was five years old, because I sang them. It’s something like that. It’s very strengthening, spiritually, to be able to be immersed in these texts.

Subscribe Now

What is that experience like for you spiritually?

In a way, it's like Lectio Divina, because I'm starting out with the given text, which is almost always from Scripture, and then entering into that by singing it. This is where I can't quite explain how it works. I just start singing, improvising a melody with the text, and I know that I have to stay within certain parameters. I mean, it can't just be like a jazz piece. You have to stay within a certain sacred frame.

I think it's very much like writing an icon. You're not painting an image of Our Lady or our Lord, but you do have the sacred text. And it's like making a beautiful icon of that sacred text through music, and one that has a true sacred character.

This idea of sacred character is really crucial in composing music for the Mass. And that doesn't mean that it's going to sound old. I think a lot of people, when they think “sacred,” they think Gregorian chant. Gregorian chant and polyphony are a fantastic tradition, which I love and I've done a lot with, but I'm working with the understanding that we can compose new music today, that really has life and beauty and depth, but really connects with, you might say, normal people.

I'm constantly praying for the help of the Holy Spirit. I experiment with different ideas, and I keep going until it clicks and it’s like, Okay, this actually is working beautifully. Sometimes that comes really easily, and I will have an inspiration that just flows. Other times it takes longer. I did a setting of the creed, which is quite long, and it took many months to do that.

What is your goal when you compose music for the Mass?

It’s to glorify God, it’s to worship God, that [idea] is always in me. It’s important to at least have that in mind. We're not trying to entertain people. We're not even trying to move them emotionally. It's not like I'm composing for a film or a theater production, trying to evoke just the right emotions.

I love all sorts of music, and music expresses this whole world of emotion. So it's not like the emotion is bad at all. But sacred music, by its nature, historically seems to have this gift to take us deeper than that, to draw us to this place of contemplation and worship of God, and you might say recollection. We’re trying, through the gift of music, to draw people into the contemplative dimension of the Mass, being present to God.

But at the same time, there is an emotional element. So for example, I can't do something that's sort of happy-go-lucky, you know? The introit says, “Look to your covenant, oh Lord, and forget not the life of your poor ones forever.” There needs to be a certain sobriety to the music, but it can't be so heavy that it's just weighing people down. There's got to be an element of joy even in the midst of suffering, which goes along with the text of the Beatitudes as well. So there's a real paradox there.

Support The Pillar!

How do you go about striking that balance? How do you convey just that tone you're looking for?

I don't know if I can totally explain it. It's not a matter of copying, or imitating, melodies that I've heard from the Middle East or from other sources. I'm not basing it on a previous Gregorian chant or anything like that. But I think the key is immersion in our tradition. That's very much a part of my own work - to be able to compose music that's really deeply rooted in tradition, but which also speaks powerfully and beautifully and in a holy way to people today. I’ve had many, many years of formation and exposure to all sorts of music. My original training was classical, totally immersed in classical music. I love other kinds of music too, folk music and so forth.

So as a composer, I take all that, and then music for the liturgy needs to stay within certain parameters. It’s sacred music. [But that] doesn’t mean slow and soft. I also have a strong influence in my music from the Byzantine traditions. I'm not trying to copy them, but it's very much also in harmony with the Eastern harmonized chants we associate with Russian Orthodox music and Ukrainian Orthodox music. I’m not trying to replicate it, but I’m very much influenced and I find great inspiration there.

Is it your hope that this Mass for Persecuted Christians will be sung again after the upcoming October 21 Mass?

Yes, please God. We’re not pushing it at anybody, but I hope that through the spiritual depth and beauty of this Mass, others would be interested in singing it as well. And we are more than happy to share this music with others. The message of our persecuted brothers and sisters is not a happy message, and the media are ignoring it completely. And even priests and bishops might feel like, ‘Oh those poor people, but what can we do?’ Hopefully by having really beautiful music, [we can help with] drawing people into an unpleasant reality that's really important to confront.

Just like we sometimes need to confront things in ourselves that are not pleasant, but are really important that we confront. Similarly there are things happening in the world that we don't want to dwell on, but the message here is pray and be aware of it. And pray that we will have the courage to be worthy of the final beatitude of ‘Blessed are persecuted,’ because we are experiencing our own maybe much more subtle persecutions here. It's a prayer that we can be faithful in the midst of opposition to the faith.

Read more from The Pillar