Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Reaching the Ends of the Earth

On a Monday morning almost three weeks ago, Fr. Bob McMillan, SJ, one of our Boston chaplains, came to celebrate Mass. Toward the end of the General Intercessions, he said, “In this place of music, I would like to pray for Whitney Houston and her family….” We often tell media professionals that we pray for them. In fact, it’s an essential element of our spirituality, the legacy left to us by our founders.* So we felt right at home with a prayer like that. The beauty was that it extended our prayer for one artist beyond the needs of her earthly life, entrusting her, as Fr. Bob said, into the merciful arms of God.

Music director
Sr. Bridget C. Ellis, FSP
The prayer also connected her with both our liturgical song and our music ministry, which is a distinct feature of our Pauline mission here in North America. Of course, we reach a much smaller slice of the world than Whitney did, but this ministry weaves the gift of music with the gift of the Gospel and, in the same merciful arms of God, reaches into hearts in ways we can hardly imagine.

That same day, about 40 sisters and co-workers were able to participate in the blessing of our reconstituted “Pauline Studios.” The department recently added a renovated video studio next to the sound studio—which until then had boasted a mammoth staff of one—Sr. Bridget Ellis. She now has company: Sr. Domenica Vitello, a gifted video manager, and Sr. Teresa Meza, her experienced assistant. Sr. Margaret Timothy Sato, another star talent, serves as director. Her “to do” list includes collaborating with our business office, doing the spadework in pursuing rights to audio and video material. So, Sr. Bridget has been freed up to do what she does best: direct the music division. She also doubles as the go-to person for all things audio.

Here’s a lightly edited four-minute video of the blessing. Our friend, Fr. Robert Hospodar, a priest of the Byzantine-Ruthenian Catholic Church in New Jersey, did the honors. After a Byzantine ritual that lasted a good half-hour, the studios definitely felt blessed!

What exactly is new in all this? We began film production in the early 1970’s with shorts for children. In 1983 we moved into video, also transferring documentary films from other sources into VHS and Beta. (Remember those?) I recall how shocked I was at the price of Catholic educational videos back then. It was not unusual for a simple 30-minute program to command a princely sum of $125. Pauline’s unique contribution was to offer quality material at home video prices. Even so, fifty and sixty dollars was the going rate, so that made video rentals from our PBM centers an appealing service, just as it was at Blockbuster and later, at Hollywood Video.

In the late nineties, the industry had already advanced to such a degree that to grow, we would have needed new equipment to produce broadcast material. At a minimum of $10,000, an upgrade was cost prohibitive. In addition, we were not ready to jump into the latest rage—video games. A larger and more updated staff was required. A combination of other factors that also affected our development office necessitated that we shelve video ministry until it appeared that God was again pointing in that direction.

Probably the single most persuasive factor in re-launching our video production has been the advent of digital media. In a sense, its accessibility to anyone with a webcam and an Internet connection has democratized what once was the purview of a media elite. In addition, a wide range of media studies that include production is now within everyone’s reach, so that quality is not only possible, but expected.

Pauline Studios director,
Sr. Margaret Timothy Sato
If that can be part of the Church’s evangelizing effort, why not begin again? Sr. Timothy says that the team wants “to create and distribute quality productions that will communicate the Gospel in a way that speaks to the hearts of people today through sight and sound.” There will always be a need for books and other print publications, but Pauline Studios will help to interface those with visuals and sound, especially through e-readers and tablets like Kindle and Nook. In fact, as Pauline Books & Media expands its e-book catalogue beyond the 73 titles that it has already published, Pauline Studios is looking at ways to embed video and audio in the text, especially in children’s books. Audio-books and trailers for print publications are other ways we can round out what our mission has to offer.

It’s no surprise that the Way of the Cross is the most popular Lenten devotion in Catholic circles. So it stands to reason that a Way of the Cross pamphlet is a perennial best seller. What about a Stations app? If the Rosary app is any indication, iPhone lovers will welcome an alternative to the print medium. Word, music, and image will make for a reverent meditation that involves body and soul. Many more crossmedia products will communicate the Word in ways that people want to receive it. “Our work will both sustain the editorial department and support digital publishing,” predicts Sr. Timothy. “The apostolate is being painted in more vivid colors and underscored in beautiful ways.”

So, the ground is fertile for Sr. Bridget’s “tilling,” as she calls it—her talent at music composition, arrangement, and direction. She knows the “personality” of the sisters’ voices, so she writes the vocals. The music tracks are arranged by the prolific Dwayne Condon. Sr. Bridget requests the keys, modulations, and styles for any given recording, then suggests modifications on his rough draft.

Besides original pieces, she’s on the lookout for “any music out there that touches the hearts of people, bringing people to God and to the Church.” It’s always a special gift to her whenever she hears that, through the sisters’ music, someone has embraced the Catholic faith. “It’s going to affect everybody in a different way. The important thing is that they find in it a personal connection with God.” Next year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of our music ministry. Since Handmaiden of the Lord was produced in 1987, fifteen Daughters of St. Paul albums have received Angel Awards and five, Unity Awards, from the United Catholic Music and Video Association. As gratifying as these are, nothing comes close to the joy of touching a human heart. Sr. Bridget told me of a mastering engineer, who, without any prior contact with us, felt compelled to tell her of the “purity, innocence, and joy” that the Daughters of St. Paul Choir communicated to him as he listened. He could tell that the sisters saw their work as more than just a job.

Listen here.
 Who we are, in fact, does define what we do and how we share what is at the heart of our own vocation. The sisters hope to eventually coordinate projects with our vocation directors. Meanwhile, any of our audio and video promotion efforts can be a means through which young people will get at least a glimpse of the mission of the Daughters of St. Paul. For example, we’re videotaping a few short interviews of our sisters that will be used to promote There Can Be Miracles. “The stories of our sisters speak for themselves,” says Sr. Timothy, “how music has the power to convey a message of hope in a profound way. Besides that, the joy of our sisters in their commitment to the Pauline vocation is evident when you see them.” In quoting the Greek philosopher Plato, Sr. Bridget sees a common denominator in those experiences: “Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, and life to everything. It is the essence of order and leads to all that is good, true, and beautiful.”

Possibilities are almost endless. A real plus in making a step forward is what Sr. Timothy describes as the 400% increase in personnel! The challenge will be to gallop alongside an art and industry that sprinted out of the starting gate thirty years ago and shows no signs yet of slowing down. The sisters’ ongoing education and broadening vision will require large doses of time and funding. Sr. Domenica senses the charismatic presence of Blessed James Alberione in this, urging us on to “get out there and preach the Gospel” with these media. It’s a sign of our times, she says, “that many people working in this field are feeling something similar. They want to use the media to get the Gospel message out. There’s so much creativity and desire in the world to do good.” Read the desire of Sr. Timothy’s heart at Weekly PauLine in the column above right.

Listen here.
For Sr. Bridget, keeping up really means keeping ahead. “It’s Lent, but believe it or not, I’m listening to Christmas music. My ears are constantly tuned to pick up new music, especially songs with meaning.” Collecting them can sometimes span a long period of time. There Can Be Miracles,  for example, took two years to compile. Everything we’ve recorded that’s in public domain is up on iTunes—85 titles—and we’re getting close to putting up everything we’ve done. “The way people listen to music and buy it is changing so fast. You and I are sitting here now talking about the way things are, and next year we could be talking abut something different. The challenge is to keep up with the way people are acquiring music and to be there to provide it.”

Pauline Studios may occupy a tiny corner of the globe, but the apostles who work there and their proclamation pour out into the world from the merciful arms of God, the “place” where possibility and reality intersect. They enlighten, encourage, and send peace far beyond the walls that house them and tell Good News that will echo in the minds and hearts even of those who still exist only in God’s mind. “Through all the earth their voice resounds, their message reaches to the ends of the earth” (Ps. 19:4).
* Blessed James Alberione, SSP, and our co-foundress, Sr. Thecla Merlo, FSP

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