How St. Louis Jesuits Sparked A Musical Revolution

Bill Clinton chose “Be Not Afraid”, for the ceremony preceding his inauguration. Susan Sarandon sang it a cappella in Dead Man Walking. Tony Blair was also able to sing other songs by The St. Louis Jesuits when he became prime minister. They were featured on Netflix’s Love and ABC’s The Mistresses. The songs are available in Cantonese and Swedish translations.

Who are these guys and how did they achieve such reach?

It all began in the Kumbaya era following Vatican II. The Latin Mass was no longer sung by priests. Staid hymns were not enough. The church was open to the air, and folk guitar music drifted through. The new lyrics were often dull, shallow, and self-indulgent: We are all praying in the sun…

Saint Louis University’s five young Jesuits filled the gap with a different kind of guitar music. They were still influenced by folk, but they were deeper, more complex, emotionally resonant, and musically sophisticated. They took Scripture, which Catholics had left to their priests, and set it to music with poetry’s ear.

Each member of the group wrote his songs. The power of the group was in the way they critiqued each other’s work. John Foley was the only one among the five who had classical training. Roc O’Connor loved Debussy as much as The Who, while Tim Manion had ingested Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan. It worked. Bob Dufford was struggling with the famous “Be Not Afraid” until Foley suggested a new beat on one line. That changed everything. The group found Dan Schutte’s original line for “Here I Am Lord” to be arrogant. He sighed, resisted, and stewed before replacing the line with a simple query: “Is It I Lord?” Human frailty. Uncertainty. Eagerness is all wrapped up in just four words.

These songs were first requested by people who wanted to have copies. A publisher offered to publish a double album, Silver nor Gold. It was advertised as music by the St. Louis Jesuits. This tag ended up being capitalized as The St. Louis Jesuits. They were concerned that it would be too pretentious. This was workaday music that was not meant to be performed in a recording studio, but rather sung by a group of worshipers, sometimes off-key.

It touched people’s hearts. These songs were requested by non-Catholics when they got married, grieved, or died. There were five more albums and five Grammy nominations. Earthen Vessels’ sales broke the 1 million mark. The St. Louis Jesuits were the catalyst for a revolution in liturgical music and the kind of prayer they inspired. One woman stated that they had “written the soundtrack for our spiritual lives” when they were introduced to them in Washington, D.C.

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