Category Archives: Steve Shields OFS

Steve’s posts

Blessed Failure


There is one statue on the huge front lawn at the Basilica of San Francisco in Assisi. I took this picture of it on a perfect, warm summer day as I was walking down the stone walkway towards the front door on my first visit. Like everyone else, I was thrilled and excited to be in such a beautiful place, yet this statue stopped me in my tracks. It seemed out of place at first and it took me a few minutes to recognize it, but once I did, it hit me, hard.

We all know the story of how Francis started out on his second attempt at knighthood and had a dream where God told him to turn back. It’s just a few paragraphs in Francis’ biography, but in this statue, we see Francis coming home in shame. To his family and friends, Francis in this moment was a coward and all Francis knew is that everything he tried to do up to that moment failed. He just had to listen and wait for God to tell him what to do next.

This is the miracle that touched me so deeply; that in this moment of acceptance and total loss, Francis followed his Savior, even though it was so very hard. As crazy and difficult our world appears to be, it is so much better because in that moment 800 years ago, Francis had the faith to listen to God and come home.

This month I am asking us all to take a moment to pray for those who need comfort, forgiveness and grace (including ourselves).


Living Our Relationship with Christ

Years ago, when I was feeling sorry for myself about a setback at work, my spiritual advisor gave me some of the best advice I ever received. He said “By the time you leave this earth, you will have lost everything and said goodbye to every possession and relationship you have ever known, except one. Your relationship with Christ is all you take with you.”

This article reminds me of that simple advice and our ability to live the life that God gives us.


Music in the Catholic Church, Part 3

If you’ve made it through the first two articles, you must be wondering if the issues with Catholic Church music are simply unsurmountable. I know I beat my head against this issue for a long time, but I had an experience around ten years ago that helped move me in a different direction.

Back then, I was a backup guitar player in a very good choir that specialized in “modern” hymns from the 1980’s (irony intended) with a strong soprano line and decent instrumentation. During the summer months, I would fill in as Director with a small group while the choir took their August break. However, that year we were in for a shock. Our loved and respected Director got into a deep disagreement with the Pastor and halfway through the August break, we all received notice that she was resigning immediately. The rest of the choir members ran for cover, but I was one of two fill-ins that were left holding the bag, so I kept at it.

It was a rough start. Suddenly, I had to pick up all the work that the Director handles in the background. I had no idea how much work was involved to really pull things together, but I started to learn. Shortly thereafter, while chatting with one of the regulars after Mass, I finally figured out what I needed to do. It was a simple conversation. I had mentioned that it was difficult trying to bring choir members back in after the big break up and he said “Don’t worry about it. This Church is full of elderly parishioners and no one new is coming in. It will probably close in a few years. It’s not worth the effort”.

So that was it. God put me into a position I would never have imagined and then threw down the challenge. With a background like mine (twenty years in rock bands – no classical training), no Church would have given me a second look, yet somehow there I was. God has a wonderful sense of humor.

The challenge was clear. We had an aging population with an average of four to five funerals a week. No families. No young adults. No money. Nothing to lose. Our Pastor announced he would find a new professional Choir Director and started the search, but had no takers. His requirements (classical experience) and insanely low pay scale shut out everyone. I didn’t care. I have a strong belief in stewardship and did not need the money, so I kept on playing. Eventually a few brave members felt sorry for me and came back. It was’t bad, but I still had that conversation in my head about the parish closing and it felt like a challenge. So I asked my pastor: “What if we play music for the people we want to bring in instead of the people that are here already”. Somehow, he agreed. I suspect he felt he had nothing to lose at this point as well, but I had an ally. I had a vision of a Church full of families with kids and starting thinking about how to make that happen.

This introduces the first and second concept for successful Church Music.

Concept #1: Christianity is an evangelical religion. We are all asked by God to reach out to others and spread the Gospel, so reaching out with music that would be appreciated by young families is a critical part of the process. Most young people who listen to any Christian music listen to Christian radio. It’s good, modern, upbeat and focused on Jesus.

Concept#2: Get support from the Pastor. I knew that our entrenched congregation would hate anything new and would immediately bring it to the Pastor. It was critical to get his buy in before getting in too deep. I knew it would be a struggle, but had no idea how nasty it would get. I was blessed with a Pastor that ran interference with the angry mob, but not all Pastors are brave enough to support this type of change, even in one Mass.

The book “Rebuilt” talks about this concept with much more than music. They considered their parish to include everyone in their zip code and put their focus on reaching out to the families in their geography. It’s a great book and highly recommended if you want to embark on a journey of growth.

I had a direction and a sponsor, but the traditional choir types were not fans either. This led to the next step in the process:

Concept#3: Get the best musicians you can in the area. Musicians who spent time in rock bands tended to be flexible and are used to playing by ear. They usually had a strong appreciation for the new Christian music on the radio and were not afraid to give it a try. Most also had experience with harmonies, which broke us out of the traditional charts with parts and put us into more natural harmonies that modernized even the most traditional hymns. Some parishes are blessed with a large number of good musicians with rock band experience, but most do not. I am a firm believer that God gives us the tools we need to do the job, even if we don’t consider them optimal. My recommendation is to start small and work with what you have. I started with just my guitar and a few singers, but eventually, we expanded to include drums, piano and lead guitars, along with additional singers. Just don’t expect it to happen right away and recognize that people come are not always in it for the long haul. Changes happen (a lot).

Now you’ve got a start, but the toughest part is waiting.

(Next up: Picking the music)

Music in the Catholic Church: Part2

We already established that most Catholics hate the music they hear at Mass. At first, we would think the comfort factor by itself is to blame, but as it turns out, the comfort factor only really works if the music is played well. Catholics distrust music that is unfamiliar, but even the most familiar, comforting hymns, are like fingernails on a chalkboard when performed poorly and most Catholic Church music is performed very poorly. There are several reasons for this:

Reason #1: Money

Catholic Churches, like most of their traditional Protestant cousins have very little money for music. They also have very outdated concepts of how music ministry works, which they reinforce with their budgets. Most churches pay for one or two traditional organists and maybe an occasional Cantor. The rest of the choir consists of charitable parishioners who donate their time and talent to help out. Sometimes, a parish is blessed with a strong group of volunteer choir members who are dedicated enough to put in the time to do it right. These are the few, talented, experienced people who understand the work and want to be part of it. However, most choirs, even the good ones, have a large percentage of “casual” members. These are the folks who show up sporadically, do none of the pre-work and wing it through the Mass. Oftentimes they are some of the most talented members, but their talent is offset by their lack of effort.  They are the first to remind everyone that they don’t get paid, so they simply help out “when they can”. This mixture of paid accompanist, few dedicated members and a majority of casuals can work for a while if the Spirit is strong enough, but it is rare to see this combination last long. The lack of consistency keeps the unit from reaching the quality that is required to keep people in the pews from running out the door.

Reason #2: Tradition.

The minimal budget choir model has been around for a long time. Pastors are always trying to save money so squeezing the music budget becomes a standard practice. Once the expectations are low enough, any music at all seems like an upside, but the Catholic Church loves tradition and tradition is equal to money when it comes to the drop in music standards. This tradition, of course, is the Church’s obsession with credentials, which translates to a requirements for accompanists to have a organ or piano based classical music background with experience in traditional hymns. The antiquated accompanist requirements with a budget starved music ministry creates a perfect storm of mediocrity that reinforces a resistance to change and growth.

Reason #3: The Catholic music publishing industry.

Unlike most Evangelical churches who gain access to hundreds of thousands of up to date songs through CCLI, the vast majority of Catholic Parishes lock themselves into one of several major hymnal publishers who ensure that only a trickle of new music is available. The idea of a Parish signing up for a CCLI license to expand their choices is considered mortal sin because hymnals only publish “approved” music and anything that is not in a hymnal must be considered “unapproved” (at least until it shows up in the next version of the hymnal). The hymnal publishers also provide helpful guide books for Music Directors with stern warnings to stay within the guidelines. Any deviation that would involve purchasing music from another distributor is considered the road to ruin.

All things considered, any Parish choir that follows standard practice is doomed to failure and any choir that deviates is considered heretical. This is a difficult road.

(Next Up: Step by Step instructions on how to build a successful music ministry in spite of all this stuff)

Music in the Catholic Church: Part 1

Up to now, I’ve stayed away from discussions on Catholic music, primarily because I am so sensitive to it. As someone who has been the music director for a Mass with contemporary music for the past ten years, I’ve given a lot of thought, hard work and prayer into the process. I’ve also received plenty of feedback,  both good and bad.

One thing for certain is that Catholics are deeply opinionated about everything to do with the Mass, but never more opinionated than when it comes to music. Catholics are also obsessed with being right. They spends untold hours explaining why they are right and when they are not insisting on their own correctness, they are researching to ensure they have an unassailable source of correctness backing them up. For some, it’s Sacred Scripture, for others, it’s the Pope and when all that fails, it’s cable TV.  Being right is important, so its easy to see how correctness in dogma soon translates into areas of opinion. After all, if I my understanding of the Catholic Church is unimpeachable, then my personal opinions must logically carry equal weight.  So with full knowledge of the bottomless quagmire of commentary and righteous criticism this will bring, I will share my own opinions as well.

Before we talk about music in general or Catholic Liturgical music in particular, I should start with a few simple statements:

“Catholic” means “universal”, but universal is not sameness. As this week’s scripture pointed out, we are all unique parts of the Body of Christ and each of us has gifts to bring.  Sadly, this has not played well with a Euro-centric Church hierarchy that has spent centuries trying to force every peg into the same square hole. Now that we are entering a new era of the Church that is trying to be more open to unique differences, we are left with Churches full of “square pegs” who haven’t gotten the message. It is difficult to change, but it is much more difficult to change when we’ve hung on to being right for so long. We’ve been taught to be intolerant, judgmental and afraid of others who are not like us. Changing our minds and hearts to see the face of Christ in those we don’t understand is a long and difficult journey that most of us don’t want to take, and it causes us deep resentment when our Church takes us out of our comfort zone.

Regardless of how we feel about it, our Church is changing and nothing signifies this change more than the music we hear in the Liturgy. Traditional music (judged by what we connect to our version of correctness) helps us to feel more secure. It reinforces our “correctness” and puts us at ease. Non-traditional music (everything else) reminds us that our world is changing and makes us insecure and irritable. We’re not quite sure why, but we know we are uncomfortable and that generates a need to rationalize our discomfort and make it go away.  This, in turn, generates countless arguments, letter to the Pastor, letters to the Bishop and sometimes outright threats and even stalking (all of which I’ve seen). The angst is endless, but it doesn’t have to be.

One of the most obvious lessons I’ve learned over the years is that different people like different music. After many years of trying, I am convinced that there is no particular music that appeals to everyone. I also learned that different tastes in music do not reflect peoples spiritual maturity. Instead, through a long, painful process, our Parish learned to focus different Masses on different age groups as much as possible. For example, our Saturday, 4:30 Mass has traditional organ and choir music, but our Sunday 10:30 Mass has a contemporary “praise band”. There are several lessons here. First of all, we need to acknowledge the need we all have for comfort and security.  Many people feel that comfort and security in a traditional organ / choir Mass and each Parish needs to have at least one Mass that meets this need. However, we also acknowledged that most of the new people we needed to bring into our Parish (families with children) do no listen to traditional hymns on the radio. For them, we have an equal responsibility to provide a Mass with music they will feel secure and welcome in as well. Finally, and most importantly, we learned to recognize that each of these needs is equally important and one does not override the other. This is a critical point in the health of a Parish because it gives us an opportunity to recognize and accept diversity, and this is the point where a Parish begins to grow.

(Next article: Why most Church Music is awful)

Signs of the Times Part 1

The recent article in CRUX about the gay priest who “came out” on the eve of the Synod caught my interest. Here is the article:

Here are my posted comments:

“Sexual orientation is not a choice, but becoming a priest and taking a vow of celibacy is a very serious choice. I have no problem with anyone stating their opinion on gay marriage or priestly celibacy. My problem is with taking a vow and then deciding to accept the dishonesty of living a shadow life in a relationship. I applaud Fr Charamsa for deciding to be honest about his situation, but I wish he took the steps to be released from his vows before establishing the relationship. This has nothing to do with sexual orientation or celibacy. It has to do with keeping promises.”

What’s going on here?

Augustinus’ article on homosexuality recognizes the worldwide, revolutionary change in attitudes on sexual orientation that have come about in the past decade and overturned popular opinion in just a few, short years. In my opinion, this recent change reflects a similar revolutionary shift in popular opinion on pre-marital sex, birth control and divorce that swept the world in the 1960’s. To me, the most fascinating aspect of these mega-shifts in popular opinion is the speed and universality of the changes, rather than the changes themselves (I am sure Sociologists are having a field day).  These changes, along with the equally dramatic departure of the faithful from Catholicism, reflect the incredible capacity for rapid change enabled by a connected society.  The Catholic Church now finds itself on the losing end of these changes due to it’s inability to react in real time to societal change and it’s continued reliance on a hierarchical structure that has been rendered irrelevant by a society that no longer believes in sin. This is the critical juncture for Christianity and the Catholic Church in particular. In a tug-of-war between Catholicism and popular culture, it is clear that popular culture is winning. I suspect Pope Francis sees this clearly and understands the urgency of the situation.

The major issues for the Church are not the issues of birth control, divorce, homosexuality, or marriage. The major issue for the Church is what to do when no one cares what the Bishops say about birth control, divorce, homosexuality and marriage.  After all, it is clear that a vast majority of Catholics practice birth control. It is also clear that many divorced Catholics still attend Church and receive Communion.  Now what?

The past 100 years will be remembered through history as the period where monarchies fell and the world experimented with new ways to govern themselves. I see the Catholic Church’s hierarchical irrelevancy as the last gasp of the ancient, monarchical system and the beginning of a rebirth in Christianity that will rediscover the centrality of Jesus Christ through the embrace of servant leadership. However, this can only happen if our Bishops recognize their inability to control through fear and recognize the signs of the times.






Rend Collective at Manchester Christian Church

I’ve been a fan of the Rend Collective for a while now. Their joyful worship music pleads with God to “build Your Kingdom here” and “set the Church on fire” with the Spirit. As members of the growing Evangelical movement in Northern Ireland, they also bring a rich heritage of Celtic music and instruments to their mix. Now, after years in the trenches and with a new album of worship music released, they burst onto the stage with the full force of a band on the rise and ready to play larger Christian venues with volume, power and professional lighting.

It was a great rock show at full concert volume that kept the crown on their feet with arms and voices raised in prayer. It was fun and I had a great time, but as a Christian musician and Music Director, I find I’m a bit more finicky than I was in my younger years. I expect more.

My biggest complaint was the mix. I love loud, but I’m obsessive about a mix that brings out all the quality of great instruments and voices working together to make a song truly moving. This concert had all the excitement, but mixed the drums and lead singer much higher than the rest of the band. They also did a lousy job of rolling off offending bass frequencies which made the sound muddy. Other instruments (lead guitar and keyboards, in particular) were lost in the mix along with the vocals from the rest of the band. This also led to a lack of dynamics and instrumental diversity that would have given each song it’s own voice. I could see each member playing a variety of instruments and singing their parts, but most of it was lost in the mix.

As they started into the songs from their new album, I started thinking about the pressure that comes with success. Their new songs had plenty of punch, but were clearly more aligned with the “formula” Christian music that comes across the airwaves now, than with their roots. I suspect that as with any type of music, the closer one gets to the mainstream, the more pressure there is to conform to what sells tickets and gets top billing.  This is why I love the Roots Worship music of John Barnett, who goes out of his way to connect on street level (more on John in a future column).

In retrospect, I recognize that there are lots of people out there who are looking for Jesus and one of the strongest tools of evangelization is music. For most people who are looking for a new church, music is the major factor in deciding to come back. This is why evangelical churches put so much money and effort in growing a music ministry that attracts their primary demographic of families with children. They recognize that you need to bring people in the door before you can form them into disciples and there are key demographic groups that are needed to keep a church growing and healthy.

I leave you with the Rend Collective version of “10,000 Reasons” which closed the show. It was moving, worshipful, joyful, Celtic version that made me so glad I got to hear them.

The Joy of Assisi – Part 6

IMG_1200On our last day in Assisi, we moved out beyond the gates of town to the great Basilica on the plains below. Inside the massive Basilica of St Mary of the Angels (, I discovered the reason for my  pilgrimage.

I entered on the left side of the church and saw the crowds of pilgrims gathered for the start of the Feast of the Pardon of Assisi.  Eight hundred years ago, St Francis petitioned the Pope to grant an indulgence to those who would visit the tiny church that was the home to all franciscans and it was granted for those who visit on this feast day.

As I walked towards the center, I saw thousands of pilgrims in prayer as they waited for one Mass to finish and another Mass to start. In the center of the Basilica, surrounded by the crowd, was the tiny church of the Porziuncola. This was the last church that St Francis rebuilt with his own hands and the one he made the home of all franciscan orders. This was where St Francis lived and prayed.

Our pilgrimage group celebrated our Mass in a small chapel on the side of the great Basilica. I remembered that a pilgrim must leave something on their journey and bring something back, so I brought out two small candles which I had received at my franciscan profession ten years before and we used them for the alter. After Mass, I knew I had to go back to the tiny church in the center of that massive space. I don’t know exactly why, but at that moment I knew this was why I came. This was the heart of my journey.

The crowds where larger now, and even though the doorway was now roped off, the tiny church was surrounded by a sea of pilgrims. The friar that accompanied our group came with me and helped my youngest son and I push gently through the crowd. Finally, we made it to the entrance and I knelt with my hand on the same entrance that St Francis would have held onto so many times in his lifetime. As I started crying, I recognized this was the destination of a journey I began many years ago.

I was finally home.


The Joy of Assisi – Part 5

Two thousand years ago, the Romans excavated the side of a large hill in what is now, Umbria. They built a temple to Minerva halfway up the side of the mountain that gleamed in the sunlight and could be seen from across the entire valley.  As time passed, the temple became the center of a small town and eventually was incorporated into the community and transformed into a church.


Thousands of years after the temple stood alone on the side of the hill, it remains the center of Assisi. As I sat on the worn, marble steps and put my hand on a marble column, I thought of St Francis playing here as a young boy. There was a time when he played on these ancient steps with no knowledge of the path that God had set in front of him. Now, I was blessed to share that space and realize how little I know of the future. I asked St Francis to join me as I prayed for God’s blessing.

The Joy of Assisi – Part 4

It is in the midst of simplicity that the pilgrim finds joy and peace. Just a few steps from our residence, I found the water fountain that would refill my bottle each day. The water was good and welcome in the high heat.








Just on the other side of the fountain was the narrow walkway that connected Via San Paulo to Via San Francisco and halfway down the walkway stood a simple stone church with a small bell tower that has graced this spot for over a thousand years. In the photo, below, you see the point where the walkway seems to end and there you see a small section of roof peaking out from behind a tall tree. That is the Church of St Stephen.


I rested in the little chapel on the several occasions when I had to climb this hill in the hot sun and I wondered how many pilgrims came before me and marveled at the raw rock walls and tiny Romanesque windows. I imagined how many others stopped to rest at this halfway point over the past millennium. This was clearly the oldest church in Assisi and certainly the most humble. St Francis would have liked it and probably there visited many times.


I was blessed to attend Mass there and visit several times, but the time I remember the most was when I came in to rest and sat alone in the chapel as visitors passed by the doors in search of more famous places. For a thousand years this wonderful church shared it’s space with countless tired pilgrims, but for a few special minutes, it shared it’s space with me.