• Post category:NEWS

One night in the early days of the pandemic, the Reverend Michael Joncas woke up with a song in his heart. He wrote “Shelter Me” in the wee hours in March 2020 in hopes of offering comfort to people in the wake of the COVID-19 lockdown. Since then, his composition has been heard all over the world.

Joncas has been a faculty member at the University of Saint Thomas since 1991, but is preparing to retire from full time ministry on January 1. However, as he moves from university housing to a new Grand Avenue address, he does not expect his days to be any less full.

Michael Joncas
The Reverend Michael Joncas at home and at work on a new composition. Photo by Brad Stauffer

“People have been asking, ‘What are you going to be doing in retirement?’” Joncas said. “As long as I have my health, I don’t think my life will change at all. I’ll still be helping out in parishes. I’ll still teach, online or in person. I’ll still write articles and blog posts, and I hope to continue to write church music.

“The big change is going to be that my checks are going to come from the priest pension fund and Social Security rather than the University of Saint Thomas,” he added with a smile.

“As I have looked toward retirement, I’ve discovered gratitude,” Joncas said. “In some ways, in my early years, gratitude wasn’t highly valued. I came out of the 1960s, and so a normal response was to see everything that was wrong with world. Yes, there is much to be done, and I probably won’t be around to see much of it. But I am grateful for every tiny step that we take toward a just society.”

Joncas grew up in Minneapolis and discerned early the vocation that has given direction to his life. After receiving a degree in English from Saint Thomas in 1975 and a master’s degree in liturgical studies from the University of Notre Dame, he enrolled in the Saint Paul Seminary and was ordained a priest in 1980. He served as a parish priest for several years, worked as director of education at the University of Minnesota and then moved to Rome where he earned graduate degrees in the history and analysis of Christian worship.

“I’m actually self-taught in music and composition,” Joncas said, “but I was lucky to live next to the principal hornist for the Minneapolis (now Minnesota) Orchestra. He let me haunt his library and gave me some basic guidance in music theory. I’ve been trying to supplement my music learning ever since.”

 

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An early classic

Joncas is best known for “On Eagle’s Wings,” a hymn he composed in the late 1970s. A favorite at Christian funerals, it has been performed around the world in religious locales and other settings that represent a wide range of beliefs. “On Eagle’s Wings” was sung in Italian at the funeral of famed opera tenor Luciano Pavarotti in 2007. The U.S. Air Force has embraced the hymn. So have Native Americans. Joe Biden has quoted the hymn, according to Joncas. The president used the lyrics to convey the message that “America will soar only if people from both sides, or wings, come together,” he said.

“Shelter Me” was a departure from most of Joncas’ work as a composer. He described himself as almost the exact opposite of the artist who is “hit by a sudden inspiration. I’m basically a craft person” who may work for months or more on a composition.

Finding ‘Shelter’ in the wee hours

“Shelter Me” was written between the hours of 3 and 10 a.m. “I woke up with the one line (from the refrain), ‘The way ahead is dark and difficult to see,’” he said. “It became clear that this was a response to the crisis of the pandemic. I thought, ‘Let me see what I can do with this.’ I connected it to Psalm 23.”

Drawing on that Biblical verse, Joncas created a first stanza that speaks to living with security and peace, a second stanza that references the threat of death, and the third stanza which reads, “I will look back in days to come/and realize your faithfulness has led me home/Within your house I’ll find my peace/ trusting that in your mercy you have sheltered me.”

A song for the common good

Joncas made a pact with the publisher of “Shelter Me” to offer the hymn with no royalties for at least a year. “I wanted people to be able to use it without having to pay anything,” he said. “One version I absolutely love is from our neighbors at Nativity of Our Lord Catholic Church. The Spiritu group at Nativity did a beautiful job with it.”

Joncas said he also favors the version recorded at a church in Norway. “I’m thinking that as with ‘On Eagle’s Wings,’ there is something deeper here that may be long lasting for the common good,” he said.

Grateful for a wide-ranging career

In addition to his composing, Joncas has treasured his work as a teacher outside of the traditional at Saint Thomas. There, he has served as an artist-in-residence, a fellow at the Center for Catholic Studies and as an instructor in the Selim Center for Lifelong Learning. At Selim, he said, he is constantly inspired by the older adults who want to continue their learning, whether he is leading a class in literature, the visual arts, music or scripture.

Joncas has always been invigorated by the visual and performing arts available in the Twin Cities. “That’s among the reasons why I love living here,” he said. “I can tolerate the winters because we have such a longstanding devotion to the arts.

“As I have looked toward retirement, I’ve discovered gratitude,” Joncas said. “In some ways, in my early years, gratitude wasn’t highly valued. I came out of the 1960s, and so a normal response was to see everything that was wrong with world. Yes, there is much to be done, and I probably won’t be around to see much of it. But I am grateful for every tiny step that we take toward a just society.”

— Anne Murphy

Shelter Me

by J. Michael Joncas

Shepherd and sheep, my God and I:
to fresh green fields you led my steps in days gone by.
You gave me rest by quiet springs
and filled my soul with peace your loving presence brings.

Refrain: O shelter me, O shelter me:
The way ahead is dark and difficult to see.
O shelter me, O shelter me:
all will be well if only you will shelter me.

Yet now I tread a diff’rent way;
death dogs my path with stealthy steps from day to day.
I cannot find your peaceful place
but dwell in dreary darkness, longing for your face. (Refrain)

I will look back in days to come
and realize your faithfulness has led me home.
Within your house I’ll find my peace,
trusting that in your mercy you have sheltered me.
(Refrain)

(Copyright 2020. The Jan Michael Joncas Trust. All rights reserved.)

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