Later I became a member of the chorus at Elder High School in Cincinnati. We sang in concerts and shows and at other parishes and schools all over the city. Growing up I was extremely introverted, and music was the main way I learned to express myself in positive ways.
I entered the Franciscans after high school in 1967. It was an exciting time in which the liturgical changes instituted by Vatican II were just starting. It was during my year as a Franciscan Novice that I was encouraged to learn to play the guitar. Built into our daily schedule was an hour of free time each day which we were to use to develop a new talent. I borrowed a guitar from one of my classmates and taught myself the major and minor chords and practiced until I could change them with ease.
The first song learned was If I Had a Hammer by Peter, Paul and Mary. I also learned songs from the Kingston Trio and the Beatles, who were just getting started. Having this new gift to accompany my singing really enhanced my prayer life and opened a new way to experience God. I learned the music of Ray Repp, Joe Wise and Carey Landry. (Yes, I have been at this a long time!)
These early years after Vatican II brought many new and challenging changes to religious life. I found myself unprepared to make a vowed commitment to the life of the Gospel. I took a year out of formation to grow and to discern my call to religious life and got a job working for a sheet metal company that made tools for Sears. With my first paycheck I bought a Yamaha six-string guitar that cost $80. I continued to sing at church and at some weddings on the side. When I returned to formation I started guitar groups at our parishes in Indiana, Louisiana, and Ohio. I also began playing at our Provincial Chapters, All Province Assemblies and Jubilee Celebrations.
My most memorable experience in singing and playing guitar was in Appalachia. There I served as Music Minister for three parishes in and around Jackson, Ky., for 21 years. In addition to learning music from composers like David Haas and Marty Haugen, I learned many of the traditional mountain hymns and melodies that were an intricate part of the history and culture of the people. In an area that was less than one-tenth of 1 percent Catholic, I was able to incorporate music as an important component of our evangelization efforts. Music truly is “the universal language”.
In celebration of my 25th anniversary as a friar, instead of taking a trip as many do, I purchased a Martin Guitar – which I still use 22 years later. I now sing in the Sunday Choir here at St Anthony’s in Cincinnati and on occasion will lead the congregation in song during the week. When it comes together well, reading the Scriptures and finding the appropriate music to bring out a theme or enhance a homily is a true work of the Spirit.
(Br. Jerry Beetz, who lives at St. Anthony Friary in Cincinnati, is Director of the Office for Senior Friars for the Province of St. John the Baptist.)