On that note, sing out loud and long at Christmas

By Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald Commentary

If there is a College Football Playoff selection committee for Catholic Church musical seasons – actually, be assured that “God so loved the world that he did not send a committee” – the obvious No. 1 and No. 1a seeds are Advent/Christmas and Easter.

Since as Christians we can’t have one of those seasons without the other, it’s safe to assume that the next three weeks, leading up to the feast of the Epiphany on Jan. 6, will be filled with Super Bowl Sundays, and, of course, this year, Christmas Wednesdays.

This is the time of year when Catholic Church musicians feel even more responsibility to draw the congregation into what the Second Vatican Council described as “full, conscious and active participation” in the liturgy through sacred music.

“This is a very exciting time, and it’s about the build-up from the season of Advent,” said Eric McCrary, a pianist, organist, tenor and choir director who sings at three Catholic churches each weekend as well as cantors at more than 100 weddings and funerals a year.

It’s hard to say that someone who does as much church singing as McCrary is an unsung hero of Catholic liturgy in the Archdiocese of New Orleans, but he is.

At St. Ann Church in Metairie, McCrary sings at the 4 p.m. Vigil Mass, the 8 a.m. Sunday Mass and directs the contemporary choir and band at the 5 p.m. Mass.

In between Masses at St. Ann, the 1993 Archbishop Rummel grad drives to his childhood parish of St. Agnes to direct what used to be called the youth choir – “After all these years, they’re a little more seasoned”– for the 11 a.m. Mass.

McCrary’s weekend church duties culminate with leading the singing at Immaculate Conception (Jesuit) Church on Baronne Street for 7 p.m. eucharistic adoration and 7:30 p.m. Mass.

“It’s seven days a week, literally,” said McCrary, whose one-man Christmas concert was scheduled to run for the 10th consecutive year Dec. 13 at 7 p.m. at St. Ann. “When I look at my friends going out of town on vacation, sometimes I tell them, ‘It must be nice.’ But when I do go on vacation with the family and I’m not in my church that weekend, I feel like something’s missing. I can’t relax.”

McCrary says Advent, with its scaled-down musical selections, is intended by the Church to create special moments of reflection. It takes  things down a notch to allow the congregation to contemplate the birth of the savior.

“I want my congregation to hear and experience that,” McCrary said. “I will sort of modify my playing style to set the mood for the service. It’s more somber. I tone everything down, including my accompaniment. By the end of the Advent season, we burst into Christmas like a bull going through a china shop.”

McCrary started playing the piano at age 3, and when he began attending St. Agnes School, he came to the attention of then-pastor Father Peter O’Grady, a native-born Irish tenor.

“When I was at St. Agnes, everyone would look for me to be playing the piano or singing at the talent show or pageant,” McCrary said. “Father O’Grady  took an interest in me. He would often introduce me to people of musical ability – “I taught him everything I know, but not everything he knows.’”

By the time McCrary was in the upper grades at St. Agnes, he organized a group of buddies and convinced them to skip recess and sing for the kindergartners and teach them music.

McCrary went on to double major in vocal music education and vocal music performance at the University of New Orleans, and he had found his calling,  even though his dad, a longtime pharmacist for K&B, thought he might follow him in the family business.

“I do feel music is a calling for me,” McCrary said. “It is a job in itself, but at the same time, it is what God gave me, and I can use it for that purpose.”

One day at Mass in the gym at St. Ann – the church was undergoing renovation – McCrary happened to see a woman who looked distraught.

“Something clicked, and by the end of the Mass, that woman was bright and shining and smiling,” McCrary said. “I felt as if my music had touched her. She came up to me after and said ‘I come to this service just to hear you sing.’ What an amazing thing to hear.”

McCrary’s one piece of advice to the congregation: “Even if you think you have a bad voice, sing twice as loud because you’ve got to remind God what he gave you. It’s not about who has the best voice.”

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org.

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