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Preaching from the Choir

Jeremy de Satge has been involved with church music all his life, from his Anglican boyhood singing in choir to his current work as musical director of a busy London Catholic parish. Married with a young family, he exudes a general sense of good cheer.

Even when discussing the dire state of music in today’s Catholic parishes, he sees the possibilities. His materials teaching people how to sing the various parts of the Mass in Latin are used at the Franciscan University at Steubenville, among other places, and he is in demand for talks and demonstrations to Catholic groups in Britain.

De Satge was brought up in a “middle of the road Anglican” home. “I was sent to an extremely Evangelical boarding school at the age of thirteen, which I loathed. Then I spent some time in France on a language course and attended the Eglise Reformée, which I found very disappointing. I started attending the local Catholic church and felt so welcomed there that I was invited to work as an assistant at the parish’s Colonie de Vacances during the summer holidays. Still an Anglican, I had the amusing task of taking children on pilgrimage to Lourdes. I loved the universality of the Catholic Church and the fact that no matter where I went to Mass, it was the same faith.”

Like Coming Home

“On returning to England I thought hard about being an Anglican. I felt drawn toward Catholicism, but it had to be Roman Catholicism or nothing. I sent off for leaflets advertised by a group called the Catholic Enquiry Centre. They were helpful. I could read them by myself and was not committed to anything. But they helped to nudge me further along the way.

“The distinct realization that the Roman Catholic Church—with all the foibles of churchmen, even popes—was the ‘true Church’ came in my teens. I suppose the only thing I really missed was the wonderful translations of the psalms the Anglicans used: ‘Like as the hart desireth the waterbrooks’ compared with the mundane ‘Like the deer that yearns for running streams.’ At eighteen, I received instruction at Clifton Cathedral and was received into the Church on September 30, 1977 (the feast of St Jerome), three weeks after my nineteenth birthday.

“The priest who received me said that one day I might regret becoming a Catholic. I have to say that to date I have never once regretted it. Although there was a certain amount of anti-Catholic feeling from various members of my family, my father was utterly delighted that I became a Catholic and attended my reception into the Church. Becoming a Catholic felt like coming home and returning to the faith of my French heritage.”

Catholic doctrine did not present big difficulties. “I was very much pro-our Lady, and this was part of our family culture anyway, as my father was a Marian scholar.” But he does feel he would have benefited from systematic instruction, saying that his was “a series of very relaxed discussions, usually over a glass of gin and tonic.” 

His father, John de Satge, was a distinguished theologian with strong ecumenical leanings. He was an early member of the Anglican/Roman Catholic Commission, established in the 1960s by the Catholic and Anglican bishops to explore issues of doctrine and produce agreed statements. “Even before that he had been involved in ecumenical dialogue, particularly in France and Belgium in the 1950s, partly because he was a French speaker. He was very ahead of his time and felt that the time was ripe for the whole of the Church of England to formally reunite with Rome. His book Peter and the Single Church was about this. His decision to continue as an Anglican was partly because he felt he could be of more influence within the Anglican church rather than being seen as another deserter. He died very suddenly at the age of fifty-six, so who knows what would have happened if he had lived?”

“A Team That I Enjoyed” 

As a boy-chorister in an Anglican cathedral choir, he “learned to love the beauty of both music and worship and their interrelation: ‘O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness’ springs to mind. There was always a sense of striving for perfection in performance, together with a sense of belonging. I always hated sport, but being part of the choir was like being a member of a team that I enjoyed.” The choir sang in both English and Latin, and he considers it “a privilege” to have sung such beautiful music “and to learn so many of the religious texts, particularly the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis.”

As an adult he studied at London’s Trinity College of Music. He became a professional singer and now sings at a variety of events—including a Yom Kippur service in a synagogue (“A wonderful, fascinating thing to do, giving such insights into the origins of our own church music”). He founded the Music Makers a few years ago with the aim of improving music in Catholic parishes. It has a web site ( and markets CDs, including one made in conjunction with St. John’s Seminary in Wonersh, the seminary for the Diocese of Southwark (covering London south of the Thames).

He did not find it difficult to adapt from Anglican to Catholic styles of worship. “I felt that the change in prayer style was all part of my spiritual journey. I had not been an Anglo-Catholic and so did not suffer the ‘culture shock’ that so many converts feel when they discover the relatively ‘impoverished’ liturgy of the Novus Ordo compared with the ‘smells and bells’ of their past.

The John Paul II Generation

De Satge had moved to London within a year of becoming a Catholic and drifted to Brompton Oratory, “where I learned to love the Novus Ordo in Latin.”

Brompton Oratory is the famous London Catholic church that is linked to John Henry Cardinal Newman and Fr. Frederick Faber. It is famous for its glorious music and liturgy.

But de Satge also sees the immense possibilities in an ordinary parish. At the Church of the Holy Ghost in Balham, a racially mixed area of South London, an enthusiastic volunteer choir sings Latin plainsong and leads the congregation. Keen on the “reform of the reform” of the liturgy, de Satge is active in the Association for a Latin Liturgy, which promotes the use of Latin in parishes and encourages good parish music and liturgy generally.

“The Introit verse for each Sunday sets the theme and can be very effectively sung on a monotone or simple three-note chant, making a dignified entrance to the Mass and also giving pause to the faithful as they meditate and consider the words. It’s particularly effective if it is sung first in Latin and then in English.”

His experience in Balham has shown him that people who have no knowledge of music but a love of the faith, a general ability to sing, and a willingness to learn can really enjoy being part of a parish choir. In Britain, as in America, it is still normal to use 1970s-style “folk” songs with trite words sung to pop songs of that decade, which clash with older hymns and the occasional newer one, producing an unhappy mix that leads most people to assume that the celebration of Mass is rarely to be associated with glorious music.

But he believes things can change. A new generation is showing fresh devotion to adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and to the revival of Corpus Christi processions, and Pope Benedict XVI is known to be a musician of some merit. Events such as World Youth Day have shown that good church music is increasingly becoming a necessity to give liturgies at such large gatherings the sense of awe they merit. The John Paul II generation, now coming to full maturity under Benedict, is not content with accepting the Church as they found it after Vatican II but wants to exploit every possibility for mission and evangelization, including the cultural.

Darting off down a busy London street to catch a bus to meet his children from school, de Satge is a man in a hurry—a symbol of the work that awaits him in the Church, too.

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