by Gordon Nary
Gordon: Why did you decide to become a Paulist?
Fr. Ricky: I became a Paulist because I was very impressed by their missionary zeal of taking North American cultural values, resources, and tools and using them for the purposes of evangelization and pastoral ministry. For the most part, we are progressive in our theological worldviews and we enjoy applying these worldviews pastorally in our parishes, campus ministries, media outreach, and national ministries. I witnessed many of these characteristics mostly through the Paulist priests I had met, while studying at the Washington Theological Union in D.C. And so, when I was discerning my own vocation and exploring options that would fully utilize my particular gifts in music, sociology, and cultural studies, the Paulist Fathers ascended to the top of the list.
Gordon: Where did you study music and what was your favorite course?
Fr. Ricky: I was fortunate to have studied music at the Manhattan School of Music in New York where I was taught composition by renowned composers such as Ludmilla Ulehla and John Corigliano. I LOVED taking music theory and solfège courses from Robert M. Abramson! He was a marvelous teacher and had a refreshing pedagogical approach which challenged us to embrace our entire bodies in the process of learning about and appreciating music.
Gordon: Who is your favorite composer and Why?
Fr. Ricky: It’s difficult to name just one! But since you’re asking me as a composer of Catholic liturgical music, let me name two in this field: Fr. James Chepponis and Bob Hurd. First, Jim was the first composer to offer me constructive feedback way back when, before I was even published. I so admired his music when I was in the seminary. Whenever I pick up one of his pieces, I just instinctively know that everything about this piece - music, text, theology, arrangement - will be solid! Then there’s Bob Hurd, another dear friend. From his early songs to his most recent compositions, I’ve always perceived “an arch” of liturgical excellence: i.e., he just keeps getting better and better! He has a critical eye towards the theological meaning of texts and remains a model of composers who are sensitive to the many cultural contexts of Catholic worship. I also know that no matter what he composes, most worshipping communities (or, as I like to say, “my mother”) will be able to sing his melodies almost effortlessly.
Gordon: What are some of the most popular hymns that you have written?
Fr. Ricky: I feel like I’m being asked to choose between children! Allow me to name three. First, Many and Great (1995) is a song that that uses a five-note East Asian pentatonic scale and is considered to be the first Asian American Catholic liturgical song to have gained popularity in mainstream U.S. culture. Next, I was told by my publisher, Oregon Catholic Press, that my Spirit and Grace (2006) is quite popular as far as numbers are concerned: i.e., the large number of worshipping communities sing it regularly. I believe it’s popular because there are not many liturgical songs out there that intentionally focus on the role of the Holy Spirit during the communion rite. And third, Ang Katawan ni Kristo (Filipino for “The Body of Christ,” 2003)) has become the most popular liturgical song among Filipino American Catholics . . . and there are a lot of Filipino Catholics out there in the pews!
Gordon: You are also a prolific author. What are some of the books that you have written?
Fr. Ricky: My first book, Chanting On Our Behalf (Pastoral Press, 2004, revised 2015) offers a practical methodology for teaching seminarians, deacons, priests, and bishops how to musically lead the assembly. My second book, The Liturgy of Life (Liturgical Press, 2014) is based on my dissertation which examines the interrelationship between the Mass and our everyday worship practices. And my latest book which I co-wrote with Dr. Stephen Cherry, A Treasured Presence: Filipino American Catholics (USCCB, 2021), is a pastoral primer on Filipino Catholicism.
Gordon: Your music has been performed at some of the most famous places in the world. Please share with our readers some of these performances and where they were performed.
Fr. Ricky: Ok, so now I’m smiling and glowing whenever I think of this event: It was the singing of my mass setting, The Mass of Spirit and Grace, during a Eucharistic celebration that was presided by Pope Francis in the Sheikh Zared Stadium in Abu Dhabi (Feb. 5, 2019). Close to four years prior to that event, I was invited by Bishop Paul Hinder to travel throughout the United Arab Emirates and present various workshops and lectures. So, when the Pope visited the Emirates (the first pope to do so in this region’s history), they chose my mass setting to be sung and invited me to this occasion. It was the largest gathering of Christians in the history of the Arab Peninsula. 160,000+ worshippers were present, including 4,000 Muslims, and it was the first time a Roman Catholic Mass was ever celebrated "in public" in this region. Having said that, I love sharing my music wherever “I am sent by God.” To date, I’ve been invited to 20+ international cities and each time I have enjoyed hearing my music sung by the local culture.
Gordon: When did you start serving as a consultor for the USCCB?
Fr. Ricky: My relationship with the USCCB goes back to my seminary days in Washington, D.C. during the early 1990s when various bishops’ committees asked for my input, given my Asian American cultural location. For example, their committee on liturgy would invite me to read a “work in progress,” send me a draft, and then ask me how Asian American communities might view this document. Or their committee on Asian American Catholics would invite me to plan and prepare the liturgies and/or lead the music for national events. This early stage eventually peaked when I was invited to MC the first National Asian and Pacific Catholic Convocation from June 30-July 3, 2006.
Gordon: What are your responsibilities as advisor to the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Cultural Diversity in the Church?
Fr. Ricky: I had served a three-year term as the official theological consultor for the Subcommittee on Asian and Pacific Island Affairs (SCAPA) from 2016-19. During that time, Fr. Linh Huong, OFM, and I co-wrote the document Encountering Christ in Harmony: A Pastoral Response to Our Asian and Pacific Island Brothers and Sisters (2018). Since that time, I remain an advisor for the implementation process of this document.
Gordon: What advice would you give young musicians who are interested in composing liturgical music?
Fr. Ricky: I have five insights which I hope help in the continuation of our craft and ministry.
(1) If you are a musician who is now exploring the possibility of composing for the liturgy, then spend more time studying about Catholic worship and liturgy.
(2) From a music composition perspective, make sure you have a solid foundational knowledge of the traditional rules of Western Classical music. But this doesn’t mean you have to agree or adhere to these rules: if you break away from them, be intentional about it and know why are doing so.
(3) Explore and learn about other cultural approaches to music-making, including your own. And by “other cultural approaches,” I am expanding this beyond race and ethnic identity categories (e.g., African American, European American, Hispanic, etc.) and including other socio-cultural identities (e.g., gender, generation, class, etc.).
(4) From a melodic perspective, when crafting a “good melody” (however you define this) be simultaneously mindful of the bass line!
(5) And finally, this is not directed to “young musicians” but to the elders among us: Thank God each and every day and become mentors to the next generations of liturgical composers!
Gordon: Thank you for an exceptional and insightful interview.