Protestant Organist Finds Musical Home in the Catholic Church

On the third Sunday in Lent, high in the choir loft of Holy Family Cathedral in Anchorage, a born and bred West Virginian Baptist directed a group of Catholic singers and worshipers through the prayerful notes of the Latin Agnus Dei.

But at Pentecost, Gary Marks, the cathedral’s new music director and Baptist-turned-Episcopalian with a Methodist divinity degree, comes home to the Catholic Church guided by the Holy Spirit along the mellifluous thread of sacred music.

God’s Musical Direction

“The church and music have always been tied together for me,” Marks told the Catholic Anchor in an interview at his parish office that is filled with books, open musical compositions and a piano keyboard.

From childhood, Marks learned that music is a gift from God, one to be returned to him. By age 11, Marks was playing organ for Sunday services at the Baptist church his family attended. Music came naturally, and “so this is something I just kept following,” he said. That led to a degree in music education and, later, graduate degrees in sacred music and divinity.

But music for its own sake was never the ultimate goal. Always, he has believed that “there’s something more to what I’m doing, something more spiritually, something more theologically, something more as far as my gifts and what I can return.”

Looking back on music lessons, natural aptitude, a college scholarship and jobs that appeared in the nick of time, Marks believes God was relaying a message and laying out a path for him to follow. “God directs,” the seasoned music director acknowledged.

Baptism by Fire

In the mid-1980s, Marks took another cue — to an old, stone Catholic church near Boston. While in the seminary, Marks had a classmate who played organ for St. Joseph Church in Belmont, Massachusetts.

“We were in class one day,” recalled Marks, “and he said, ‘I’ve got a funeral to play. My cantor called and cancelled. You’re my cantor.’” But Marks hesitated. “‘I don’t know the Catholic Mass. I’ve never been to a Catholic Church.’”

But the friend was desperate so away they went. “He put me up front in a robe. I had no idea what I was doing,” Marks recalled.

He was tripping over the robe’s hem and trying to take directions from his organist friend in the balcony in the back. Raising his hands as if to lead a congregation in song, Marks laughed and recalled the last-minute instructions his friend gave: “‘Raise your hands like this.’”

His introduction to the Catholic Church was like “a baptism by fire,” he said. But, intrigued, Marks soon took a job as music director at a nearby Catholic Church. “It just felt natural to me. I started to love the Mass,” Marks recalled.

The most appealing part of the Catholic liturgy he was observing every Sunday? “Obviously, it was the Eucharist,” he said. “Eucharist every Sunday was something totally new to me,” he added. “Growing up Baptist, communion is once a month, maybe a Wednesday night sort of thing.”

But in the Catholic Church, where, through transubstantiation, the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, Marks said he discovered the Eucharist was a sacrament — one to be celebrated and observed every Sunday.

Protestant Sunday services are solely focused on the “Word” of God, Marks noted. The Mass, however, unified “the service of the Word and the service of the Eucharist.”

Catholic Churches Everywhere

Over the next few years, Marks followed church music jobs across the country. But wherever he traveled, “the Catholic Church was always right there.”

Down the hill from a Pennsylvania Protestant church where he worked was an old Catholic monastery. Among its outdoor Stations of the Cross, Marks would go to meditate. In Texas, across from the large Methodist congregation he served, was another Catholic Church.

In his spiritual journey, he found himself increasingly drawn towards liturgical churches — with his penultimate stop being an Episcopal church in Washington State that he joined.

Populism Versus Prayer

But in recent time, like many Episcopalians, Marks has grown unsettled by secularist trends taking hold in that community. Marks is particularly concerned by the “populist” approach to church music, by which churches, he said, employ “whatever music that appeases people, to bring them in.”

Marks believes church music must encompass more than what’s popular. Music must be appropriate for the Mass, the community, the actions taking place at the altar and whether it can be done well. The question should never be, “Are we doing it just to attract a certain group of people in, or a certain age?” he said. “I think that’s where we make a big mistake,” Marks explained, “and we miss really the beauty of what happens sacramentally if we do that.” Above all, church music is “prayer,” he stressed.

Sound of Prayer

The primary music of the Catholic Church, Gregorian chant, is a good example of non-populist music, said Marks. Recently, he established the Schola Cantorum, a choir to sing at the extraordinary form of the Mass said in Latin (more commonly known as the Tridentine) rite that is now being celebrated at Holy Family Cathedral every Saturday evening.

“It’s truly music of prayer,” he observed. “It’s not structured, rhythmic music. It doesn’t attract you through its rhythm. It doesn’t attract you through emotional kinds of melodies,” he explained. “It’s music that wells up from inside you that you can sing with others, and that’s the beauty of it.”

Intentional Beauty

Context is critical, added Marks, who believes it is the combination of the ritual of the Mass with the music that “suddenly brings the beauty and the sublime-ness out into that Mass.” That’s the reason Marks studies the liturgy’s Scriptures and prays to the Holy Spirit for guidance before selecting music.

And that work of music takes discipline, practice and investment by all involved, Marks noted. But “a lot of times, we approach it because this is the person that we can get and we don’t have the budget or don’t want to make a budget for it, or it’s the most convenient way we can do that,” he said. “I don’t think that’s the way God necessarily calls us to use our gifts and our talents to our best abilities. God wants the best of us.”

The end result, he said, should be a Mass that is “something beautiful and significant for people in the sacrament.” That can mean a mix of musical styles from various centuries. At a regular Sunday Mass at Holy Family Cathedral, there might be an American harmony from the 1930s, the Kyrie in English, the Agnus Dei in Latin and a resounding organ postlude from Bach.

But silence is important, too, said Marks. Now at the cathedral, there is one hymn at the start of communion, then a time of quiet. The meditative silence, he said, helps the faithful transition from reception to gratitude for the sacrament.

“If we approach it casually, then liturgy becomes casual,” cautioned Marks. But “coming together in the Mass, when it’s understood as an offering and something that we have to work towards, then it becomes intentional and beautiful.”

The Next Generation

One of Marks’ next intentional steps is offering liturgical organ lessons privately and through the University of Alaska, Anchorage. Organists can learn how to play hymns, psalms, and choral anthems and learn how to improvise while the priest is cleaning the sacred vessels at the altar.

“There are just so many intricacies that an organist has to understand and do,” said Marks. And that knowledge is in danger of being lost, he noted, due to lack of budgeting, bad organs, poorly trained players and a mindset that “there’s some kind of conflict between contemporary and traditional music.”

In Concert with the Holy Spirit

Meanwhile, Marks is planning music for Easter and preparing himself for a special liturgy on May 23. While most of this year’s new Catholics will enter the church Easter Eve, Marks will be playing the organ and directing the well-practiced choir. So, on Pentecost, Marks will take his own final steps to be confirmed a Catholic at Holy Family Cathedral.

The organ may sit silent that day but, for the man who has sought the Holy Spirit’s guidance in offering sacred music, the moment is expected to be harmonious.

“I kind of prefer to come in on Pentecost,” Marks said, “because it is the day of the Gift of the Holy Spirit.”

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