GEORGETOWN—The newly formed Guild of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, which promotes sacred arts in the Diocese of Bridgeport, will hold Choral Vespers on March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation of the Lord, at 7 pm at Sacred Heart Church on 30 Church Street in Georgetown.
The public is invited to join Bishop Frank J. Caggiano at the event, which will launch the new diocesan initiative. Dr. William H. Atwood, recently appointed diocesan director of music, will direct the schola. Invitations have been sent to parishes in the diocese.
“The Annunciation is an oasis in the middle of Lent, when we can put aside our Lenten penance for a day and can have flowers and feasting to celebrate the incarnation of Christ,” said Father Michael Clark, rector of the newly formed Guild. “It is a beautiful day to start a beautiful project like this.”
Choral Vespers, the Guild’s inaugural liturgical event, is the evening prayer of the Church, and it is significant that it will be held at the same time that clergy and faithful throughout the diocese are also praying Vespers.
“It is the same text, the same words that everyone else will be praying,” Father Clark said. “We will have music of the highest quality, including one piece written in 1520, which I know will make an impact.”
Pointing the way to God through beauty
GEORGETOWN—From the time he was seven, Father Michael Clark has been painting and singing—two lifelong pursuits that led him to an intimate personal relationship with the Creator through beauty.
The arts, particularly music, provided what he describes as “the golden thread in my life.” At seven, he was sent to the Anglican cathedral in Exeter, England to sing in the choir, and years later became the founding director of music at Buckfast Abbey, where he established a professional choir of men and women.
So, it is fitting that Father Clark, was recently appointed rector of the Guild of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, an initiative begun by Bishop Frank J. Caggiano, pursuing a vision he articulated in his pastoral exhortation, “Let Us Enter the Upper Room with the Lord.”
The Guild, which is supported by the 2022 Bishop’s Appeal, will support programs centered on Christ in the arts and evangelization by focusing on artistic beauty in the Catholic tradition. It will seek to inspire the faithful through sacred music, painting, architecture, pilgrimages and literature, with particular attention to the needs of young people, the bishop said.
[The Guild will be launched with Choral Vespers on March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation of the Lord, at 7 pm at Sacred Heart Church, 30 Church Street in Redding. The public is invited to attend. Dr. William H. Atwood, newly appointed diocesan director of music, will direct the schola. See related story above.]
“The Guild’s role is to help Catholics focus on the arts and how important they are to evangelization,” Father Clark said. “Whenever you encounter God, you are going to encounter beauty. Beauty is my way of accessing who God really is, and it’s not just about taste because beauty has its own language, it has its own rules, it has its own objectivity. Beauty is not in the eye of the beholder…beauty is in the mind of the Creator. Beauty is how God expresses himself to us, and so it is essential to a proper understanding of who God is.”
In the Catholic tradition, one approach that can lead to God is that of “via pulchritudinous,” or the “way of beauty,” by which a work of art can open a person’s mind and heart, pushing us upward along the pathway to God, who is the supreme Beauty.
The Guild is one of three projects Bishop Caggiano is launching this year, which relate to the transcendentals of truth, beauty and goodness, Father said.
“Our mission is to provide a resource to promote and prosper the arts in sacred liturgy and beyond,” he said. “The liturgy is a strong focus but not the only focus.”
Father described the work of the Guild as an important part of the personal ministry of Bishop Caggiano.
“His role as bishop is to ensure that every human soul in his care has the opportunity to find Christ, so the Guild will encourage beauty in artistic expression because artistic beauty is a reflection of human beings made in God’s image. God is the Creator, so when we express ourselves in the arts, we express ourselves as children of God. The Creator has given us that faculty to show himself to us by participating in the arts.”
The “four pillars” that the Guild will focus on are music, art, architecture and literature.
“People don’t necessarily have to come for lectures or catechesis,” he said. “They will simply be able to see love on the altar. They will see the love Christ has for them in that beauty. What will be going on will speak in nonverbal language to people about the love of Christ for the Church.”
As part of the initiative, Sacred Heart Church has been designated as an “oratory,” which gives it a wider reach, in addition to its mission of serving the people of Sacred Heart and St. Patrick Parish, he said.
The parish will continue to function as before, with Father Terrence Walsh as pastor, and its regular Mass schedule. However, the Guild will provide an “add on” to what regularly occurs in the parish, said Father Clark, who will also serve as rector of the oratory.
“The people of that parish will still be able to use the oratory church as much as they have before,” he said. “There is no change in it for them, but the designation allows it to have a broader outreach and to invite people to come from different communities and different parts of the diocese.”
Parishioners are invited to the Guild Masses and other liturgical events and performances of sacred music. Father foresees two additional Sunday Masses, weekday evening Masses and processions, Eucharistic adoration, First Friday devotion and Sunday Choral Vespers.
He says the response from the parish has been very positive and that people are excited to enter into a partnership with the Guild.
Among its projects will be the formation of a young adult schola cantorum, which will be a choir in the English choral tradition, emphasizing the highest standards of musical performance. It will be based at the Oratory and sing at Sunday Mass and Choral Vespers. Father plans to recruit an organist and choirmaster, who will be tasked with forming the schola.
In addition to the focus on sacred music, the Guild will also sponsor pilgrimages for the faithful of the diocese.
“The bishop is really evangelical about the power of pilgrimages and how they change lives,” Father Clark said. “What ties it into everything else we’re doing is the idea of ‘encounter.’ You have to go somewhere. All the arts demand a physical response. You cannot hear something, you cannot see something, you cannot participate in something without using your body to do it. The same is true with pilgrimages. You have to go there and be there.”
The Guild is planning pilgrimages locally, nationally and internationally, some of which Bishop Caggiano will participate in. Among the destinations will be the Holy Land, Rome, Fatima, Lourdes and perhaps Oberammergau in Bavaria, Germany. National destinations may include the shrines of the North American Martyrs, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, and Our Lady of Guadalupe in Wisconsin.
“The local pilgrimages will be about getting to know ourselves,” Father said. “One of the ways to do that is to look at the beauty of the churches in our diocese. Many of us know we have historic churches, but we don’t know why they are important. Part of my work will be to write architectural guides to some of the more important churches, including the historic churches of Stamford.”
Catholic literature will also be a focus of the Guild. The oratory church has a direct link to one of the foremost Catholic writers of the 20th century, Flannery O’Connor, author of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and the novel “Wise Blood,” which was written during the years she lived in Redding and attended Mass at Sacred Heart Church.
“We will use that historical link as a springboard to promote Catholic themes in literature and develop an awareness of how Catholic culture has shaped the world,” he said.
Father Clark will be assisted by Liz Sweeney, who will serve as chief of staff for the Sacred Heart Guild. A graduate of Princeton, she wrote her senior thesis on the writings of Flannery O’Connor and currently teaches at Regina Pacis Academy in Norwalk. She has a master’s in education from the University of Bridgeport and served on several Catholic School boards, including Trinity Catholic High School, where she assisted the chaplains and was involved in youth ministry. She has also worked for the Leadership Institute and led a Bible study group in Greenwich.
“This is an unbelievable blessing and a pleasure to work with Father Clark,” she said. “We are doing things differently and allowing the Holy Spirit to really lead in a very fresh and new way.”
Father said Bishop Caggiano’s strong devotion to Our Lady was fundamental to the formation of the Guild and that he sought her guidance from the beginning.
In addition, Father’s own “spiritual friends”—the saints—have served as his guides in the undertaking, particularly St. John Henry Newman, “who wrote so eloquently about how to engage the culture and who understood the resistance to the Gospel and specifically the resistance to the Catholic faith.” Father also relies on his devotion to St. Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower, who, he says, “has been a friend of mine for a long time.”
Father Clark was born in Chichester, England, to Timothy and Lesley Clark, parishioners of St. Mary’s Abbey, Buckfast, Buckfastleigh. He attended Exeter Cathedral School and graduated in 1996. He then attended Devonport High School for Boys in Plymouth.
He studied at Cambridge University, graduating with a master’s in theology and law in 2005. He studied for and was called to the bar in 2008 and practiced law as a barrister for five years. At the same time, he was singing professionally at Exeter Cathedral and later moved to Buckfast Abbey as director of music, establishing a professional choir of men and women.
In 2012, he entered the seminary to study philosophy and theology. He received an S.T.B. from the Pontifical Gregorian University in 2016 and studied at the Pontifical Liturgical Institute.
In 2016, he visited the Diocese of Bridgeport as a guest but began to discern the possibility of a call to the priesthood. He was ordained on October 12, 2019, by Bishop Caggiano at St. Thomas More Church in Darien.
“I am really excited about this project because it is at the forefront of how we are engaging our contemporary society,” he said. “We have to be flexible and be really good at taking the pulse of the prevailing culture and how people are responding to the Gospel call…. The bishop recognizes that the call to Christ is so urgent that we need to try every possible way to get people’s hearts and minds.”