The Rev. Michael Joncas is a Christian musical composer best known for writing “On Eagle’s Wings,” a beloved song performed at churches across the globe.
The St. Paul priest has penned another piece this spring, this time sparked by the coronavirus. Called “Shelter Me,” it already is being performed across the nation in virtual masses and posted on YouTube videos from Minnesota to Manila.
“I’ve been amazed at how it’s exploded,” said Joncas, artist in residence at the University of St. Thomas, where he has taught for years. “It’s not just in the U.S. It’s Australia, the Philippines, Singapore, Canada. …”
“People seek comfort during difficult times,” he noted. “Music soothes the soul.”
Joncas, who has written hundreds of compositions over the past four decades, is widely known in the Catholic liturgical world. One of his compositions, “Exultate Justi,” was selected for Pope Francis’ outdoor mass in Philadelphia in 2015.
“Shelter Me” came about a little differently from most of his music. The inspiration came about 3 a.m. one night in March, as Joncas contemplated the frightening times so many people face. He knew that Psalm 23, starting with “The Lord is My Shepherd,” is particularly poignant during such times. So he decided to write a “prayer song” paraphrasing that message for the moment.
By 10 a.m. that day, the basic composition for “Shelter Me” had been completed. One of his music publishers, GIA Publications, immediately agreed to publish the piece. Joncas swiftly prepared the score, and the composition became available within days on the One License website, a distributor of liturgical music.
The musical score can be downloaded for free for the next year, said Joncas, who wanted to make it easy for church worship directors and others to record and use the piece.
The song has three verses, accompanied by a refrain:
“O shelter me: the way ahead is dark and difficult to see. O shelter me, O shelter me, all will be well if you only will shelter me.”
Joncas said he has felt a gut reaction to images of people suffering from the coronavirus, particularly those hospitalized with breathing tubes. He was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks its nerves. Joncas said he was intubated for two months with the disease in the early 2000s and paralyzed for three months.
It was a big inspiration for trying to ease those suffering, both physically and mentally, he said.
Marc Stockert is among the worship leaders in the Twin Cities who have recorded “Shelter Me.” He posted a video of the song, along with its lyrics, on the website of his church, St. Joseph the Worker in Maple Grove, as well as on YouTube.
The two-person rendition, with guitar and piano, is typical of the recordings online, as most church musicians are home and unavailable for more complicated arrangements.
Stockert said he was immediately struck by the word “shelter” in the title of the piece, as many are under shelter-in-place orders.
“This took the word ‘shelter’ and used it in a way that was comforting,” Stockert said. “I just sang it and shed a tear. It’s a beautiful, simple melody. It was perfect.”
Catholic Charities of Minneapolis and St. Paul appreciated it too, and decided to use it as the musical backdrop to a video it released featuring the faces of its clients and staff at the Dorothy Day Place campus.
“We hope this video will help shine a light on some of our most vulnerable neighbors and foster connection among all of us,” said Tim Marx, Catholic Charities president.
Joncas encourages people who perform and record “Shelter Me” to make donations to groups such as Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Service and the American Red Cross, considering that the score is available for free.
Watching his song embraced in so many different ways has been immensely satisfying to Joncas. It’s been recorded by groups ranging from Young Voices of the Philippines children’s choir to the pastoral mission of Auckland Catholic Archdiocese in New Zealand.
“The last thing I heard about was a youth choir in Oslo, Norway, using it,” said Joncas. “I have to believe it’s touching people.”
While he’s now shifted gears, preparing to teach an online course in Christian music at the University of St. Thomas this summer, he continues to field e-mails and phone calls about his timely composition.
“I hope that it is widely distributed, widely used, just like ‘On Eagle’s Wings,’ and it becomes part of the heritage of church music.”