By Therese Fink Meyerhoff
Those who attended or watched the Jesuit ordinations in St. Louis this summer have been introduced to Jesuit John Guerra’s newest composition of sacred music. Guerra, 25, wrote the Mass parts (the Kyrie, Glory to God, Mystery of Faith, Lamb of God, etc.) for the ordination liturgy. The Mass of the Mother of God composed for Jesuit schola and orchestra was commissioned by the Jesuits being ordained and one example of the ways Guerra uses his talents to honor God.
An alumnus of Jesuit High School in New Orleans, Guerra first met several of his Jesuit brothers in the classroom. Father John Brown, SJ, now the president of Jesuit High, taught him theology. Chris Kellerman, SJ and Thomas Croteau, SJ – one of this year’s ordinands – taught him to chant the Missa de Angelis for the first time while they were at the school as part of their novice experience. “I never heard it done before,” Guerra said. “It changed my life.”
And then there was the late Fr. Raymond Fitzgerald, SJ, who was president at Jesuit High when Guerra was a student. Guerra took a class with Fr. Fitzgerald and Jeremy Reuther called “The Theology of C.S. Lewis.” When asked what he learned in the class, Guerra replies, “God is good, and he made us to flourish. The only appropriate response is to have hope and anticipation.”
Guerra clearly learned this lesson. He radiates joy. He is a man in love with his vocation, in love with his Savior and confident in the choices he’s made to bring him to where he is today.
Two of the choices Guerra made along the way were to enter the seminary of the Archdiocese of New Orleans and then to leave after two years when he felt called to take the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience as a Jesuit.
“I wanted to leave everything behind,” he says. “I wanted to be what God wanted me to be. I always wanted to see what would happen if I were to follow the life of Christ and now I could try it. It is not easy, but with good discernment, good superiors and good brothers, I always come back to the grace that this is my vocation.”
This summer, Guerra is on his way to his new assignment at Cristo Rey Jesuit College Preparatory School in Houston, where he’ll teach theology. He is passionate about the mission of the school, having served there twice as a Jesuit novice. He even wrote the 13-year-old school’s alma mater.
Musical composition accompanies Guerra in his prayer, religious life and his assignments. He has no formal musical training in composition, but draws inspiration from prayer, ministry and nature to write what comes to his mind and heart. His composition skills are self-taught. As a child, he attended weekly piano lessons and competed as a classical pianist but boasts that he never scored anything above a 60% on music theory exams.
As a Jesuit studying philosophy and theology at Saint Louis University, he was made the director of music for the Catholic Studies Center by its director, Fr. Matthew Baugh, SJ. Guerra routinely composes the music for their student Masses. His goal is to get as many of the 150 to 200 students who regularly attend Masses to sing as possible.
“A lot of music is hard and doesn’t let me pray, but I’ve realized that simple is beautiful,” Guerra said. “I compose music for our Masses because there’s just not a lot out there that fits specific situations, like a student Mass. I try to write music that students can sing with confidence and pray with ease.”
Guerra believes this shared experience of singing together enhances the communal experience of the Masses.
“It is deeply real,” he says. “It’s not like there are just angels coming down to sing for us. It’s people creating beauty together with angels. I want them to believe it and then feel it.”
By creating this beauty, Guerra hopes to bring people closer to Jesus, as he has grown through the Society of Jesus and his experience of his vows.