By Jane M. Gardner
To serve your people is our call and choice.
These words bring into focus service ministry and the church’s mission through song. They were written by Delores Dufner, a sister of the Order of Saint Benedict in St. Joseph, Minnesota, USA. “To Be Your Presence,” (Community of Christ Sings 351, melody by Charles V. Stanford), is one of her five texts in the church hymnbook.
From 1962–1965, as a musician and poet, Dufner found herself amid sweeping changes to worship and song in the Catholic church. The Second Vatican Council included recommendations for full, conscious, and active participation by laity at Mass. There was a shift from the Latin Mass to the languages spoken in the congregation and the adoption of instruments in addition to the organ.
A call went out for words and music for this new worship environment. Dufner was among those who responded. In the 1970s, she was the liturgy coordinator at Saint Benedict’s Monastery. She said, “It was really hard to find hymns that I wanted to sing or that the community [of women Benedictine monastics] wanted to sing, because they were so male oriented. They abounded in images of royalty—kings and princes—and in military images, such as ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers.’”
So, she started writing words to familiar hymn tunes. Her first hymns were written to meet the needs in her monastic community—the women with whom she lived and worked—to express reality. Her work became more personal around 1983, when her father died, and her grief became enfolded in her poetry. To this day, she continues to expand the scope of her hymn-writing. Dufner tries to pen words that “say what needs to be said,” becoming a successful hymn writer with more than 200 published songs.
In the 1970s, she [Delores Dufner] was the liturgy coordinator at Saint Benedict’s Monastery. She said, 'It was really hard to find hymns that I wanted to sing or that the community [of women Benedictine monastics] wanted to sing, because they were so male oriented. They abounded in images of royalty—kings and princes—and in military images, such as ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers.'
Since the beginning of her creative process, Dufner’s work has had an ecumenical appeal. When asked about the source of her ecumenical spirit, she credited her father, a Catholic farmer in eastern North Dakota. As the only Catholic family “in a sea of Lutherans and Methodists,” she recalled neighbors helping neighbors, regardless of religious affiliation. In the one-room schoolhouse she attended she was the only Catholic, but she became close friends with those of other religions. This history of ecumenicism still influences her texts.
On Reformation Day in 2016, Pope Francis and other Catholic leaders met with leaders from the Lutheran World Federation in Lund, Sweden. It was the first meeting of its kind. As part of that celebration the combined congregation of Catholics and Lutherans sang, “To Be Your Presence,” just as it appears in our hymnbook.
In 2017, while celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Valparaiso University (Lutheran) bestowed its Christus Rex Award on Dufner, honoring her work in liturgical renewal through hymns. Her writing encompasses the reality of human experiences, no matter what religious background. She takes her place squarely in the growing body of peacemaking poets and lyricists.
As we consider servant ministry, Dufner helps define our mission “to show Compassion’s face and listening ear,” “to feed the poor and shelter homeless cold,” “to speak for all the broken and oppressed.” Singing her text, we are called to use our hearts, hands, and voices in service to others.