Mark Brown/University of St. Thomas

‘On Eagle’s Wings’ Composer to Retire

This story is featured in the fall/winter 2021 issue of Lumen.

World-renowned composer Father Michael Joncas ’75, artist-in-residence at St. Thomas, is retiring from full-time ministry effective Jan. 1, 2022. As he contemplated his upcoming retirement from active ministry, many fond memories arose.

There was the time in 2003-04 when Joncas contracted Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare neurological disorder. “I arrived back to my house after a three-month sojourn at Mayo Clinic to find that the house the university had provided for my lodging had had a ramp built from my parking areas to my back door and railings installed to help me get from floor to floor,” Joncas said. “I was immediately struck at how thoughtful the administrators and Physical Plant members were to prepare my house for however long I would be living with a wheelchair.” 

Joncas, who became a faculty member in 1991, has worked in both the Department of Catholic Studies and the Theology Department.

“His artistic sensibilities and love for the liturgy over these 30 years has been a great blessing to St. Thomas’ liberal and Catholic mission,” said Michael Naughton, director of the Center for Catholic Studies.

Joncas said that he has made lifelong friends across the university.

I can't say how blessed I feel, because I have had the chance to teach at all levels ... [There are] now generations of students that I've had interactions with.

“While I loved undergraduate and graduate teaching here and at other institutions of higher learning, I had the most fun teaching for the Selim Center for Lifelong Learning,” Joncas said. “Those who came to the courses came because they were interested in the topic (not because it was a requirement), they came with life experience that led to fascinating insights and discussions on the topics we examined, and that there were no exams or papers to be assigned and graded since the participants were there for the sheer joy of learning.”

Joncas also says that he connected with members of the Music Department, as well as College of Arts and Sciences Art History Professor and Department Chair Victoria Young, with whom he shares a mutual interest in church architecture.

As one might expect, Joncas mentioned students as well in his reflections.

‘On Eagle’s Wings’

Joncas has made memories for people around the world for his hymn, “On Eagle’s Wings.” The hymn has been a part of the big moments in people’s lives.

At tenor Luciano Pavarotti’s funeral in 2007, the choir sang the hymn in Italian. Native Americans as well as the U.S. Air Force Academy have adopted the hymn, and it’s been popular at baptisms, weddings and funerals.

Joncas attributed the popularity of “On Eagle’s Wings” to its multivalence, or being able to have many meanings.

“I think what happens is people take [the hymn’s] central imagery and then find new references in their culture,” Joncas said. “With Native Americans, an eagle carries an important cultural marker for them. Likewise, for the U.S. Air Force Academy.”

Joncas gained new insight about “On Eagle’s Wings” when President Joe Biden quoted the hymn.

“I think he thinks of this as an image for the United States working at its best. I think he thought symbolically that an eagle with only one wing can’t fly,” Joncas said. “A nation that only has one ideology or one dominant group that won’t pay any attention to anybody else is not going to fly. It takes two wings. Rather than saying, ‘I’m conservative and I will never speak to a progressive’ or ‘I’m progressive and I will never speak to a conservative’ – the United States flies on both wings.”

‘Shelter Me’

Joncas also struck a chord in 2020, when he released the prayer-song “Shelter Me,” designed to bring comfort during the pandemic. He expects “Shelter Me” to have a similar impact to “On Eagle’s Wings” across denominational lines. There are many different versions of “Shelter Me” on YouTube; one of Joncas’ favorites is from a Lutheran church in Oslo, Norway. Locally, Joncas was touched by Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis creating a public service announcement using the first verse of “Shelter Me” to accompany photographs of the clients they serve in the Twin Cities.

Similar to others in education, Joncas had to learn how to teach online during the pandemic and felt isolated. However, the pandemic had a positive result as well: He deliberately lost 75 pounds by being able to control his eating and exercise.

“I’ve said to people that I basically lost two toddlers in weight.”

In retirement, Joncas doesn’t expect his life to change much, though. He still will be helping out in parishes on weekends, celebrating Mass, preaching and celebrating the other sacraments. 

In the letter to Joncas accepting his retirement from full-time ministry, Archbishop Bernard Hebda of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis wrote, “Your priestly gifts have blessed not only this Archdiocese, but the global Church through your music, writing, and teaching. … It is my hope that in retirement you will now be able to contribute even more fully to the building up of the Church by your exemplary witness of prayer and your willingness to share your past experience as a way of helping our younger priests.”

Joncas also plans to continue teaching either virtually or in person, writing articles and possibly books, and composing music.

“I’m incredibly grateful to St. Thomas for allowing me to spend decades here,” Joncas said. “It was a wonderful place to exercise priestly ministry.”