Life on a Five-Note Scale
by Jennifer Szweda Jordan
July 10, 2018

Editor’s Note: This week, the National Association of Pastoral Musicians is honoring Paulist Fr. Ricky Manalo with its 2018 “Pastoral Musician of the Year” award during its annual conference in Baltimore, MD. Learn about Fr. Ricky’s life and ministry in this new profile.



manalo-400Of the dozens of songs he’s written or co-written, “Many and Great” has a special place in Paulist Fr. Ricky Manalo’s heart.

“That became one of the first Asian pentatonic liturgical songs that became popular in mainstream U.S. culture,” Fr. Ricky says.

“Pentatonic” refers to a musical scale with five notes per octave. The term also seems to reflect Fr. Ricky’s life. While his main ministry is music, he typically tells people he does five different ministries. When he starts counting, he realizes it’s more like eight.

“I’m very eclectic and I like that because it keeps alive different parts of my brain,” Fr. Ricky says.

From noise, music

Fr. Ricky grew up in what he describes as a very noisy and religious home.

His five siblings, parents, grandparents, and frequently other relatives from the Philippines, lived together in New Jersey. There were never less than 10 people in the house, he says. His parents required all six kids to learn piano.

“My father was a little hard of hearing so he would be blasting out Beethoven or Tchaikovsky, you know,  in the family room which the whole neighborhood could hear, while six children were taking turns practicing the piano. And, whoever wasn’t practicing the other five siblings were running around making noise,” Fr. Ricky says.

At night, the family would pray.

“My mother, who always wanted to be a nun herself, chose not to be a nun and have six children instead,” Fr. Ricky says. “But she had her own convent. I always liked to say, by having her six children pray the rosary.”

Sitting at the piano and composing became Fr. Ricky’s highest form of prayer.

“Usually I get to a moment when I’m not really even thinking about what I’m playing,” he says. “I want to believe the Spirit is working through me … And I think that those are the moments when I surrender. And to me that’s prayer. Ultimately the goal of all all forms of prayer ought to be surrendering to God’s grace. Being attentive to how God is listening to you how God is speaking to you.”

A playlist of highlights from Fr. Ricky’s oeuvre

Fr. Ricky would like to see more priests and presiders using music at Mass, a practice more typical in Vietnamese liturgy.

“Music is a way to highlight and to bring out particular moments at the Mass,” he says. “The Eucharistic prayer is known to be the center and summit of the entire Mass. But yet most of our presiders and priests don’t sing through that. We sing every other part except the Eucharistic prayer, the most important prayer.”

Fr. Ricky’s 2015 e-book on this topic, “Chanting On Our Behalf: A Pastoral Methodology for Presidential Chanting and Musical  Leadership” won a first place award from the Catholic Press Association.

“Maybe in 50 years singing priests will be a norm,” he says.

Fr. Ricky also wants to see the rest of us singing more – even composing. He travels around the world directing large Masses, retreats, workshops, and concerts. Sometimes he teaches people to write music.

“I want to believe that everyone has their own imaginations of different tunes or different images,” Fr. Ricky says. “I leave people to to shut their eyes to go through different scenarios, different celebrations that they might also hear or maybe it might be something in the past. And I lead them in articulating what they see, what they smell and also what they hear. And then we eventually eventually learn and play their compositions at the retreat.”

Writing and teaching

Fr. Ricky’s writing isn’t limited to music. He contributes reflections to the monthly devotional booklet Give Us This Day.

And he teaches liturgy and culture, among other topics, at Santa Clara University (not far from St. Mary’s Old Cathedral in San Francisco, where he is based). Lately his interests have turned to writing about intercultural marriages and about the “nones,” a group that does not identify as having any religious affiliation.

The cover of Fr. Ricky's most recent album.
The cover of Fr. Ricky’s new album.

Fr. Ricky also writes advises a U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops committee that recently released a statement about Asian-Pacific Catholics called “Encountering Christ in Harmony: A Pastoral Response to Our Asian and Pacific Island Brothers and Sisters.”

The bishops’ committee is considering how we can be more sensitive to the needs, the world views, and the gifts of this group.

One of the issues facing this community is slavery. Two-thirds of the estimated 36 million sex trafficking victims are from Asia.

“One of the things we talk about in this statement is how we can help those in different situations both at an immigration level but also at a very pastoral level: set up pastoral programs that might be able to address a lot of these atrocities,” said Fr. Ricky.

Asian-Pacific heritage

While Fr. Ricky was born in Brooklyn and raised in New Jersey, his Asian roots run deep.

He studied Taoism and Confucianism in Beijing and Hong Kong for two years. It has helped him stay active in all his interests and prevent burnout.

“It’s about balancing all the aspects,” Fr. Ricky says. “I see every day as trying to get every component of life or different areas. If I get burnt out it’s not so much because I’m working too much, it’s because I’m not finding time for leisure, I’m not finding time for exercise or a proper diet, or spending time with family or friends.

To that end, he considers at the end of each day, “Did it take a siesta, did I exercise? Did I pray? Did I did I compose?… It seems to be working out with my crazy schedule.”


Environment and Franciscans

The same day Pope Francis released his Laudato si’ encyclical on the environment in 2015, Paulist Father Ricky Manalo wrote a song in response.

“I wanted to be the first composer to copyright” he said. “I heard a melody.”

The song that emerged, “Laudato Si’! Be Praised, O God!” was performed at a 2018 Filipino-themed Mass before thousands at the annual Los Angeles Religious Education Congress in Anaheim, CA.

In the song, Fr. Ricky says, “I focus on Pope Francis’ call to all nations and people to become more conscious of how we use and or abuse the different resources how our environment and ecological concerns all of those things affect people throughout the world.”

Fr. Ricky says. “I’ve learned to realize how wasteful we’ve become as a nation even including myself. So I think unless we look at that then I worry about the next generation you know and how they will be living in this world.”

Fr. Ricky says his concern for the environment is closely connected to the fact that he first entered religious life with the Conventual Franciscan Friars.

The Mass at the 2018 L.A. Congress was celebrated by one of Fr. Ricky’s heroes, Manila’s Cardinal Luis Antonio “Chito” Tagle, whom he’s met several times.

“What Pope Francis is doing to global Catholicism I feel Cardinal Tagle is doing throughout Asia,” Fr. Ricky says. “He’s real. He doesn’t seem to be pretentious. He seems to be with the people. He’s a wonderful person with whom you can have a conversation.”

Changing orders

Fr. Ricky got to know the Paulist community while studying at Washington Theological Union as a Conventual Franciscan. The Paulists’ creative evangelization impressed him.

“I was really attracted to their willingness to use my creativity to allow me to explore my varied gifts,” Fr. Ricky says. “I felt like I needed to explore areas of music and liturgy and they were really open to supporting my vision of ministry, my need to compose more as a legitimate pastoral ministry full-time and also supported my doctoral studies to pursue those areas.”

Aging and faith

Asked about the most challenging parts of his life, Fr. Ricky points to a human experience we can all relate to: the pain of lost loved ones.

“Now that I’m into my 50s, I have all these people, some of whom are close friends, are all of a sudden dying. I’ve been dealing with deaths, including my father who passed away about a year and a half ago.”

The losses challenge faith.  

“When it comes to religion, our understanding of what happens after we die here, that’s in some ways where the rubber hits the road,  Because how do we express that? How do we mourn that?” Fr. Ricky says. “Those deaths become moments that you have to work through and find solace with your faith but then also learn how to let go of some of these deep friendships who wind up leaving us for whatever reason.”

Jennifer Szweda Jordan is a writer and audio producer based in Pittsburgh.