CS PHOTO BY JACLYN LIPPELMANN DeMatha senior Dale Gray plays the piano during a February 14 Ash Wednesday liturgy at the school.
CS PHOTO BY JACLYN LIPPELMANN DeMatha senior Dale Gray plays the piano during a February 14 Ash Wednesday liturgy at the school.
When Dale Gray was a baby attending Mass with his family at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish in Crofton, he would crawl over to see the organist’s feet tapping on the pedals. At age 12, he was asked to play the piano at his parish, and within seven months went from playing one song during Mass to being able to conduct the whole band for an entire Mass.

Now 18 years old, Gray is a senior at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville and is preparing to attend the University of Maryland, Baltimore County to study music composition, with the hope of having a career in liturgical music. He has played music for nearly 500 Masses.

Gray writes original compositions, and this year led the music for the All Saints and Ash Wednesday prayer services at his school. For the Ash Wednesday service, Gray organized a student orchestra, selected and arranged all of the music, and composed two original pieces for the Responsorial Psalm and the Gospel Acclamation.

 “…I think music makes the liturgy come alive,” said Trinitarian Father James Day, the president of DeMatha, noting that Gray’s music is contemporary and relevant to the students.

Gray personally invited each of the 14 students in the orchestra for the Ash Wednesday prayer service to participate, and then worked with them one-on-one to help them learn the music.

Julie Penndorf, the director of campus ministry for DeMatha, noted that the experience of playing music for Mass strengthened the faith of some of the students involved.

“Especially with musicians, when they can give of music, they feel connected with [the Mass],” she said.

Over the past summer, Gray participated in the “Music Ministry Alive!” formation program with David Haas, who in 2004 was named Pastoral Musician of the Year by the National Association of Pastoral Musicians. Gray was in the liturgical composition track, and worked on his original songs with Tony Alonzo, another prominent composer who composed the Responsorial Psalm for the first Mass that Pope Francis celebrated in the United States.

Gray’s YouTube channel features 18 original compositions that he has recorded and posted there. One of those songs, titled “Tantalizing Hope,” was inspired by how music has led him through some difficult times in his life.

“Music was in front of me the whole time, it kind of led me through it,” said Gray. “It tantalizes me as I am going through.”

During Advent and Lent, DeMatha holds Adoration on Friday mornings, and Gray provided the music and singing. During Lent, while most people were giving things up, Gray decided to write a new worship song every week and have its debut during that Adoration time.

Gray said he usually has some sort of inspiration that gets him started when he sits down to write a song, which has been found in Scripture, in the words of his religion teacher at DeMatha, in quotes from Pope Francis, or in reflections in a Stations of the Cross pamphlet, among other things.

Recently, his religion teacher said, “Every night I say a prayer that people don’t get what they deserve,” which inspired Gray to write a song called “A Prayer for the Undeserving.”

“Really, we are all so undeserving of God’s love, but for some reason He goes on loving us,” said Gray.

During Lent, Gray would write the lyrics to the song first, generally in one night, and when he was doing so he would think about how the music should accompany it. Then he would record the song with anyone else he wanted to include.

“It was great. It slowed my life down so I really could appreciate everything,” said Gray. “I found myself being way happier. I prayed every night while writing music.”

Through the process, he learned a lot, he said. In preparation for writing his song, “Mountaintop,” he enjoyed reading the many stories in the Bible where God reveals Himself on a mountain.

“I hope the prayer that I wrote in all of my songs applies to people’s lives a little bit or they can pray with it,” said Gray. “If it is ever played in Mass or a service, [I hope] that it touches their hearts and helps them to connect with God a little better. I think you pray with music…music really helps a lot more to touch your soul.”

Gray said his dream job would to be a music director at a church while also writing and publishing church music.

“I know I’m going to be standing in church one day and open the hymn book and see his name,” said Penndorf.