America Comment

A rare liturgical event is about to take place in Washington

(Courtesy MS Photo and Video)

Pontifical Solemn High Masses are rare enough in the US. But with a newly composed setting? Almost unheard of

The year 2019 is a confusing and distressing time for many Catholics, who wonder: How should we respond to troubles inside the Church and out? As for me, I go back to the year 1562.

In 1562 the great Palestrina wrote his great Mass for Pope Marcellus. Pope Marcellus served for only three weeks. Palestrina’s Mass was used for the coronation of Popes over centuries, including most recently the coronation of Paul VI in 1963, that is: in living memory.

The year 1562 was also an extremely troubled, confusing and historic time for the Catholic Church. Europe’s population had only just recovered from losing as much as three-fifths of its people in the Black Death a century and a half before. Plagues continued to threaten until the last Great Plague of London killed a quarter of the population in 1665.  (Palestrina himself lost his brother, two of his sons, and his wife in three separate outbreaks of the plague). The scientific revolutions of Copernicus and later Galileo shook cultural confidence in what was then understood to be Biblical truth. In 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door, launching the great schism which still divides Christianity to our day. War and war’s alarms threatened as kings and queens of Europe took sides in the Reformation. A mere 35 years before, troops of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V sacked Rome: “raping, killing, burning, stealing, the like had not been seen since the Vandals”. Souls and countries were being lost.

In 1562 the great Council of Trent was drawing to its historic close, producing affirmation of core Catholic teachings, a standardized Catholic Bible, and a fixed form of the Mass that was to be the form for the liturgy of the Catholic Church for the next 500 years.

In its moment of great crisis, from the bosom of the Church and under her patronage, came great art and great musical compositions for Mass that stir the souls even of pagans and atheists to this day. The great English composer William Byrd (1543-1623) was inspired perhaps by another great English composer with whom he worked who remained an “unreformed Roman Catholic”: the great Thomas Tallis (1505-1585). Byrd was nurtured by a great patron of the arts, Sir John Petre, who clandestinely held celebrations of Mass, and commissioned works of art.

In 1562, Catholics understood, as Pope Benedict XVI has taught us: “The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb.”  

This November 16, at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C, an event of extraordinary spiritual and cultural significance will take place: a new composition for a Solemn High Pontifical Mass honoring the Blessed Virgin Mary simultaneously under her titles of Our Lady of Guadalupe and Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception (the Patroness of Mexico and all of the Americas, and the Patroness of the United States). The Mass is called “The Mass of the Americas”, and the composer is Frank La Rocca. (For more information or to register to attend visit MassOfTheAmericas.com.)

A Solemn High Pontifical Mass is a rare event in the United States. A newly composed such Mass? I cannot easily find any recent precedent.

Why is it happening here and now? The answer is the patronage and inspiration of Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone, who just five years ago founded The Benedict XVI Institute for Sacred Music and Divine Worship. Its mission? Opening the door of Beauty to God through beautiful liturgy and energising a Catholic culture of the arts.

“Amid many devastating scandals, sins, and problems, the greatest crisis the Church faces today is the loss of the sense of the sacred,” Archbishop Cordileone told me. “Beauty has a power to lift hearts and souls to the reality of God.”

And so the Mass of the Americas, originally composed by Frank La Rocca for the Ordinary Form of the Mass, has launched on an unprecedented Marian church tour: San Francisco, Tijuana, Houston (November 24), Dallas (2020), Mexico City (TBA) and this November 16 in our nation’s capital, Washington D.C.

The Mass of the Americas thus lies at the heart of the intersection of these two missions. “This is the revival of the Renaissance and Counter-Reformation model,” said Archbishop Cordileone, “beautiful sacred music composed from the heart of the Faith finding new audiences by moving through the great cathedrals, churches and shrines of the world.”

Composer Frank La Rocca agreed: “This recalls very powerfully the post-Tridentine project of the Church to support the creation of music and other arts that symbolically proclaim who she is and what she teaches, and to use the power of beauty to draw people into an encounter with those things. Beauty has the power to directly form the soul and prepare it to receive Truth.”

The Mass of the Americas will be televised live by EWTN. President John Garvey and Dean Jackie Leary-Warsaw of Catholic University of America will host a VIP reception afterward.

In the afternoon, the Rome School of Music, Drama and the Arts will co-host with the Benedict XVI Institute an After-Conference of artists, composers, musicians, poets, and painters. The conference ends with the launch of a new book of poems commemorating The Mass of Americas by James Matthew Wilson, the man whom Dana Gioia told me is “the future of Catholic Letters in America.” The day ends with a Benefit Dinner and Artists Salon at the National Arts Club (historic home of President James Monroe), which will begin at 7:30 p.m. (People may register for the Mass at MassOfTheAmericas.org. Tickets for the benefit dinner may be purchased at RSVP.BXVI.org.)

“Beauty is the arrowhead of evangelization,” Bishop Robert Barron reminded us. On November 16, add another arrow of light to the Church’s quiver.

Maggie Gallagher is the Executive Director of Benedict XVI Institute for Sacred Music and Divine Worship