News Analysis

A triumphant premiere for a new Mass setting

San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone (CNS)

On All Souls’ Day, St John Cantius Church in Chicago – renowned for its curious Polish-style architecture and liturgical grandeur – celebrated a Mass set to Mozart’s Requiem, as it does every year. Pilgrims from each coast and everywhere in between travelled to witness this triumph of Latin Rite liturgics. The only annual Mass that rivals its appeal is perhaps the feast of Blessed Karl of Austria at Old St Mary’s in Washington, DC.

These parishes keep the flame of the “old Church” alive. Like Rome in Fr Robert Hugh Benson’s novel Lord of the World, they are remnants of a time when religion, culture and politics all flowed into one, each inspiring the other and securing the laity in their faith. Back then, Catholicism wasn’t some alien and embattled thing. It wasn’t merely normal, even: it was the norm.

Invaluable though these parishes are, they also stand as reminders of how far apart the City of God and City of Man have grown. It seems that Catholicism reached its liturgical heights in the late 18th century; we ceased to be relevant to wider society when the last Habsburg went into exile.

But what if Catholicism could be normal again? That’s the vision Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco had when he founded the Benedict XVI Institute. “We’re trying to revive that integral approach,” he tells me. “The Church has always been the great patron of the arts, and we need to continue to be.” That era when the Church and the world were integrally related to each other – “It’s not a lost era,” he assures us. “It’s not something of bygone days that no longer applies today. It’s classical, and what’s classical is timeless.”

Last year, Archbishop Cordileone saw the opportunity to express that small “c” catholicity by commissioning a new Mass. Every year, the Archdiocese of San Francisco holds a communal celebration of the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe (patron of Mexico and the Americas) the Saturday before. This year, that Saturday happened to be December 8: the feast of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, patron of the United States.

To mark the day, the archbishop celebrated a Mass (pictured) with a brand new musical setting, the “Mass of the Americas”. It was written by the Benedict XVI Institute’s composer-in-residence, Frank La Rocca. It’s an extraordinarily ambitious work, mixing Latin polyphony and chant with traditional South and Central American music.

The Mass incorporates a 16-voice mixed chorus, the organ, a string quartet, bells and marimba. There are parts for Spanish, Latin and English, as well as Nahuatl – the Aztec language Our Lady of Guadalupe spoke to St Juan Diego. A press release from the Institute calls the Mass of the Americas the “musical equivalent of mission architecture”. But what does that mean? Archbishop Cordileone explains: “I’m trying to model how the Church has always appropriately enculturated the Gospel by adapting aspects of the local culture, but within the sacred tradition. So, I use that as an example – the Franciscan missionaries in California.”

But the Archbishop – known as one of America’s more theologically and liturgically conservative prelates – is only too aware of the dangers of blending secular forms into the Mass. This has been a problem in California, where mariachi music is sometimes haphazardly incorporated into the liturgy. “It’s beautiful but profane music,” says Archbishop Cordileone.

“It can’t be transferred wholesale into the Mass but there’s a way to take elements of it and sacralise it within the sacred tradition.”

Was he pleased with the Mass of the Americas? “I was ecstatic,” he says. “It took everything within me at times to keep from breaking down weeping. You get the sense that something truly holy was happening there.”

James Matthew Wilson agrees. The Benedict XVI Institute flew the poet in from Pennsylvania with a commission to write a poem about the Mass. “I thought, this is what a flourishing religious culture looks like – piety being lifted up and sublimated in the actual liturgy of the Church. It was really an honour just to be present and see this,” Wilson said. And he’s certainly feeling inspired: “I want this poem to be as ambitious as the Mass was.”

Wilson also mentions how, rather without meaning to, Archbishop Cordileone struck a commanding presence at the Mass, alternating between English and Spanish during his homily. That the whole project was largely the archbishop’s brainchild wasn’t far from anyone’s mind, either. “The fact that he thought to set up the Benedict XVI Institute, the fact that he thought to commission the Mass – it’s good to have that kind of hopeful, enterprising spirit in the Church,” Wilson comments.

Indeed, that there’s such a thing as a new Mass setting (as opposed to priests occasionally introducing gender-neutral language, sprinkling in a bit of liturgical dance, etc) is a sign of hope: a reminder that tradition is something vital, even dynamic, to use a much abused word.

Archbishop Cordileone might paraphrase Edmund Burke: a Church without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.