What makes worship in the Catholic Church of 2019 different from everything else one experiences during the week—a place of true spiritual, intellectual, and emotional respite? We genuflect and kneel, and foster a spirit of quiet reverence because Jesus is truly present in the tabernacle and on the altar. External factors can bolster this catechesis: beautiful architecture that orients our minds and souls upward; the presence of Latin or Greek in the liturgy, and celebrating ad orientem, among them. Another is the music, which in our post-Vatican II era, can range from painfully pedestrian campy kumbaya to the magnificent, otherworldly splendor of Mozart’s Requiem. Thanks to Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco and the Benedict XVI Institute, the American church might soon have more of the latter.
In 2017, Archbishop Cordileone commissioned a new “Mass of the Americas” to honor the December 8th feast of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, patron of the United States. The Mass, which melds Latin polyphony and chant with traditional South and Central American music, was written by Benedict XVI Institute composer-in-residence, Frank La Rocca. It features a 16-voice mixed chorus, an organ, a string quartet, bells, and marimba. The Mass includes Spanish, Latin, and English, as well as Nahuatl—the Aztec language spoken by Our Lady of Guadalupe to St. Juan Diego.
La Rocca was both inspired and challenged by Cordileone’s vision of honoring the evangelical impulses of the early Franciscan missionaries to California. The composer weaved together “the timeless sacred tradition with local musical influences in the California missions,” a time-tested template for effective evangelism. As part of his research, he relied on a 1634 translation into Nahuatl of “Ave Maria”, which he set as a paraliturgical Communion meditation. “I wanted to have the language in which Our Lady of Guadalupe addressed St. Juan Diego heard in a Mass that pays tribute to her.” Yet La Rocca, an artist with profound theological insights, went further. “I also wanted the language spoken by Aztec priests as they performed human sacrifice redeemed, as it were, by inclusion in the One True Unbloody Sacrifice that truly saves.”
Three thousand people participated in the first celebration of the Mass, which included a 12-mile pilgrimage through the streets of San Francisco. Since then, the Benedict XVI Institute has planned a tour of the Mass, which began in Tijuana, Mexico, in February, and will be celebrated this November in the nation’s capital. Events are also scheduled for Tyler and Dallas, Texas, and the Institute is looking for requests from other dioceses. Cordileone has great hopes for the impact of the Mass of the Americas:
We envision a musical composition of the Mass that will move people to pray to Our Lady for aid in their personal struggles as well as in the national and cultural struggles we are experiencing at this time. Through the musical quality of this Mass, we seek to bring Catholics of all ethnicities together, looking to Mary as the Mother who unites us all in one family of God…. Through the work of the Institute, we seek to inspire Catholics with the belief that the great tradition of the Church in music and art is not a dead tradition by any means: it has not only deep roots, but also new flowers.
The result of the initial celebration, in Cordileone’s words, was “a moment of great sacredness and communal joy.” Now, in taking the Mass “on the road” as part of a “Marian unity tour,” the Benedict XVI Institute follows in the footsteps of the Renaissance and Counter-Reformation, says Cordileone. The Mass contributes to broader efforts of “creating beautiful new works in the great high sacred music tradition of the Church and moving them through the great cathedrals and churches to find new audiences where people will be moved to deeper prayer and greater faith.”
This, argues Cordileone, takes seriously Pope Benedict XVI’s argument that “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.”
Thus, the Mass of the Americas, though impressive in its own right (and rite), is only the beginning. Cordileone has already commissioned La Rocca to write a Requiem Mass for the Homeless, which is scheduled to be premiered around All Souls Day, 2020, in San Francisco. Explains Cordileone: “We want a Mass that illuminates not just the need for compassion, but the equal dignity of every human soul.” The Benedict XVI Institute is also considering an invitation to young Catholic composers to write a new Lenten prayer service, as well as a Mass for the Unborn.
This program, in contrast to so many progressivist efforts to revolutionize the Church, strikes the right balance between tradition and innovation. While honoring our liturgical and theological forebears, it recognizes that every generation must find new and creative ways to assume those truths for itself, and communicate them to a fallen world. As Cordileone puts it: “At Benedict XVI Institute we seek to energize the next generation of great Catholic artists with this idea: the greatest musical compositions for the Church’s liturgy, the greatest works of art our Faith has ever produced, are yet to come.” By the grace of God, we pray, let it be so!
Photo credit: Frank La Rocca/YouTube