As my mother was dying this past October—and at age 100 and fading, she was obviously not going to be with us much longer—my greatest fear was: Would we really have to sing “Blest Are They” at her funeral Mass?
I didn’t realize at the time that this upbeat funeral favorite in “contemporary” Catholic parish music had recently been banned in many dioceses after dozens of women in 2020 accused its composer, David Haas, of sexual misconduct at a summer music program for teens that he had overseen. But that hardly mattered. There were plenty of other faux-folk post-Vatican II hymns that seem to be the standard repertoire at the Catholic funerals I’ve attended: “Be Not Afraid,” “On Eagle’s Wings,” “Here I Am, Lord.”
I dreaded all of this, but what I dreaded most was the prospect that my mother’s parish church in California wouldn’t have a choir or a music director able to handle anything else.
Many parish music directors are part-timers who love music but have little formal training. Their main familiarity with Mass music seems to come from Oregon Catholic Press (OCP), which, along with its Chicago-based competitor, GIA Publications, seems to have a lock on the distribution of the disposable paperback missalettes. The OCP has its own stable of affiliated composers, whose easy-listening religious “songs,” attuned to three-chord guitar accompaniment, typically focus on friendly feeling or social justice rather than transcendent mystery. Many Catholic Mass-goers know only the OCP offerings, and music directors in turn tend to cater to those expectations. It is a seemingly endless feedback loop that can make attending Sunday Mass in many parishes a banal and dispiriting experience: the plodding monotony of the “four hymns” mumbled by the congregation.
So as my mother’s end drew near, I sent a diplomatically worded email to Steven Ottományi, the music director at St. Andrew’s. In it I wondered politely if there could be some sung arrangements for her of, say, In paradisum, which is supposed to be the recessional hymn of the Mass of Christian Burial but is often bypassed. I love the traditional “Tridentine” Latin Mass but I decided to stick with the Novus Ordo for my mother. For one thing, Pope Francis had just issued his apostolic letter Traditionis custodes restricting celebration of the old rite, and I didn’t want to stir up political wasp’s nests in a parish 3,000 miles from my East Coast home. So my best hope, at a meeting I set up with Steven during what was to be my last visit to my mother, had been to adorn the Novus Ordo with as many traditional elements as pragmatically possible.
And what a surprise that meeting turned out to be! Right off, Steven, a Ph.D. candidate in medieval music at the Claremont Graduate University, informed me that there is actually a complete sung Gregorian-chant Missa pro defunctis in Latin, including an optional Dies irae Sequence (thought by most Catholics to have been abandoned after the Second Vatican Council), right in the Novus Ordo itself.
There was? I had never heard of such a thing in all my years of attending post-Vatican II funerals. But there it was, Steven showed me, its chant-notation buried in plain sight. I ordered it up, along with Maurice Duruflé’s Ubi caritas as a Communion hymn.
My mother died five weeks later, and she had, I am proud to say, the most beautiful funeral Mass I have ever attended in any rite. Attendees who had scarcely set foot inside a Catholic church in their lives commented on the beauty.
My point is that there are transformative things that can be done musically and liturgically with the Novus Ordo Mass—and that at least in some parishes they are already being done. Furthermore, there is also a small but growing body of parish music directors eager to incorporate serious and beautiful traditional sacred music into Sunday Masses, as well as a small but growing body of Catholic composers writing new sacred music that is also serious and beautiful, including entire sung Masses.
On Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021, the Benedict XVI Institute and the Archdiocese of San Francisco sponsored a “Requiem Mass for the Homeless,” a Mass mourning and reminding attendees of the human dignity of the lost and often mentally ill and drug-addicted who live and die on the San Francisco streets, especially in thes crime-beset Tenderloin District not far from the archdiocese’s Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption. San Francisco’s Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone was the celebrant, as he had been at two previous Masses for the homeless in 2018 and 2019. The rite was Novus Ordo. The music had been specially commissioned from Frank La Rocca, the Benedict XVI Institute’s composer-in-residence. A brand-new shrine at the rear of the cathedral, Patron Saints of the Homeless, painted by artist Bernadette Carstensen in a style reminiscent of the Renaissance yet unmistakably contemporary, depicted Our Lady of Sorrows with her Child surrounded by saints new and old: Francis of Assisi, Mother Teresa, Maximilian Kolbe, St. Josephine Bakhita…all patron saints of the causes of homelessness from drug addiction, poverty, human trafficking.
The hundreds who attended the Mass included San Francisco civic officials, many of them non-Catholics, and a large contingent from the Church’s social-justice wing, which isn’t known for its interest in musical or liturgical conservatism. But there they were, under the spell of La Rocca’s music and the dignity and reverence of Archbishop Cordileone’s celebration of the Mass—all for the sake and the souls of lost and despised human beings.
The most moving moment aesthetically and emotionally was the post-Communion interlude, La Rocca’s haunting arrangement, nearly 7 minutes long, of the Latin antiphon O vos omnes: “O all you who walk by on the road, pay attention, and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow.” The antiphon, its scriptural text from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, is most often associated with Good Friday—but here the association was with the misery of the homeless, shunned and ignored by passers-by on the sidewalks; their sufferings joined the sufferings of Christ on the cross. La Rocca’s composition recalled the famous setting of Jeremiah’s words by the sixteenth-century composer Tomás Luis de Victoria—but it was also strikingly original. Among the hundreds listening to it that Saturday morning, “there was absolute silence,” veteran Stanford music professor William Mahrt recalled afterwards at a Mass-related panel at the archdiocese’s St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park. “You could hear a pin drop,” Mahrt said. Everyone there was completely taken out of themselves.”
The palpable awe in a congregation of people who had probably never experienced anything in their churches like La Rocca’s O vos omnes was a lesson in liturgical supply-side economics: If you build it, they will come. Of course, a professional-level production with a full, classically trained chorus and orchestra like the Benedict XIV Institute’s Requiem Mass for the Homeless is out of the question for the average tightly budgeted parish and its underpaid music director—so how do you bring musical beauty to the grassroots—the 98 percent of Catholics who have never seen a traditional Catholic liturgy and probably don’t even know who Palestrina was–in any practical way?
Providing possible answers to that question was the theme of a composers’ and musical directors’ strategy session at St. Patrick’s on Sunday, Nov. 7, that was perhaps even more important in its pastoral implications than the Mass for the Homeless itself. Attendees included La Rocca; prolific sacred-music composer Jeffrey Quick, who directs a schola cantorum singing Gregorian chant at St. Sebastian Church in Akron, Ohio; Kent State University music professor Mark Nowakowski, who scored Cameron O’Hearn’s Mass of the Ages, the documentary that celebrates the traditional Latin Mass; and Massimo Scapin, the new director of liturgical music at St. John Cantius Church in Chicago.
But Breaking Bread, as several participants pointed out, is typically the only musical resource many parishes offer, and “It’s not in the hymnal” is the frequent response of music directors when it’s suggested to them that they might introduce their choirs and congregations to, say, Gregorian chant. The average choir director “isn’t paid enough to research alternative sources,” Jennifer Donelson-Nowicka, associate professor and director of sacred music at St. Joseph’s seminary in New Yorkpointed out, even if the sources are as readily available as the Choral Public Domain Library and the Church Music Association of America’s free Musica Sacra website on the internet. The solution might be as simple as providing better hymnals to the pews: There was much praise for the St. Michael’s Hymnal, a handsome hardback with generous chant sections in Latin and English produced by a small nonprofit publisher in Lafayette, Ind., and now in its fifth edition. Some parishes have compiled and published their own hymnals. Others foster Gregorian chant by teaching it to children in parish schools and summer chant camps.
Or simply persuade Catholic composers (and make it monetarily feasible for them, which isn’t easy—that, too was a topic of discussion) to write music for parish choirs that may be thinly stocked with trained talent and lack the range of voices needed to produce complex Renaissance-style polyphony.
“I’m a working parish musician, and I’m here to make a plea to the composers in this group,” said Kevin Faulkner, music director at St. Luke’s Church in West Palm Beach, Fla, and conductor of boys’ and girls’ choirs at the parish school. “The greatest corpus of music that lacks any contemporary expression are the Latin Offertories. There are plenty of Palestrina Offertories that are often for six voices or more, and I can do that on Sundays if I’m feeling good, but not always, and the need is out there for something simpler.”
“If you can compose for two voices, male and female, and put chant in the middle, that would work,” said Rebecca Ostermann, who teaches choral conducting at the Catholic University of America. “People are interested in chant, but they’re afraid of it.”
The need is out there—and so, as my mother’s funeral Mass and Archbishop Cordileone’s Requiem Mass for the Homeless, is the potential for heartfelt response by congregations when they are introduced to the tradition and liturgical beauty that the Catholic Church offers the world. One of the composers at the St. Patrick’s workshop reminded his fellows that every piece of music composed in the West for the last millennium uses a system of “do re mi” staff notation invented by a Benedictine monk named Guido who taught music to singers at the cathedral in Arezzo, Tuscany, during the tenth century: “I’m using the tools developed by the Catholic Church every single day. I always tell my fellow film composers that they should have a shrine to Guido of Arezzo.”
Quietly, a renaissance of American Catholic sacred music appears to be building. “We need to create a better pipeline between parishes and living Catholic composers” said Maggie Gallagher, executive director of the BenedictInstitute.org. “Our great Catholic high sacred music tradition is not closed and dead. It has deep roots and new flowers. Bringing together music directors and composers at St. Patrick’s Seminary was a pivotal step.”
The next step? Bringing the Sacra Liturgia conference to San Francisco June 28-July 1. Cardinal Sarah and Cardinal Pell will join Bishop Lopes and Archbishop Cordileone celebrating beautiful liturgies. The final Mass will be a newly commissioned Frank La Rocca Mass honoring St. Junipero Serra at Mission Dolores (which he founded in 1776) (by the Benedict Sixteen Choir and Orchestra (Richard Sparks, conducting) which is fresh off a triumph in New York City’s St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral of The Mass of the Americas. (For more information visit BenedictInstitute.org)
Speaking at the same post-Mass conference Archbishop Cordileone summed it up: “In the times we’re living in now there’s such a need for timeless beauty. This is what sacred music needs to do—to take a classical tradition and continue it, a living tradition of timeless beauty.” He added: “When people see and experience something beautiful, maybe they’ll do something similar in their parishes. Historically the Church has suffered brutal attacks, but it has always been able to offer the truth and to offer beauty. It’s a strategy for evangelization that the Church has used from the very beginning.”
Charlotte Allen is executive editor of Catholic Arts Today.