Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Papal Mass at Westminster

If you haven't watched the Papal Mass in Westminster Cathedral, I strongly urge you to do so some evening when you have time. This is the archived footage.

At long last, and the wait was very long, the world has seen an example of a magnificent Papal Mass, celebrated by the Pope Benedict XVI in the Westminster Cathedral, with glorious decorum, perfect music, and holy dignity all around. We have so long been used to other things that it seem to take a while to fully settle into the reality that this was truly a Papal Mass fully worthy to be written up in the history books as a model and ideal -- even in the ordinary form of the Mass and even before the Mass translation is upgraded this time next year.

The musical Mass setting of choice for the occasion was the Mass for Five Voices by William Byrd (1539–1623). It is the most dramatic, most difficult, and most emotionally compelling of the three Masses that Byrd wrote for the Catholic Mass. In his time as Queen Elizabeth’s own composer, Byrd was writing English music for the Anglican Church by day and, by night, secretly composing music for the Catholic Church in hiding, for Masses celebrated in castles and manors untouched by the politics of the time.

There was so much poignant and thrilling about hearing this particular setting, performed perfectly of course, in the open daylight, in a restored Catholic Church in England, with the Pope presiding, at a Mass attended by the Archbishop of Canterbury himself. Byrd’s Catholicism is in hiding no more! Instead, it is available to the entire world in the context of a liturgical splendor unlike any we’ve yet seen.

Even more strikingly, glorious music such as this has been in hiding in the Catholic world as well, for some 40 to 50 years, during which time to favor this approach to liturgical music was to mark yourself as something of an alien to the prevailing ethos that favored pop and folk music. One wonders whether this particular Mass effectively provides a symbolic closure to this past and opens a new door to the future.

One could watch and listen to the Mass and easily believe that the unpleasantness of the postconcilar period had never existed. It all seemed to inevitable, so proper, so fitting, so perfect. What’s more, the actual Gregorian propers of the Mass for the introit and the communion were also sung -- proclaimed might be a better term, with strength and flawless intonation and diction. This is what happens when you have a choir that does indeed sing chant every single day in this venue that might have the greatest liturgical choir program on the entire planet, built from the ground up from the turn of the 20th century to our own times.

The extraordinary nature of this event was evident from the grand entrance, featuring a “Tu es Petrus” setting by Scottish composer James MacMillan, another man who has made his mark on history. The setting was regal and unapologetically so. It was a great example of modern liturgical music for procession. This piece in particular was reprised for the music accompanying the return of the Gospel following the Gospel reading, an interesting moment that no Catholic American has experienced because it is not our tradition. The chant books provide no music for this action so English Catholicism (as explained to me by several commentators on this site) has come to treat this as a time for organ improvisation of a particularly dramatic sort. The MacMillan reprise here came across as startling at first but aggressive in its majesty on second thought.

The processional was seamlessly woven into the Gregorian antiphon for the day, sung with Psalms and the Gloria Patri. As a person who obsesses about the timing of music in liturgy, I was particularly impressed at how perfectly every note seemed to fit with the liturgical action on the altar. This was followed by the Pope’s words (one only wishes that the new translation were already in effect!) and the Kyrie. The Pope then intoned the Gloria by himself, setting the pitch for the choir which followed up with Byrd’s setting.

The German heritage of this Pope was honored with the Christus Factus Est by Anton Bruckner (1824-1896) at Offertory. I had never actually heard this piece before. This moment was a great one, surely for the Pope, who must know this music well, but also for Bruckner himself, who experienced in his own life a great deal of suffering for his own Catholicism. His greatness was never really acknowledge by his contemporaries and his unfashionable Catholicism tagged him as "pious and overly devotional" in the Germany of his times.

This Mass included a great deal of participation by the people as well, but always within the structure of the liturgy. The first hymn we heard was for post-communion and it did not replace the proper chant of the votive Mass of the Precious Blood that was being sung this day. This is as it should be. As many Church authorities are beginning to state openly, the use of the hymn in Mass today is entirely out of hand. Its use after communion and during recession during this Mass was much more in keeping with proper usage.

I’ve talked mostly about music here but there is much more to say about the beautiful vestments, the high altar, the dignified comportment of all the Bishops present, the appropriateness of the dress of the laity that brought forward the gifts, and so much. It was such a relief to see it all, but, even more than that, it was an inspiration, even a sign of changed and changing times. Many have prayed for this day, and are grateful to have lived to see it.

For 500 years, Christianity in England has been a major theater for the fortunes of the Catholic faith. Today, the pews the parishes are filling up again and the Church in growing in strength and cultural presence. I just know that English Catholics were thrilled at what they saw and heard. It was as their whole history had come together in some kind of culminating moment. Americans can tap into that feeling, understanding it and sharing it as well. Under the leadership of this Pope, it seems that miracles are happening.
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