Saturday, April 30, 2011

Technology Plus Spem

I'm not sure I've ever heard a version that was so revealing of the inner workings of this masterpiece.

Friday, April 29, 2011

A Primer on the Gradual

Lots of people have questions about sacred music that they are afraid to ask. A small fraction of these questions arrive in my in box, and I’m always happy about this. Usually they involve terminology. It’s always the case that people involved in a sector of life develop their own vocabulary. I can recall recently talking to a person in the candy-packaging industry and it was dazzling how many specialized terms he could throw out there in the course of a few minutes.

And so it is in sacred music. The trouble is that this sector has been small and specialized for half a century, whereas the vocabulary really ought to be a common feature of Catholic life. I can understand this from an individual point of view. It wasn’t too long ago that the specialized language of Catholic music and liturgy was completely new to me, and of course I still have vast amounts to learn.

I can recall, for example, being completely confused by the term Graduale. What is it and why am I having such a hard time figuring it out? Sure enough, I received an email today asking all the same questions I once had. So let me try to straighten this out. And, please, I welcome any correction to this entry.

The term Graduale is Latin. In English it is Gradual. A major source of confusion is that it is used in two senses. One use refers to the music book of the Roman Rite, the Roman Gradual or Graduale Romanum. Another use refers to a special kind of chant after which the book itself is named.

So this usage problem is already confusing, since we are used to one word meaning one thing. Hence, “sing the Graduale from the Graduale” is a sentence that is likely to introduce no end to confusion. But this is the way it is: the Graduale is one of the chants in the Graduale. And the reason for the naming of the book in this way is that the Graduale is the oldest and most elaborate and most beautiful of all the Gregorian chants. It is the most exalted chant in the book.

The Graduale is the chant between the readings. The text is the Psalms. It is the primary text for the Psalms. These chants have been with us since the earliest centuries. It was being formed and standardized in the period in which the canon of the Bible itself was being codified.

The original of the term comes from its English meaning of steps, particularly the steps leading to the altar. This is the place from which the Graduale was sung. Its liturgical function, scholars tell us, was not about processing from here to there. It was not to accompany an action as such. Its function was purely to provide a time of reflection between the readings. It is long. It has a verse that can require a great deal of singing skill. It is the most musically engaging and elaborate of all the chants assigned to the schola. Its main magnificence comes from its music, which itself forms the infrastructure of all chant (and, in turn, the whole corpus of musical development of Western civilization ever since).

Now we come to a trickier problem, namely, where is the Graduale today? In the ordinary form (the form experienced by probably 95% plus of Catholics today), there is nothing called the Graduale in the Missal or the Missalettes or any choir book. The Graduale chant survives only in the book the Graduale Romanum. The all-but universal practice is to replace the Graduale with what is called the Responsorial Psalm.

This replacement occurred at the promulgation of the new Mass in 1969/70. The Responsorial Psalm is not required. The General Instruction permits the singing of the Graduale too - and from the point of view of tradition and the “hermeneutic of continuity,” such a practice would be clearly superior. It is hardly ever done however.

When the Responsorial Psalm was introduced, it was as a text-only change. Whereas the Graduale had this long and amazing musical history, the Responsorial Psalm was just a sentence and it was left to composers and publishers to set it to music.

The result is that it might be the most musically unstable portion of Mass. (As with the case of many changes in this period, one led again led to ask: what were they thinking?) The prevailing belief is that the people have to be able to instantly sing it back (all in the name of participation) which led composers and publishers to shove the text into metrical musical settings that feature a popular feel to them.

Even if it was no one’s particular intention, the results are astounding to consider. What was once the most musically rooted and glorious portion of Mass, the very Psalms of David that were the basis of the song of all early Christians, became the least musically impressive, and often the most embarrassing, part of Mass.

To be sure, it is not the case that the Graduale was sung in its proper form at every Mass before 1969. At Low Masses, it was spoken. At High Masses, it was usually sung to a Psalm tone in a hurried way, which actually defeats the point of the form and function of the chant. But this less-ideal approach became codified with the syllabic and purely didactic approach of the Responsorial Psalm. The idea of providing a long moment of transcendent sound for prayerful reflection is gone. The Psalm has become just another noisy thing that happens somewhere between coming and going.

To be sure, it does not have to be way this. Chabanel Psalms opened up its doors three years ago and changed many aspects of the conventional practice. They are beautiful and attempt, insofar as it is possible, to come closer toward the idea of the older and more traditional model. In my own parish, we sing the Responsorial Psalm with settings by Arlene Oost-Zinner. The CMAA hopes to put these out as a single volume with all three years so that choirs can have these in the choir room or loft.

This approach is not an end in itself. We really need to push forward toward an environment that is more hospitable toward a real singing of the authentic Graduale chant. From the point of view of the people at Mass, this would be a much-welcome relief, a time when they are not being hectored to sing or listening to some instruction or having prayers interrupted by a mandate to sing a seven-second ditty. Instead, they could have a few minutes of peace, actual time for deep prayer. Imagine that!

Vatican liturgical events have take some steps toward re-introducing the Graduale, and this is a much-welcome change. As we look to the future, I don’t think there is any doubt where we are headed. The Graduale isn’t going anywhere. Neither, for that matter is the book the Graduale Romanum. The Psalms of David sung in their most masterful form will return in all their glory, maybe not in my lifetime but at some point. Music of this type transcends the preferences and experiments of a single generation.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Kyriale Simplex Now Online

Thanks to Aristotle Esguerra the Kyriale Simplex has now been posted online.

Kyriale Simplex

Please consider for a moment the way that sacred music publishing has changed since the days of yore:

This morning at 9:00 I posted on the value of the Kyriale Simplex, to which Aristotle Esguerra responded with a PDF file of the collection he created using free software a few hours later. Within 3 minutes of receiving Aristotle's file I had in my hands two beautiful editions of this Kyriale, ready to sing:

And now, less than an hour later I'm able to share with you all my experience of the process.

How does this compare with your other experiences of finding new Mass settings?

Interview with Fr. Christopher Smith

Interview with Fr. Christopher Smith by Jeffrey Tucker of the from Church Music Association of Amer on Vimeo.

Kyriale Simplex: A Hidden Treasure?

Over the past two and a half years I have had the opportunity to direct an ordinary suburban parish music program out of the land of Gather Comprehensive into the world of the sacred. This project has been multi-faceted and the work is far from over.

It began with weeding out problematic hymnody, then the slow and gradual introduction of propers, in simple English settings. The choirs also began to explore some of the simpler Latin choral repertoire from the polyphonic tradition, and so forth.

While all of this was happening we simultaneously began initiating an more important step: the singing of the Order of Mass by priest and congregation and the singing of unaccompanied chant settings of the Ordinary of the Mass by the congregation. I believe that it is the focus on these that has transformed the liturgical life of our parish. It has been the a cappella singing of the ordinary texts of the liturgy by priest and people that has ordered and focused all that our choirs have done in the area of propers, choral motets, and so on.

The question has lingered in my mind through these 2 1/2 years: "What is a reasonable introductory repertoire of Gregorian Ordinaries for a parish that is in a ground-zero situation?"

I have spent countless hours with the Kyriale Romanum, envisioning a path forward for a more complete and varied singing of chanted ordinaries in my parish. The starting point is clear–most hymnals contain it–it is Kyrie XVI, Gloria XV or VIII, Sanctus and Angus XVIII. Many parishes have undertaken to learn these and here their work with Gregorian ordinaries has stopped. It is either this "Iubilate Deo" ordinary, or it is Mass of Creation or some other organ and choir based English setting, or worse.

But where should we go next? This simple composite ordinary is very accessible and it is widely sung for good reason–they are among the simplest and most intuitive ordinaries in the Gregorian repertoire. As one begins to work through the rest of the Kyriale Romanum it becomes quickly evident that the next step is a huge one. It is so great, in fact, that it seems that most parishes have not been able to take it.

Yesterday I took up again the task of charting a course beyond this basic composite ordinary, and the few other supplemental Kyrie and Agnus settings that my parish now sings very well. It remained clear that a composite approach is still what is needed, so I began organizing the simplest chants that are found in the Kyriale Romanum in what seemed to be logical compliments. There is something about this that makes me very uneasy. There is enough hacking, cutting and pasting that already occurs in our very unstable liturgical environment, the least I can do is try to preserve the integrity of the liturgy as given in the liturgical books. This is like Fr. Z's "say the black, do the red" for the church musician: "just sing it, don't change it!" But the problem remains that the 18 ordinaries of the Kyriale are quite varied, and almost every Mass setting contained in it has that one Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus or Agnus that is the deal breaker–it's just too much to bite off right now. So the composite approach seems to be the best path forward.

So as I was crafting these custom "composite ordinaries" I was suddenly prompted to pull that most curious post-conciliar innovation off of my shelf: the Graduale Simplex. I remembered the "Kyriale Simplex" that it contained, that I have flipped through curiously a number of times before, only to put it back on the shelf and forget about it.

What I realized while taking a closer look at the Kyriale Simplex was that I had virtually recreated, in my work of custom-crafting simple composite ordinaries from the Kyriale Romanum, Masses II and V of the Kyriale Simplex! (Mass I is the same as we will find in the new Missal, the "Iubilate Deo" ordinary.)

I began to explore this simple Kyriale in more depth and realized that the work that I had been doing in trying to find the best introductory Latin ordinaries for my parish had already been done, and admirably at that, and, best of all, this was presented in a way that had the precedent of an official liturgical book!

As I looked more closely at the chants contained in the Kyriale Simplex I discovered that of the 30 chants contained in its 5 composite ordinaries, 18 of them had come from the Kyriale Romanum. The other 12, I presume, come from other sources, but undeniably are from the authentic ecclesiastical chant tradition (loosely speaking–e.g. Sanctus X was composed by Dom Pothier, I believe). It contains a Gloria from the Mozarabic chant tradition, and the Gloria "more Ambrosiano" that is contained in the Kyriale Romanum ad libitum section, along with a complimentary Sanctus and Credo from the Ambrosian tradition. The remaining chants, though not contained in the Kyriale Romanum, I presume are from the Gregorian canon, and are remarkably beautiful and easy to sing. After considering each one I was able to resonate deeply with the decision that was made to make these settings available in a book that was meant for use "in minor churches".

So what I discovered here, I would like to submit, is a hidden treasure that might be the key to getting average parishes who desire to sing more Gregorian ordinaries out of the Iubilate Deo rut. I can see why this approach might seem ideologically problematic to some, especially to those who want to do the sacred music equivalent of "say the black, do the red", but I would like to propose that we need a few intermediary steps to realistically get to this point, and I think that the Kyriale Simplex might have paved that path. Perhaps it just took us about 50 years to realize it.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Graduale Back in St. Peter's

From time to time, I'm told that the Graduale has been depreciated in favor of the Responsorial Psalm, and this is always said as if to suggest that the Graduale, while permissible, must be looked down upon as an inferior option - even though these are among the oldest in the Gregorian books and even though they are unquestionably the great masterpieces of all the books.

Well, here we go: the Graduale is being sung again in the Vatican. Here is Christus Factus Est for Good Friday (commentator below points out that this is actually the Graduale for Palm Sunday and it is being sung to the text of the Gospel acclamation). The "function," if we can call it that, of the Graduale is to inspire reflection on holy scripture. As William Mahrt points out, it is clearly the case that the music is elevated even above the text as the preeminent thing in these pieces, as illustrated by the luxuriating melismas that occur throughout the pieces. These pieces clearly depart from the formula of the melody being a vessel for the more-important text; the music here becomes the "text" which is to say that the music here is the message, the purpose, the driving functional element, and the long elaborations on single syllables are structured create an earthly stillness so that the mind and heart can be elevated to the heavens to prepare us.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Popule Meus


Chip In for Chanted English Psalms

Until the Chabanel Psalms were established, the problem of the Responosorial Psalm was among the most vexing of the Roman Rite in the ordinary form. The core problem was a lack of integration with the rest of the music at Mass. Here we have the very core of Christian song and yet musical conventions provided few options that were stylistically part of a chanted Mass structure. Chabanel provided those options every week.

Among the most downloaded of all the Psalms are those by Arlene Oost-Zinner, a member of the ChantCafe's team. Here's are quick to learn, evocative of the text, different enough each each to provide variety but similar enough to provide stability, and, crucially, the Psalm antiphon includes all the verses with a pointed and notated text. It can be sung well by a single cantor or a full choir, and without the need for accompaniment. This structure permits the prayerful stillness of the chant between the readings to come through while still involving the people in the singing.

I can completely understand why so many use these sheets. Ideally, however, these would all be collected in a small book to keep in the choir room, so that we would have to constantly download and print. When something is this good, it is useful to have a printed edition. This is what the Chant Cafe and the CMAA would like to do: bring out a new edition of these Psalms, and in time for the release of the new Missal.

They serve as the perfect complement to the new Missal as well as the Simple English Propers that we will also be publishing. They also work well with Latin settings of the ordinary and propers. With this piece of the puzzle in place, every parish can have all the music needed to present a reliably beautiful sung Mass every week.

To support the completion of this project and its printing, the ChantCafe has started a chipIn campaign. Whatever you can provide would be fantastic. Your donation is tax deductible too - because of the CMAA's nonprofit status.

Please help to make the Psalms at Mass beautiful again.

Maestro Wilko Brouwers

Maestro Wilko Brouwers from Corpus Christi Watershed on Vimeo.

In this short video, Corpus Christi Watershed's Danny Mendez captures the artistry of a conductor like no other.

With his extensive experience, gift for imagery, and patient coaching, Maestro Wilko Brouwers is able to illuminate a piece of music in singer's hearts, minds, and voices in a way seldom experienced. Wilko Brouwers will be on the faculty of Sacred Music Colloquium XXI this June. This is a once in a lifetime chance to sit under a true master.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Pasch of the Resurrection in Andalucia

Fr Luke Melcher, Fr Christopher Smith, and Fr Pedro Jimenez Barros shoot confetti bullets
towards the Risen Christ to celebrate Easter 2011 in Coripe, Spain

Oldtimers in Southern Spain do not remember a worse year for rain during Holy Week. I apparently chose the wrong year to come, but it has been nice to live Holy Week with some calm instead of running around from dawn until way past midnight every day going from one procession to the next. Good Friday and Holy Saturday were a washout, but the Rising Sun was warmly greeted this Easter morn. Don Pedro, Fr Luke and I made our way to Coripe for Easter Sunday Mass. Of course, I found out at the last minute that I was on as MC and Preacher, so imagine my frantically composing my Spanish homily during the Victimae paschali!

The Mass was not surprisingly packed, and Chant Café Readers will be happy to know that Fr Luke sang the Vidi aquam from the Parish Book of Chant on an IPad. The rest of the Mass was a 'traditional' Flamenco mass with castanets, guitars and some powerful lungs belting it out from the choir loft. Latin according to the best of Solesmes style was provided by the American clergy as Spanish in the best folksy tradition descended upon this little village church in a liturgy few would ever forget.

But what I would never forget was what happened after Mass. Of course, a Procession! The Risen Christ was carried on a float by the costeleros of Coripe, with a recently formed band that meets twice a week with professional teachers. In front of the church several men of the village stood at attention with rifles and shot into the air confetti bullets. As we processed around the village for an hour, shots rang out and confetti and roses rained down all over the place. Of course, your clerical commentators, always eager to suck the marrow out of life, did not hesitate to take up arms more than once and shoot confetti into the sky. The South Carolina contingent, raised more on philosophy and French, was impressed by redneck Louisiana’s marksmanship, and learned a thing or two during pick up lessons in shooting from the hip in mid-procession.

Once the procession returned to the church, we ducked into a bar for some Cruzcampo and to greet the townsfolk while the men of the parish brought a scare-crow looking effigy of Judas with Qadaffi’s face to hang from a tree next to the north wall of the church.

I can only imagine the reaction of the insurance adjusters of American dioceses at what we saw next.

A firing squad appeared, this time with rifles with real bullets, and they shot at Judas until the kerosene tank in him exploded. And they kept shooting until there was nothing else left of the Traitor. The children rushed to throw stones at the stray pieces of straw and cloth that littered the tree, the remains of the faithful’s revenge on Judas. No felix culpas here!

After a brief respite back at the rectory, we made our way to Castelleja to see what cannot be called anything else but the Battle of the Virgins. Two neighborhoods in the same tiny smart Southern Spanish town have been involved in a West Side Story kind of struggle for so long they have two separate processions at the same time on Easter Sunday afternoon.

The Immaculate Conception procession goes up and down one street of the town while the Sorrowful Mother Procession goes up and down the other main street at the same time. Two different parishes, two different confraternities, two different worlds, all literally one street away from each other. United in the same faith, but divided by historical ties that no one really understands, no one seems to be bothered by this Battle of the Virgins that has gone on every year since time immemorial.

It was an odd way to end our Semana Santa experience in Seville. Fr Luke is staying to race Ferraris with some new friends found in the area, and I go back to my hermit lifestyle of a doctoral student in Pamplona. We started this amazing week with the impressive processions for Palm Sunday all over Seville and Don Pedro’s explanation of their origin in the Catholic Reformation’s desire to keep Spain away from Protestant iconoclasm. And we ended it with a little town which had kept that same faith, but was still divided over other issues. We saw the best of popular piety and what public manifestations of the faith can to do to promote Catholic identity. And we also saw how that deeply felt faith does not always translate into a moral life, a Catholic spirituality from day to day, orthodox belief, and the quest of the entire People of God for holiness. But I am deeply grateful to all of those friends new and old that became incredibly dear to me in this Sevillian Great and Holy Week, for allowing me to experience the Mystery of Redemption as I never have before, and perhaps never will again.

In the meantime, however, I will find a way to shoot the hell out of Judas on Easter Sunday in my next parish. Somehow I think that South Carolina just might find that Spanish tradition a welcome addition to the Palmetto State’s celebrations of the Paschal Mystery!

Many thanks to Don Pedro Jimenez Barros of the Archdiocese of Seville and Father Luke Melcher of the Diocese of Alexandria, Louisiana, for their expert guidance through Holy Week and or their priestly fraternity and friendship, as well as to all of the wonderful priests and laity we were graced to serve and get to know during this week.

Check out my bad photos at the Picasa Web linked in the first article, Semana Santa en Sevilla.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Three versions of Resurrexi

None sound like "Jesus Christ Is Risen Today"

Friday, April 22, 2011

Yet another amazing story on Gregorian Chant

Everyone must absolutely read this super lovely, very realistic story in the National Post, and watch the video too please.

Nos autem gloriari

Maundy Thursday in Coripe

As the Director of Religious Education was driving me to Coripe, a small village outside of Moron, to celebrate the Mass In Cena Domini, we were listening to CanalSur to what was going on in Seville. It had been raining all day long. I had been sick all day long with a stomach bug. The center of Seville and all the towns of Andalucia, which were usually thronged with people, were totally lifeless and empty. Everyone was in their houses watching to see what would be happening. The whole region was on edge, because they usually spend all night between Maundy Thursday and Good Friday in the madrugada, processions until dawn.

The most important of these processions was that of Cristo Gran Poder and the Macarena. Out of all of the floats and processions in Seville, this is by far the largest, longest, and most beautiful procession. The statue of the Macarena, of Our Lady of Hope, is the most beautiful image of Our Lady in the world, according to Sevillians, and she is covered by a velvet green cope whose gold embroidery was so rich you could hardly see the cloth underneath. The procession also has Roman soldiers in their distinctive battle dress uniform with enormous white plumes and the best bands and singers.

Everyone wants to see the Macarena, and so everyone was glued to radio, TV and internet. Would she leave the Basilica at 1am as she has for almost 500 years?

But in the meantime, there was another Seville tradition to be followed: the Visit to the Seven Repositories for Maundy Thursday. The repositories are called monumentos, and are decorated by the Confraternities. Not surprisingly, everyone competes to decorate the most beautiful repository. By the far the most beautiful one I saw was in Moron itself. They had constructed a terrace of wood planks, hidden by red brocade, flowers and candles in silver vases. The tabernacle was surrounded by more red brocade and silver and gold.

Don Carlos, a young priest from a neighboring parish, joined us on our visit, as we went from church to convent to monastery to chapel to say a brief prayer in front of the Blessed Sacrament and greet other worshippers who were making their visits as well. But of course, both Don Carlos and Don Pedro had every priest’s nightmare to do tomorrow: funerals. Don Carlos has a Procession from 6am to noon, a funeral at noon, the Liturgy of the Passion at three, and then another Procession at 6pm in his parish. So the priests were all looking forward to some sleep, but we were all decided to tough it out in case the Macarena was going to process in Seville.

Having visited Jesus in the repositories, we made our way back home, anxiously awaiting word if the Macarena would process. At 1am, the gave the word. No. Driving sheets of rain would make that impossible. But on the internet, we could see what was going on inside the Basilica. All of that preparation, the money spent, the hopes dashed, was way too much for many to handle. To see some of the costeleros kneeling the midst of the throngs, weeping like little children, to hear anguished cries from the brothers of the Confraternity, was not melodrama. It was profoundly moving. This year, devotion to Christ and Our Lady would have to take the form of obedience and mortification, not obeying the orders of the Precentor and extreme bodily penance, but the obedience to weather itself and an internal mortification of the will.

So I had an early night for once this week!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Interview with Fr. Pierre Paul, St. Peter's Basilica, Rome

Interview with Fr. Pierre Paul by Jeffrey Tucker of the from Church Music Association of Amer on Vimeo.

Help us with the introduction to the Simple English Propers

The excitement about the Simple English Propers is very intense, and we are hoping for a summer release of the hard copy, with videos to follow. The final proofing stage is where we are now.

The book will contain a tutorial on how to sing, and, in particular, some explanation of the four-line staff.

Here is our draft version of the introduction as it stands right now.

Some issues:
  • Does it provide enough explanation of propers?
  • Will a musician who reads modern notes understand chant notation from this?
  • What about a person who doesn't read music at all? Can they get what they need from this?
  • Have we covered enough to get going singing the SEP?

It's my own view that every chant book produced today needs this type of explanation. i don't mind saying that I find the absence of such a tutorial in Ignatius's Compline book to be a problem.

Some Things Old Are New Again

I've written several times that these days seem very much like 1965, with the attempt to provide a solemn form of a vernacular liturgy. Professor Peter Kwasniewski underscores the point by digging up three interesting Mass cards from 1959, 1965, and 1967. The Latin version is commonly used today in parishes working toward Gregorian chant. The English versions use translations nearly identical to what we will experience beginning in Advent this year. The tunes are also similar to that found in the new Missal. It's all a matter of trying to get beyond a certain unpleasantless that will be probably enter the annals of history as a time when Catholics sort of went a bit nutty. In any case, here is the blast from the past that looks much like our future.

Chant Mass

Current and Forthcoming: Holy Thursday


God our father,
we are gathered here to share in the supper
which your only Son left to his Church to reveal his love.
He gave it to us when he was about to die
and commanded us to celebrate it as the new and eternal sacrifice.
We pray that in this eucharist
we may find the fullness of love and life.

O God, who have called us to participate
in this most sacred Supper,
in which your Only Begotten Son,
when about to hand himself over to death,
entrusted to the Church a sacrifice new for all eternity,
the banquet of his love,
grant, we pray,
that we may draw from so great a mystery,
the fullness of charity and of life.


Almighty God,
we receive new life
from the supper your Son gave us in this world.
May we find full contentment
in the meal we hope to share in the your eternal kingdom.

Grant, almighty God,
that, just as we are renewed
by the Supper of your Son in this present age,
so we may enjoy his banquet for all eternity.

Note: In the forthcoming Missal, the use of "sacred supper," "banquet of love," "supper of your Son," and the elimination of the word "meal" obviously changes the character of the message here.

Current and Forthcoming: Good Friday


Lord, by shedding his blood for us,
your Son, Jesus Christ,
established the paschal mystery.
In your goodness, make us holy and watch over us always.

Remember your mercies, O Lord,
and with your eternal protection sanctify your servants,
for whom Christ your Son,
by the shedding of his Blood,
established the Paschal Mystery.


For the Church

Let us pray, dear friends,
for the holy Church of God throughout the world;
that God the almighty Father
guide it and gather it together
so that we may worship him
in peace and tranquility.

Let us pray, dearly beloved, for the holy Church of God,
that our God and Lord be pleased to give her peace,
to guard her and to unite her throughout the whole world
and grant that, leading our life in tranquility and quiet,
we may glorify God the Father almighty.


Lord, send down your abundant blessing
upon your people who have devoutly recalled the death of your Son
in the sure hope of the resurrection.
Grant them pardon; bring them comfort.
May their faith grow stronger
and their eternal salvation be assured.

May abundant blessing, O Lord, we pray,
descend upon your people,
who have honored the Death of your Son
in the hope of their resurrection:
may pardon come,
comfort be given,
holy faith increase,
and everlasting redemption be made secure.

Notes: the offerings in the forthcoming Missal seem far richer and without adding extraneous material urging God to "watch over us" and the like. The text and music for an English version of Crux Fidelis is printed. The Crucem Tuam is recommended by name. The options for other music are far less prominent; the normative music receives top billing. There seems to be an effort to standardize and re-institutionalize the traditions of Good Friday. Final note: I'm happy to see the word "gather" purged from the General Intercessions. We've had just about enough of that gather thing.

A Beautiful Example of Hymnody in the Roman Rite of Mass

Palm Sunday features one of the few times when what is called a hymn is an embedded part of the ritual of Mass. The hymn is "Gloria, laus et honor tibi sit." Ironically, in most American parishes, this is replaced by "All Glory, Laud, and Honor." So entrenched is the vernacular hymn mania in the United States that not even the hymns in the ritual itself are used but instead are replaced by inferior substitutes. This is very sad. On the other hand, this is inspiring:

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Spy Wednesday in Moron de la Frontera

I don’t normally wake up at the crack of noon, really, but what can you do when you have been running all over Andalucia catching one procession after another? So today was a relatively quiet day. The church was full all day long with the elaborate procession today in Moron de la Frontera, and the men and women (and the clergy) went back and forth between church and the bar across the street. Flowers, silver polishing, beer, candles, vestment pressing, wine.

By 6pm it was time to start the procession and the costeleros were ready to begin their arduous superhuman task of carrying the floats of Christ Suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane while the Apostles sleep and Our Lady of Loreto. I wondered how this procession would be different than the ones we have seen before. Because the Confraternity belongs to Don Pedro’s parish, the parish clergy (Don Pedro and his two American friends) had to be present in an official manner. The three of us in our cassocks and the large medal of the order suspended from a silver and blue cord were given silver bastones, walking sticks topped by an image of the Holy House of Loreto and the Monstrance of the Blessed Sacrament. At first I wondered why everyone had these big sticks. I soon would find out that, though they were beautiful, they were also practical.

Since Moron is a military town, with Spanish and American air force bases in its outskirts, the Spanish Air Force is given a place of honour in the Procession. We met the Comandante of the Air Base as well as a delightful military cadet who was a local boy. He grew up as a costelero in Moron and was coming home to see his family and hometown, who were honored to see their native son take part in the procession as a dignitary. During the procession, the clergy and the officers chatted whenever the float was called to a halt.

Some of those pauses were just to keep order and a stately pace. But there were four pauses where Our Lady of Loreto had to go and visit some of her special friends. The first time the statue and its float would be turned around was at the nursing home, as the oldtimers were wheeled to the windows so they catch a glimpse of their Madonna. The second time as at the Carmelite Monastery. As the costeleros went about the delicate business of whipping the float around, Don Pedro, Fr Luke and I ran to the grille of the convent to chat briefly with the nuns, of whom only one is Spanish; all of the others are Kenyans. We begged their holy prayers and then let them pray with the Blessed Virgin. We also paused when one of the soloists from a balcony serenaded the Virgin with his Arabic-sounding saeta, and his powerful and loud performance was greeted by enthusiastic applause. Finally, underneath one balcony, a family started to throw rose petals. The crowds stood and watched as one, then two, then three, then four and it kept on going, trash bags of rose petals were emptied over the canopy of the Blessed Virgin. I am not sure how long we stood there as this deluge of roses descended upon the float to applause, but the Verger finally had enough of waiting and with his stick banged his way through the Procession to get everyone moving.

Two hours passed as if it were nothing, but as two turned into three and then into four, as we made our way up and down the hills of Moron, I began to use the baston less as a decoration and more to support my back and legs. All the while I could see the faces of the Apostles on the float, terribly peaceful and unaware in their deep sleep that their Master and Commander was sweating blood and suffering at the thought of the Passion just a few feet away.

Perhaps Jesus’ question, Can you not watch one hour with Me? was in the back of the minds of all of those thousands of participants and spectators to encourage them never to give up. When we saw the imposing bell tower of the Church of San Miguel come closer and closer, after four hours, I was so relieved! The floats made their way into the church and I said to one of the Airmen, “Wow, that was cool, but I am really tired. Glad we made it.” He looked at me quizzically. “But, Father, we have to go back in procession as well.” There was only one procession in Moron that night, and it had to go back to Don Pedro’s church. In the Church of San Miguel, I was edified to see the Airmen steal a quick prayer in various nooks and crannies of the church before they assumed once again their formation for the trek back.

The clergy, not surprisingly, decided to leave the procession and have dinner. After a lovely meal of croquetas and gambas al ajillo, we joined up the procession again, two hours later, as it was about to enter the church again.

But, this is Spain, so the float was taller than the church door. So where is the make-it-fit button? Where was the tractor to haul in the float? The valiant men underneath, the floor, of course! As the float made its way over the threshold, the Precentor rang out orders, and rank after rank, the costeleros knelt and walked on their knees to get through the doors. 100 pounds of pressure evenly distributed on each man’s back, as they walked on their knees into the church. Another knock, and they stood, and gave one last triumphant jump in the air with the float on top of them.

For one more year, after 500 had already passed, the brothers of the Confraterity of this adorable little town had made their citizens, and surely also, their LORD, proud. Needless to say, the crowd went wild, and hugs and kisses and water bottles and bandages went all around. It was quite a feat, of strength, of perseverance, of love.

It is now 2.30 in the morning. Don Pedro wisely bought me ear plugs, because all around the church and rectory, the celebratory party will go on all night. We are still deciding whether we want to drive out to Seville and see what is going on in town. I have a feeling tomorrow I may be awaking at a way too early afternoon hour. But I am also thankful I will be in better shape than most of those men I respect I saw today.

Check out my bad photos at the Picasa Web linked in the first article, Semana Santa en Sevilla.

A Colloquium Highlight: New Music!

Composers should plan on attending the new music reading session, scheduled for Saturday afternoon, Saturday, June 18th. David J. Hughes, Organist and Choirmaster at St. Mary in Norwalk, Connecticut, will be on hand to introduce composers and their submissions, and otherwise keep things humming.

If you have a piece of music you would like to submit for possible performance by the group at large at the session, please send it to in PDF format (limited to 15 pages) by May 12, 2011. Your submission will be published in the New Music Session 2011 packet. You must be a registered participant of the Colloquium in order to have your work included. There is a $20 submission fee, payable via paypal or by check to our programs office: CMAA Programs, 166 North Gay St., #19, Auburn, AL 36830.

Palm Sunday, Rome

This is the antiphon being sung

Missal CD for your pastor

This CD put together by Watershed is a great means of making sure that the sung Mass becomes the norm with the new Missal. Every priest should have this, and singers should too.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Holy Tuesday in Seville

Like many dioceses in the United States, the Archdiocese of Seville moves its Chrism Mass to the Tuesday of Holy Week so the priests can get together for this important annual occasion without having to rush around at the last minute thinking about the Triduum. It was the first time since I was ordained to the priesthood that I experienced the Chrism Mass outside of my own cathedral with my own Bishop and my own presbyterate. But the fraternity of the priesthood exists in every diocese and every language.

The Chrism Mass was the usual standard Chrism Mass, with the canons singing the Redemptor sume Carmen (I kept hearing Bizet in the background of my mind as we were down the street from the nicotine factory famous in the opera). But before the Mass, the entire presbyterate gathered in the Parroquia del Sagrario, the sacristy of the Cathedral which is its own parish, to hear each other’s confessions. After the Mass, we all processed singing the Hymn to St Juan de Avila to the Chapel of the Virgen de los Reyes, where St Fernando, King of Spain, is buried. The Archbishop publicly thanked all of the silver and golden anniversary priests and gave a fervorino to encourage the clergy to participate in World Youth Day.

As we enjoyed a reception in the Patio de los Naranjos, every Sevillian’s worst nightmare came true: driving rain during Holy Week. And so what could we do? No float would dare go out on a day like this. And so we went to the Ritz Hotel Alfonso XIII, a seventeenth-century royal palace festooned with handpainted azulejo tiles, for coffee and tea.

There was nothing to do other than ask my Spanish friends to accompany me to the Corte Ingles department store to buy CDs of the Sevillian Holy Week music. As we made our way back to Moron de la Frontera, we listened to the ESPN of Processions. The Bofetada Procession, of Our LORD slapped by the Roman soldiers, decided to brave it. Each confraternity has an elected Big Brother, or Gran Hermano, who makes that fateful decision. It is risky. If the floats go out under the rain, the cloths are ruined, the canopies destroyed, and the costeleros underneath the floats find it even more difficult to breathe. The Yes was given, and as soon as the Bofetada got out into the street away from the Cathedral, torrential downpours started.

As we listened on the radio to the shocked commentary of the onlookers, one phone call after another came in to our host from priests and lay friends from all over Seville, “Are you following what is going on?” with as much earnestness as the last play of the Super Bowl. Finally, after a few minutes, it became impossible. We parked on the side of the street, ran into a bar, and watched on television as the float worked its way backwards into safety.

In the meantime, Moron was having its smaller, but very similar procession of the Cross. As the nazarenos, barefoot with their pointy black hats and white robes with external hairshirt-corset looking vests of hemp, worked their silent way up the winding streets of Moron, Fr Luke retired for the night, felled by a fatiguing few days and a nasty cough. It was a reminder that, as the famous antiphon goes, In the midst of life we are in death. Good thing we priests had the great honour to renew our ordination promises in one of the largest cathedrals in Christendom and then enjoy in the excitement of the Andalucian laity who are spending all night in the church working on their floats for tomorrow.

Don Pedro got a phone call. He has a funeral tomorrow. But how do you do that when the pews have been taken out of the parish church whose nave is filled with two enormous floats. We’ll figure that out tomorrow morning.

Interview with Fr. Brian Austin, FSSP

Fr. Brian Austin is conducting a chant workshop in Mableton, Georgia, and everyone is invited. Here he speaks of the chant and its meaning and what he plans for the workshop. For more see the sponsoring parish website.

Fr. Brian Austin, FSSP, is interview by Jeffrey Tucker of the from Church Music Association of Amer on Vimeo.

Interview with Paul Ford

Composer Paul Ford, who works with the Liturgical Press, has long been an advocate of using the propers of the Mass as the basis of ritual song. His new collection pushes the paradigm of unaccompanied, vocal singing of the propers to new areas that includes ordinary chants, dialogues, and all the propers of the Mass, to be sung in unison or parts. He graciously agreed to an interview this morning.

You can see samples of the new collection here

Composer Paul Ford is interviewed by Jeffrey Tucker of the from Church Music Association of Amer on Vimeo.

"Majesty" as a cure for the litmusic doldrums?

Over at INSIDECATHOLIC commentator "Mena" offers:
Also standing in the way of this one is the complacency of parishioners, and the multi-generational conflict about subjecting the the Mass to the whims of "progress." I can't be the only Catholic under 35 (or 45, 55, 65...) who questions the wisdom of the the hippie generation's imprint on liturgy. A little majesty now and then is a good thing.

As a parish Director of Music for just now over four decades, I think Mena's spot on with one observation, and wants to be overly compensated on the other side of that reality and equation. Complacency is not merely a symptom of the Church's liturgical dis-ease, it has metasticized its way into the mindset of the vast majority of all the "stakeholders," office ministers and lay faithful alike. The institutional mechanisms that have grafted convenience to obligation, such as entitlements to pulp missal subscriptions and the consumerist result of assured obsolecense guaranteeing a passive demand that private publishers, not the Church, are happy to maintain.
Priest/Celebrants also daily wrestle with routine as they perceive it, rather than office and opportunity, and many of them retreat to insulation from "community" even if they're lucky to have vicars sharing a rectory. The old insulations, destructive behaviors or addictions, are too dangerous. So many of them manage to create "make work" daily lives like their secular counterpart CEO/CFO's, checking out trends, reports, presiding over endless meetings, surfing the web and installing "clipboard management" modes of parish plant management. I mean no disrespect here; this is what the post-conciliar church has demanded of them.

To me the notion that the fruits of the VII reform were sour, and thus is causal to liturgical malaise is a red herring. The problem isn't the "form" of the rite, but it's perfunctory, un-prepared and cultic bassackwardness performance by people who spend far less time preparing than the poor soul with a guitar and six chords who rehearses weekly, and still can't get it right.

Sure, there's no majesty in this desolation. But the cure isn't necessarily found through complaint, convenience or complacency. And majesty, alone, is a short term remedy.

The real path to healing our rites is a return by all to foundational humility.

That is already present in the Roman Graduals and Missals, in our own native musical forms. And the Church clearly teaches that adherence to the uniquely humble and supremely confident song is to be found in the chanted Psalter and ordinaries. What language is used is secondary protocol.

So, I'm wary of any discussions that have, as an underlying agenda, a commerce-interest. Whether this is manifested by the banal but popular forms, or the faux-majesty of tympani and trumpet motets and Masses that are trotted out at papal Masses of all stripes, the disease persists and remedy furthers itself away.

Whether one can credibly, in true humility, lead the singing of James Moore's "Taste and See" without the fake inculturated trappings, or chants "Gustate et videte" with precision and beauty, is what matters in the liturgical vineyard.

I don't see a lot of humility present in many quarters of modern culture, including the sacral. People should really take into consideration that what and how they sing at worship is, literally, singing for their very lives.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Holy Monday in Seville

Fr Luke made a very profound point yesterday as we watched procession after procession in the Cathedral of Seville on Palm Sunday night. As priests, we are so used to being the ones who guide others spiritually, who tell others to have faith, that we forget that we have to be led as well. It was a pious thought, but we were able to put into practice today.
Don Pedro let us observe the processions very much as outsiders yesterday. This morning he said, “OK, so today we are going to do the processions my way.” As an Anglo-Saxon, I have always seen gate-crashing as a particular form of rudeness. I could never imagine just walking around in and out of processions like I owned Seville. But, lucky for us, Don Pedro does not have any of that Victoria reserve, and so we spent most of the day winding our way through one procession after another, and most of that time directly in front of the floats. Not only did no one consider the native son and his two American friends as interlopers, we were always guided to the spot where we needed to be.
Of course, directly in front of the floats you have Spanish army officers in their black plastic hats, servers in their albs and dalmatics, precentors of the confraternities with sticks they know how to use to keep order, and lots of people. There is perpetual motion, and even when the precentor uses the silver knocker to signal a stop, the stop is less a period than a comma, a brief pause in an other wise endless undulation of bodies.
How could there not be accidents? Men carrying literally tons of precious metal, sixteenth-century statues, velvet cloths, candles and flowers in abundance. What could go wrong? Everything! But it doesn’t. How? These processions are not choreographed with the precision of military ceremonies; they are as natural as the Sevillians are natural.
During the procession today of the Condemnation of Christ by Caiaphas and Annas, I began to see why nothing ever goes wrong. Trust. As a priest, I say I trust in God, I tell others to trust in God, but deep down inside I am as much of a pragmatic cynic as anyone else. How do you walk backwards in and through hundreds of people when there is a two ton float coming at you with men underneath it who can’t see what is in front of you? The costoleros who carry the floats are practically blindfolded and do their work in the hot, sweaty undercroft of the float. Their only instructions are given by the loud banging of the knocker. It is all instinct and obedience. For those in the light of day participating in the procession, everyone guides each other by hands, arms and elbows as the procession moves its way as one united motion.
This procession is different than many processions, because at certain points, the costoleros in unison not only jump high in the air, but they move as rapidly as 36 men holding two tons on their backs can move. The effect is one that I can only akin to the most majestic waves of the ocean, where sea foam is replaced by silver filigree and salt spray by velvet and lace. And the thousands of people that are in the procession all have to trust each other and work together as a team, all in instinct to the need for survival and obedience to the knocker. And as we three priests were right in front of the float, we more than anyone else had to trust the men who had our back, quite literally.
And so the dance began: tons of metal and statue rising up and down rolling forward like the crashing waves on the seashore, and the masses of people going with it like so many perfect surfers. But what we saw from our vantage point was not the azure sky or the reddening afternoon sun. At one crest of the wave it was the resigned face of the Savior, then a slave holding on his back the Law, another time Annas looking confused and bewildered. The music was a plaintive soliloquy of loss, pain and sorrow, and as I let myself be moved physically in this incredibly trusting way, I was able to surrender my own self-will to the obedience of the motion initiated by the Christ in whose honour this dance was held. Had I stood motionless, or tried to do my own thing, I would have been crushed, and would have imperiled other people’s lives. But I resigned my own will to the nature of the thing, and as such experienced a movement, bodily and spiritually, which lifted me beyond myself to trust in the LORD and my fellow men.
I nearly almost fainted from the beauty of it all, and that’s not being overly dramatic. It was that powerful. And when we finished the procession, we realized that we had traversed half of the city center of Seville in what seemed like a moment. But for Don Pedro the Indefatigible, we had other Prcoessions to participate in, each time as close as the first.
We followed Christ El Cautivo, bound in ropes and clothed in the purple livery of mock royalty. We followed the Betrayal of Christ by a Judas who was inches away from the kiss that sent the Prince of Peace to the Cross. We followed the Blessed Mother under her several titles and in her manifold dress as she followed her Son, pierced with a sorrow none of us can ever imagine. All the while, the music alternated between the minor Passion symphonies of the mysteries of Christ and the prophetic notes of joy that accompanied the Lady of Sorrows as she grieved for the pain of her Son while basking in the faith in his Resurrection to come.
Back in the parish of Moron, preparations were underway for the village’s Spy Wednesday procession. Thousands of dollars of flowers arrived from all over Europe as the men who would be disguised under robes unloaded and prepared them and the thousands of dollars of candles that would go on the one float they were preparing. It made me wonder. How on earth could a small village afford all of this? There were no wealthy Sevillian patrons of the aristocracy who could underwrite the thousands of dollars that went into making one float, much less the thousands of floats that floated all over Andalucia every Holy Week. And none of that compared at all with the inestimable value of the floats themselves.
My question was answered. We went to another village called El Coronil where a team of grandmothers were working overtime making pestinas, fried pastries soaked in honey, lemon and sesame fabulousness, as some wag called it. We knocked on the door and were ushered into the Kitchen that Makes Millions, a modest kitchenette in someone’s home where the abuelitas of El Coronil make this delicious pastry.
At first it seems odd to make pastries of this lavishness during Holy Week. I thought they must be for Easter. But in Seville, penance during Semana Santa does not apply to food. According to venerable custom, anyone in Seville who participates in the processions is exempt from fast and abstinence during Holy Week. The anxiously awaited fax from the Archbishop’s Palace arrived on Don Pedro’s IPhone granting those who participate a dispensation from fasting and abstinence on Good Friday.
So are the Spaniards weaklings who just can’t fast one day of the year? Are they really that pathetic? Actually, the immense physical exertion that those who participate in the procession, particularly the costoleros and the penitents, endure, is so great that they must eat big and healthy meals with lots of protein and carbs to manage. The bodily penance that they endure is more than anyone can imagine, and, in order to do the penance, they have to eat.
This is where we see the wisdom of Mother Church even in her laws on fast and abstinence, and how she adapts herself to unique situations all over the world. It also gives a unique character to the ascetical life of Seville’s Holy Week. The Manichean, Jansenistic, Puritanical tendency that stalks Catholicism from time to time tends to want to whitewash, denude and hyperperfect everything in a Pelagian attempt to use soulless penance to channel grace. Thank God for Seville and its Baroque piety, which destroys that heresy. For this spirituality, penance is done in an extreme way amidst a sumptuous and sensual display that delights the senses and moves the heart. Just as in the Incarnation, Divinity charges mortal flesh with the grandeur of God, during Holy Week, mortified flesh and bone meets a Christ whose real human suffering is retold in a display of beauty, chant and light.
As the day went on and the procession continued, silence descended upon the city. As one procession after another prepared for the Procession of the Cross, silence reigned. We were entering into a place where words and sound could do nothing. There was only the Cross, and that to end the evening. The silence of the tomb came down as so many droplets of dew from the heavens, bringing Seville to serenity.
But, the Blessed Virgin of the Waters was not far behind. And so, the silence was unexpectedly broken by a band out of nowhere, as joyful notes poured forth into a torrent of expectation for what would come on Easter Sunday. The great wood and copper doors of the Cathedral were closed shut and Seville had an early night at 1am.
Check out my bad photos at the Picasa Web linked in the first article, Semana Santa en Sevilla.

All About the Vatican II Hymnal

Hope you enjoy this quick interview:

Jeffrey Ostrowki is interviewed by Jeffrey Tucker at from Church Music Association of Amer on Vimeo.

A Missal for the Choir

Fr. Christopher Smith wrote an outstanding article about the strange way in which the Roman Rite has become Balkanized in a single town, with different understandings prevailing at each parish. It is even true within single parishes, where we find everything from a Gregorian chant Mass to a rock-bad Mass, each marketed to a separate demographic.

There is an even stranger problem that affects every single Mass, one that has little precedent in the history of the ritual. The problem is that the the printed materials for the celebrant are hardly ever seen by the choir. The choir’s materials are hardly ever seen by the celebrant. The people in the pews have a different set, and there is yet another set for readers who handle the prayers of the faithful. The patchwork comes together in the end, more or less, but there are important pieces missed along the way.

A good example comes in Holy Week this year. The Sacramentary contains many chants that the choir know nothing about. Missalettes and planning guides do not have them. They are there for the priest but the priest is not designated to sing them. As a result, they do not get sung at all. Nor is the director of music in a position to assist the celebrant with his chants. Choir leaders figure that all they need to know is in their planning guide and the Missalette. But when you actually compared the two resources, you get a picture of a different ritual.

In fact, I would venture a guess that most people involved in a conventional parish music program have never opened a Sacramentary, much less follow what is going on in there week to week. They don’t have to. Nor do most priests bother to look at the planning guides that the choir uses to provide music for the liturgy. They are pretty much in the dark as to why the choir sings what it sings. The problem is further complicated by the differences that are embedded in the Sacramentary versus the Gradual itself.

It is helpful to contrast this what the old Mass. The Roman Missal (there was no separate Letionary) contained all the words said at the Mass. The Roman Gradual had the same words insofar as they are to be sung. The Liber Usualis was a useful compendium that allowed the singers to see exactly what was being done. The customized versions for the celebrant added the detailed rubrics that pertained to the celebrant but otherwise. Laypeople could use the Liber or any handheld Missal that was the same except that it added notes that pertained to the laity.

In other words, everyone was on the same page, so to speak.

I’ve been very critical of the current Sacramentary but in the balance, it is a better musical resource for ritual music than the Missalettes. The trouble is that hardly anyone other than the priest really saw this music. A knowledgeable choir director once told me that my own parish is the only one has had ever hear of that actually used the music in the Sacramentary for ritual music for the congregation. It is not great, but it is good, and much better than you find elsewhere.

Will this strange situation change with the new translation? Certainly the Bishops and ICEL are hoping for a change. This is why they are requiring that the chants from the Missal itself be printed in all musical resources in the pew. And the chants are not to be re-rendered in a new rhythm but printed exactly as they appear in the Missal itself.

This is a huge step. The people, the priest, and the people will have all the same basic music for the Mass. This will tie together a major loose end at currently exists in the liturgical structure.

Even so, there are limits to the mandate. There Missal will contain many chants that are not likely to be printed in the pew editions or the choir editions. The danger here is that they will go unsung and unknown.

Now to the action item. Pastors should purchase an additional Missal just for the loft or the choir room. It should be there on a stand for easy access. It should be maintained so that the ribbons mark the day. Choir directors and organists should be encouraged to look at the liturgical text every day or every week so that they will know what is coming and what the options are.

Choir directors should be encourage to look critically at the material from the major publishers to make sure that their resources are not leaving out important information or critical music.

It will also help if the choir director can see what the priest sees, and thereby be in a position to encourage singing from the sanctuary. The director can point out to the pastor that such and such passage can be beautiful sung, and then demonstrate how easy it is. This will help break down the communication barriers that currently exist.

This one simple step will take us a long way to re-integrating the loft and the sanctuary, which is essential to putting the Roman ritual back together again.

Many companies are printing new Missals. The most elaborate versions can cost up to $500 but there are smaller versions with less elaborate bindings that are extremely affordable. This should be part of the parish budget. If it is not, someone in the parish should volunteer to pay the bill to make this happen.

Again, this seems like an unlikely change to advance the reform of the reform, but the small step of providing and using a new Roman Missal in the choir room can do a great deal of good.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Semana Santa en Sevilla

I knew I was not in America anymore when on the night before Palm Sunday we walked into a bar in Moron de la Frontera. The bar belonged to the Confraternity of Loreto, and the men and their sons were all abuzz, for the next day would begin once again the most famous celebration annual celebration of Holy Week: Semana Santa in Seville. The men were comparing the knots that had developed on the backside of their necks after years of carrying floats called pasos in these celebrations. And the young boys looked up to their fathers and the day that they too would carry in their bodies the sign of the Passion they celebrate in such a sumptuous manner.

Two Americans, Fr Luke Melcher of Louisiana, and I, went to visit our friend Don Pedro, who is Chaplain to the American Air Force Base in Moron as well as pastor of two parishes outside of Seville. This Palm Sunday morning I celebrated the Mass in the parish of Moron for the community there, and after Mass we began the great adventure Semana Santa in Seville.

I had heard of the world-famous celebrations of Holy Week before. I had seen the pictures on the Internet and Youtube videos. But nothing would prepare me for what really is the largest Catholic block party in the world. Of course, before we could begin, we had to have lunch in the one of the chic quarters of cosmopolitan Seville and plan out our day.

Good thing there is a IPhone App for Semana Santa in Seville. But we also had the ABC Newspaper’s several sheet spread timetable to choose which processions we would follow. As we drove into the city, we were listening to the ESPN of Religion, a running commentary on the radio of every moment of every procession. Of course, having as our guide one of the most well-connected young priests in Spain was like having an all-access pass to be up close and personal with this amazing religious event.

In the early afternoon, we were able to work our way to the area around the famous Cathedral with its imposing belltower, the Giralda. To say that it was crowded does not begin to describe it. But on this incredibly hot afternoon, what struck me was how everyone was dressed. Nowhere in all of my travels through the Americas and Europe have I ever seen such a large number of snazzily and preppily dressed people. I don’t know if the indomitable blogger of the Sartorialist has ever been to Semana Santa, but he has no idea what he is missing!

Every procession follows a similar pattern. The first float depicts a mystery during the events of the Passion. The statue compositions rest upon wooden or silver and gold tables and often weigh up to two tons. Beneath them are from 36 to 56 men who carry the float. Each float has an elaborately carved knocker. A precentor uses the knocker to give instructions to the litter-bearers, who are hidden beneath the float by richly embroidered velvet cloths. Water boys occasionally steal under the floats to bring these men something to hydrate them. The famous penitents, in their distinctive robes and hoods, process in full anonymity. Behind the float depicting the mystery of Christ is a band, always playing a hymn in a minor key. Not far behind are more penitents. Many carry silver staffs, crosses, or the Rule of the Confraternity that sponsors that procession, often a book itself encased in silver.

Each procession also has another float with a statue of the Blessed Virgin, under a canopy, often of fine silver filigree work. Each canopy as eight or ten poles, and tassels of precious metal. Around the Blessed Virgin is a forest of candles as well as wax flowers as well as real flowers. The interesting thing about these floats is that everything is in motion. While the candlesticks, poles, and vases are all attached, they are attached in such a way that the entire float moves graciously and there is a peculiar sound of metal in perpetual motion. Acolytes with crucifix and torches are vested in dalmatics of velvet and couched gold embroidery over handmade lace albs, and are accompanied by several thurifers with so many charcoals in their censers I still do not know they did not melt every thurible in Andalucia. Following the Marian float would be another band, playing lively music in a major key.

The music for the procession that the bands use dates mostly from the 19th century, and not a small portion of it sounds suspiciously Puccini-inspired. Occasionally from a balcony a Spanish VIP with a stentorian voice would intone a saeta, a haunting Arabic-sounding serenade to the Blessed Virgin.

While this is the general procedure for a procession, it is important to understand that at any given time, day or night, for an entire week, there are several elaborate processions going on at the same time. As Our Lord of Victories, triumphant in his resignation to the chalice of suffering was making His way in front of us, behind us He was also marching triumphantly into Jerusalem as two processions skirted opposite ends of the plaza.

One of the most edifying things was the comportment of the faithful. Extraordinarily well-dressed young men and women climbed on top of anything that could give them a better view and kept a reverent silence when the floats passed, and the Sign of the Cross was reverently made. In some of the processions, those who processed walk backwards as a sign of reverence to Our LORD and Our Lady.

After several hours of watching processions under the blazing Andalucian sun, we stopped into Starbucks (America, America everywhere) for cold Frapuccinos. By this point, around 9pm, I was ready for a liter of sangria and bed. But the night had just begun.

We went to the Cathedral where the Confraternity that Don Pedro’s family has belonged to since time immemorial, La Estrella (Stella Maris), was beginning its procession. He was avidly looking for his brother, but how do you find your brother when he is dressed in a robe and a hood along with thousands upon thousands of other penitents? But they did find each other, and so Fr Luke and I gazed upon the delightful scene of two brothers, one a priest and the other penitent, chatting in the nave of the Cathedral, one shrouded in anonymity and the other in his clerics, taking part in a ritual that existed centuries before Christopher Columbus, who awaits the Resurrection of the Body in the Cathedral of Seville, ever thought of a voyage of discovery.

We spent several hours in the Cathedral, working our way through the endless files of people in procession. The Archbishop of Seville and his Auxiliary were seated in a makeshift throne room in a side chapel where we were granted a brief but warm audience. But one of the most emotional scenes of the day was when the Archbishop rushed to one of the floats, and went under it and knelt before the men who carried it. With those poor men who had been carrying the float through the streets of Seville for hours he prayed. He asked them to pray with him for vocations to the priesthood, for holy priests to shepherd the flock of Christ. He prayed for World Youth Day, for young people. He begged their prayers and prayed with them. Fortified by the blessing of their shepherd, at the sound of the knocker, the men in unison jumped as high as they could in the air and the procession began once again.

The greatest honour of the day was to accompany this procession through the streets of Seville, rather than being mere spectators. We saw so many tears of gratitude, prayer, and repentance. We saw so many acts of kindness to the penitents and the float-bearers. And what an edifying thing to see among the hooded throngs barefoot children walking through the streets with candles taller than they were, all meditating in their own way on the Passion of Christ.

It was quite the introduction to Holy Week. It is now after 3am. The streets of Seville are still thronged with worshippers, and they are still at it. They are predicting rain this week, but as absolutely exhausted as I am (and I can only imagine those who carried the floats or walked barefoot through the streets in procession), I am praying ad repellendam tempestates. I do not want to miss a minute of this extraordinarily Catholic manifestation of faith.

As one float passed by of Christ silent before the unjust judgment of Pilate, I was moved to pray for the Church, for her priests, for those who have been abused, for those who have been accused falsely, for all of those who do not have a voice. Somehow the prayer that comes from meditation over a scene like that seems so much useful than the angry words, political machinations and ideological battles which ruin our lives in society and the Church.

Something like Semana Santa is not strictly liturgical. It does not correspond to historical-critical interpretations of Scripture. It is impervious to the politically correct mindset of those who would force reforms on the Church hardly consonant with Catholic tradition. It is folkloric, but it is not pagan. It is a massive movement of humanity in dialogue with the power of the narrative of the Passion of Christ. A movement which brings tears to the eyes, which are tears of joy, repentance, fatigue, and wonder.

The world needs Semana Santa. The world needs Semana Santa because in Seville at least, people recognize their own fragility and limitations in a dramatic way. But they recognize even more that there is Victory in the Blood of Jesus, and they call down the power of that Blood upon them and the whole world in prayer, penance and works of mercy. I can hardly think of a better way to live Holy Week than that.

Check out my PicasaWeb Album of Semana Santa pictures I will be updating ALL WEEK LONG!