Friday, May 9, 2014


For at least a year now, my friend Matthew Meloche, Director of Music at the Cathedral of Sts. Simon and Jude in Phoenix, has been trying to convince me to move to his diocese to join what he calls “THE SACRED MUSIC REVOLUTION IN THE DESERT.”

At first I thought it was just kind of a joke (as most ALL-CAPS TITLES tend to be), but I was there this past weekend and it turns out that a revolution really is going on there in the desert.

On Saturday evening I attended a Mass at the Cathedral where the music was provided by only a single female cantor and Meloche on the organ. The cantor intoned the antiphons and sang the Psalm verses for English versions of the Introit, Offertory, and Communion propers, as well chanted settings of the Responsorial Psalm and Alleluia. These were taken from a handful of sources, most notably from the new Lumen Christi Simple Gradual, published by Illuminare Publications. (Adam Bartlett, the composer of the Simple English Propers, was the previous music director at the cathedral and also wrote most of the settings in the Lumen Christi Series).

Use of the processional propers (in addition to strong, traditional hymns) was really excellent, but unsurprising (I already knew that both Bartlett and Meloche had made this a priority), but what really blew me away was the singing by the priests and deacons: dialogues, prayers, the preface. I attended four Masses at the Cathedral, hearing two priests and three deacons, and all of them sang. It was really quite stunning.

So as wonderful as this was, it was the Cathedral of a Bishop who takes liturgy and music seriously, where the current and most recently previous music directors are both chant experts.

Does that qualify as a REVOLUTION?

I also attended Mass on the Arizona State University campus, at the Newman Center. It was a sung Mass, with chanted propers and traditional choral music, at 9:00pm Sunday night at a public university.

The place was packed.

The processional propers were all chanted, in English settings drawn from both the Simple English Propers and the Lumen Christi Series. The Ordinary was the Missa de Angelis, sung (very well) in Latin by the whole congregation. The priest sang most of the dialogues. After the dismissal, the Marian antiphon Regina Caeli Laetare was chanted in Latin by the entire congregation, followed by a phenomenal organ postlude.

The Cathedral liturgy was really something amazing, but it was a Cathedral liturgy. A strong bishop, an excellent rector, and a decent budget ensure that the leadership there can implement a serious music program. To me, the Newman center at ASU confirms that there is a revolution afoot, and not just in Phoenix. There is a generational shift happening that will remake the landscape of Catholic music.

The 9:00pm Sung Mass is not the only Sunday liturgy offered on campus. Other Masses, at more “normal” times of day consist of typical Catholic folk-fare and high-spirited Praise and Worship music.

But the Sung Mass, I am told, is the most well-attended.

Moreover, the ratio of men to women was almost 50/50, an amazing thing given how under-represented males are in church attendance. (The dynamic young priest told me that this is unique to the Sung Mass congregation.)

Also, there were a number of people who were clearly not a part of the typical “College Student” crowd - older folks, young families with children. They may have been members of the University community (faculty, staff, graduate students), or unaffiliated locals. Either way, it was clear that this chanted liturgy was not catering to some niche group of college-Catholics.

Finally, the entire atmosphere of the Mass was nothing like what the detractors of chant and tradition so often imagine.

This wasn’t “lace and slippers” traddies or gloomy ultra-conservatives creating a bastion of purity and personal piety. It wasn’t awkward young men in crooked bowties or repressed young women dressed like the Amish. It was just a typical, rag-tag group of college students you would expect at just about any event, and an impressive handful of families and older folks. There were guys in suits, and guys in wrinkled t-shirts. There were ladies in conservative dresses and some in too-revealing gym attire. Some people sang, and some didn’t. Some prayed fervently before Mass, while others chatted and goofed off.

They weren’t rebelling against their hippie boomer parents or trying to revive Baroque aesthetics. They weren’t people who read blogs about liturgy and music, and I would bet that most of them love Pope Francis dearly and love also the Emeritus.

With respect to my good friend at the Cathedral (and I can’t really say enough good things about the music there), this is the real revolution. Young lay Catholics and young priests, together with devout and faithful people of all ages discovering and living into the musical traditions of the authentic liturgy of the Roman Rite. They are diving into the old books - the Graduale Romanum, the Liber Usualis. They are also taking advantage of the amazing riches of newer material available, resources like the Simple English Propers, the Parish Book of Chant, and the Lumen Christi series.

They are not, as is sometimes a danger among us obsessive liturgists, in love with ritual, but rather in love with God. Liturgy is not an end to itself, but rather it is the source and summit of their lives as faithful Catholics. The Mass at the Newman center wasn’t an exercise in liturgical excellence and rigor, but was instead marked with a noble simplicity that called those present into active, and actual, participation in the Sacrifice of the Mass and sent them forth into their community and everyday lives to be the Body of Christ and the Light of the World.

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