The Basilica Series of Sacred Music

Among the many blessings that have accompanied the recent English translation of the Roman Missal is a flowering of beautiful compositions of the Ordinary of the Mass. From Richard Rice to Deacon Br. Michael O’Connor to Aristotle Esguerra to Jeff Ostrowski to my own writing partners C.H. Giffen and Colin Brumby, along with so many others, an historic creative explosion has occurred, in the specific musical area of English Ordinaries.

It was not a revolution I saw coming, but I once spoke with someone who did. In a chance conversation several years ago with Msgr. Rossi, the Rector of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, he mentioned that new Mass settings were an urgent need. However, like many others at the time I was content with the high-church sensibility of Richard Proulx. I did not foresee that the future of the Ordinary lay in vernacular chant.

Under Msgr. Rossi’s leadership, the Basilica has produced two outstanding Mass settings under its own imprint, The Basilica Series of Sacred Music. Like many of the newer Masses, these are not grand but quiet, not high-Church but supple, musical, melody-centered, and ethereal, like the noble simplicity of the chant itself. They were composed by Peter Latona and Russell Weismann, the Director and Associate Director of Music at the Basilica.

It is a truly remarkable time. Vernacular chant has somehow become the new “normal” for the Mass Ordinary, replacing louder settings that might disrupt the recollection of the Eucharistic prayers. The sound is very much like our Liturgy’s native idiom, Gregorian chant, but the language is our own, accessible to all.

The Stabat Mater

A few years ago I realized that after Lenten decades of singing the Stabat Mater Dolorosa, the sequence for Our Lady of Sorrows (Sept. 15), its meaning was not clear to me. I thought I would try to translate it and for me, at least, the result was enlightening. According to the text of the sequence, Mary’s steadfast presence, and her contemplative spirit, form a quiet, integral part of the terrible crucifixion. We who sing about her presence there plead with her to help us join with her in bearing the cross of Christ, as it brings us to salvation.

After all, we are there. The Mass re-presents the selfsame sacrifice, daily, on the altar. And she is with us, always in prayer with the apostles, always interceding for us, always ready to bring us into closer communion with Him.

On the Cross her Son was dying.
Mary stood beneath Him crying,
Sharing in His saving cross.
As He hangs, her soul is grieving,
and a sword her heart is cleaving
and she weeps the bitter loss.

O, the sad, afflicted Mother
of the Son beyond all others:
only Son of God most high.
Full of grief, her heart is aching;
watching Him, her body, quaking,
trembles as her offspring dies.

Who would see Christ’s mother crying
at the bitter crucifying
without tears of sympathy?
Who could see her depth of feeling—
thoughts of many hearts revealing—
and not share her agony?

Pardon for our sins entreating,
She saw Him endure the beating.
All our guilt on Him was cast.
She stood by in contemplation
When her Son, in desolation
Breathed His spirit forth at last.

Font of love, O Blessed Mother,
lend me tears to mourn my Brother.
Never let my ardor dim.
Let my heart be burning freely,
Christ my God be pleased to see me
all on fire with love for Him.

This I ask, O Holy Mary,
that His wounds I too may carry:
fix them deeply in my heart.
Mine the burden He was bearing;
let me in His pain be sharing;
of His suffering take a part.

Let me join in your lamenting,
through my life weep unrelenting
tears for Jesus Crucified.
Let me stand and share your weeping,
all the day death’s vigil keeping,
glad to stand close by your side.

Queen of all the virgin choir,
judge me not when I aspire
your pure tears to emulate.
Let me share in Christ’s affliction—
death by bitter crucifixion—
and His wounds commemorate.

Let me taste the pains He offered,
drunk with love for Him who suffered.
May His wounds become my own.
On the day of Christ’s returning
may my heart be lit and burning.
Virgin, aid me at His throne.

May His Cross be interceding
and His death my vict’ry pleading.
May He hold me in His grace.
When my flesh by death is taken,
may my soul to glory waken
and in heaven take a place. Amen.

Psalm 90(91) in the Proper Texts of the First Sunday of Lent

All of the proper chants this Sunday are taken from the same Psalm, 90 (91). “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High, who abides in the shade of the Almighty, says to the Lord, “My refuge, my stronghold, my God in Whom I trust.’” Psalm 90 is traditionally sung at Compline, the last canonical hour of the Divine Office’s day, before the sleep of night. It is full of sentiments of trust on the part of human beings, and trustworthiness on the part of God.

It is unusual for a single Psalm to sweep cleanly through the Mass, and what makes this Psalm even more remarkable in this context is its place in today’s Gospel. Today is Temptation Sunday, when we hear in the Gospel of Mark how the Lord answered Satan who tried to tempt Him. This is a key moment in the ministry of Jesus, when he binds the strong man who rules this world and makes him powerless before plundering his house. Jesus answers Satan with Scripture.

As we read in the parallel passages in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Satan tries, once, to tempt Jesus with Scripture. He tells Jesus to throw himself from the Temple using, or rather misusing, Psalm 90 (91), which reads in part, “For you has he commanded his angels, to keep you in all your ways. They shall bear you upon their hands, lest you strike your foot against a stone.” Jesus answers by quoting the Law, “It is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”

The Church’s musical response to this unique dialogue is to re-interpret the Psalm that was quoted for evil purposes, In the context of the Mass, the Psalm teaches us the true meaning of trust as we begin our fasting. It is not a time of daring feats but of adherence to God. More deeply, the Psalm is Christological. Paradigmatically, it is Jesus Himself Who clings to God. Alone in the desert, Jesus calls to God, as we sing in the Introit, and God answers Him. He rescues Him and gives Him length of life, both against Satan and then most triumphantly in the Resurrection and Ascension. As we sing in the Offertory, it is in the desert, and in the garden, and in the court of Pilate, and on the Cross, and in the grave, that God’s faithfulness is Jesus’ shield.