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A Review of the Mass of the Americas

Positive trajectories and luminous developments are a rare commodity in our current ecclesial environment, despite this being part and parcel of the mission of the Church. Therefore, it was with a surprised enthusiasm that I greeted the news of the forthcoming broadcast of a TLM accompanied by Frank La Rocca’s Mass of the Americas on EWTN. Having lived for four years near Washington, D.C., I had never once had the chance to see the Mass of the Ages in the beautiful national treasure of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Now, thanks to the diligent efforts of the Benedict XVI Institute for Sacred Music and Divine Worship, we would see Archbishop Cordileone process up to the back altar of the Shrine Basilica, all while some of the most sublime new liturgical music of our era was performed to accompany a nationally televised Mass.

Image courtesy of Barrick Photography.

The composer Frank La Rocca (previously profiled here at 1P5) has recently taken his place as the reigning dean of American Catholic composers. In recent years, La Rocca has further increased his visibility by being nominated the first composer in residence for the BXVI Institute, leading to the commission of the Mass of the Americas. This liturgical-musical work premiered on December 8, 2018, at St. Mary’s Cathedral on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, in conjunction with the annual “Cruzada Guadalupana” walking pilgrimage.

My own little part in the story began when the BXVI Institute flew me out to the premiere of the work in San Francisco. I would subsequently profile the premiere for their own online arts publication, while later penning a longer conversation with Dr. La Rocca about the work and its planned future, recently published in Sacred Music Journal. I have had the pleasure of getting to know this great composer — a sure inspiration to myself and my own musical work — and was glad to know that this deeply faithful Catholic was receiving the opportunity to let his work shine.

Frank La Rocca (center). Image courtesy of Maggie Gallagher.

From the very beginning, our conversations revealed that Frank desired to have this work as part of the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, even though this would require significant re-working and re-setting from the original multi-language Novus Ordo version. My own opinion as a composer is that the current Mass of Americas — from the outset a wonderful work in and of itself — has benefited significantly from the additional refinement and aesthetic (not to mention linguistic) unification necessary to make it a strong musical partner of the TLM. In turn, it has arguably graduated from a beautiful liturgical work to a cornerstone of modern liturgical composition, a work capable of offering a guiding light forward for composers desiring to effect a renaissance of sacred music. In its own way, it is a demonstration of how an artwork can achieve its greatest impact by being molded to fully serve the organically and historically refined form and balance of the TLM, and how this liturgical form is also a mother to great aesthetic achievement.

The EWTN broadcast began with the most pleasant of surprises. Having previously attended numerous televised feast days at the Shrine Basilica, I knew how often people had to be herded towards the front in order to achieve the illusion of a “packed house” for the cameras. And yet as this broadcast began by panning over the entire Basilica, we saw that there was nary an empty seat for this Saturday morning Mass. This was a sight that American Catholics needed: the great historic liturgy of the Church, at home in one of America’s great Catholic structures — itself so close to the seat of American political power — buoyed by sacred chant and the astounding achievement that is La Rocca’s Mass of the Americas. One can only hope that the powers that be at EWTN took full note: lovers of Catholic Tradition are starved for liturgical and aesthetic beauty and surely will continue to support more televised efforts geared in this direction.

Image courtesy of Barrick Photography.

The broadcast began with the televising of the ceremonial vesting of the bishop, wherein the archbishop was externally prepared for his role in the Mass. This powerful gesture of prelude — intended to symbolize the fullness of Holy Orders and the bishop’s office — was musically accompanied by La Rocca’s Cantico del Alba, beginning with the atmospheric tolling of bells and a simple chant somewhere between a Gregorian and a folk gesture, sung in higher voices. It is a work seemingly intended to coax light into the Church, imbuing the events with subdued but palpable hope and optimism.

mass of the americas

Image courtesy of Barrick Photography.

At this point, the processional emerged, first softly and then fully, from the organ, as the archbishop processed to the back altar of the Church. This was itself a moving sight for many Catholics, who had longed to see the Extraordinary Form assume its rightful place in the Shrine Basilica. The prayers at the altar were quietly said, followed by the incensing of the altar and the singing of the Introit. At this point, La Rocca’s Kyrie bloomed in the cavernous space of the Shrine: alternating perfectly chanted lines from the men in the chorus with stunning SATB (soprano, alto, tenor, bass) writing, the work provided a perfect prayerful beginning to the Mass, bringing everyone with reverence to the foot of the altar. The first harmony of the Mass, on “Christe,” was a shattering moment. The numerous repetitions of the Kyrie/Christe in La Rocca’s setting plumb the depths of this powerful liturgical plea; it is a music that places man in his proper ontological place in relation to God and the Church’s great liturgy.

Image courtesy of Barrick Photography.

The Gloria takes a turn from the appropriately penitent Kyrie into rays of light and gratitude for our Lord, with the initial chordal movement frozen in the organ accompaniment, leading to an inverted subdominant chord on “ter-ra” which sounds sweetly clustered because of its voicing. Here there is a feeling of grounded yet buoyant movement, with the root note of the piece providing firm footing. The opening lines of the work, held aloft by the organ and growing orchestration, burst open and then leave the choristers exposed in the ascending “Laudamus te,” with the strings entering in gentle support. There is something of the austerity of one of La Rocca’s heroes, Arvo Pärt, in this music, and yet also a deeper and more immediate sweetness than is often found in the great Estonian’s work. The choir exclaims its “Domine Deus, Rex caelestis” with clear rising gestures, with the title of “Rex” set in a soaring high A in the sopranos; it is one of the climactic moments of this entire Mass setting. The work then veers into a lighter orchestration, highlighting what I have previously discussed as La Rocca’s uncanny ability to balance universal musical gestures with deeply personal statements. The music then descends into a stunning plagal cadence leading resolving on an unexpected minor tonic chord, a surprising and emotionally significant gesture even to those who don’t follow the theoretical model. The music rises once again, filling out before a single solo tenor sings “Qui tolis peccata mundi.” The words “Miserere nobis” are heartbreaking in this setting, at which point the work moves through various triumphant gestures seemingly representative of spiritual struggle and realization, to an assertive “Amen.” Ancient techniques here ground and balance modern sensibilities: it is a model for all modern Catholic artists to follow.

Archbishop Cordileone’s homily began with a powerful message of Christian unity, to be achieved through the Blessed Mother. He spoke of the appearance of Our Lady of Guadalupe as a call to humbly worship the One True God, presenting the famous Tilma as a symbol unifying old world and new, quoting John Paul II’s surmising of it as leading toward a “perfectly enculturated evangelization.” This is not insignificant, given the recent controversy over religious symbols experienced in Mother Church, while it also relates to La Rocca’s own achievement of musical enculturation, given his use of traditional Mexican melodies in the fabric of his composition, hearkening back, perhaps, to the great baroque sacred music triumphs in that part of the world. Perhaps the highlight of the homily was when the archbishop gently addressed the common objection to the use of Church resources for art and beauty in an age of rampant poverty. He spoke of spiritual poverty as being a greater malaise than physical poverty, bringing this question of beauty to the foot of the cross where Our Lady waits. He said: “To those with the eyes of faith, beauty looks very different: it looks humble, self-sacrificial, other-centered, both the other in front of us and the Other who is beyond us.” It was a powerful way to wrap up the message of the opulent liturgy and its luminous new musical accompaniment: as a form of gift and sacrifice, a guiding light toward eradicating the greatest poverty of all.

La Rocca’s Ave Maria followed the homily, itself a luminous work that — like much of the music of the Mass of the Americas — seems to move from the acknowledgment of a single individual toward a universal statement of fidelity. Here we can perceive the humble acceptance of Juan Diego, reflecting outward toward the conversion of an entire nation, and then back again to the continuing everyday spiritual journey we all must undertake. Toward the end of the work, a single soprano soars in and out of the rich choral tapestry, a unification of both the universality and profound personalism embodied in the Catholic faith.

mass of the americas

Image courtesy of Barrick Photography.

Yet as wonderful as the music was, La Rocca’s greatest accomplishment with this composition is how it functions as a liturgical vehicle, and specifically how effectively it guides the Mass-goer first into the reverence properly due to the Mass, through the great human struggle of spiritual striving, and ultimately into the pregnant hush of the consecration in the TLM. One is again reminded of Arvo Pärt, whose goal has often been to compose music that effectively emerges and returns to silence. At one point, the camera panned to an older woman, tears streaming down her face. We can only wonder what experiences had brought her to such an emotionally charged experience of this Mass.

To my ears, the Agnus Dei is the highlight of La Rocca’s Mass. In a Mass that plays upon such contrasts of dark and light, this setting of the Agnus Dei primarily returns us to the reality of our present situation, both globally as a Church and individually as people of any time, in need of salvation that only Jesus Christ can provide. The repeating lines of “Agnus Dei” rolled like subcurrents in dark churning waters, straining against each other until the choir unified in a nearly murmured “qui tollis peccata mundi.” The music again leads us to silence, punctuated only by the small whispers that indicated the continuation of the reverent motions leading those in attendance to the reception of Our Lord.

Image courtesy of Barrick Photography.

To speak in such glowing terms of La Rocca’s Mass of the Americas and its presentation on EWTN is an acknowledgment of a singularly great accomplishment in this composer’s career, one capable of being held up as an orienting and guiding work for the young composers who would like to follow. That EWTN would televise such a work in the context of the traditional liturgy, and that it should be so highly anticipated, well attended, and enthusiastically received online by pre-eminent experts in sacred music, is proof of the significance of the event and the power of sacred music and traditional liturgy. So many Catholics yearn for this to be the normal life of the Church again and are ready to do a great deal to support such a renewal.

Implicit in this liturgy and great composition is a powerful invitation: for those looking to renew the dwindling audiences for Catholic mass media, as well as those looking to sponsor events capable of renewing our society, you just can’t go much better than beautiful authentic Catholic art, music, and architecture married to the Mass of the Ages. This is the only future where triumph is possible, and this future will get here all the faster if the relevant patrons and gatekeepers in our culture heed the call to support authentic renewal. The liturgy is, after all, the mother of every other good the Church can accomplish.

In an era of so much bad news in the Church, what can be said about what took place at the Shrine? Perhaps here we see that God is still in charge of His Church, will send us the balm we need to persevere through dark days, and will ultimately affect the necessary renewal for the continuation of authentic Catholicism in his own time and way. Perhaps it is in these continued gestures of loving fealty — a beautiful Mass, a faithful homily, a composer toiling toward the pursuit of Beauty, the thankless work of rebuilding one institution after another, which will echo in the darkness every time, moving things slowly, through the Blessed Mother, toward the renewal of our beloved Mother Church.

Image courtesy of Maggie Gallagher.

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