Friday, March 28, 2008

Brace yourself for the Pope's Mass in D.C.

It will take place on April 17, and might end up as the defining moment of Benedict XVI's trip to the United States. Liturgically, however, this Mass could be a great disappointment, especially in light of all that this Pope has written in the last thirty years, and given his desire to connect us more closely to our heritage, and because his motu proprio Summorum Pontificum specifies that the distance between the old and new Mass is not a matter of rite but of form, and considering his repeated reiteration of the truth concerning music at Mass: it is something given to us by the Church in the form of chant and its stylistic descendants.

The Archdiocese of Washington has made an announcement about the music that is as skimpy as it is troubling. It begins as if it were announcing a talent show for the Pope rather than a liturgical event: "When Pope Benedict XVI celebrates Mass at Nationals Park on April 17 he will hear four choirs totaling 570 members from across the Archdiocese of Washington, singing in ten languages."

The announcement does not provide specifics. We are given only highlights:

  • All choirs performing the opening Spiritual “Plenty Good Room,” newly arranged by Washington Symphonic Brass founder, Phil Snedecor. (Here is a video of this very nice spiritual, different arrangement, that has no place in Catholic liturgy.)
  • The Children’s Choir singing “Send Forth Your Spirit” by Andrew Wright (sound file) and “Ave Verum” by Mozart.
  • The Gospel Choir singing “I Call upon You God” by Leon Roberts (GIA!) (sound file here) and “Lord Make Me an Instrument” by Roger Holland (GIA!).
  • The Papal Mass Choir singing “Sing Aloud Unto God Our Strength” by Daniel Nelson (sound file) and “Spirit of God Within Me” by Robert LeBlanc.
  • The Intercultural Choir singing “Let’Isikia” (sound file) arranged by Tracy McDonnell and “Source d’eau Vive” by C.E. Haugel.

That's all they provide but it indicates that, contrary to assurances we were given only last week, this list originally posted ten days ago, was not made up out of whole cloth. It includes mostly Gospel numbers, some rock/blues thrown in ("Jesus is Here Right Now"), together with the "Mass of Creation" Sanctus and Amen.

The forums are already registering protest.

On the plus side, it does seem that the Gloria will be Gregorian (though of course the choir is using a copyrighted edition/arrangement that is for sale from GIA). And Ave Verum is a liturgical text and a nice piece of music that seems to make only a perfunctory appearance here. In all of the press so far, there has been no mention of a schola assigned to sing the propers of the Mass. We can hold out hope that this is taking place in secret. If so, the secret is well kept.

The director Tom Stehle says that the music announced so far "represents our long Catholic and Christian tradition and the current diversity of our church."

I can't understand the implication that our diversity as Catholics is somehow "current" and not part of our past. This usually comes with the claim that the music of our past is bound up with Eurocentric sensibilities and unsuitable for a diverse age. Actually, a defining mark of true liturgical music is its universality over time and space, and chant and its elaborations certainly have that mark of universality about them. Its universality is one of the most remarkable discoveries made by musicologists who have looked at chant in the first millennium. And this feature is not only part of the history of chant; it is also an embedded melodic feature of Gregorian plainsong that it strives to transcend time and place.

All of this I learned from reading the Pope's own writings on liturgy and music.

Moreover--and this pains me to think of it--our current "multicultural" obsessions are more than a little insulting to racial minorities and especially African American Catholics. It is a caricature of the worst sort to assume that only Gospel spirituals somehow "represent" their culture and people, and to further imply that chant is somehow incomprehensible to them. I can only speak from my own experience in this regard: the African Americans in parishes I've worked in are among the most passionate supporters of authentic sacred music, precisely because it is an aid to prayer, which, after all, is the core of liturgical art.

From what we have seen so far, the music at the D.C. Papal Mass is not a progressive program. It is a pre-Benedict program with a utility-oriented lineup focussed on making some kind of cultural/political/sociological statement to someone (American Catholics? The Vatican? The Pope?) through the liturgy. There is no evidence of change, growth,and development toward ideals.

To those who would complain, the Archdiocese assures us as follows: "The musical program for the Mass was chosen by an archdiocesan committee, with approval from the Vatican."

And that is that.

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