Wednesday, March 08, 2023

“My Vocation Was Inspired by Beauty”: An Exclusive Interview with Abp Cordileone

Archbishop Cordileone with composer Frank LaRocca
NLM is pleased to offer readers this exclusive interview with Most Rev. Salvatore Cordileone, Archbishop of San Francisco, in advance of this Saturday’s Lenten prayer service that will feature great music by past masters as well as three newly-commissioned works. Charlotte Allen is literary editor of, which is published by the

Charlotte Allen: You and Pope Benedict shared a love of music, and you both were amateur performers: Benedict on the piano and you on the alto saxophone playing jazz. Yet your academic background, according to biographies of you, is in canon law, and you served as a tribunal judge during the late 1980s and much of the 1990s. How did you segue from canon law to music and the arts?

Archbishop Cordileone: Actually, it was the other way around. I had two competing aspirations in life during my childhood and teen years as I was growing up: a career officer in the Navy and a professional jazz musician. Those are two very different career paths! I suppose it speaks to a knack I’ve always had for being able to hold together disparate and even seemingly contradictory interests, pursuits and mentalities. I grew up in San Diego, very much a Navy town and I spent a lot of time at the port with my father who was a commercial fisherman, so the idea of a life of service to my country and the adventure of seeing the world got into my imagination.

But you also rightly point out my love of jazz – I was instinctively attracted to this music at a very young age. The public high school I attended had a very strong music program, and some of its graduates went on to very illustrious careers as professional musicians. I knew I wasn’t in that category, so I looked more to a military career, and since I was good at math and enjoyed it, I thought to major in that discipline. Math and music, of course, are very much inter-related in the way the brain functions.

At the end of the day, our Lord had other plans, and so I entered the seminary and was eventually ordained a priest. The study of canon law was not my own choosing; I was asked to study as a young priest by my bishop at the time, and in retrospect I see that it was very fitting for me. Law has its own logic, just like math and music theory, as does the study of language, especially Latin, which is essential for the study of canon law. And I’ve always appreciated the importance of law: The alternative to the rule of law is chaos, conformity, favoritism. So canon law matters, and I see in hindsight that it was a logical discipline for me to specialize in.

At the same time, the wannabe creative musician in me never died. I remember the first time our composer-in-residence, Frank La Rocca, sat down at the piano rather late at night after dinner to play for me excerpts from his Mass of the Americas. “This is the other life I dreamed for myself as a kid,” I told him. “Staying up all night creating music.”  

Archbishop celebrating a Rorate Mass

Charlotte Allen:
You obviously share Pope Benedict’s strong beliefs about the power of the arts in evangelization. “The encounter with the beautiful can become the wound of the arrow that strikes the heart,” he famously said in a speech in 2002, three years before he became pope How did you come to be interested in and even adopt his views?

Archbishop Cordileone: My vocation to the priesthood was inspired to a large extent by beauty. I was inspired by the majesty of the Church’s worship, by the sacredness of the music and the sense of hushed prayer, the ceremony and the vestments, the cycle of the liturgical year. And I was blessed to grow up in a parish with a very beautiful church, neo-Gothic in its architectural style. So my growing-up years already put me on a path in line with what I later learned was Pope Benedict’s vision and teaching. My experience over four decades as a priest, and half of them as a bishop, has only confirmed my initial instinct of the power of the Church’s artistic patrimony for her mission of evangelization.

Catholicism has always been a predominating creative force in the arts–painting, sculpture, architecture, music–until perhaps 50 years ago. Our patrimony is deep and awe-inspiring and is recognized as significant by the most secular parts of the world of classical music and the arts. It touches souls in ways that get around disputes over dogma, and reveals the presence of God in this world to many. The Church has always understood that evangelization is accomplished through all three transcendentals: truth, beauty, and goodness. These reveal the face of God and are doorways that open up to the encounter with Him. In our age especially the Church needs to operate on all three.

Charlotte Allen: You and the Benedict XVI Institute have sponsored a revival of Gregorian chant and other centuries-old Catholic music—but you have also specifically commissioned a number of sung Masses that are not only brand-new but touch on very contemporary issues: the Mass of the Americas in 2019 honoring Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Immaculate Conception, a Requiem Mass for the Homeless in 2021 that premiered within walking distance of San Francisco’s saddest encampment; and, most recently a Mass for Life celebrated as nationwide pro-life marches were taking place this January. Given the Catholic Church’s huge, underperformed treasure-trove of traditional music, why are contemporary compositions touching on contemporary themes so important for the life of the Church?

Archbishop Cordileone:
As Pope Benedict taught, what earlier generations held as sacred remains sacred and great for us moderns, too. This is in accord with the principle enunciated by Pope St. Pius X in his landmark Instruction on Sacred Music, Tra le sollecitudini, namely, that true sacred music has a quality of universality to it: It is holy and beautiful in every age and in every culture.

So we should continue to sing this repertoire of classical sacred music in our churches, but this does not exclude new compositions of this musical genre. This is how it happens in the world of secular classical music. The great orchestras of the world continue to play the great symphonies of the great composers throughout history: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, and so forth. But they also play new compositions in the genre of classical music. Sacred classical music is a living tradition: New compositions that reflect themes and musical elements of our time within the timeless genre of sacred classical music contribute to the tradition, keep it alive and move it forward. It is an aspect of legitimate inculturation, lifting the concerns and tastes of our own time into the high sacred music tradition of the Church.

We cannot afford to demote beauty into something that is merely a frill or a luxury item, as if, once we have the really necessary business of the Church taken care of, we can now pay attention to the arts. Beauty is how we reveal the hidden fact of God to the world, and how we show our love and reverence for Him. This is what makes us more truly human, which is to say, holy. Music allows us to experience all this together in a powerful way.

Charlotte Allen: I attended the Requiem Mass for the Homeless in 2021, and the huge crowd it drew probably included a large number of non-Catholics and fallen-away Catholics, including city officials, drawn to the Mass by their empathy with the homeless. Everyone in the congregation was clearly moved by Frank La Rocca’s beautiful music (Someone said, “You could have heard a pin drop” in the dead silence after his “O vos omnes”). But were any San Franciscan attitudes toward the Church itself changed—say, after you barred Rep. Nancy Pelosi from receiving Communion a few months later?

Archbishop Cordileone: The idea that the measure of the power of art is determined by its immediate political effects is a fundamental error widespread today. I am moved and humbled by how many people have communicated to me, and to the Benedict XVI Institute’s executive director Maggie Gallagher and Frank LaRocca himself, what a powerful impact this new sacred music has had on their faith and on their lives. No one event or action is going to automatically change deep-seated and longstanding biases against the Catholic Church. With the grace of God, that change can happen only with patient, persevering, steady and consistent effort on our part to build upon the Church’s historical legacy and do what we do best. The success of the Mass of the Americas affirms that the yearning for beauty is prevalent even in a culture embedded with so much ugliness. This is a need the Catholic Church has always fulfilled and, unlike just about any secular arts institution, the Church makes it available to the poor and rich alike, as none other than Dorothy Day once pointed out at a conference on helping the poor held in the event center of our own St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco.

Charlotte Allen: Both Pope Benedict and, recently, Pope Francis have decried the banality and seeming lack of God-centeredness that afflicts Sunday Masses in many parishes. Part of the problem seems to be the mediocre contemporary hymns chosen for congregational singing. But not all contemporary hymns are bad, and some have lovely melodies and are certainly theologically orthodox: “I Am the Bread of Life,” “One Bread, One Body.” Would there still be a place for such hymns in your ideal Catholic liturgical world? For jazz Masses? (You love jazz, but is it too secular a form for church?) For hymns and spirituals that reflect Protestant and evangelical traditions? Or should the Church develop non-liturgical prayer services that would accommodate tastes for hymns that might not be appropriate for Mass?

Preaching at a Confirmation

Archbishop Cordileone:
That is a very good question, and the answer depends on how one interprets the principle enunciated in Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. Article 16 of Sacrosanctum Concilium, after affirming Gregorian chant as especially suited to the Roman liturgy, goes on to add: “But other kinds of sacred music, especially polyphony, are by no means excluded from liturgical celebrations, so long as they accord with the spirit of the liturgical action.”

One of the key principles to interpretation of texts is context. The Council here mentions polyphony as an example of “other kinds of sacred music [which] accord with the spirit of the liturgical action.” That would seem to exclude much of what we call “contemporary music” nowadays. And certainly certain genres of music are, by their very nature, unsuited. As a life-long lover and aficionado of jazz music, I can say, without any sense of denigrating it, that jazz is one such example. I do believe it is a very elevated and sophisticated genre of music. In its own way it is reflective of the nature of God, insofar as it is always the same and always new: that is, jazz relies heavily on improvisation, where a given melody with a chord pattern is played and repeated, and then each musician improvises a solo based on that chord pattern. Thus, every time the same tune is played it is also new. But because jazz especially highlights the virtuosity of the individual soloist, it runs in the opposite direction of sacred music in which the individual musician disappears in order to direct all to the glory of God. On the other hand, this is not to say that certain elements characteristic of jazz, e.g., complex chord patterns and syncopation, cannot be incorporated into the sacred music genre. This is what Frank LaRocca accomplished in the Mass of the Americas, incorporating the sounds and melodies of the popular hymns the Mexican people sing to honor Our Lady of Guadalupe into the context of contemporary polyphony.

The question of singing hymns at Mass involves a whole other set of considerations. In the Church’s liturgical tradition, hymns are integral to the Divine Office but not the Mass. The liturgical texts at those points where hymns are normally sung at many parish Masses already have, proper to each Mass, an Entrance Antiphon (Introit) and a Communion Antiphon (the pre-Conciliar form of the Mass also had an Offertory Antiphon, but that was dropped in the revision of the Roman Missal). Before the Council, Pope Pius XII had allowed hymns to be sung in the vernacular at Low Mass (a Mass that was not sung) as a way to promote the active participation of the faithful while not altering the form of the Mass itself. Congregational singing of hymns at Mass is still authorized in today’s Roman Missal, but as one of four options (the others being the singing of the antiphons proper to each Mass and other approved antiphons and chants). That is because hymns, no matter how reverent and beautiful, are actually extraneous to the Mass.

That being said, since singing hymns at Mass has become so common, it is important that hymns be chosen that are theologically sound, musically worthy, and in accordance with the liturgical season or feast day being celebrated. The ones you mentioned are a good example of that: The texts are taken from Scripture itself, and they are musically worthy. Traditional hymnody also fills this bill. Congregational hymns can also be incorporated in a way that respects the structure of the Mass, bearing in mind that the Mass begins with the Entrance Antiphon and ends with the Dismissal. For example, an entrance hymn can be sung while the procession is moving toward the altar (thus still outside of the context of Mass), and then the proper Introit can be sung once it arrives there. A hymn can be sung during the rite of the preparation of the altar, since no antiphon is given at that point. After the singing of the Communion Antiphon, a hymn can be sung as Communion is being distributed, and, finally, as is already the prevailing practice, a hymn can be sung as the liturgical procession leaves the altar (the Mass has already ended at the point).

As for using hymns that might not be appropriate for Mass in non-liturgical prayer settings, this is something with which I very much agree. What is commonly referred to as “praise music” has its place; its place is not Mass, but in other contexts it can be very appropriate. We must remember, too, that in the liturgical context, music serves as an aid to worship, not as a main course. As I mentioned earlier, the musicians (including the composer, as Frank La Rocca is quick to point out) subordinate their gifts to this great purpose of worship. Sacred music for the liturgy should be timeless, not of the latest fashion. Part of the genius of Frank La Rocca, or Sir James MacMillan or Arvo Pärt, is that they each write music that is both embedded in tradition and informed by contemporary classical music.

Charlotte Allen: What is next up in terms of the new Renaissance in Catholic sacred music with the Benedict XVI Institute?

Archbishop Cordileone:
On March 11, at 11 a.m. Pacific at Mission Dolores Basilica in San Francisco, I will be leading a Lenten Prayer Service featuring the works of the masters (Palestrina, Victoria, di Lasso) with new works setting the same text by four living Catholic artists (Frank La Rocca, Daniel Knaggs, Mark Nowakowski and Jeffrey Quick). The service includes three world premieres commissioned by the Benedict XVI Institute for Sacred Music and Divine Worship. Dr. Alfred Calabrese is bringing in his 20-voice choir Band of Voices for his West Coast debut. This celebration was delayed three years because of Covid and I’m looking forward very much to experiencing this sacred music as an act of worship together.

Note: Readers may register to attend in person or to receive the EWTN viewing link at:

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