Today, this letter comes to you from the organist’s bench instead of the pastor’s chair. It seems like a life-time has transpired since my previous letter in September; almost an entire parish season has passed, one that has been marked by exceptional growth in a number of ways. I suspect that most of us who read these letters worship weekly – or even daily – at one or both of our parish’s beautiful, historic churches. In this regular pattern of life, it is difficult for us to accurately gauge, and thus fully appreciate, just how much we have collectively achieved since the establishment of the new parish, since the institution of the new Mass schedule, or even since the birth of the new year!
Music was one of the primary topics of conversation throughout the merger process, and with my appointment a year ago as the parish’s Director of Music, I was charged with helping the parish find a unified musical voice. This was a tall order and continues to be an enjoyable challenge. That being said, in the weeks and months since my arrival, I have received an overwhelming outpouring of welcoming support, encouragement, and love from Fr. Walter, his brother friars, the sisters, my fellow staff members, and of course you, my fellow parishioners. Not a day goes by that I do not give profound thanks to God for the opportunity to work within such a parish family. So, as we race towards the quietude of summer, let us take a moment to musically survey the past year, to reiterate our goals, to contemplate what we have accomplished, and to prime ourselves for future growth.
Fr. Walter, in his bulletin letter last week, made the point that ‘singing at Mass’ and ‘singing the Mass’ are two different things. It is from this observation that my survey germinates. For those of you who attended this spring’s Parish Study in which Fr. Innocent and I gave an overview of the various aspects of the Mass (prayers, readings, chants, gestures, etc.), you may recall that Mother Church sets forth a hierarchy of things to be sung at Mass. That is to say, the prayers and orations (the Collect, the Preface, etc.), the Pater noster, and the Mass Ordinary (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei) enjoy musical pride of place. So for the congregation to ‘find its own voice’, the fitting place to start was with these.
(By way of an advertisement, in next week’s bulletin, Fr. Innocent will write about the Propers of the Mass, those parts primarily given to the role of the cantor or the Schola Cantorum (choir). Choral music, hymnody, and organ music and their roles in the Mass will be reviewed in another letter in the future.)
THE ORDINARY OF THE MASS
Beginning last July, we set forth a plan to use three different congregational Ordinaries that would alternate according to the liturgical season. All three are chant Masses, meaning that there is only one vocal line. (Compare this to most of the hymns we sing, which were conceived harmonically in four parts: Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass.) Chant is the musical language of the church and is the bedrock on which all subsequent Western music was built, from Bach to Beyoncé. Its inherent, beautiful simplicity makes it ideal for communal singing. Furthermore, chant eschews the immediacy of emotionalism (being neither overtly dolorous nor triumphant), lending it the timeless, universal quality that is so vital to the ethereal nature of Catholic worship. Think of it as the aural equivalent of incense.
The three specific congregational Masses sung in our parish were chosen because each possesses a character befitting the season during which it is sung, and all are familiar enough to be welcoming to visitors. Also, since you are more likely to encounter one of these three throughout the Catholic world than any others, you are subtly being prepared to be able to fully participate in a Mass on your travels across town or across an ocean.
Mass XVIII: Deus Genitor alme
This simplest setting is sung during the two penitential seasons of Advent and Lent. It therefore does not include a Gloria. If a Catholic is likely to know a Sanctus or Agnus Dei in Latin, this is it!
Roman Missal Mass
This is the musical setting of the Kyrie, Gloria, etc. found in the (English-language) Missal, the book that the priest uses at the altar containing the prayers that are sung (or said) at Mass. This vernacular setting is used during Ordinary Time (from Corpus Christi to Advent and from the Baptism of the Lord in January until Ash Wednesday). We also use this setting for feast days of a lesser rank.
Missa VIII: Missa de angelis
Chant Mass VIII, also known as the Missa de angelis (Mass of the Angels) is undoubtedly one of the most mellifluously beautiful of the approximately two-dozen Latin chant settings. This florid Mass (what a musician would call ‘melismatic’) is sung in our parish during Christmastide and Eastertide, as well as on major feast days, such as Trinity Sunday and Corpus Christi. While the Sanctus and Agnus Dei are undeniably difficult to sing at first try, the tunefulness and the repetitive nature of some of the phrases prove memorably after a few attempts.
Beyond the repertoire of congregational Ordinaries, I want to point out the great musical variety that this parish offers: hopefully with something to suit everyone’s preferences. The Church in her wisdom has always balanced universality and individuality, and while everyone worships in ultimately the same Mass, the slight variations thereof recognize the individualism of the human soul.
So for those of you that prefer silence and simplicity, we have Low Masses at which there is no music at all. For those of you who prefer to worship in the richest expression of the Rite, we offer the Solemn Mass on Sundays and feast days, with the Schola Cantorum, incense, and the occasional procession. And for those of you who prefer something in between, we have that too! If you think your porridge is too hot or too cold, I encourage you to try another bowl from our restaurant’s menu.
Even within one form of Mass, there is variety! For example, on a regular Sunday at the Solemn Mass, the congregation sings the Ordinary. (Until my arrival, the choir almost always sang it.) This change of practice enforces the primacy of place given to this music in the congregation’s role. However, on feast days, the Schola sings one of the glorious polyphonic settings handed down to us through the Catholic patrimony of the last five centuries, whether it be Palestrina or Pärt. I hope that this balance is working well.
Vespers, another project introduced last fall, is a splendid addition to our liturgical life! I know of no other parish in the archdiocese that has weekly, sung Sunday Vespers in the Ordinary Form. I would encourage all of you to attend, even if you do not have time to attend the explanatory class that precedes it. Attendance has stayed strong and it is a wonderful way to draw your Sunday to a close.
Speaking of closing, I need to take this opportunity to say how pleased and proud I am with the vocal response from the congregation. Catholic congregations are notorious for being inaudible. And while there is always room for improvement, from my vantage point on the bench, the participation of the congregation has noticeably improved since a year ago. Please keep it up! And with much more to say but no room in which to say it, may I just extend an invitation? As I have remarked before, most parishioners arrive at Mass after my prelude has begun and leave before my postlude has finished, thus affording me little opportunity to get to meet and converse with you. So, please know that my door is always open! If you have any questions about what it is that I do, why it is that we sing what we sing, or if you would simply like to have a chat about nothing in particular, please feel free to drop me a line or meet me in person.
You will be hearing from me again soon as we outline the exciting things on the horizon for the coming year! Until then, may I remain,
Yours in Christ,
James D. Wetzel
I always write these lines on Monday morning and as I craft them I wonder what will transpire before the congregation actually reads them. On the other hand, this means that the events of the previous weekend are fresh in mind. In fact, yesterday, Sunday, is on my mind because I had the 5 pm Mass at St. Catherine’s.
We have seven Masses on our weekend schedule, and this is the one I have least often because I am on the team promoting Vespers, which takes place at nearly the same time. At this Mass, uniquely, the Cantor leads the singing a cappella, that is, without the accompaniment of the organ. This arrangement began as an experiment to see if we could have convenient and complementary Mass times in both churches, and do it with one organist. I for one have never seen an arrangement quite like this.
I came tired to an afternoon Mass on a gray and rainy Sunday, and probably so did many of the 125 people in the congregation. But by the time Josh Simka, that Mass’ regular cantor, had led us all in Kyrie eleison and Gloria in excelsis, I was totally awake and energized as the singing of the assembly filled St. Catherine’s with the beautiful sound of the Mass. Here was a “poster congregation” for the second wave of liturgical development in the wake of Vatican II. If the first concern was to get people to “sing at Mass,” the next is to enable them to “sing the Mass.” This is the vocal movement from “going to church” to mindfully undertaking one’s baptismal part in the Eucharistic worship commissioned by Jesus at the Last Supper.
If in the natural realm common singing provides emotional release and deepened connection, then in the service of God feeling and human connection attach to vocation, the common calling we have to acknowledge God. With all the others, each of us sings the Mass because at our baptism God commissioned us to be a priest of Jesus Christ, and with that, we are called before God to acknowledge the gift of our life with our whole self: body and mind.
The chants Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei (known collectively as the “Ordinary” of the Mass) give each of us a voice in this work and join our voices to others. The singing of the texts makes us aware, at a level beyond conventional speech, of the power of God as the source of amazing, blessings, the answer to constant need, and the dispenser of unimaginable healing. We acknowledge God in song, not because He needs to hear it: being complete in Himself, He is beyond need. Rather, the acknowledgement connects us to the essential truth of ourselves as both gifted and needy, successful and failed, unique and completed by others.
Singing of this kind possesses special beauty because it does not manipulate. It is not calculated to get the congregation to feel triumphant, or joyful, or ashamed, or sad. Rather, singing – and especially chanting – elicits our participation in the common work but also gives us freedom to discover what lies within us at a given time and place. Of all the singing we do at Mass, the responses, the Pater noster, and the Ordinary take pride of place because they pertain most directly to the work God has appointed for us. Put most simply, this music serves not our feelings but our worship.
I note that what is said of singing the Mass could also be said of good preaching. Both decline to exercise emotional coercion. Neither do they settle for the easy trade of giving people a “feel good” experience. Instead, preaching and singing connect each participant to the wider world to the human community and to the inner world of our soul, showing more clearly God at work in both. These evangelical tools pull the worshipper out of himself and deeper into himself. When both “systems are go,” people leave Mass more human, because they are more aware of themselves and their God.
This perspective on worship rebukes Karl Marx’s assertion that religion is the “opiate of the masses.”
The word “liturgy” captures this work of acknowledgement. When we sing the Mass we unite ourselves not only to those who carry out the liturgy in the next pew, but in the next parish, the next state, and the next country. This is why we sing the texts of the Ordinary not only in English, which is essential to our comprehension of them, but also in Latin so that we have a palpable connection to the church in every time and place.
Next week, James Wetzel will follow these comments with more detail and insight into the three Ordinaries of the Mass we now use in the parish.
This weekend I am away from the parish with our Nuns in Buffalo. These are women who spend their whole lives in the work of acknowledgement: for them liturgy and life interpenetrate. Please know that they and I will have all of you in our prayers on this Easter day.
The Sunday of Good Shepherd invites us to believe that the Lord really is present, through the work of the Holy Spirit, to all the particularities of our individual lives, and our common life.
First among these this weekend will be the First Penance and First Communion of our young people. Heartfelt congratulations to:
Lucia Hufnagel Cano
We draw nigh to the completion of our first, fully-merged parish year. Now is a good time to update you on as much as possible before the great dispersal sets in.
All the data on Holy Week and Easter seems well in place. I feel that our whole parish community gave an excellent testimony of faith. Since we sit at a crossroads of the city, part of our mission will be to welcome visitors of all kinds. From Holy Thursday to Easter Sunday 3,674 people worshipped in our churches. Many people, in many ways, made them welcome and that surely counts as a proclamation of the Gospel.
Our new Finance Council met for the first time on April 24. We were able to update them on the first half of the fiscal year and to begin looking at the budgeting process for the new parish. Normally, the Council meets quarterly but we will meet more frequently over the next several months to get the group’s ongoing conversation up and running. The members of our Finance Council are Lois Deming (Chair), Lauretta Bruno (ex-officio as Trustee), Michael Silverstein (ex-officio as Trustee), Daniel Dunay, Charles Earle, Karen Kardos, and Jean-Hughes Monier. Upcoming on the Council’s agenda will be the development of a strategy for managing the holdings of the parish. On behalf of us all I extend my gratitude to these men and women who place their expertise at our service.
As indicated above, Lauretta Bruno and Michael Silverstein have agreed to serve as Trustees of the Parish. They have the task of signing off on our financial report to the Archdiocese for each fiscal year. To do this they need to have a comprehensive perspective on the life of the parish. Therefore, they will attend, ex-officio, the meetings of both the Finance Council and the Pastoral Council.
Expanding upon this statutory role, I have asked them to monitor our compliance with Archdiocesan and state regulations. They will review our practices and documents as these emerge.
There will be more to say next month in these pages about the Pastoral Council and some other committee developments.
I will be absent from the parish from May 10 -18 doing a formal “visitation” of our monastery of nuns in Buffalo.
In the monastic quiet, I hope there will time for me to reflect on the profound experience of this past year, and then the opportunity to put those reflections in some usable order.