Parish of St. Vincent Ferrer and St. Catherine of Siena

A Parish of the Archdiocese of New York served by the Dominican Friars


May 20, 2017

Worship the Lord in the Beauty of Holiness (May 21, 2017)

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.

VARIETY

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