As my mother was dying this past October—and at age 100 and fading, she was obviously not going to be with us much longer—my greatest fear was: Would we really have to sing “Blest Are They” at her funeral Mass?
I didn’t realize at the time that this upbeat funeral favorite in “contemporary” Catholic parish music had recently been banned in many dioceses after dozens of women in 2020 accused its composer, David Haas, of sexual misconduct at a summer music program for teens that he had overseen. But that hardly mattered. There were plenty of other faux-folk post-Vatican II hymns that seem to be the standard repertoire at the Catholic funerals I’ve attended: “Be Not Afraid,” “On Eagle’s Wings,” “Here I Am, Lord.”
I dreaded all of this, but what I dreaded most was the prospect that my mother’s parish church in California wouldn’t have a choir or a music director able to handle anything else.
Many parish music directors are part-timers who love music but have little formal training. Their main familiarity with Mass music seems to come from Oregon Catholic Press (OCP), which, along with its Chicago-based competitor, GIA Publications, seems to have a lock on the distribution of the disposable paperback missalettes. The OCP has its own stable of affiliated composers, whose easy-listening religious “songs,” attuned to three-chord guitar accompaniment, typically focus on friendly feeling or social justice rather than transcendent mystery. Many Catholic Mass-goers know only the OCP offerings, and music directors in turn tend to cater to those expectations. It is a seemingly endless feedback loop that can make attending Sunday Mass in many parishes a banal and dispiriting experience: the plodding monotony of the “four hymns” mumbled by the congregation.
So as my mother’s end drew near, I sent a diplomatically worded email to Steven Ottományi, the music director at St. Andrew’s. In it I wondered politely if there could be some sung arrangements for her of, say, In paradisum, which is supposed to be the recessional hymn of the Mass of Christian Burial but is often bypassed. I love the traditional Tridentine Latin Mass but I decided to stick with the Novus Ordo for my mother. For one thing, Pope Francis had just issued his apostolic letter Traditionis custodes restricting celebration of the old rite, and I didn’t want to stir up political wasp’s nests in a parish 3,000 miles from my East Coast home. So my best hope, at a meeting I set up with Steven during what was to be my last visit to my mother, had been to adorn the Novus Ordo with as many traditional elements as pragmatically possible.
And what a surprise that meeting turned out to be! Right off, Steven, a Ph.D. candidate in medieval music at the Claremont Graduate University, informed me that there is actually a complete sung Gregorian-chant Missa pro defunctis in Latin, including an optional Dies irae Sequence (thought by most Catholics to have been abandoned after the Second Vatican Council), right in the Novus Ordo itself.
There was? I had never heard of such a thing in all my years of attending post-Vatican II funerals. But there it was, Steven showed me, its chant-notation buried in plain sight. I ordered it up, along with Maurice Duruflé’s Ubi caritas as a Communion hymn.
My mother died five weeks later, and she had, I am proud to say, the most beautiful funeral Mass I have ever attended in any rite. Attendees who had scarcely set foot inside a Catholic church in their lives commented on the beauty.
My point is that there are transformative things that can be done musically and liturgically with the Novus Ordo Mass—and that at least in some parishes they are already being done. Furthermore, there is also a small but growing body of parish music directors eager to incorporate serious and beautiful traditional sacred music into Sunday Masses, as well as a small but growing body of Catholic composers writing new sacred music that is also serious and beautiful, including entire sung Masses.
On Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021, the Benedict XVI Institute and the Archdiocese of San Francisco sponsored a “Requiem Mass for the Homeless,” a Mass mourning and reminding attendees of the human dignity of the lost and often mentally ill and drug-addicted who live and die on the San Francisco streets, especially in the crime-beset Tenderloin District not far from the archdiocese’s Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption. San Francisco’s Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone was the celebrant, as he had been at two previous Masses for the homeless in 2018 and 2019. The rite was Novus Ordo….
The hundreds who attended the Mass included San Francisco civic officials, many of them non-Catholics, and a large contingent from the Church’s social-justice wing, which isn’t known for its interest in musical or liturgical conservatism. But there they were, under the spell of La Rocca’s music and the dignity and reverence of Archbishop Cordileone’s celebration of the Mass—all for the sake and the souls of lost and despised human beings.
The most moving moment aesthetically and emotionally was the post-Communion interlude, La Rocca’s haunting arrangement, nearly 7 minutes long, of the Latin antiphon O vos omnes: “O all you who walk by on the road, pay attention, and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow.” The antiphon, its scriptural text from the Lamentations of Jeremiah, is most often associated with Good Friday—but here the association was with the misery of the homeless, shunned and ignored by passers-by on the sidewalks; their sufferings joined the sufferings of Christ on the cross. La Rocca’s composition recalled the famous setting of Jeremiah’s words by the sixteenth-century composer Tomás Luis de Victoria—but it was also strikingly original. Among the hundreds listening to it that Saturday morning, “there was absolute silence,” veteran Stanford music professor William Mahrt recalled afterwards at a Mass-related panel at the archdiocese’s St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park. “You could hear a pin drop,” Mahrt said. Everyone there was completely taken out of themselves….”
The above comes from a Jan. 31 posting on the site of the Benedict Institute by Charlotte Allen. Allen is executive editor of Catholic Arts Today.