It seems that Catholicism reached its liturgical heights in the late 18th century; we ceased to be relevant to wider society when the last Habsburg went into exile. But what if Catholicism could be normal again? That’s the vision Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco had when he founded the Benedict XVI Institute. “We’re trying to revive that integral approach,” he tells me. “The Church has always been the great patron of the arts, and we need to continue to be.”

Last year, Archbishop Cordileone saw an opportunity to express the small “c” catholicity by commissioning a new Mass. Every year, the Archdiocese of San Francisco holds a communal celebration of the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe (patron of Mexico and the Americas) the Saturday before. This year, that Saturday happened to be December 8: the feast of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, patron of the United States.

To mark the day, the archbishop celebrated a Mass with a brand new musical setting, the “Mass of the Americas”. It was written by the Benedict XVI Institute’s composer-in-residence, Frank La Rocca. It’s an extraordinarily ambitious work, mixing Latin polyphony and chant with traditional South and Central American music.

The Mass incorporates a 16-voice mixed chorus, the organ, a string quartet, bells and marimba. There are parts for Spanish, Latin and English, as well as Nahuatl – the Aztec language Our Lady of Guadalupe spoke to St Juan Diego. A press release from the Institute calls the Mass of the Americas the “musical equivalent of mission architecture”. But what does that mean? Archbishop Cordileone explains: “I’m trying to model how the Church has always appropriately enculturated the Gospel by adapting aspects of the local culture, but within the sacred tradition. So, I use that as an example – the Franciscan missionaries in California.”

But the Archbishop – known as one of America’s more theologically and liturgically conservative prelates – is only too aware of the dangers of blending secular forms into the Mass. This has been a problem in California, where mariachi music is sometimes haphazardly incorporated into the liturgy. “It’s beautiful but profane music,” says Archbishop Cordileone.

“It can’t be transferred wholesale into the Mass but there’s a way to take elements of it and sacralise it within the sacred tradition.”

Was he pleased with the Mass of the Americas? “I was ecstatic,” he says. “It took everything within me at times to keep from breaking down weeping. You get the sense that something truly holy was happening there.”

That there’s such a thing as a new Mass setting (as opposed to priests occasionally introducing gender-neutral language, sprinkling in a bit of liturgical dance, etc) is a sign of hope: a reminder that tradition is something vital, even dynamic, to use a much abused word.

Archbishop Cordileone might paraphrase Edmund Burke: a Church without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.

Full story at Catholic Herald.

Earlier CalCatholic story on Mass of the Americas here.

Mass of the Americas full video: