Benedict XVI Institute’s Requiem Mass for the Homeless Transcendentally Beautiful

Composer Mark Nowakowski reviews Frank LaRocca’s creation that was presented Nov. 6 at the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption in San Francisco.

Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone celebrates the first Requiem Mass for the Homeless Nov. 6 at the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption in San Francisco.
Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone celebrates the first Requiem Mass for the Homeless Nov. 6 at the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption in San Francisco. (photo: Benedict XVI Institute / Dennis Callahan)

What did Christ mean when he told Peter to feed his sheep? What is the Christian’s responsibility to the poor, and what are the bounds of the meaning of poverty and our moral response to it?

Like a suddenly slowed and jagged frame rate designed to refocus our attention during a documentary film, the images of the homeless on the streets of downtown San Francisco passed us as we drove toward the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption. We were heading to the annual Mass commemorating the homeless who had died, this year buoyed by the musical world premiere of Frank LaRocca’s Requiem Mass for the Homeless

In recent years Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone and the San Francisco Archdiocese have begun to celebrate an annual Mass to memorialize the deceased homeless. This year the event would be augmented by the artistic efforts emerging from associates of the Benedict XVI Institute for Sacred Music and Divine Worship. 

Worshippers entering the cavernous cathedral would be immediately greeted by a stunning new painting — Patron Saints of the Homeless — by Bernadette Carstensen, the institute’s painter-in-residence. The painting resides between modern realism and traditional iconography, portraying the saints of suffering (Sts. Anthony, Benedict Labre, Francis, Maximilian Kolbe, Teresa of Calcutta and Josephine Bakhita) surrounding Our Lady with Christ in her arms. It is an image of immense and strident strength, which is something that stood out even more to me when I met the artist, a young mother with clear humility and a near-whispering tone of voice, surrounded by small children who wondered why “Mommy’s painting” was now in the cathedral.
The opening of the Mass, with an estimated crowd of 400 in attendance, was signaled by a single submerged note in the organ and strings, droning mournfully as the first crushing words of the requiem were intoned in low voices. 

Violinists Requiem Mass for the Homeless Nov. 6-Benedict XVI Institute
A section of the orchestra that performed at the Requiem Mass for the Homeless Nov. 6 in San Francisco.(Photo: Benedict XVI Institute)DENNIS CALLAHAN2021

As this audible existential groan was buoyed by women’s voices and the orchestration grew fuller, the music continued plaintively, with a growing clear rhythmic propulsion forward and striking harmonic language. Yet even with the full ensemble in stride, the tone and timbre of the work remained dark, in part because of LaRocca’s striking choice to employ only the lower strings, removing the standard violin parts from the score. 

The music grew upward and slightly brighter, with the violas ultimately maintaining a higher drone as the sopranos and altos intoned in imitation of the opening lines, with the effect not unlike looking through the mirror and perceiving the reality of your own pained and withered face staring back (or was it the visage of shared guilt?). 

Attendees Requiem Mass for the Homeless
Among the attendees at the requiem Mass were Francscans, Missionaries of Charity and Knights and Dames of Malta.(Photo: Benedict XVI Institute)

The music of this requiem, firmly rooted in the Church’s aesthetic magisterium yet clearly reaching for new heights, seemed tailor-made not just to mourn the homeless, but to draw the listener deeply into the painful individual reality of those who were lost on the streets.  

During his homily, Archbishop Cordileone elucidated the truly countercultural and — to our time, counter-ideological — approach to the alleviating of the suffering of the poor. Moving beyond short-sighted modern social-justice speak and institutionalized grievance, he instead spoke powerfully to the misery of the destitute and their inherent and equal dignity. The archbishop also reached deeper in referencing by example the pain caused by the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and the ensuing spiritual poverty that would accompany their exile and destitution. He said:

“Yet even in the midst of such intense misery, the lamenter finds reason to hope: The favors of the Lord are not exhausted, his mercies are not spent. Good is the Lord to one who waits for him, to the soul that seeks him. It is good to hope in silence for the saving help of the Lord. The human encounter of love is the way that God manifests our sound reason for hope …”

The choir performs part of Frank LaRocca's composition at the Requiem Mass for the Homeless in San Francisco.

Yet despite the archbishop’s homily, the clear aesthetic promptings of LaRocca’s masterful composition, and the sacred new artwork epitomizing the Church’s beauty amid desperation, certainly there were congregation members who might have sensed a disconnect between the splendor of the event and the stark tableau outside of the Church doors.
What of beauty and poverty? Would not such money be better spent on the poor? The Mass did include a collection to aid the homeless, to provide for their physical and mental welfare.

Charity and the command of Christ to feed his sheep extends beyond the temporal and into the spiritual, which is why the Church has long recognized and balanced her efforts to this effect, including being the greatest patron of beautiful art in human history up until the Second Vatican Council. Yet conflict abounds: Like Judas chiding the woman with the alabaster jar, the spirit of imminent practicality has always clashed with the human desire — and the Church’s clear calling — for the creation of sacred art of the highest quality, with our own time representing the latest and perhaps most destructive period of iconoclasm and cultural vandalism in the Church’s history. 

Yet in a society where a critical percentage of Catholic liturgies are performed irreverently while most Catholics have no concept of their liturgical and artistic patrimonies, there is great spiritual poverty indeed. In a Church where most congregations do not receive their liturgical patrimony — their birthright, which perennially includes proper sacred art and music — we are faced with a crisis of spiritual homelessness as well.
And yet, “the favors of the Lord are not exhausted, his mercies are not spent. Good is the Lord to one who waits for him, to the soul that seeks him …”

In this spirit, the Benedict XVI Institute followed the Mass and premiere with an intense after-conference featuring a panel discussion with Archbishop Cordileone, LaRocca and scholar William Mahrt. This was followed by talks with painter-in-residence Carstensen and poet James Matthew Wilson, along with a searing meditation on physical and spiritual poverty and the all-encompassing reality of beauty by St. Patrick Seminary faculty member Anthony Lilles, who would say:

“In the eyes of my neighbor, there flashes forth a profound beauty that remains unvanquished, no matter how often it has been trodden upon or forgotten, even by the person who possesses it. This beauty is what Adam beheld when he first opened his eyes upon Eve. It is no accident that the resurrection of the world depends on the beauty of woman. Or that Charles Peguy describes hope as a daughter, a little girl. Today, this little girl is much needed.”

The evening concluded with a performance of three choral settings of the Tantum Ergo, by Kevin Allen, LaRocca and a world premiere by Bobby Chastain. Then, in a spontaneous moment of celebratory meditation, one of the younger attendees of the conference, violinist Yvette Kraft, began to play Bach, linking the new with the old in a way which made all things shine brightly.

The following morning, prominent Catholic composers and conductors from across the country met to break bread and discuss the issues surrounding sacred music in the Church in the United States, along with ways to streamline the relationships between living composers, conductors, parishes and their music programs. The concern centered around honoring what Mahrt has called The Musical Shape of the Liturgy (a highly suggested book, incidentally) in a new and vibrant way. It was not a discussion of tradition as a museum piece, but rather the growing of tradition as akin to the tending of a living fire. All of this had the feeling of a profound watershed moment.

Beyond the resplendent liturgy, music and the conference which followed, some in attendance surely saw the issue of homelessness and human dignity represented in a new light. Others, like myself, saw it entirely anew. A poverty in my understanding had been assuaged, a pathway to new understanding born, and a deep sense of the link between the beauty of the dignity of the homeless person and the beauty inherent in the deepest expressions of the aesthetic magisterium engendered: All poverty demands an attempt at alleviation. 

We should observe that the Church in her fullest sense is not merely an ambitious NGO, which feeds the poor while providing some corollary religious activities to those with a need for a touch of piety in their lives. Rather, the Church in her truest sense finds her identity in the fullness of Christ’s Person, approaching him through the vitality of a reverent and transcendentally beautiful liturgy where the greatest art is present. Then, buoyed by this source and summit, she strikes out into the wider world, seeking to alleviate the poverty of not just the body, but the mind and soul, as well. Such were the ambitions of the weekend surrounding the premiere and after conference of the Requiem for the Homeless, and such are the efforts Catholics wishing for a powerfully transformative Church can now join in supporting. 

In the midst of our current darkness, a new Catholic renaissance is prepared by God, if only we would have it on his terms.