The Worship We Need Now: Mass of the Americas at Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral

COMMENTARY: Drawing on ancient and living Catholic tradition, the Jan. 15 liturgy will feature a beauty that unites, and a reverence that shows that Christ is present.

Archbishop Cordileone presides over the Mass of the Americas on November 16, 2019 at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
Archbishop Cordileone presides over the Mass of the Americas on November 16, 2019 at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. (photo: Jeffrey Bruno / Archdiocese of San Francisco)

What is the deepest point of the Mass? 

For well-catechized Catholics the answer is clear: In every Mass, Jesus Christ makes his sacrifice on Calvary 2,000 years ago present to us in our own time and space, making Himself substantially present under the appearances of Bread and Wine, uniting us to Him (and therefore to each other) as the Body of Christ through the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. We worship God through joining ourselves with Christ in the sacrifice He made for us.  

In alluding to the Second Vatican Council’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, Pope Benedict XVI reminded us all that the Eucharist is “the source and summit of our Faith”:

The love that we celebrate in the sacrament is not something we can keep to ourselves. By its very nature it demands to be shared with all. What the world needs is God’s love; it needs to encounter Christ and to believe in him. The Eucharist is thus the source and summit not only of the Church’s life, but also of her mission: ‘an authentically eucharistic Church is a missionary Church’ (Sacramentum Caritatis, 84). 

Why do so many Catholics, even Mass-going Catholics, no longer understand or believe in the Real Presence of Christ at the Mass? It is because of the sheer, hard and painful fact that we can no longer avoid and must urgently come to terms with: Many Massgoing Catholics no longer experience this sacramental truth about the Eucharist ritualistically in their participation in Sunday worship. That is to say, the way Mass is celebrated all too often does not accurately reflect the theological reality of what is actually taking place.

In an October 2021 poll by The Pillar, just half of Catholics who attend Mass weekly agreed with the statement, “I believe the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Christ.”

The generational collapse of belief in perhaps the most distinctive tenet of the Catholic faith is, to put it bluntly, equally dismal. While 70% of Catholics born in the 1960s who attend Mass weekly believe in the Real Presence, just 25% of those born in the 1990s and 41% of those born in the 2000s do.

Accompanying the generational slide in Catholic belief is an equally large collapse in Catholic identity altogether: While fully 31% of Americans born in the 1980s call themselves Catholics, just 12% of people born since the year 2000 do so.

We must not deceive ourselves: The Church is experiencing a crisis the magnitude of which she has not known before. It will require many hands to repair it, but it will also require a clear focus on the core questions: How do we convert the hearts and minds of the people in the pews? How can we evangelize a culture, as we are called to do, when we are not successfully evangelizing the next generation attending Mass most Sundays?

There are many answers to this problem and many new things we need to do, including better catechesis in parishes, among parents, and in Catholic schools. We need to spread, in particular, more schools grounded in Truth, Beauty and Goodness, the classical Catholic model that continues to show the capacity to transmit the faith uninterrupted by the acid bath of the culture in which we are living, and the worse that may be yet to come. What is classically Catholic works, and the growth of the classical Catholic education movement provides much hope for a renewed Church with the power to evangelize through sound catechesis.

But the primary catechesis for Catholics is the liturgy, and once again, it is what is classically Catholic that works — works today as it has worked for generations before.

How did Catholics for generations recognize the Real Presence? They met Jesus Christ at the Mass each Sunday, seeing the supernatural reality with the eyes of faith. If the manner in which we worship God does not communicate effectively the heart of what the Mass is, ancillary measures, as helpful as they may be, will not suffice to stem the ongoing collapse of faith here in the United States and throughout the West. Catechesis with textbooks will not work very well unless people see what they are taught in the way the Mass is celebrated each Sunday.

That is a reason Pope Francis’ apostolic letter Traditionis Custodes is in danger of sparking the liturgy wars he sought to put to rest. Unity in Christ is what matters most. But taking seriously the challenge of helping the faithful actually meet Jesus in the Mass is the core to a liturgy that unifies us in the Lord. 

So with the help of the Benedict XVI Institute, I have over the past several years taken up this challenge to introduce and promote beautiful new sacred music in both forms of the Roman rite.

As opponents of the Latin Mass savor one message Pope Francis gave us, how many are picking up the other challenge he laid down to restore liturgical reverence and dignity throughout the Church?

Pope Francis himself has decried widespread liturgical abuses, a phenomenon for which we cannot so much blame the Second Vatican Council as that murky “spirit of Vatican II” interpreted individualistically, one might say even egotistically, in too many places. 

In Traditionis Custodes, Pope Francis wrote, “I am saddened by abuses in the celebration of the liturgy on all sides. In common with Benedict XVI, I deplore the fact that ‘in”many places the prescriptions of the new Missal are not observed in celebration, but indeed come to be interpreted as an authorization for or even a requirement of creativity, which leads to almost unbearable distortions’.

Pope Francis noted that the principles laid down by the Council Fathers asked that “the rites be revised carefully in the light of sound tradition, and that they be given new vigor to meet present-day circumstances and needs.”

It is in this spirit that we will gather on Jan. 15, at 11am in New York City, at Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the heart of faith for generations of Catholic immigrants to this country, to celebrate the Mass of the Americas. 

The music of the Mass, composed by the Benedict XVI Institute’s composer-in-residence Frank La Rocca, is a twin tribute to our Blessed Mother under her titles of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception (patroness of the United States) and Our Lady of Guadalupe (patroness of Mexico and all of the Americas). 

In 2019, the Mass of the Americas embarked on an international unity tour with celebrations held or scheduled to be held in Tijuana, Houston, Dallas, Guelph (Canada) and Allentown (New Jersey). Its last celebration, in the extraordinary form and held at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., drew more than 3,500 worshipers and 165,000 views on the Basilica’s website. Guadalupanos, Traditional Latin Mass lovers and Catholic University of America students were all united by the beauty and power of this Mass. Michael Olbash hailed it as “perhaps the most significant Catholic composition of our lifetime.”

In an effort to demonstrate what the revised Order of Mass really looks like when celebrated with fidelity to the principles laid down in Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium and in continuity with the received tradition, the Mass of the Americas at Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Jan. 15 will be in Latin (with the readings and General Intercessions in English), give pride of place to Gregorian chant (alongside sacred polyphony), and will be offered at the altar facing east, with all of us worshiping God together.  Those not physically present may watch the Mass on EWTN, which will broadcast the Mass of the Americas live.

When I was in Rome in January of 2020 for the bishops’ ad limina visit, I presented Pope Francis a copy of the score of this Mass, which represents one example of the kind of adaptation of the tradition in the contemporary world he has called for. 

Like the Franciscan friars in California did with mission church architecture, composer Frank La Rocca integrated local culture (including Mexican popular hymns like La Guadalupana) into the music of the Mass, raising the local and particular culture into the sacred tradition, that which is timeless. This is true inculturation as the Church has always understood it and lived it, and as Vatican II intended. It is a matter of sacralizing the profane, purifying it and elevating it into the sacred tradition, not “dumbing down” the liturgy to the level of popular culture such that it mirrors it and becomes practically indistinguishable from it.

At the audience with the Holy Father that we bishops on the ad limina visit attended on Jan. 27, 2020, Pope Francis spoke of Our Lady of Guadalupe as mestiza (mixed race), which he suggested is appropriate for the Mother of God’s Son, for God’s Son is also in a sense mestizo: both human and divine. Mary unites us all, as good mothers do, into one family, through Her Son Jesus. 

In this process of unification and communication, sacred beauty is integral, not an add-on luxury. Beauty evades our fortified cognitive barriers, placing us in the presence of the God who loves us.

Pope Benedict XVI encouraged us to interpret Vatican II in the light of continuity, reform, and the mutual enrichment that is possible when older rites and new are permitted to influence each other. Pope Francis’ Traditionis Custodes places a call on those who are inclined to more traditional forms of worship, and to all Catholics, to celebrate the current form of the Mass with greater beauty and reverence, with a sense of continuity.

This is what thousands will witness (through the miracle of the airwaves and the internet) on Jan. 15: a beauty which unites. A new example of the ancient and living Catholic tradition. A reverence that shows that Christ Himself is come among us once again, sacrificing Himself to draw us towards God. Guadalupanos, the curious, Latin-Mass lovers, and ordinary Catholics alike will gather together to experience God’s sacrificial love.

In the renewal we need, liturgy is key: reverent, sacred, solemn liturgy that incarnates the truths of the faith, and brings us closer to the Real Presence of God among us. In this great task, sacred beauty is not an optional add-on, but an integral part of the worship we need now.

Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone is the archbishop of San Francisco and the founder and chairman of the board of the Benedict XVI Institute for Sacred Music and Divine Worship.