Benedict XVI Institute Choir Teaches Sacred Song

Divine-worship goal aimed at reviving Catholic arts and music is Bolstered by new endeavor in San Francisco.

The San Quentin Scola venue kicked off the Benedict XVI Institute’s new activities in a major way. Music director Rebekah Wu stands next to San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, along with professional singers who are part of the teaching choir.
The San Quentin Scola venue kicked off the Benedict XVI Institute’s new activities in a major way. Music director Rebekah Wu stands next to San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, along with professional singers who are part of the teaching choir. (photo: Courtesy of Rebekah Wu)

What do 25 San Quentin Prison inmates, 30 Missionaries of Charity, and several hundred parishioners in the San Francisco Archdiocese have in common?

They’re all learning Gregorian chant through the Benedict XVI Institute for Sacred Music and Divine Worship.

“The overarching mission of Benedict XVI Institute is to open the door of beauty to God and bring people closer to him and his Church,” explained Maggie Gallagher, the institute’s executive director. “We do this primarily by providing practical resources for more beautiful and reverent liturgies, in both forms, and by helping to energize a Catholic culture of the arts.”

The institute on July 1 launched a teaching choir that travels to ordinary parishes to help choirs and congregations sing their parts of the Mass with chant. The teaching choir consists of four professional singers under the direction of Rebekah Wu, the institute’s music director.

An invitation opens the door, explained Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco. While visiting San Quentin last spring, the chaplain asked him to bring the training choir to the prison.

“He knew the men would like it,” Archbishop Cordileone said. “They love to sing, and they worship well. It was a great success. Twenty-five men signed up to be part of a schola.”

It was the teaching choir’s first engagement.

The 25 were “eager to learn how to sing in Latin and to chant the beautiful prayers,” music director Wu told the Register, noting the new San Quentin Schola had only one rehearsal before the Latin Mass.

It was touching for her to see. “All were extremely attentive and made great effort to sing joyfully to the best of their abilities, to glorify Our Lord, Jesus Christ.”

The next day, 23 more showed up to sing in the San Quentin Schola “to elevate the sacred in the sacrificial liturgy in the extraordinary form. I couldn’t stop smiling from ear-to-ear, watching these men bow every time we sang the name of Jesus Christ.”

She was also moved when one of the prisoners told her it was as if the Holy Spirit was “buzzing in his soul when he joined us in singing the chants, including the Litany of the Holy Spirit, Attende Domine, and The Jesus Prayer — ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’”

The teaching choir has also connected with the area’s Missionaries of Charity, aiding both their own prayer life and their after-school program, consecrating the children to Mary and helping to teach chant to children for that purpose, explained Gallagher.

In addition, a chant camp in August drew people who wanted to learn the best strategies to teach Gregorian chant to children, as well as children themselves.

Among attendees were Marian Sisters of Santa Rosa who pray through the Church’s traditional sacred chants.

“It is a way of life for us, and we hope to share this form of prayer, which is such a part of our heritage, to those we serve in Catholic education,” Mother Teresa Christe told the Register. She attended with Sisters Margaret Mary and Mary Victoria, who teach music for grades K-6 at St. Eugene Cathedral School in Santa Rosa and work with the children’s choir for school Masses and prayer events.

“So you can see how immediately applicable all that they learned in the chant camp is to them as they launch a new academic year,” Mother Teresa Christe said. As a high-school theology teacher, she will now “share an appreciation of chant” through weekly instructions with students who “enjoy hearing the chant while reading the English translations of the Latin texts.”

What the sisters learned and are teaching is taking immediate effect. As Mother Teresa explained, “Over 25 students at St. Eugene’s voluntarily give up their lunch recess once a week to learn chant and hymns for the school Masses. They have the privilege of learning the proper antiphons and singing from the choir loft, which is a big deal to 10- to 12-year-olds. Teaching the children to love the sacred chants early in life promises future adults well-disposed to the ancient music so fitting to the sacred liturgy of the Church.”

And this spring, for Mother’s Day, hundreds attended the first “Festival of Marian Hymns” at San Francisco’s St. Mary’s Cathedral.

“The decision was to make it more a lessons-and-carols format, with Scripture reading and readings from the saints,” Archbishop Cordileone said. Not only did the larger professional choir sing and chant sacred Marian hymns, but when it came to the familiar ones, “people sang some of the hymns, especially those seasonal Mary antiphons.”

Selections ran from some contemporary pieces to Russian chant. “It was a good sampling of sacred beauty all in honor of Our Lady,” Archbishop Cordileone said, calling the Marian festival “a tremendous success.”

Next, scheduled for November, is a solemn requiem Mass celebrated by Cardinal Francis Arinze at St. Patrick’s Seminary in suburban Menlo Park.

The institute also commissioned Frank LaRocca, a local sacred-music composer, to compose a Mass of the Americas to be celebrated at the cathedral Dec. 8 to honor Our Lady.


Beauty Is the Key

Archbishop Cordileone had the original idea for this institute, which launched in 2014. He thought, “We needed better formation, especially for laypeople and to prepare permanent deacons for their ministry,” in addition to academic, pastoral and spiritual studies, he said.

“We extended the mission to reclaiming sacred beauty by providing practical resources for parishes for their liturgical celebrations,” the archbishop explained.

Looking at the essential transcendental trinity of truth, beauty and goodness, he noted that “the door of beauty is not so wide-open. Some people will walk more through the door of beauty than others. I see the thirst for that.” He described the reaction of a mother at the close of a vocation camp for boys this summer. When the Benedict XVI choir sang, she was moved to tears by the beauty of the music.

Archbishop Cordileone sees this beauty as an important force for evangelization. The Benedict XVI  Institute will “open the door of beauty to our Catholic people so that, through sacred beauty,” they can enter “into an encounter with the Divine.”

Looking to open that door to beauty in many areas of Catholic arts, the institute publishes the online magazine Catholic Arts Today.

Gallagher said it “concentrates on living Catholic artists across all artistic disciplines.”

The magazine also sponsors a four-part lecture series. In May, California poet laureate Dana Gioia and Dante scholar and essayist Anthony Esolen spoke on “The Catholic Imagination.”

“Music is the heart of it,” emphasized Archbishop Cordileone.

“It helps make the Mass more beautiful and reverent,” agreed Gallagher.

“A lot, especially young people, find this music and reverent liturgy beautiful and attractive and elevating to the soul.” Wu described the immediate positive results of the first rehearsal with St. Ignatius Church and University of San Francisco students in September, when 26 parishioners and students as young as 17 years old came to learn how to read and sing Gregorian chant as well as some classical sacred choral music.

“They picked up a rather difficult Introit quickly and seemed to enjoy the experience of learning together,” she recalled.

Gallagher said nearly 15 parishes in the Bay Area have requested the institute choir’s services, adding that the institute is already developing an online curriculum for nationwide use.

With this emphasis on music, “It’s more than just training; it’s formation,” Archbishop Cordileone said.

“I hope this becomes a resource beyond this diocese and the area and a catalyst for other parts of the country. I would observe there is a real craving for something deeper, something sacred, especially on the part of the young people.”

Joseph Pronechen is a

Register staff writer.