‘Evangelizing Through Sacred Beauty’
‘Mass of the Americas’ gains new listeners, parish version
New Mass settings are rarely commissioned, and even more rarely does a new Mass composition receive a second celebration. So the extraordinary success of the Mass of the Americas, commissioned by San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone as a unity Mass to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception and Our Lady of Guadalupe, is worth a closer look.
On Dec. 8, 2018, Frank La Rocca’s Mass of the Americas premiered at an ordinary-form Mass at San Francisco’s Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption, and now, close to four years later, his composition still continues to earn new celebrations. “I get requests for the full Mass and, especially, the Salve Regina from all over — the Philippines, Italy, Albania, the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Malta,” Frank La Rocca said.
The Mass of the Americas made a profound impression on the thousands who first heard its premiere celebration, as composer Mark Nowakowski wrote soon after in “Return to Liturgical Glory?” at the Benedict XVI Institute website: “Thousands packed the pews at the Mass of the Americas, making it (in one sense) one of the best-attended new music events of the 21st century.” The congregation that day was made up primarily of participants in the Cruzada Guadalupana, an annual 12-mile pilgrimage through the streets of San Francisco in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
As Nowakowski also noticed, as the Mass began and the processional hymn El Cantico del Alba was sung, La Rocca’s music captured the rapt attention of the thousands of tired pilgrims to an unexpected degree.
But would it ever be heard again? Nowakowski continued, “For a composition to become something for the ages, the biggest chasm is between the first performance and the elusive and the (for most) unattainable second performance.” One strong indication that Mass of the Americas is well on its way to the status of a Catholic classic is that it continues to be regularly celebrated as a Mass and performed in concert, as well.
“This is the Renaissance model of evangelizing through sacred beauty,” said Maggie Gallagher, executive director of the Benedict XVI Institute for Sacred Music and Divine Worship, which sustains and promotes La Rocca’s work.
“Great music is commissioned from the heart of the Church, wins new audiences by traveling through the great cathedrals, eventually ending up at Lincoln Center as well.”
After its premiere in November 2018, the Mass of the Americas has traveled to cathedrals and churches in other parts of the U.S. and abroad: Tijuana; Houston; Allentown, New Jersey; Guelph (Canada); Washington D.C.; New York; Chicago; Rome; and, most lately, Napa, California, where a new parish version was celebrated at the Napa Institute conference on July 27 by Archbishop Cordileone.
Richard Lopez, director of the 60-voice Archdiocesan Choir of the Co-Cathedral of the Sacred Heart in Houston, decided to use this Mass setting in the 11th-annual “In Memoria Concert” on Nov. 24, 2019.
Part of the appeal of the Mass of the Americas for his choir’s concertgoers, he said via email, would be “Mr. La Rocca’s blend of the three most prominent vernaculars for Southwestern Catholics: English, Spanish, and Latin,” along with the way in which the Mass begins and ends with the El Cantico del Alba processional and recessional, a beloved Mexican folk hymn elevated into the high sacred music tradition of the Church by La Rocca’s artistry.
The Houston concert at the Sacred Heart Co-Cathedral was “a great success,” Lopez said. He followed this success by taking the music of the Mass of the Americas this last June 28 to St. Ignatius of Loyola Church in Rome.
The Nov. 16, 2019, celebration of the Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception turned out to be a blessing for the reach of this Mass.
There was standing room only in the 3,000-seat basilica. The Mass of the Americas went viral on the basilica’s YouTube channel, garnering more than 206,000 views, as did the more recent celebration of the Mass this past January at Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City; that video has garnered an additional 160,000 views to date.
One recent development, which the release of the parish version of the Mass of the Americas at this year’s Napa Institute conference taking place this week, is likely to encourage, is its use by newly ordained priests in their first Mass celebrations.
Father Joseph Brom, a member of the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius in Chicago, is one of at least three priests who have chosen the music from the Mass of the Americas for their first Mass after ordination, in his case on May 22 of this year.
The premiere of the Mass of the Americas in the extraordinary form caught his attention. “After Archbishop Cordileone celebrated the extraordinary-form version of the Mass of the Americas at a pontifical high Mass at the National Shrine in 2019, there was a lot of buzz about it online. That’s how I first encountered La Rocca’s work. I then listened to everything available online and was greatly impressed,” Father Brom said.
When asked, “What was it about the Mass of the Americas that made you want to use it on that profoundly significant day on which you celebrated the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for the first time?” he replied: “From watching the recording from the National Shrine, I saw it was clear that the Mass of the Americas was a work of great love that touched the hearts of everyone present. And it touched me also.”
He continued, “Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Vatican II document on the liturgy, says, ‘The treasure of sacred music is to be preserved and fostered with great care’ and that new composers should ‘cultivate sacred music and increase its store of treasures.’ I picked this Mass setting because I found it extraordinarily beautiful, and I was also happy to be able to pick something that was a new composition in order to help people be aware that beautiful sacred music appropriate for the liturgy is still being composed in our day.”
“I was a little surprised at first when I heard the good news that priests were using this Mass in first Masses, because it was not my original thought in commissioning this Mass,” said Archbishop Cordileone, “but on reflection, a unity Mass to Mary, honoring the patroness of the United States and the patroness of Mexico and all the Americas, seems a natural and wonderful choice for this purpose.”
With the release of the new parish version, suitable for more ordinary parish choirs, this is a trend that is likely to continue, especially with the forthcoming release of a CD led by conductor Richard Sparks and the world-class Benedict Sixteen Choir this fall by Cappella records. The CD was produced by 11-time Grammy-award-winning classical music producer Blanton Alspaugh.
As Father Brom said, “La Rocca and many other modern composers of sacred music deserve to be more widely known, and they can contribute to a flourishing of sacred music in this day and age.”
The new parish version, the Novus Ordo in Spanish, Latin, English and Nahuatl (the Aztec language in which Our Lady spoke to San Juan Diego), and the version in the extraordinary form are all available by contacting the composer at FrankLaRocca.com.
Roseanne T. Sullivan is a journalist, poet and essayist.