Archbishop Cordileone Discusses ‘The Mass of the Americas’

San Francisco shepherd expounds on the soul-transforming power of beauty.

San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone presides at The Mass of the Americas, dedicated to the Immaculate Conception and Our Lady of Guadalupe, at St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco last December.
San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone presides at The Mass of the Americas, dedicated to the Immaculate Conception and Our Lady of Guadalupe, at St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco last December. (photo: Courtesy of the San Francisco Archdiocese)

The Mass of the Americas, a newly composed Mass setting commissioned by Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, will be celebrated Nov. 16 at 10am at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington and broadcast live on EWTN. Archbishop Cordileone will be the main celebrant for this solemn pontifical high Mass, the first-ever celebration of The Mass of the Americas in the Extraordinary Form. In late October, Archbishop Cordileone spoke with the Register’s Joan Frawley Desmond about his decision to present the soul-transforming power of beauty in unexpected places — like the 60th floor of the Salesforce Tower, the tallest building in his city, as well as in local parishes and schools.


Last April, fire badly damaged the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, provoking shock and grief across much of the world. What did that reaction tell us about the power of beauty?

Its power to touch and ennoble the soul is universal. Everyone — not just Catholics, but also nonbelievers — mourned the damage to the cathedral. And that reaction shows the power of beauty to unify.


Christianity was once the wellspring of Western culture. Can it still inspire great art?

That power can be revived, and we have the resources at our fingertips. Our Judeo-Christian spiritual tradition, which sees the human person as created in God’s image and likeness, views the good, the true and the beautiful as the three attributes of God.  I launched the “Truth, Beauty and Goodness Project”  with the goal of tapping into the spiritual energy of these attributes, so we can promote the healing and unity of our society.  The project is an initiative of the Benedict XVI Institute for Sacred Music and Divine Worship, which was established to  provide practical resources for more beautiful and reverent liturgies and to energize a Catholic culture of the arts.

If we consider what the Church is doing now to promote the good, the true and the beautiful, we see she is doing a great deal in the area of goodness, to serve the poor, and in the area of truth, to make catechetical resources available. But we need to do more in the area of beauty.


You frequently reference a comment by Pope Emeritus Benedict that affirms the transforming power of great art: “The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb.” What does the Pope mean?

He is saying these are the fruits of the Church, the fruits of holiness and beauty. As brilliant as he is, the pope emeritus realizes that to really reach people’s hearts, arguments won’t suffice, no matter how sound they are. To reach hearts, we need a special witness — holiness and beauty. Pope Francis just spoke to a group of children singing Gregorian chant, and he affirmed what they were doing. He said the music for the liturgy must be holy music. He said beauty is universal, something everyone can understand and celebrate.


You commissioned a Mass of the Americas, dedicated to the Immaculate Conception and Our Lady of Guadalupe, that premiered at St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco last December and will be performed in Washington, D.C. Nov. 16. What inspired you to take this on?

Every year in the Archdiocese of San Francisco, we have a big celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of both Mexico and all the Americas, on the Saturday before her feast day, with a procession and a Mass at St. Mary’s Cathedral. Last year, I realized that the Saturday, Dec. 8, was also the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, patron saint of the United States. Our Lady is the mother of all God’s children, and I thought that in the midst of so much division and contention in our society, she can unite us. I asked Frank La Rocca [the Benedict XVI Institute’s composer in residence] to compose music for a Mass for Our Lady that incorporated sacred music and the melodies of songs Mexican people sing to celebrate Our Lady, so they would connect with it.

I told him that my idea for this composition was inspired by the way the Franciscans had built their mission churches [in California]. They were traditional Catholic churches, but local materials were employed, like adobe. That artistic style reflects the creation of sacred art in the Catholic Tradition.

The Mass includes music in Latin, English and Spanish. There is a Hail Mary in Nahuatl, the same Aztec language that Our Lady used to speak to St. Juan Diego.

Since then, The Mass of the Americas has been performed for the closing Mass at a national congress on church music in Tijuana, Mexico, and I was the celebrant.


How did it feel when you first heard the Mass performed, with its mix of Latin polyphony and chant, along with Latin American music?

I don’t know how I got through the Mass without breaking down. It was so beautiful, from the very first note. I was also moved by the great spiritual devotion of the people to Our Lady.


The Mass of the Americas celebrates the holiness of the Virgin Mary and her power as a unifier and evangelizer. Why has devotion to Mary inspired great art since the early Church?

Mary is a mother figure and the mother of God’s Son. She is “the highest honor of our race,” as the Book of Judith states. She is the perfection of the human person kept free of sin. That motherly love touches the heart of anyone who loves her Son. So many central mysteries of our faith and salvation came through her.


What are the plans for The Mass of the Americas in Washington, D.C.?

In November, when it is performed at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, it will be a solemn pontifical high Mass. Frank was able to adapt the music for the extraordinary form. After the Mass, we are having a conference, and Frank, the conductor Richard Sparks and I will talk about the making of The Mass of the Americas. Jacqueline Leary-Warsaw, dean of The Catholic University of America’s Rome School of Music, Drama and Art, will moderate. [Leary-Warsaw is the wife of Michael Warsaw, the chairman of the board and CEO of EWTN, the Register’s parent company.]

There will also be master workshops on poetry, singing and painting.

The broader vision here is resurrecting what the Church has done historically to commission Masses for special occasions. I have already asked Frank to compose a requiem for the homeless, a memorial Mass for people who died homeless. He has studied homelessness and is getting to know people who are homeless. The music will reflect the reality of their life on the streets.


You live in 21st-century San Francisco, not 15th-century Rome. That means you need to think outside the box to be a patron of the arts and to engage the public, like a recent poetry reading you sponsored that took place on the 60th floor of the Salesforce Tower, the tallest building in San Francisco.

I try to find people who appreciate the power of beauty to overcome our divisions.

The poetry reading came about because Marc Benioff [the founder of Salesforce, a leading customer-relations software company] has been supportive of the archdiocese and our project to make beauty a force that unites us. He offered us space at the top of the Salesforce Tower for the poetry reading and discussion by Dominican Father Paul Murray, an award-winning poet and a professor at the Angelicum in Rome. It was a chance to discuss the importance of the arts, that we have a soul as well as a body, and that we need beauty to cultivate our souls. The event drew people interested in art and poetry, and not only churchgoing Catholics.

We will also launch a new book of poetry commemorating The Mass of the Americas by James Matthew Wilson, called The River of the Immaculate Conception.


Bishop Robert Barron has tried to touch on similar themes during his Word on Fire videotaped discussions about films that tap into man’s search for meaning and transcendence.

We are not taking on the role of film, but the Church really needs to be present in that medium. Film speaks so powerfully with symbols and archetypes that are part of the great human narrative.


What led you to launch the Benedict XVI Institute?

It started with the desire to provide parishes with resources for more reverent liturgies. God created us to worship him, and as Pope Francis has told young people, we should give God our best.

My vision is for the typical parish Mass to be so beautiful and moving that people can’t wait to go back to church. The institute has held Gregorian chant camps around the archdiocese. So far, 10 to 15 parishes and schools have participated.

The first place we brought Gregorian chant was San Quentin prison, which has a dedicated Catholic chapel. We scheduled a concert, and 30 men signed up.


What are your long-term hopes for these new initiatives?

We hope to re-energize a Catholic culture of the arts that will have a ripple effect, encouraging a desire for beauty in worship, where it has been absent for a long time.


Visit to register for the conference and for more information about the Mass.