A Renaissance in Sacred Music: Will Fritz and the Catholic Composition Institute

A spirit of abundance inspires the next generation of Catholic liturgical composers, with the latest event set for June 15.

William Fritz and Sir James MacMillan looking on at the choir during a performance.
William Fritz and Sir James MacMillan looking on at the choir during a performance. (photo: Benedict XVI Institute)

“I feel we’re right at the cusp of a renaissance in new liturgical and new Catholic expression.” 

William Fritz’s enthusiasm is infectious. His eyes light up when he talks about, well, everything really, but especially sacred music and his time at the Composition Institute with renowned composer Sir James Macmillan. 

The Composition Institute with Sir James MacMillan, first launched by the Catholic Sacred Music Project in 2023 and co-sponsored by the Benedict XVI Institute for Sacred Music, looks to become an annual event and a significant new center for nurturing the next generation of Catholic liturgical composers. 

Writing music for the liturgy is a distinct task from writing for the concert stage, requiring artists to subordinate ego to the service of the worship of God. “The Institute attracts participants who strive after these aspirations,” MacMillan told the Register via email. “That is why there is a sense of support, collaboration and common purpose in its work.” 

Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone addressed the composers at the inaugural Composer’s Institute last year. "The commitment of these young composers to their faith and to the highest standards of craft was extraordinary and inspiring,” he told the Register. “It was a privilege to be there at the launch of a great project with them and with Sir James MacMillan.”

Lesson with Will Fritz.
Lesson with Will Fritz.

Along with Zachary Landress, Fritz is one of two returning composers from the previous year’s Institute and one of eight composers chosen by MacMillan out of the many who applied. (The others are Brock McGough, Conner McCain, Nicholas Lemme, Dominican Sister Peter Joseph Wardlaw, Nicholas Landrum and Steven Rabanal.)

For the concluding concert on June 15 at the Princeton Theological Seminary Chapel in Princeton, New Jersey, Fritz will present a setting of the Gradual of the Mass from the Feast of Corpus Christi, called Oculi Omnium (Every Eye).

“I wanted to highlight the intense, inner spiritual longing for our Eucharistic Lord. I cast the music in a slower, more contemplative feel: sometimes with musical lines that move around each other, but mostly with broad, lush harmonies that (hopefully!) melt into one another. I really felt inspired by both forms of the Mass: the Novus Ordo and the Traditional Latin Mass; and I composed trying to capture the continuity of the different forms.”

He speaks about music and his inspirations with great joy, but it’s the translated lyrics of the piece that truly capture Fritz’s artistic sensibility, which he described to me as “A Spirit of Abundance.”

The eyes of all hope in thee, O Lord: and thou givest them meat in due season.
 Thou openest thy hand, and fillest with blessing every living creature.

Fritz’s musical training began underneath his family piano as his older sisters toiled away at their lessons. Somewhere between his sister’s renditions of The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables, Fritz knew he wanted to play like they did, but his mother was slow to get him lessons. “When I was six, I decided I was going to compose something to show her how much I wanted to do this.” 

The specifics of his first composition are lost to time (“it was something about an owl”) and the initial play-through didn’t go as planned (“I pulled her into the room I couldn’t remember it and I started crying”) but the mission was ultimately a success, and he started piano lessons at the age of 12.

Composer Will Fritz works with the choir at the Catholic Composition Institute.
Composer Will Fritz works with the choir at the Catholic Composition Institute.

As a high-school student at St. Michael’s Abbey in Orange County, California, he met a priest with musical training who took Fritz under his wing. He gave him a book, Four Part Harmony in the Style of J.S. Bach, and told him to read that and then compose something new. “So I did, and nothing could stop me after that. I read everything I possibly could.”

Though his initial inspiration was the score to Star Wars, Fritz quickly found his love for sacred music. He later entered the seminary and spent nine years there before discerning he had no call to the priesthood. After leaving the seminary, he spent a few years trying very hard to avoid working in music. 

He jokes about it (“I need a real job”) but he also faced both internal and external pressures that made him think music may not have been for him. Imposter’s syndrome was one: “I’m self-taught. I took private lessons but I didn’t go to college for music.” 

But his community at the time was also a hurdle: “People are always going to tell you the negatives. You have to dig a little to find the positives. People would come up to me and harshly criticize my work.” 

He would pick up music directing jobs on the side here and there, but was content keeping music a secondary part of his life. Then more or less out of the blue, one of the Norbertine priests called and asked if he would serve as music director at the St. John the Baptist in Costa Mesa. “You know what I told him? No.” 

A month later the priest called back and Fritz couldn’t say No again. 

At Costa Mesa, he was able to devote his whole self to sacred music, playing the organ, conducting choirs and planning the music for sacred liturgies. Here, he was able to serve God and his parish community, surrounded by figures whom he trusted and who trusted him, while surrounding himself with music. His sense of abundance grew deeper. 

MacMillan visited Fritz and his church last year and was struck by the seriousness with which Fritz accepted his responsibilities.

“I was intrigued that William saw his role as a composer as being vitally connected to his activities as a liturgical musician,” he said. “He has a deep commitment to his parish community where he helps the clergy in their service of that community. It is a profoundly prayerful community which impressed and inspired me when I visited last year.”

Lesson with Nicolas Lemme.
Lesson with Nicolas Lemme.

At last year’s Composition Institute, Fritz’s fire for sacred music was lit anew. But more than that, he was able to experience music with his cohorts as collaborative, rather than competitive. “We’re not working from this fear of scarcity, but from a mentality of abundance. And that really is the Gospel message.”

The fellowship among artists created by one week together remains powerful. Will Fritz keeps in touch with several of the composers from the Institute last year, commenting on each other’s compositions and staying up to date on developments in each other’s lives. 

“Things like the Benedict XVI Institute, the Catholic Sacred Music Project — those institutes and movements show that there is a hunger that goes beyond competition. We see this mentality of abundance, and that’s what art can do: it brings people out of themselves and into a greater vision so that we can see that abundance.” 

It’s that sense of a spirit of abundance that defines Fritz to those who know him, especially Composition Institute leader and renowned classical music composer Sir James MacMillan, whose work consistently remains in the top three most often performed classical music works in the world.

William Fritz and Sir James Macmillan at the Composition Institute 2023.
Participants get to know eachother at the Composition Institute 2023.

“There was certainly a shared understanding at the Institute that we were all servants of the liturgy as composers,” MacMillan told the Register. “When I compose for the concert stage or for the theatrical stage the principal priorities are related to aesthetic, musical language, style, technique, and the drama of musical construction and architecture. These are all important in the composition of liturgical music too of course, but there is one other, extra, overriding priority and requirement for the composer — that the music he or she writes has to carry the thoughts and prayers of the praying assembly to the very altar of God. This is a huge responsibility — a spiritual one which surpasses everything else. Not everyone can do this or would want to do it.”

But Will Fritz clearly does. So much so that he returned to the Institute for a second consecutive year, to work again with MacMillan, to connect with old friends and to meet more artists, learn from them, and share the wisdom he has attained through his years in sacred music.

“When I find pockets of this abundance, I want to really tap into those. They may feel occasionally like a small pocket, but there’s a lot of water underground.”


Patrick Gallagher is an Atlanta playwright and actor, and assistant development director for the Benedict XVI Institute.

MORE INFO: The Catholic Sacred Music Project will present the “Behold, I Make All Things New: A Discussion on Sacred Music and Popular Culture and a Concert of New Sacred Music by Living Composer” June 15 at 11 a.m. at the Princeton Theological Seminary Chapel, 25 Library Place, Princeton, New Jersey. Those in the Princeton area who would like to attend may get tickets at this website. Those who cannot attend but would like to receive a recording of the concert at a future date may register here.