Sanctifying the Sensory at Mass

The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass can be considered from a multitude of angles and by a variety of sciences. First and foremost, it is the actio sacra, the sacred action of the Church’s highest worship. As such, it is the unbloody re-presentation (as in literally making present again) of Christ’s selfsame sacrifice offered up on the Cross. It is the sacrifice of Cross, only the manner of offering is different, as it is a “clean oblation” of the now glorified and deathless Victim, who is offered now through the agency of the ministerial priest, that is, a man in Holy Orders.

We learn all the aforementioned from dogmatic theology, along with many other things, such as that the Mass is a propitiatory sacrifice that benefits both the living and the dead, as the Council of Trent infallibly taught.

Sacramental theology teaches us that the metaphysical essence of the sacrifice is the double consecration. Should the priest consecrate one, but fail to consecrate the other, of the sacred species, we would have the Real Presence, but no Mass, no sacrifice. We learn many other things from this sacred science as well, such as what is necessary by way of form, matter, minister, and intention in the Sacrament of the Eucharist.

Liturgical history teaches us much about the development of the Mass, its wondrous variety of approved and ancient rites, both Eastern and Western.

Spiritual theology teaches us how to derive the greatest benefit from the Mass, uniting the ex opere operato effects of Christ’s priestly act to the ex opere operantis efficacy of our devotion.

The Mass can be studied by all these sciences. But, in itself, it is an art (recta ratio factibilium), as it is directed to “making,” and not merely “knowing.” It has at its service many other arts. Sacred architecture erects the buildings in which the Mass is offered. Metallurgy, glass working, sewing, embroidery, painting, sculpture, etc., design and execute the various furnishings used in and around the ceremonies. Masters of ceremonies — liturgical artists with a demanding role in solemn ceremonies — coordinate the action as a conductor does for an orchestra.

According to scholastic theologians and philosophers, there is nothing in the intellect unless it is first in the senses (nihil in intellectu nisi prius in sensu). Therefore, to raise our minds to God that we may make oblations of our wills, we need sense data. To elevate the mind to that sublime reality that is the Mass, it is helpful to have multiform sense data that will draw the entirety of our beings into the sacred action happening on the altar.

The Mass employs all five of our external senses: the sights of the church architecture, the sanctuary, the altar, the Crucifix, and the “sacred choreography” prescribed by the rubrics; the sounds of the Mass texts, whether they be sung or recited, of the various incidental things, like bells and rattling thurible chains, etc.; the smells of incense and perhaps the altar flowers, the taste of the accidents of the Blessed Sacrament, and the touches that result from the various postures (kneeling, standing, sitting, bowing), and all the movements in the sanctuary, including kisses, and the pax in a Solemn Mass.

Hilaire Belloc had some wonderful things to say about this in his book, Towns of Destiny, which our Robert Hickson recently wrote of:

I would advance it to be true that the soul is supported by all sacramental things [understood here to connote more than the seven sacraments, including such incarnational realities as he goes on to mention]; that is, by all unison of the mind and the body upon a proper object; and that when great architecture and glorious colour and solemn music, and the profound rhythms of the Latin tongue, and ritual of many centuries, and the uncommunicable atmosphere of age, all combine to exalt a man in his worship, he is made greater and not less. He is supported. He is fed. (Towns of Destiny, pg. 227, emphasis mine)

And now, I would like to consider music in particular.

In his Motu Proprio on sacred music, Tra le Sollecitudini, Pope Saint Pius X says that music for sacred use must possess “sanctity and goodness of form, which will spontaneously produce the final quality of universality.” It has, therefore, to be holy, to be “true art,” and not to be the indigenous music of any particular nation. He goes on to say that “These qualities are to be found, in the highest degree, in Gregorian Chant,” which is the “supreme model for sacred music.” But, besides the Gregorian chant, he also lauds polyphonic music:

The above-mentioned qualities are also possessed in an excellent degree by Classic Polyphony, especially of the Roman School, which reached its greatest perfection in the sixteenth century, owing to the works of Pierluigi da Palestrina, and continued subsequently to produce compositions of excellent quality from a liturgical and musical standpoint. Classic Polyphony agrees admirably with Gregorian Chant, the supreme model of all sacred music, and hence it has been found worthy of a place side by side with Gregorian Chant, in the more solemn functions of the Church, such as those of the Pontifical Chapel. This, too, must therefore be restored largely in ecclesiastical functions, especially in the more important basilicas, in cathedrals, and in the churches and chapels of seminaries and other ecclesiastical institutions in which the necessary means are usually not lacking.

Saint Pius X admitted the use of other forms of music from later eras, not excluding the era contemporary with his own. He even allowed, in certain instances, the use of instruments besides the organ. The overarching rule was that the words themselves — the sacred texts of the Mass — are to be highlighted, and not obscured, by the music.

In an effort to impress upon my high school religion students an appreciation of the aesthetic beauty of the Mass, and how great monuments of Western Culture came from it, I gave a class in which they listened to a “Mass” of my own devising. I stitched together various parts of the Mass settings by composers of every era from Medieval to Romantic. (My “Mass” had two Kyries, a result of my indecision rather than a desire for liturgical novelty.) Hopefully, I broadened a few cultural horizons as I did so. I was pleased to discover later that all selections I took from recordings we have here at the Center, may be found on YouTube. The selections below, with some linked informational pieces, can serve as springboards for those wishing to explore real music (as opposed to the rot that most people consume).

Let me emphasize that not everything here would meet the criteria set forth by Saint Pius X. However, even in those examples which are not appropriate for liturgical use — like Verdi’s Dies Irae — it is edifying to see the genuine art that the Mass inspired. And the music itself is great.

Kyrie: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791). Classical.

Kyrie Orbis Factor: 13th or 14th century, from the Gradual of Eleanor of Brittany. Medieval.

Gloria: Mozarabic Chant from the 7th to 11th centuries. Medieval.

Dies Irae: Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901). Romantic. (This is only a part of a longer Dies Irae.) In the written assignment that followed upon my Mass music class, one of the young men wrote, about this piece, “I have to admit it made me nervous… especially considering it was about the last judgment.” (To make yourself a little more “nervous,” listen to this while looking at Michelangelo’s Last Judgment scene.)

Credo: (Excerpt 1 and Excerpt 2) J.S. Bach (1685-1750). Baroque. (These are two excerpts from Bach’s multi-movement Credo. Bach was a Lutheran, but expanded this masterpiece written for the Lutheran service nearly a decade after its original composition so that it could be used in a Catholic Mass. You can read the details of this, inasmuch as they are known, here.)

Sanctus: Ludwig von Beethoven (1770-1827). Beethoven transitions Classical to Romantic.

Agnus Dei: from “An English Lady Mass,” Anon. 13th-14th Centuries. Renaissance.

Sicut Cervus: Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c. 1525-1594). Renaissance. (This piece is not a part of the Ordinary of the Mass as the others are, but it could be used as a Communion hymn during the Mass.)

Palestrina, with whom we left off, was a spiritual son of Saint Philip Neri, as was the great Church historian, Venerable Cesare, Cardinal Baronius. This musical genius of the Catholic Reformation (or “Counter-Reformation”) also received special attention, as we saw, in Saint Pius X’s Tra le Sollecitudini. If you would like to explore Palestrina more, give his Missa Papae Marcelli a listen, and read about his close working relationship with Saint Philip in The Life of Saint Philip Neri, Apostle of Rome, by Alfonso Capecelatro. There we learn that Catholic piety and aesthetic refinement can be successfully combined and mutually complementary.

Indeed, that is the point.