Saturday, February 20, 2016

The importance of singing the Mass

I just watched the whole funeral broadcast for Justice Scalia and have to say, that was the most reverent Mass of burial anyone could reasonably expect out of the National Shrine, given the circumstances. I could nag about certain details like the use of white instead of black vestments, or the (entirely-expected) lack of the Dies Irae, but let's face it: we will probably never again witness such a high-profile Mass with the Vice President and so many other notable persons in attendance where the Introit Requiem Aeternam is sung and the priest uses the Roman Canon, much less preaches a homily so explicitly Catholic and mindful of the four last things as what just happened this morning in Washington. Has Biden ever sat through a funeral oration where the priest began:
"We are gathered here because of one man. A man known personally to many of us. Known only by reputation to even more. A man loved by many. Scorned by others. A man known for great controversy. And for great compassion.

That man, of course, is Jesus of Nazareth." 
Talk about a bait-and-switch to remember!

Here, though, I'd like to focus on a smaller detail that no other blog is likely to mention: the fact that Father Paul Scalia went so far as to sing the collects, the Preface, and a great deal of the other parts of Mass. One of the potential geniuses of the pre-conciliar rite was how it required a priest to sing the entire liturgy if there was to be any sung or solemn Mass at all. Of course, in the last couple of centuries or more, security turned to folly, and clerical laziness meant that low Mass would be the most well-trod path. With the 1970 Missal abolishing the hard distinctions between low, sung, and solemn Mass, the vast majority of priests naturally opt not to sing any of the Mass at all (except, oddly, the "by him, and with him, and in him" at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer; a phenomenon which I hope someone will explain to me some day).

Why does it matter, you might ask? Quite simply, because it takes the man's personality out of the liturgy and gives him the voice of the saints throughout the ages. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, of all men, has said he would have traded all of the music he ever composed in exchange for having the credit for composing the Gregorian Preface. But when a priest or other reader in the liturgy merely recites a text, he inevitably gives it his own voice; he impresses the liturgy with his own personality. As glad as I was to see Justice Clarence Thomas read the Epistle, and as dignified as his voice is, it's still distinctly Clarence Thomas reading the word of the Lord. When a lector or subdeacon chants the text in the traditional tone, it's much harder to think of its words emanating from another mere mortal's mouth. Above all, when a deacon sings the Gospel in the midst of the assembly, I think not of the man reading it, but of the words as though they were coming from Christ Himself.

The deacon singing the Gospel at our nuptial Mass

Friday, February 19, 2016

Honoring and praying for the dead: then and now

A few of the 180 clerks that have worked for Justice Antonin Scalia lined up at the steps to the US Supreme Court. At the head, in cassock and surplice, is the late Justice's son, Father Paul Scalia of the Diocese of Arlington.

As I type this, the body of Justice Antonin Scalia lies in repose at the United States Supreme Court. I'm not generally a political blogger and it's not my intention to canonize the man here, but from what I know of him, Justice Scalia was an exemplary Catholic with a great heart and a Morean sense of humor, and was committed to a consistent interpretation of the Constitution over any political or party loyalties. I've learned at least one fascinating fact about Scalia every day this past week from articles shared by friends. For instance, on one occasion, he walked into a Catholic church that had been remodeled after Vatican II and loudly exclaimed, "where the hell is the tabernacle!?" It's still hard to believe he's gone; Scalia sat on the Court since before I was even born and will be, most likely, the highest-ranking US public official to ever have frequently attended the traditional Latin Mass for the rest of my life (indeed, a handful of traddies find it highly suspicious that one of "their own" was able to make it so far up without soiling his immortal soul in the process).

There was probably some heated debate behind closed doors between Scalia's son, Father Paul (a regular celebrant of the traditional Latin Mass), and the powers-that-be in the Archdiocese of Washington over what form of Mass the Requiem for the late Justice would take, but it was decided that it would be the Ordinary Form. Whatever Scalia's wishes might have been, it was surely determined that a Requiem in the old rite would have been just too bizarre and even embarrassing to cast before the whole nation's gaze. It could have been the most-watched Latin Mass in history since John F. Kennedy's funeral, but alas. It's a twofold shame; first, in that Catholics have near-completely abandoned the practice of praying for the dead, and second that they, like the rest of the developed world, have little concern for respecting the dead's wishes or honoring them in fitting ceremony.

The old Requiem Mass with its solemn, somber chants was the finest jewel in a crown of prayers and special rites developed by our medieval forebears to remember and pray for their deceased loved ones, even in a world where death lurked behind the corner for every man, woman, and child with no respect to age, status, or wealth. The Ordo Commendationis Animae (Order for Commending a Soul to God) began with prayers over the just-deceased person, then a procession bearing the corpse directly to the church. This was a communal event in every village, whereby even those who didn't know the deceased could join. From 1389 on, an indulgence of one hundred days was attached to joining a funeral procession on the way to the church.

There were, of course, no funeral homes in those many centuries, so bodies were cleaned and prepared on-site (perhaps in the crypt), then laid out in the chancel on a platform encompassed by a "herse" (a framework to support candles over and around the body) as the clerks or monks began Vespers from the Office of the Dead. This vigil of prayer is, as far as I know, only kept today by very devout associations such as the Knights of Columbus, who are committed to praying the Rosary on the night before any deceased member's Mass of burial.

Illustration of a herse by Gothic revivalist Augustus Welby Pugin, a "patron" of this blog.

The Office of the Dead continues the following morning with Matins and Lauds. Although these were sung chiefly by the clergy and monastics, evidence abounds that these services were held nearly and dearly by the lay faithful. Every book of hours (those prayer books, often richly illuminated, used by the more well-to-do laymen of the medieval world) contained, usually toward the end, a full order of service for the Office of the Dead. Unlike the other hours and devotions, which tended to be abbreviated forms of the ones used by the clergy, the layman's book of hours contained the whole Office of the Dead, unabridged. We can see from surviving last wills and testaments that nobles would leave very specific instructions for how these offices would be executed upon their deaths, indicating their preferences for the Placebo (the opening of the psalm Placebo Domino from Vespers) or Dirige (from Matins, Dirige Domine) just as anyone today might call for "Amazing Grace" or "On Eagle's Wings".

An illustration of the Office of the Dead from the Llangattock Hours
Even before the main funeral Mass, other Requiem Masses might be offered the day before or the same day upon receiving news of the death. A testator might have even requested one or more of his favorite (non-Requiem) Masses to be offered for his soul. Imagine, then, a priest vested in white or red to offer the votive Mass of the Holy Ghost or a deceased's patron like Saint John the Baptist, complete with Glorias and Alleluias, before then changing to black to begin the Requiem!

We come, at last, to the Requiem Mass itself: the Mass with prayers and chants dedicated entirely to the eternal rest of the deceased. The whole liturgy is directed for the departed soul: the Roman liturgy eventually even modified the Agnus Dei to end with "grant him (her, them) rest" rather than the communal "have mercy upon us". The most famous of all these chants, and the one most likely to appear in a film touching upon anything related to the danse macabre is the Dies Irae: the Day of Wrath. This sequence, at least six minutes of chanting about God as the just and terrible Judge on the last day, remains an option for Ordinary Form funerals in theory, but is so rare now that we can call it effectively suppressed. No other single aspect of the traditional Requiem was so memorable, nor so despised and vilified by liturgical authors during and after the Second Vatican Council, as the Dies Irae. The four last things (death, judgment, heaven, and hell) have never been so out of fashion.

In the earliest stages of the Requiem Mass's development, say the seventh or eighth centuries, monks were wont to keep the practice of offering Requiems to themselves, judging the laity unworthy of having a special Mass offered just for themselves. This quickly gave way to the opposite approach; that every Christian, no matter how sinful, was entitled not just to their own Requiem, but an exsequial high Mass; a spirit of charity to the dead that lasted right up to the Reformation.

Illustration of a Requiem Mass by A.W. Pugin

At the end of the Requiem, the priest approaches the body to incense it and pray the absolutions, imploring God to spare the soul the temporal punishments earned in purgatory for sins forgiven in life. Modern Catholic funerals no longer require the presence of a body, but in the medieval world, it was essential to even have a Requiem at all. If a body couldn't be had, then a mock-up of an empty casket, called a catafalque, was erected to represent the body. This was especially needed during the Crusades and the Hundred Years' War, when men regularly died in battle many miles away from home. Even then, great efforts were made to mark exactly where a body was buried, so that years or even decades later, a family could dig it out and reinter it in their family chapel. Catafalques, likewise, were erected even for memorial Requiems for groups of persons, or for commemorating all the souls of the faithful departed on All Souls' Day.

A catafalque erected for an anniversary Requiem for King Louis XVI of France, who was beheaded during the French Revolution

Time will tell if anything remotely resembling the traditional exequies will take place for Justice Scalia at the National Shrine tomorrow. EWTN will begin broadcasting at 11am. I've read that Scalia's son, Father Paul, will preach the homily, but don't know if he will be the celebrant. In any case, I'll be watching, thinking, and praying.

Father Paul prays Psalm 129 (130), de Profundis, beside his father's casket in the Supreme Court building.

Thursday, February 4, 2016


February 2 was, like so many other feasts that have fallen by the wayside in modern times, one of the great Christian festivals of the medieval world. It commemorates the fortieth day after Christmas, when the Blessed Mother presented the infant Christ at the Temple of Jerusalem and submitted herself for ritual purification according to the law of Moses. At Christendom's height, a lengthy service prior to Mass developed which involved the blessing and distribution of candles, and a procession of lights around the church or even the village. We may or may not have inherited this love of walking about with candles from our pagan forefathers, but its Christian significance lies in the words of Simeon, the elderly Jew to whom the Holy Ghost promised he would not die until he had seen the Messiah with his own eyes. Simeon was present at the Temple during the presentation of Jesus, and said:
"mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people;To be a light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of Thy people Israel."
Last Tuesday, I was privileged to partake in these traditions in a small but special way. Solemn high Mass in the old rite was celebrated at the Cathedral-Basilica in Philadelphia. I joined some servers of varying ages from the various Latin Mass communities across the city, as well as three diocesan seminarians, to walk in the procession around the church and sit "in choir" for the Mass. As the candles were being distributed to the congregation, the choir sang the words Simeon spoke all those centuries ago, the Nunc dimittis.

Lumen ad revelationem gentium. "A light to enlighten the Gentiles."

Small as my role was, this Mass was a life-changing experience for me. Perhaps not a Damascene conversion or fodder for a column in a vocations magazine, but I couldn't help but feel a stronger pull toward an ongoing discernment I've had for years toward the so-called "permanent" diaconate. It's very rare for lay servers these days to be able to attend Mass in the sanctuary, but without all the distractions of multiple duties. When you sit "in choir", though, you enjoy being not only very close to the altar, but some freedom to simply watch and pray the Mass, or read from a hand missal when seated. I even fulfilled the "choir" part of being "in choir" by singing the Credo from my Liber Usualis (the rest of the Mass Ordinary was polyphonic). It was amusing to watch the young boys in front of me awkwardly exchanging the kiss of peace, to the second MC's dismay. I hope they continue to foster a love for the altar and consider a vocation to the priesthood.

And to think: all this taking place in the very same sanctuary where the Pope himself celebrated Mass  for the clergy of Philadelphia just a few months ago!

Some of our Knights and Dames of Malta joined in this procession as well.

The vestments selected for this Mass were splendid Gothics with fleur-de-lis.