HE INTERNATIONAL Theological Institute 1 in Trumau, Austria, invited me to give an intensive course this past May on the theology of sacred music. On the Sunday that fell within my visit, a dear friend of mine took me into Vienna to attend Mass at the Oratorian parish of St.-Rochus und Sebastian. My friend had assured me that the experience would be worth it―and he was quite right.
The Oratorians in Vienna worship in a lovely Austrian Baroque church, which, I was happy to see, features a well-executed portrait of Blessed John Henry Newman.
Although the Oratorians vary a great deal from country to country, many Oratories in England and America have acquired a deserved reputation for the beauty and reverence of their public worship. The Oratory in Vienna was no different. Their Sunday celebration reminded me of something I do tend to forget, namely, the heights to which the Ordinary Form can rise when, as it were, the planets are properly aligned―when the clergy, animated by a deep knowledge of and respect for ecclesiastical tradition, are unequivocally committed to the hermeneutic of continuity, and, following from this commitment, when all the fine arts, from the architecture to the vestments and vessels to (above all) the sacred music, are worthy of their exalted function.
Thus, I was thrilled when Mass began with the Gregorian Introit, which was complemented later by the Gregorian Alleluia after the first reading, the Paschal Alleluia after the second, and the Offertory antiphon, all sung extremely well, in a manner that was conducive to prayer. As Dr. William Mahrt (among others) has demonstrated, each of the Gregorian antiphons serves a specific liturgical function, to which the words and music are perfectly attuned, and I found that to be really obvious when I had the luxury of being down in the congregation listening rather than up in the choir loft directing, which is my usual lot (not that I’m complaining!).
But the thing that delighted me the most, from a ceremonial point of view, was the magnificent five-part polyphonic Mass, the Missa doulce memoire by Cyprian de Rore (1515–1565), sung by the choir of the house, the Capella San Filippo. The soaring Kyrie and triumphant Gloria could not have been better suited for the joy of Paschaltide, and as my ears drank in their beauty, my soul rested in the Lord. It was quite as the Byzantine prayer says: “Now set aside all earthly cares…” The music helped me to step out of the mad world for a moment and give myself to God, who is my only rest and my eternal home.
THERE WERE SOME INTERESTING THINGS I noticed. Because of its great length, the Sanctus was split, with the Benedictus sung after the Consecration, with the people still kneeling and the priest standing at attention before the Sacratissimum. When the choir had finished, the priest intoned the “Mysterium fidei” and all made the response “Mortem tuam.” It seemed a serviceable, though perhaps not rubrically accurate, solution to one particular challenge with the polyphonic Masses of yore. Again, when the time for the Agnus Dei arrived, the choir and people together chanted a Gregorian setting; the choir then sang the polyphonic Agnus Dei while communion was being distributed. I had heard of this practical approach to the choral Agnus Dei but had never encountered it “in the field,” so it was good to experience it as a successful (and of course permissible) solution to the problem of utilizing the beauty of a lengthy choral setting within a form of the Mass that is generally ill-suited for expansive sacred music.
The congregation sang the dialogues and made the responses without fuss. Credo III was sung with gusto by every man, woman, and child. And although the church was crowded with faithful of all ages, there was an astonishing silence at the Canon, hardly disturbed by the priest, who prayed sotto voce. All of which bespeaks a true participatio actuosa of the kind envisioned by Vatican II. To round everything out, there was a fine use of the pipe organ, the monarch of church instruments.
MIDST ALL THIS NOBILITY, there were a few things that seemed discordant. The readings were merely recited instead of being sung, and that made for an odd contrast with the sung Ordinary and Propers, since the readings have quite as much dignity as they have. Similarly, in keeping with what has become an unspoken rule, the General Intercessions were read out instead of being sung―a practice that has the effect of lowering the general tone of a solemn Mass, as if one has just got to make it through this list of petitions in order to move on to the real business of worship. The moment one sings the petitions, they are utterly transformed into a formal liturgical act of communal supplication. Lastly, and most strangely, the Communion antiphon was simply omitted. There would have been time to sing it at least once. It was as if the family of Gregorian antiphons had lost a brother or a sister.
But these are minor points in what was a most resplendent celebration of the modern Roman Rite, and one that powerfully moved me to the four great acts of prayer: adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, and supplication. I thank the Lord that He reminded me, at St.-Rochus, of how great an abyss separates the ruptured celebration of the Novus Ordo from its celebration in continuity with tradition. I know that, even in the best of circumstances, there are massive internal differences between the Ordinary and Extraordinary Forms, and nothing I say should be construed as downplaying those differences. Still, if the Oratorian model had been followed everywhere and by all, could anyone seriously maintain that the crisis in the Church and in her liturgy would look as it does today?
Someone once observed how strange it is that Christians spend so little of their time in this world practicing for what they will be doing forever in heaven: worshiping the Lord in the beauty of holiness. Cyprian de Rore and the Capella San Filippo helped me to do just that; may the Lord reward them. I could not suppress an occasional melancholy thought as I realized how few Austrians would be attending Mass that morning, although nearly all of them are baptized, and, of those few, how very few would be assisting at a Mass this beautiful, reverent, and solemn, so deeply centered on the mystery of Christ our God.
Friends, now is the acceptable time. In celebrations according to the Ordinary Form, let us do all that we can to worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness, in the fullness of faith, with tradition as our model and guide. We may confidently take as our pattern the faithful disciples of St. Philip Neri.
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1 For the International Theological Institute’s website, click here.