ANY THINGS coalesced to make this year’s World Youth Day celebration historic. It was held within the context of the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy (2016), in the city of Divine Mercy (Kraków), inviting pilgrims to follow in the footsteps of the pope of Divine Mercy (St. John Paul II) at the event that he, himself, created (WYD).
There was one truly remarkable part of the WYD celebrations that did not receive as much attention as these other details, yet it was revolutionary. I am speaking about the music used at the major English-speaking catechesis sessions.
For those who are not familiar, World Youth Day is not really a day, but a week. During the days leading up to the main weekend events with the Holy Father, WYD pilgrims attend morning & afternoon catechesis sessions. These presentations are given in a multitude of languages at various venues throughout the host city. Not surprisingly, one of the largest groups of pilgrims at every WYD comes from the English-speaking world, so there is typically one very large English catechesis center.
This year, the main English-speaking catechesis was held at Tauron Arena, renamed “Mercy Centre” for the week. Each day, roughly 15,000 pilgrims packed the arena to hear keynote talks by Cardinal Seán O’Malley, Cardinal Tagle, and Cardinal Dolan. At the conclusion of the morning session, Mass was celebrated in the arena.
Nothing is new about the general structure of the catechesis I have just described. The revolutionary part was the music used at the Masses in Tauron Arena. Typically, these Masses feature pop concert-style praise & worship led by an on-stage band. This year, however, the preparations for these large-scale liturgies were made in conjunction with the Dominican Liturgical Centre in Kraków. Rev. Łukasz Miśko, O.P., a Dominican friar from Poland (who presently works in Salt Lake City), was entrusted with the musical preparations for these large-scale liturgies, and he worked closely with his confreres at the Dominican Liturgical Institute in Kraków. Fr. Łukasz Misko, OP served as Director of Music for the English-language liturgies, and he, in turn, invited fellow-blogger Christopher Mueller to serve as conductor for all of these liturgies (as he announced here). The result was an experience very different from the norm.
Notably, not a single hymn was sung during Mass on Wednesday or Thursday. Praise & worship songs were used throughout the day at the arena, before and after Mass, but no garden variety metrical hymns or songs were sung during Mass, from the Sign of the Cross to the Final Blessing. On Friday, two very tasteful hymns (Welcome, Bread of Life and Jesus, Thou Joy of Loving Hearts) were sung amid other chant and polyphony during Communion, which, because of its length, required a great deal of music. The musical decision to essentially dispense with hymnody is itself revolutionary
During the entrance procession, offertory, communion, and recessional, a variety of musical forms were used. Most of the music at these points were responsorial texts written in four parts. A Gregorian alleluia and the Pater noster were chanted each day, and the first piece during communion each day was in Gregorian plainsong. The polyphonic pieces included: Jesu, Rex admirabilis (G.P. Palestrina), Anima Christi (Stefan Stuligrosz), Lift Me Up, O Jesus (Jacek Sykulski), In Te, Domine, speravi (Hans Leo Hassler), Per Crucem Tuam (Piotr Palka), Salve, Mater Misericordiae (arr. Mueller), Adoremus in aeternum (Gregorio Allegri), and Totus tuus (Msgr. Marco Frisina).
The Mass setting used each day was the Missa Orientalis by Jacek Sykulski. This was sung in four parts, and the text (interestingly for the English-language catechesis center) was in Latin.
On the final day of catechesis, Chris and his wife, Constanza, led a breakout session entitled: “How to Promote Polyphony and Chant at Your Parish.” For many of the pilgrims, this was their first experience of chant and polyphony. One hopes that some of them have been energized to learn more and to bring the music of the Church back to their parishes.
The singers for these Masses were children and young adults. The instruments included violin, viola, cello, clarinet, and flute, all played by young adults. Nothing about this music was specialist or elite or out-of-reach.
At the conclusion of the week, the musicians were acknowledged and thanked by the Mercy Centre host, Chris Stefanick, who described how deeply moved he was by the beauty of the sacred music. This sentiment was corroborated by thunderous applause from the 15,000 other attendees. Enough of the argument that we have to do praise & worship at Mass because “the kids love it”!
This sea change is not insignificant. It means that the project of advocating truly sacred music within the present liturgical movement is bearing practical fruit. Even three years ago, at WYD 2013 in Rio de Janeiro, no one would have expected what transpired at the Mercy Centre in Kraków.
That the Dominican Liturgical Centre was involved in the preparations for these English-language liturgies is an enormously important step. That Christopher Mueller was selected to serve as conductor is equally important. These surprising choices would not have been possible some years ago. What graced decisions they turned out to be!
Each day’s Mass had an accompanying printed program for music. In each program, the following explanation was printed:
These English-language liturgies are the fruit of a long and ongoing collaboration between Dominican Friars in Poland and their Dominican brethren in the United States. And one of the first impressions you may have is, a lot of this music is unfamiliar. What we hope you’ll take away from these Masses, though—alongside the presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the camaraderie of thousands of new Catholic friends from around the globe—is a sense of how beautiful the music of the Mass can be.
Dominicans especially cherish Gregorian chant, and yet they believe that the beauty of sacred music does not belong to one particular genre. It flows from a basic requirement found in different musical styles, which might be summed up as, “it’s all about God, and He’s a Mystery.” Inexpressible and ineffable, the Mystery of God is always ahead of us, approached but never comprehended, and therefore our liturgical music—filled with awe and love for Him—should reflect that fundamental humility. This week we are drawing from a wide variety of the Church’s music, including Gregorian chant, sacred polyphony, traditional hymnody, and contemporary praise and worship.
The overarching aesthetic, though, is a sound specific to Dominicans in France and Poland. You’ll notice several compositions by French priest André Gouzes, OP, in which he hearkens back to Byzantine chant with its circular four-voice harmonic progressions. Several contemporary Polish composers are also represented, who employ a similar aesthetic (sometimes called the “Gouzentine” sound). Most of this music is antiphonal, where a short refrain is repeated several times, interspersed with Scriptural verses. It’s a bit like having multiple Responsorial Psalms packed into a Mass.
That’s because the Mass propers (e.g., the antiphons at Entrance, Offertory, and Communion) are responsorial in their construction, and these antiphonal pieces reflect the underlying musical structure of the Mass itself.
And it’s all about God, and He’s a Mystery. The unfamiliarity of this beautiful choral music gives us a chance to experience God anew at each liturgy. We can’t apply our usual “traditional music = conservative” or “contemporary music = liberal” thinking. We must become open to the vastness of God, and beauty offers us a powerful means of doing that; true beauty calls us out of ourselves, orients us to something greater, and stirs up a longing for the transcendent. Sacred music, the expression of the deepest human yearning for the most profound Mystery of Love, creates in us a special dimension whereby we can be permeated and transformed by the Eternal beauty of God, Himself.
With voices raised and hearts opened, let us pray.
Fr. Łukasz Misko, OP
Director of Music for English-language liturgies, WYD 2016
Finally, let me offer an unsolicited advertisement. The Mercy Centre at Tauron Arena was generously sponsored by the Knights of Columbus, who do wonderful work for the Church. Every Catholic man should consider becoming a Knight. The arena was also staffed all week by the Sisters of Life, a remarkable order of women religious. Much gratitude to both of these groups for their support of the English-speaking catechesis!