MUST THANK MY Corpus Christi Watershed colleague, Fr. David Friel, for his article last summer, “Bishop Sheen on Sanctifying the Moment.” Not only did he provide many helpful quotes from Bishop Sheen, but he also recommended the great prelate’s book, Calvary and the Mass.
I finally got a copy of the book and read it last week. It’s fantastic. It’s not a step-by-step explanation of the words or actions of the Mass, but rather a sort of spiritual game plan for maintaining the right kind of recollection at each part of the Mass.
The book focuses on the Seven Last Words of Christ and links each of these words to a part of the Extraordinary Form Mass:
- Confiteor: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do (Luke 23:34)
- Offertory: Amen I say to you, this day you shall be with me in Paradise (Luke 23:43)
- Sanctus: Woman, behold your son….behold your mother (John 19:26-27)
- Consecration: My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me? (Matthew 27:46)
- Communion: I thirst! (Matthew 27:46)
- Ite Missa Est: It is finished. (John 19:30)
- Last Gospel: Father, into Your hands I commend My Spirit. (Luke 23:46)
As a Catholic, I was immediately eager to apply this book to the very next Mass I attended. As a Church musician (specifically, a choir director increasingly pressed into organ duties), I also wanted to apply this book to the Masses I play.
Playing the organ at Mass is a privilege and a joy. But as I’ve discussed here before, one of the challenges is to stay recollected—to be at Mass, and not just play at Mass. You play a bit, pray a bit, play a bit. You’re constantly jumping back and forth between your hand missal and the organ bench. And I don’t want to give up and say, “Well, if I’m playing five Sunday Masses, I only have to be prayerful at the first one to fulfill my obligation.” What a recipe for spiritual mediocrity!
One thing that has helped me immensely is the concept of “praying the organ.” Simply put, you improvise on the Gregorian chant and try to pray the text mentally as you’re playing. It’s a profoundly spiritual experience, and the results are audible to the congregation. Do it convincingly, and you might hear people tell you, “The music was very prayerful today.”
Even so, it’s hard to switch gears between praying the chant and returning to the missal. So Bishop Sheen’s book seemed to be an ideal way to tie together those stretches in between propers and make the Mass seem more cohesive for me when I’m playing.
Over the weekend, I used the book to put together a Low Mass Plan for Organists. This plan helps me integrate the Seven Last Words into my habit of praying the propers while I play them.
I share this document not with any sense of authority, but as a starting point for your customization. (I think this plan can work for the Ordinary Form, too, but that’s not my bailiwick.) You’ll notice that the plan calls for nothing but improvisation. I know minimal repertoire, and I love to improvise on the chant propers. But you’ll do as you like.
You’ll also notice that this is a very bare-bones document. I include the text of the Seven Last Words, but you’ll want to read Bishop Sheen’s book to put meat on those bones.
My initial results? I used this Mass Plan in my five low Masses yesterday. As always, by the time the 7:00 PM Mass rolled around, it was challenging to keep my mind prayerful because I’m human. But I did better than usual. I found that each of these brief Last Words “anchored” me to each part of the Mass and kept me from overthinking how my playing was going or what I was about to play next.
Also, I had always understood that Mass is a re-presentation of Calvary. But this book drives the point home in an especially poignant way. You’ll excuse me if I never play in major tonality again. (I’m half-joking.)
In the Extraordinary Form, the organ will soon go silent for most of Lent. But I look forward to using this Mass Plan (with continued refinement) on Laetare Sunday as well as on the handful of feast days that permit organ. Many thanks to Fr. Friel, and of course, to Bishop Sheen.