This morning I attended a simple daily Mass along with 60 students in grades 6-12. Let’s see, that places them somewhere between the ages of 11 and 18. So given that there were only 70 people in the church – students and a handful of adults- I would say that the average age of the congregation was somewhere between 16 and 17.
The Lenten day Mass was just like any other Mass except that it was at a side altar in our rather “baslica-esque” church and Father faced “ad orientem.”
Somewhere during the Mass I found myself thinking: What is going on here? This is absolutely beautiful! I don’t think these kids are even aware of what they are accomplishing!
And what was it that they were accomplishing?
They were accomplishing, in an unassuming and unostentatious manner, the very thing that every Church Musician, every Liturgist, every Pastor, every Bishop…nay even the Fathers at the Second Vatican council wanted to accomplish when they wrote Sacrosantum Concilium.
They were accomplishing full and active participation in the sacred liturgy. And they were accomplishing this through beauty!
Mother Church earnestly desires that all the faithful should be led to that full, conscious and active participation in the ceremonies which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy.” (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy )
Granted that active participation does not mean the same thing as actual participation, nonetheless these kids were demonstrating active participation to the greatest extent that I can imagine.
Let me give you a quick overview of what happened.
The Mass opened and the kids sang the simple chant “Attende Domine et Miserere” (Hear us, Oh Lord, and Have Mercy). The doleful sounds of the chant imploring Gods’ mercy especially during Lent-and perfect for this Jubilee Year of Mercy to boot!- put me in the proper frame of mind for the penitential rite. No organ accompaniment. No cantors…just the voices of average kids blending together in chant. But don’t confuse average with mediocre. I am here to tell you that the average voice is a beautiful voice with just a little coaching.
Then the kids chanted the Kyrie from the Mass for Advent and Lent (Missa XVII). So singable, so lovely! What is it about Gregorian chant anyway? The words are melded so perfectly with the melody that the two become one… like body and soul.
I don’t know how the Holy Trinity could refuse when invoked by voices in such a way!
After the readings and the Homily, the kids sang Felice Anerio’s “Christus Factus Est Pro Nobis” (Christ Was Made Obedient For Us) at the Offertory. The best sacred polyphony is of course rooted in chant- perhaps imitative of the chant in its mode and mood, even echoing various motifs and intervals at times. No wonder sacred polyphony is second only to chant in its identity as Sacred Music. As the students sang those jarring first intervals of the Christus Factus I realized that Anerio was reminding us about the jarring truth of Christ’s obedience unto death- even death on the cross!
The Sanctus from Mass XVII with its soothing descending intonation followed by an immediate spirit lifting symmetrical ascension is a perfect preface for the Eucharistic prayer. The final Hosanna soars aloft but then glides down for a graceful landing on the word “excelsis.”
For many of these students, the chant was brand new. For all of them it was never rehearsed. I suppose some of the older students knew it and magically imparted their knowledge to the younger. The power of emulation! But that’s the way it is with those Gregorian mass settings…you hear them once and can join in the second time. Even if you are just, say 14 or 15.
I love the Agnus Dei. All of the settings, of course, have some repetition – yet some variation. Doleful and ethereal, the chant communicates the pleading of the words. The melody said the the same thing “Lamb of God….have mercy..”
That of course gives the full meaning of “bis orat qui cantat” (he prays twice who sings!).
At Communion they sang the beautiful, though slightly sentimental, “Adoramus Te Christe” by Dubois. The perfect Lenten communion song!
Mass ended with the Hassler (harmonized by Bach) “O Sacred Head Surrounded” for a recessional. Kids love this song. As a matter of fact, so does everyone.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure I will reveal that these students do all attend a school where, in addition to their regular studies, they are compelled to attend choir practice. According to this school everybody can sing. Everybody has a voice and every voice has a place in the choir! And in cultivating this talent each soul is given an important tool- a tool for actively and consciously participating and cooperating in the most sacred act possible!
I looked around discretely from time to time to see if the kids were aware of what they were doing. Yes- I know they knew what they were doing, as far as youth knows…but were they really aware of the profound beauty that they had cooperated in producing? Were they fully aware of their cooperation in so sublime an act of worship?
By the appearance of their youthful and carefree expressions I don’t think so. For them it was an ordinary experience – another school Mass. But in my hidden tears I knew it was nothing of the sort.