Active Participation and Mozart Masses

Today is the 500th anniversary of the Swiss Guard’s service to the Roman Pontiff.  This morning for the event His Holiness the reigning Roman Pontiff Benedict XVI celebrated Holy Mass in the Basilica St. Peter.  The music was Mozart’s Coronation Mass.  I have a special love of that particular Mass by Mozart.  It was used for my first solemn Mass back in my home parish of St. Agnes in St. Paul (USA), which happened also to be Corpus Christi.  A grand event.    You also have in these Masses the opportunity to hear them in the context for which they were composed: Holy Mass, albeit in most cases the Novus Ordo and not the older form of Mass.

Also, years ago, I was present in the Basilica of St. Peter and participated in the Mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II for the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul when the music was again the Coronation Mass.  There was a recording of that Mass produced.  The Berlin Philharmonic played. Von Karajan directed.   Kathleen Battle was the soprano.  It was very nice.  Mind you, St. Peter’s is a great barn of a place and the acoustics not really suited for this sort of music, but it was really nice anyway. 

It also completely freaked out the liturgists. 

Liturgists, at least the 1960’s-80’s stamp of them, made the specious claim that that music does not permit people to "participate actively".   The idea is that if the people can’t sing everything, then they are not participating.  In their way of thinking, you can’t participate by listening.  That mentality has killed sacred music in our churches.  If everyone must sing everything, then the quality of music will have to be very low indeed.  You will have to write for the lowest denominator.  Hard music requires both training and practice.  Therefore, real choirs dissipated into … well… what many places have now.  And the music… the music….

Furthermore, some people offer the objection that they are distracted from the liturgy by the music.  I can see how that might be in the music is bad and/or poorly performed.  Music in the liturgy is not an add on or a mere ornament to the Mass.  The Church calls sacred music pars integrans, an integral part of the liturgy.  It is liturgical, provided it is both truly sacred and it is artistic (in composition and performance). 

Today, the Chorus and Orchestra of Zurich did the honors, appropriately.  Unfortunately it was decided that the Credo of the Coronation Mass be left out in favor of a congregational chant version.  In my opinion, they should have left the Creed in, but perhaps they were also concerned about the length of the whole Mass.  The Coronation has the virtue of being fairly short, but the Creed does take a while.  Dunno about that.  I suspect the real reason was to toss a bone to the liturgists rather than shorten the Mass.  I will see if I can find someone in on the planning who can tell me.

Remember, true active participation begins with your baptismal character, whereby you are able to receive what the Lord offers.  True active participation is characterized by an act of will, by which you knowingly and loving embrace what is occurring according to your role in the liturgy.  That active receptivity, that knowing and willing embrace of the sacred action then can lead to outward expression in the appropriate way and time.  Pius XII underscored the fact that the most perfect form of active participation was the proper reception of Holy Communion while in the state of grace.  This is the also the a good expression of active participation in all its forms, interior and physical.  Interiorly you are disposed to receive, you are making an act of love, which comes from knowledge and will, and you are physically processing forward.  Even better is when you physically express something of your act of love and active receptivity by kneeling to receive the Eucharist. 

The Mass in the Basilica today reminds us also that His Holiness Pope Benedict understands quite well, something clear from his writings, what active participation really means. 

We ought not be afraid of throwing wide open the doors of the Church’s treasury of sacred music.  Let us make some hard distinctions about what music is really suitable for the Mass.  It is good to have well-trained choirs who are able to perform music during Mass which is meant to be listened to by the congregation.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. It strikes me, Father Z, that in your frequent discussions of active participation, you may not yet have mentioned explicitly our offering up of our own personal sacrifice — for instance, our own small part and share in the agony and suffering of the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church, in our own time. I believe children used to be taught to ask at the offertory that their personal sacrifice be placed on the paten with bread and in the chalice with the wine that would become the Body and Blood of Christ at the consecration, praying that their own small sacrifice not be unworthy to be united with the infinite sacrifice of the Son that would be borne by his holy angel to the altar of the Father in heaven. Would you still consider this a form of active participation that ought not be omitted?

  2. Cornelius says:

    One reason I particularly like weekdays Masses is that there is no music and no singing. What a relief that is. No inane lyrics, no high notes I can’t hit, no feeling guilty
    because I’m not singing along . . . .

    Last Sunday we sang “Morning Has Broken” for the processional, which, though
    identified as a “Gallic Traditional” in the notes, cannot rationally or
    reasonably be sung or heard without thinking of that now-Muslim Cat Stevens.
    Besides the fact that, though mention occurs in the lyrics about the “Word”,
    its Christian association seems quite thin and seems frankly naturalistic to me,
    a pagan paeon to nature.

  3. Brian Anderson says:

    In 1959, as a nine year old I was given, for a birthday present, the St. Joseph’s
    Daily Missal. It made participation at Mass so much easier. Latin on the left
    and English with pictures on the right. With a bit of effort I always knew where the priest was at. I prayed silently in English what I heard in Latin. The myth dispensers
    went to work, during and after the council, that we needed
    to start participating. They waged a successful propaganda campaign. But I think
    that it is spent. Pope Benedict’s “Spirit of the Liturgy” and inspiring
    reflections such as those by Fr. Z., renew my hope.

  4. catholiclady says:

    Bravo! Bravo! Bravo!

  5. Tim Ferguson says:

    Fr. John,

    Msgr. Schuler once told me that he suspected the reason that “pony” versions of the New Testament – with the Greek on one side and the Latin on the other – were made so readily available to seminarians in erstwhile days is to get seminarians to think of Latin as their friend. In contrast to the intricacies of Greek (different alphabet and all!), Latin could be downright easy!

    Perhaps using the chant version of the Creed during the Coronation Mass was inspired by the same mentality: “Okay you liturgists, you! You think Mozart impedes congregational participation? Well, here, we’ve got some nice, easy Gregorian chant for you.”

    p.s. – Mozart is good, and the Coronation Mass one of my favorite, and I’m thrilled that it’s been used again at St. Peter’s, but I think that Papa Haydn’s Paukenmesse would have been more fitting for the circumstances. Plus, any Mass that uses kettledrums shamelessly scores extra points in my book!

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