MacMillan’s Mass settings for the Papal Visit to England

Here is some great news from The Catholic Herald, the UK’s best Catholic weekly. 

Choirs prepare for papal Masses

By Mark Greaves on Friday, 20 August 2010

Choirs across England, Wales and Scotland are rehearsing the new setting of the Mass composed for the papal visit by James MacMillan.

The setting will be performed at the two big papal events at Cofton Park, Birmingham, and Bellahouston Park in Glasgow and will follow the new English translation of the Mass.

[And here is the great news…]

Sections of the setting are already available online so that papal pilgrims can practise singing it in the run-up to the Pope’s visit.

Crowds will be aided by a choir of 2,000 at Cofton Park and 800 at Bellahouston and there will be “detailed and focused” rehearsal before the Masses start.

The choirs will be accompanied by brass and timpani on the day but, according to Mr MacMillan, any parish can perform the setting as long as it has an organ.

Mr MacMillan said he tried to make the basic melody simple so that congregations would pick it up easily. “It’s not a lot of time to bed the music down in dioceses and parishes,” he said.

He also said he hoped it would be “appropriate to the text and the way the drama of the Mass unfolds”.

Mr MacMillan said: [And now a familiar idea for WDTPRS readers…]  “There has to be a sense of awe at the words of ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’, just before the consecration. And the Gloria is a huge raising of hearts to heaven, a great joyous outburst from the very early days of the Church, that again has to have a very different flavour.”

Mr MacMillan admitted he was apprehensive about the setting being sung “in the middle of a field”.

“Singing out of a field is tricky – it’s just a very strange experience standing in the middle of the field and being expected to sing. And Catholics are reluctant singers at the best of times.

“I just hope that people rise to the challenge. At first encounter it might feel strange, but if they have the text and music with them I hope they will really join in on the day,” Mr MacMillan said.


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  1. AnAmericanMother says:

    Sections of the setting are already available online. . . .

    Thanks to Henry Edwards and Evelyn, readers of WDTPRS had this news right around the beginning of this month!

    [ sketches a salute and tips gimme-hat ]

  2. Mitchell NY says:

    I am happy to hear the new translations will not be put off any longer. With the music awash this is a small victory for the Holy Father and good for all the Faithful. I hope he receives lots of support. No doubt the virulent press will trash it. But the Pope needs to know we, the Catholic Faithful are with him and will love our new translations. Still prefer the Latin though :)

  3. Evelyn says:

    Thanks, AnAmericanMother. When you look at the site again at, you’ll notice we’ve acquired a Sanctus and and an Agnus with repeated bits. These are for the papal visit Masses only – not quite sure why! For normal parish use the ‘original’ versions, which are also on the webpage, will stand. I think they’re much nicer.

  4. Tony from Oz says:


    The repetitions for the papal Mass are all apiece with the ‘active participation’ fetish which still reigns supreme; but one cannot expect most people to have absorbed the notion that this sort of thing is superfluous – that it is the actuosa participatio (ie is actual participation, an inclination of receptivity and meditation upon the text) which actually matters.

    Having listened to the music, I must say that, while I commend the effort the composer has put into his composition, it will disappear without trace afterwards. The reason? It is waaaay to complicated for the average congregation to sing easily. I mean, it is fine for a trained choir – but I sense that, in the effort to redeem the dumbed down musical attrocities heard in church for years, the composer has had to reach an unhappy compromise between choir and congregation due to the continuing diktat of participation fetishists still holding sway within Church elites.

    Performance of this by choirs in Church? Fine. Participation by those who can, and wish, to sing along in the congregation? Fine. Although – we all need to move back to the notion that the timeless rendition of the sacred choral patrinomy of the Catholic church – by composers such as Palestrina, Victoria, Tallis and Byrd – should be able to be rendered once more by choirs, and at Ordinary Form Masses, without the ignorant and erroneous whine that the congregation is, thereby, being ‘excluded from participation’.

    And one more thought: if the liturgical commission for the papal visit DOES want a combination of actual as well as active mass participation in the Mass – why not just do one of the simpler plain chant Masses from the timeless sacred repertoire? After all, it’s what Vatican II called for!

  5. AnAmericanMother says:


    I profoundly disagree.

    If you listen carefully to the MacMillan Mass settings, they are organized around some well known chant forms — the Gloria, for example, begins with a phrase from the Mass Stelliferi conditor orbis. And throughout you have lovely but reasonably predictable thirds and fifths. The rest of the setting grows organically out of those opposing forces. At the same time it’s tuneful, with a bit of a Celtic flavor that I find appealing.

    This should be fairly easy for any congregation to sing. There’s an awful unwillingness to sing in Catholic congregations in any event (as Thomas Day says in his book, 30 elderly Episcopalians can produce more volume than 300 Catholics), but this Mass has a sensible vocal range and should not be hard for anyone who can hum a pop song.

    I am not willing to throw congregational singing to the wolves just yet — it has Scriptural as well as traditional warrant and should not be jettisoned because of a mere 40-50 years of unfortunate musical schlock.

    Admittedly I am an experienced singer (50 years in the choir loft, 40-odd of them in first class Episcopalian choirs and two university choirs). But I am not a trained singer – have rarely taken a voice lesson in my life and have never studied voice formally – piano and harpsichord is my formal training.

    Chant, yes. But also beautiful music that is well grounded in chant, as this is.

  6. Tony from Oz says:


    I did not say that I did not like the composition, nor that it lacks merit, and I agree that it has a modal and celtic feel. I just feel that, particularly in an al fresco setting with most of the huge crowd hearing it for the first time – as opposed to using it later in parishes where it might be used repeatedly to cement it into the consciousness of a congregation – it is not optimal in that context.

    I also have 32 years experience in a choir, and, like you, am not a trained singer; for the last 17 years our choir has provided choral music and gregorian chant for a TLM/Extraordinary Form Mass congregation. I think that now is the time to reintroduce to congregations, rather than new compositions, our musical patrimony in respect of which Pope Benedict has asked that the faithful be familiarised as a first priority: i.e gregorian chant.

    Don’t get me wrong. I certainly recognise the effort and skill the composer has put into his composition, and the sensitivity with which he has drawn upon gregorian modal forms, for which he is to be commended. But I do think this is a lost opportunity to promote a revival of the chant, even if this composition draws upon it – a point most likely to be lost on the vast majority who will attend. I recall at least two specially composed papal mass settings here in Australia – and the last two have virtually disappeared without trace.

    I am all in favour of encouraging congregations to sing, but why not give first priority to what the Popes of the last century, in particular (including Vatican II), have called for: to wit, for the people to learn the main gregorian chant masses? This Papal Mass would have been an opportunity to promote familiarity with the chant, notwithstanding the merits of Macmillan’s composition. And I, for one, think it is a pity that this opportunity has not been seized.

  7. AnAmericanMother says:

    There’s hardly anything that will work well outdoors — chant does better than most other things, or the old foursquare choral hymns that allow for the play and time lags that you get in the open. But singing in the open air is always difficult, always a bother. We used to do regular Palm Sunday processions with brass — the half mile walk from the parish school to the church was like a bad traffic jam, lots of stops and starts and sometimes it sounded like we were singing in rounds.

    I do not disagree that chant would be good. It would certainly go in my own parish – we sing lots of Gregorian chant as well as medieval and Renaissance polyphony (Josquin, Ockeghem, Machaut – which sound incredibly modern – as well as Palestrina, Byrd, Tallis, Weelkes, etc.)

    But given the British hierarchy, I think it’s amazing that MacMillan managed to get even a chant based setting approved.

    Judging from all the other horrible stuff that has been planned, this may be as far in the direction of chant that anybody could push the British bishops to go.

    I’m in the middle of reading Why Catholics Don’t Sing. What a horribly depressing book.

  8. Tony from Oz says:

    Yes, I agree with your observations above, and thank you for the exchange of views. Alfresco singing sucks…almost as much as the dreadful non-acoustic we have to endure in the church our TLM congregation has been assigned here in Canberra, Australia, well, almost!

    Things are pretty bad in UK. I mean, even here in Oz – AND at World Youth Day! – the vast alfresco Mass celebrated by Pope Benedict at the Royal Randwick Racecourse in Sydney in July 2008 had a the choir of seminarians singing the Introit for the Votive Mass of the Holy Ghost “Spiritus Domini” as well as a few other parts of the Gregorian propers, which would not have ever been heard by many present before. The music there was a huge improvement – and I believe there was more of an effort, whatever the reason on that occasion, for the music to be vetted by the authorities – and for once in a more appropriate fashion than usual. The only musical excrescence was a totally inappropriate ‘soul’ composition ‘O taste and see’ sung in a Mahalia Jackson-esque type manner – and rendered utterly ridiculous by being sandwiched between the Gregorian Communio (or some other venerable hymn) and Mozart’s Laudate Dominum [an obvious favourite for the Pope]!

    As for ‘Why Catholics Don’t Sing: the Culture of Catholicism and the Triumph of Bad Taste’ – it manages to be both depressing yet hilarious at the same time, non? Of course, Dr Day looks back to the dark deficiencies of the pre-conciliar Church – but I wonder whether he has ‘moved on’ towards a fuller embrace of Gregorian propers ion these post Summorum Pontificum times?

  9. AnAmericanMother says:

    A similar thing happened at the SE Liturgical Music Symposium.

    In the morning Mass, they had a Haas song (“How Shall I Sing To God?” (please, don’t feel you have to) :-p ) sandwiched in between our music director’s extremely traditional chant psalm setting and Gospel acclamation and the Sanctus from the Missa de Angelis . . . . boy did it sound bad. Plus nobody could sing it, which I thought was pretty significant. This symposium was attended primarily by music directors and choir members from across the archdiocese – and the music was printed in the leaflet – but still nobody could sing it. I can sight read pretty much anything, but I had to pay strict attention because of the weird awkward leaps, constantly changing time signatures, and looooooong tied notes and rests in peculiar places. It was almost like a sight-reading test . . . not music.

    That may be the best way to get rid of this horrible stuff — kill it by contrasting it with real music.

    Yet the Haas disciples were sitting in huge numbers in his seminar and hanging on his every word. I heard from some folks who HAD to be there (in the kitchen adjoining) and were moaning that they “had to listen to his nonsense . . . TWICE!” He basically told everyone that ‘you won’t have to change a thing’ — can just keep on singing his music and ignore the new translation, any new music, etc. His plan is that he has just ‘tweaked’ his Mass settings so the new words will fit.

    Not a good plan, although I don’t know if I ought to clue him in . . . because most people have the old version hardwired in, what his plan is going to do is fool the brain stem into thinking it’s singing the OLD version, lead them up to the measure where the changes occur, and drop them into a yawning void.

    It is going to sound HORRIBLE (good!) :-D

  10. AnAmericanMother says:

    Oh, yes — Dr. Day’s humor seems to me to be of the gallows variety.

    I do not have as gloomy an outlook as he seems to have. We have an excellent parish with a pastor who’s involved in the hymn selection, plenty of Latin and chant, decent German hymns and simple chant for the congregation, and a talented organist/music director who is not mean, crazy, bitter, or any of the other negative descriptions used by Dr. Day.

  11. Evelyn says:

    I feel optimistic about this, having just come back from our big archdiocesan practice in Falkirk, ahead of the national practice in Motherwell on the 11th. The sound of the MacMillan Mass was quite spectacular – so different from the usual ‘easy’ (i.e. facile) stuff that is on the menu.

    What did impress me was the number of people who have changed their minds about this Mass setting. When we first tried it out, many singers thought it was ‘too difficult’. Now, they are finding the depths in it and realising what modern church music CAN be like.

    I ran a practice in my own church in Linlithgow, and was surprised at the enthusiasm, especially from our parish priest. So that is one church where the MacMillan Mass will certainly be sung when the new text comes in. And there will be others.

    What we need now is more Mass settings like this. The Forth in Praise website will be helping all it can.

  12. AnAmericanMother says:

    Wonderful, Evelyn! Glad everything’s coming together for you! I figured that the MacMillan Mass would sound even better in voices than in MIDI.

    Is the Mass going to be broadcast anywhere that we could see it?

    The really good stuff always seems a little difficult when you pick it up, but the nice thing is that good music gets very easy with a little rehearsal. I’m so glad that some of your singers have found this out — hopefully they’ll be encouraged to sing not only this Mass but other better-than-facile stuff in the future. (But of course isn’t it great that this Mass is already finding an audience!)

    I hope I’m not unduly slow, but I just got the pun in the title of your website. As my daughter says, “D-oh!” I think it was seeing Falkirk and Linlithgow together in your post and seeing the map in my mind’s eye . . . .

  13. Henry Edwards says:

    Yes, AMM, we’ll all be watching and listening “over here”. EWTN’s telecast schedule:

    Pope Benedict XVI: Journey to England and Scotland

    Thu. September 16 – Sun. September 19, 2010
    The Holy Father’s visit to the United Kingdom will center on the theme, “Cor ad Cor loquitur” (“Heart Speaks to Heart”), the theme Newman chose for his coat of arms in 1879 when he became a Cardinal. During this visit, the Pope will beatify Cardinal Newman.

    Thu. September 16
    Arrival in Scotland
    Visit with Her Majesty The Queen
    Mass at Bellahouston Park
    Arrival in London

    Fri. September 17
    St. Mary’s University
    Meeting with Youth
    Meeting with the Archbishop of Canterbury Westminster Hall Westminster Abbey

    Sat. September 18
    Mass in Westminster Cathedral
    Hyde Park
    Beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman

    Sun. September 19
    Meeting with the Bishops

  14. Evelyn says:


    Lots of people don’t get that, even some living here! But our archdiocese covers a wide area, including the Borders, Fife, Stirling and beyond so we went for a sort of ‘inclusive’ title. We are really the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh Liturgy Commission Music Advisory Group, but try writing that on a cheque at a music event!

    Some more news. Motherwell diocese has made a CD of one of their practice sessions – real people singing, unlike our files – and has just got permission to upload tracks from it to the official Scottish papal visit website I’m told this will happen in the next few days.

  15. AnAmericanMother says:

    Excellent news — brick by brick, indeed!

    We’ll be praying that everything goes smooth as silk during the visit, music and all.

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