This November 2, I had the privilege of attending the Requiem Mass for the Feast of All Souls Day at St. Patrick’s Church in New Orleans. The music for the Mass was Mozart’s requiem in D minor, which was uncompleted at his death. If you have seen the movie Amadeus, this is the requiem that is the source of much of the film’s drama. I had never heard the entire work, nor had I ever heard an entire Mass composition within its intended setting of the Holy Sacrifice. This first experience changed my life.
The music that Mozart composed (finished by Franz Xaver Süssmayr and possibly others – the history is tangled and fascinating) follows the structure of the Tridentine Mass in Latin. From the Introitus played as the clergy processes to the altar to the Communio that accompanies the reception of the Eucharist, Mozart intended each work not only to give proper glory to God but to guide the sensitive part of each hearer’s soul so that he would be disposed to worship. It was this second function that revealed a depth of the Mass that I was unaware of.
Even though it is impossible to completely explain my experience, I will make an attempt using 2 parts of the Mass in the hope that it will inspire you to seek out a similar event. Before doing so, let me set the scene. St. Patrick’s in New Orleans is nearly 200 years old and, as you can see in the above photo of the sanctuary, is stunning in its nobility. Clouds of fragrant incense that filled it over the decades, along with the old wood and stone, combine into a fragrance that hits you as soon as you up the steps off of the street. Taking a seat, I noticed the catafalque, veiled in black and surrounded by 6 candles, that memorializes all the dead.
When the Introit began, I was impressed by the very high quality of the music. It was as if someone had begun playing a recording in the choir loft. As the music moved to the Kyrie, I had my first revelatory experience. The Kyrie (short for “Kyrie Eleison”, Greek for “Lord, have mercy”) is sung near the beginning of Mass to beg God’s forgiveness for our sins as we begin the most august celebration one can be a part of. I would invite you to play the following performance of the Kyrie before you read on:
Imagine being at St. Patrick’s with that music hammering down, unseen, from above and behind you, as if it is coming from the very heavens. The volume and intensity seem as if all creation, the dead and the living, are begging God’s mercy and forgiveness. At the altar, the priest, deacon, and subdeacon, wearing black vestments trimmed in white and silver, stand directly before the crucifix, gazing upon Jesus who is the source of this mercy. After the music reaches its majestic crescendo and yields to pregnant silence and expectation, the priest turns and sings, “Dominus vobiscum!” – “The Lord is with you!” Immediately, you see as if for the first time how urgent and pleading your own Kyrie should be, and how that response of “Dominus vobiscum!”, coming from the priest who represents Christ, is an immediate balm of peace.
The second example is from the Communio, most likely written by Süssmayr, that is played as the faithful process forward to receive the Eucharist, the very glorified and risen Christ hidden under the auspices of bread and wine:
At the Tridentine Mass, the faithful receive the Eucharist kneeling at a rail on the edge of the sanctuary. As I slowly walked towards the sanctuary, the music’s gathering nobility and intensity seemed to declare, “Do you understand Whom you are approaching? The Israelites trembled before His veiled presence, and you seek to consume Him entire. Woe if you do not discern properly (1 Corinthians 11:29).” As the distribution of Communion ended and everyone was quietly praying, the choir began to softly sing Ave Verum Corpus (“Hail, true Body”), inviting those who discerned and received the Lord to revel and worship in His Presence. Needless to say, from that point forward, I have not received the Eucharist in the same manner.
Once again, I am very grateful to St. Patrick’s for this Holy Mass, and I’m grateful to Mozart. Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon him.