Last week, Frank La Rocca’s Mass of the Americas debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard chart for traditional classical music, knocking John Williams down to No. 2. This is remarkable for any original work by a composer not named Pärt, MacMillan, or Williams.
The surprise success of the Mass of the Americas, commissioned by Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone in 2018, is part of a larger trend of interest in music that expresses transcendence. But it is also something more: The renewal of the Catholic model of evangelization through sacred beauty.
Archbishop Cordileone conceived of the Mass of the Americas as a unity Mass to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, patroness of the United States, and Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of Mexico and all the Americas. He asked composer Frank La Rocca to incorporate the folk hymns of Mexico, especially La Guadalupana, and to elevate them into the high sacred music tradition of the Church. The work, which premiered in December 2018, attracted both the internationally known conductor Richard Sparks (who was recently inducted into the Royal Swedish Academy) and the eleven-time Grammy Award-winning record producer Blanton Alspaugh. They helped La Rocca release a recording of the Mass from Cappella Records on September 23.
William P. Mahrt, scholar of early music and president of the Church Music Association of America, writes that “Variety, ingenuity, sheer compositional skill, and liturgical suitability have made these compositions in The Mass of the Americas destined to be classics.” In a note to the composer, Prof. Michael Linton called it “The best piece of liturgical music for the Mass since Duruflé.”
Since Vatican II, the Church has largely ceased to play its historic role as commissioner of liturgical music. Sacred music composers have thus found that they are mostly asked to write for the concert stage. We risk losing something when two generations of composers are never given the opportunity to master the craft of writing for the liturgy, for the worship of God.
What Archbishop Cordileone has accomplished is thus no small thing. He recognized that beauty’s power to shape our souls—to remind us that we have souls—is missing in the Catholic effort to evangelize. The archbishop of San Francisco understood that more needed to be done to energize “a Catholic culture of the arts.”
The Church responded to the Reformation by investing in new works of art, including sacred music for the Mass, which won over audiences in the great cathedrals. In today's classical music world, holding a successful premiere for a new work by a relatively unknown composer is difficult. To get a second performance is almost impossible. The Mass of the Americas, by contrast, has been performed in less than four years in San Francisco, Tijuana, Houston, New Jersey, D.C., New York, and, most recently, Rome. Frank La Rocca’s second commission from Archbishop Cordileone, a Requiem Mass for the Homeless, is following a similar path. It premiered first in San Francisco, before being repurposed as a fundraiser for Ukrainian refugees in New Jersey. It is scheduled for celebration in Dallas next year.
Cappella Records reports brisk sales both here and abroad: “We are seeing signs of a great deal of interest in the Mass of the Americas from Spanish-speaking countries as well, as befits a unity Mass,” Mark Powell, executive director of the company, told me.
Numbers are one thing. But Mass of the Americas is also touching souls. “As a Mexican-American Catholic who is entrenched in the world of choral music, I never imagined my spheres coming together so closely,” one young musician wrote to Frank La Rocca. “I couldn't believe I would ever listen to such a powerful piece of music that was also laced with the hymn that my late grandmother used to sing to me as a child.”
“Our Lady does amazing things,” said Archbishop Cordileone. “When I dreamed of honoring her under her titles of Our Lady of Guadalupe and Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, I don’t think I imagined that this would be the response.”
Maggie Gallagher is executive director of the Benedict XVI Institute for Sacred Music and Divine Worship.
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