Friday, June 12, 2009

Cultivating Love for Beauty in the Liturgy

It's not exactly "news" anymore, but last month I took a group of students (7th & 8th graders, as well as some altar servers) to St. John Cantius Catholic Church in Chicago for their celebration of High Mass in the Extraordinary Form for the Ascension of the Lord. We arrived at the church in the afternoon of Ascension Thursday, where we were given a tour by one of the canons of St. John Cantius, followed by dinner at a local restaurant, and then back to the church for Mass.

I believe it is very important that the priest work to instill and cultivate in our young people an understanding and appreciation for the beauty of the Sacred, whether it be in art, music, or architecture. To that end, I have periodically tried to introduce the children at our parish school to different aspects of sacred art and sacred music: for example, I have brought an iconographer to the school to give presentations on sacred art and iconography, and guest musicians to introduce the students to different instruments and kinds of sacred music. This is "on top of" the program in liturgical music that I introduced to the school two years ago, which has produced results like this:

School Children Singing the "Regina Coeli"

But this trip to St. John Cantius is a step to giving the kids exposure to the Sacred beyond their own parish and school. Also, this was, for most of the school children, their first experience of Mass in the Extraordinary Form. I have been gradually introducing the use of Latin and Gregorian Chant over the last 3 years, so these things would not be alien to the children, but to experience these things in the usus antiquior was new for most of them.

And what an experience it was! We arrived and entered the church just as the brothers were beginning Vespers. The children were quite impressed by the church itself, as well anyone should be:

(all photos may be viewed full-size by clicking on them)

I enjoyed watching the kids crane their necks around trying to take it all in. Most of the kids have never been to a church as large, impressive, and chock-full of art as St. John Cantius.

After Vespers, Br. Joshua, one of the Canons of St. John Cantius, gave us a tour of the church.

Br. Joshua Explaining Various Aspects of the Sanctuary

Among the artistic beauties of the church is the Wit Stwosz Altarpiece replica. Done in carved wood, gold, and other precious materials, it is a one-quarter size replica of a famous altarpiece in Poland.

The tour was quite complete, even including a trip up to both lofts. Like many great Polish churches built in this period, St. John Cantius has a double loft - one for choir, one for the great organ. the kids were impressed both by the organ and by the view from the loft:

As I mentioned above, after the tour we went out for dinner at a nice Italian restaurant nearby, and then returned to the church for Mass. I gave the kids a brief introduction to the Extraordinary Form of the Mass before we left the school in the morning, and Br. Joshua gave some "preview" information as well. The kids were already familiar with the Ordinary of the Mass in Latin, from our usage at St. Stanislaus, and I prepared for them a little handout with the propers so that they could follow those as well.

The Mass was glorious! The choir sang Tomas Luis de Victoria's Missa Ascendens Christum in Altum, as well as an impressive modern work, Colin Mawby's O Rex Gloriae, during the Offertory. The kids were entranced by the singing - that was one of the things that came up repeatedly in the days after the trip.

I had told the children beforehand that it wasn't so important to try to follow along in the Mass exactly, so much as to "take in" the whole experience and unite themselves in prayer to the priest offering the Sacrifice during the Canon. On the bus ride home, they readily confessed that they lost track of things during the Canon. A number of them wanted to know why the Canon was silent in the Extraordinary Form, which I explained. But none of them seemed unduly bothered by the fact that they lost their place here and there. I think the experience put them on such "sensory overload" that they were borne along by the whole sacred movement.

The Whole Crew after Mass

So, the kids had an experience they will remember, and some were intrigued enough to say that they wanted to go to an Extraordinary Form Mass again. (Yea!) A taste of sacred beauty does indeed inspire the thirst for more!