Sounds a lot like love

Littleton parish brings back sacred music for unique feast day Mass

A holy man once said that singing is a lover’s thing.

Out of the utter depths of love, St. Augustine wrote, singing is produced.

In their own expression of love for Mary and gratitude for their church, the choir at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in Littleton performed a one-of-a-kind sound during a solemn traditional Mass July 16.

Using Medieval chants and polyphony—or multiple sounds that create one melody—the parish honored its patron Our Lady of Mount Carmel.

Rick Wheeler, music director for the parish, said he doesn’t think there’s another Mass with music like it.

“As far as we know, no other (polyphonic Mass) in history begins in the way ours does,” he said.

He worked with fellow composer and friend Lee Graham to create a music score for the 7 p.m. feast day Mass at the Littleton church that celebrates the Tridentine Latin Mass.

“(My friend) and I consulted for hours on the phone and talked about examples and musical ideas and themes,” Wheeler said.

He said they decided to draw on the Church’s sacred music tradition to celebrate its feast day.

They drew on the polyphony sounds of the Renaissance, known in the musical world as the height of perfection for liturgical music. The sound adds a “dignity, majesty and prodigious richness” to the Mass, Venerable Pope Pius XII wrote in his 1955 encyclical Sacred Music.

The music score for Our Lady of Mount Carmel July 16 feast day Mass includes Gregorian chant and polyphony sung by a choir of men and women in Latin and Greek.

The music score for Our Lady of Mount Carmel July 16 feast day Mass includes Gregorian chant and polyphony sung by a choir of men and women in Latin and Greek. Photo by Nissa LaPoint/Denver Catholic

The Second Vatican Council also supported the use of Gregorian chant, saying it is suited for the Mass and should be given “pride of place in liturgical services.”

“We can write music in the 21th century that’s just as beautiful,” he said.

The music for the Mass imitated that of France, Spain and Italy around the 1500s and was inspired by the work of Tomás Luis de Victoria, a famous 16th-century composer in Spain.

“We took many examples of polyphonic Masses of the 1500s and 1600s and noticed one specific characteristic that stuck out to us: an alternation of chant and polyphony,” Wheeler said. “Both of us quickly came to the conclusion that the Mass had to be like that very historical style.”

The music score for the Mass fluctuated between Gregorian chants written specifically for the Mass and polyphony written by Graham, sung in Latin—and some Greek—by a choir of more than a dozen men and women, Wheeler said.

The music composed included an entrance song, a hymn after Scripture readings, Alleluia and a communion verse—most commonly from Scripture.

Other parts of the Mass that do not change—including the Gloria, the Creed, the Hosanna, and Lamb of God—were also sung in Latin.

“We’re finding those older chants and bringing them back,” he said.

Wheeler said he is sharing the full score with musicians so other parishes have the chance to share in the Church’s sacred treasure.


The notes from an ancient Salve Regina (Hail Holy Queen) used for Our Lady of Mount Carmel's feast day Mass July 16.

The notes from an ancient Salve Regina (Hail Holy Queen) used for Our Lady of Mount Carmel’s feast day Mass July 16. Image provided

COMING UP: Collegiality and eucharistic integrity

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The concept of the “collegiality” of bishops has been sharply contested since the Second Vatican Council debated it in 1962, 1963, and 1964. That discussion was sufficiently contentious that a personal intervention from Pope Paul VI was required to incorporate the concept of episcopal collegiality within the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church in such a way that the pope’s primacy and universal jurisdiction were safeguarded. The debate about collegiality has continued ever since. Now, however, it’s focused more on what kind of collegiality exists within national conferences of bishops. Is it an “affective collegiality” of mutual support and encouragement? Or is episcopal collegiality within bishops’ conferences “effective,” such that a conference has real teaching and legislative authority?  

Whether collegiality is “affective,” “effective,” or some combination of the two, it ought to be clear what truly “collegial” behavior isn’t.   

It isn’t individual bishops attempting end-runs around their national conference, appealing for Roman interventions that would forestall debates that their brother bishops wish to engage. It isn’t bishops trying to browbeat the conference chairman into changing an agenda to suit the tastes of a distinct minority — and misleading their brother bishops as to what they’re about when soliciting support for such a gambit. And it isn’t trying to filibuster a conference meeting so that no action is possible on an agenda item that the great majority of bishops wish to consider and act upon. 

If any of those three maneuvers qualifies as collegial, then “collegiality” has no more meaning than the claim that my poor Baltimore Orioles have a great starting rotation. 

For years now — and by “years,” I mean long before the idea of a “President Biden” entered the stream of national consciousness — the bishops of the United States have been concerned that ours is becoming less of a eucharistic Church than Vatican II called us to be when it taught that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Church’s life. Pope St. John Paul II reaffirmed that conciliar summons when, in his final encyclical, he taught that “the Church draws her life from the Eucharist,” which “recapitulates the heart and mystery of the Church.” Yet all around us we see declining Sunday Mass attendance: a sadness that preceded the pandemic but has been further exacerbated by it.  Moreover, surveys suggest that too many Catholics think of Sunday Mass as essentially a social occasion, rather than an encounter with the living God in which Christ is offered to the Father and is given back to his people in holy communion — a communion in and through the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ, received under the forms of bread and wine.

If the Church lives from the Eucharist and yet the people of the Church don’t participate in the Eucharist as often as they should, or don’t understand what they’re celebrating and receiving when they do, then the Church suffers from a serious eucharistic deficit. Those ordained to leadership in the Church are obliged to do something about that. 

That is why the U.S. bishops have been determined for some time to undertake a comprehensive program of eucharistic education throughout the Church. For the great majority of bishops, that determination has been intensified by the fact that our eucharistic deficit is being compounded by the eucharistic incoherence of public officials who, rejecting authoritative Catholic teaching based on both revelation and reason, nonetheless present themselves for holy communion as if they were in full communion with the Church. The longstanding episcopal failure to address this incoherence exacerbates the eucharistic deficit in American Catholicism by implying that the Church really doesn’t mean what it teaches about the sacred nature of the Eucharist. 

Those suggesting that this is all about “politics” are either ill-informed or deliberately misleading the Church and the gullible parts of the media. Concern for the eucharistic integrity of the Church includes, but goes much deeper than, concerns about the eucharistic incoherence of Catholic public officials who act as if the Church’s settled convictions on the life issues and on worthiness to receive holy communion don’t exist. That is why the U.S. bishops are forging ahead with developing a teaching document that will clarify for the whole Church why we are a Eucharistic community, what the Eucharist truly is, what reception of the Eucharist means, and why everyone in the Church should examine conscience before receiving Christ in the sacrament. 

The wheels of collegiality may grind slowly. In this case, however, they are grinding truly, and for the sake of the Gospel.

George Weigel is an independent columnist whose weekly column is syndicated by the Archdiocese of Denver. The opinions and viewpoints expressed by Mr. Weigel therein are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the Archdiocese of Denver or the bishops of Denver.