Do I have to go to Mass? It’s a common enough question, especially when Holy Days come around – whether it is “Of Obligation”, or not. We want to do what we have to do, but what is not required, maybe not.
But what about, Am I allowed to go to Mass? Or, What will you do to me if you catch me going to Mass? It is hard for us to imagine, though we may have vague awareness of folks in other times, or other places, who were forbidden to go to Mass: China, Egypt, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Indonesia, England.
England? You bet – in the sixteenth century, under Queen Elizabeth I, it was a capital crime to practice the Catholic faith. But some faithful people did stay faithful. Some of them died for it; just last week we celebrated the feast of Saints Thomas More and John Fisher, who are famous martyrs under Henry VIII. There were others whose names you may not recognize who died, or otherwise suffered, under that cruel law.
One man remained true to the Faith but was not executed, possibly because of his great talent, definitely because of the personal favor of the Queen. His name was William Byrd, and he was one of the most gifted composers of his age. He wrote marvelous music for the royal court, but gave up that privileged life for a remote exile, where he continued to write music for the Mass and the worship of the Church, much of which was sung only in secret, for fear of punishment.
This week you will have a chance to experience this man’s music, and on a most appropriate day: the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, this Wednesday, 29 June. That evening at 7:30, we will have a Solemn High Mass in the Extraordinary Form, much as Byrd would have known it, to celebrate these two great Apostles and the Church that Christ Jesus founded.
Byrd takes these prayers of the Mass and brings them to his own situation. In fact, he musically emphasizes the words, thus saith the Lord to Simon Peter, as if emphasizing to his persecutors who gave the Church her authority and her Pope. And throughout the Mass, he savors the texts that convey the beauty of the Truth for which he had given up all his comfort and ambition.
The choir Chantry will be singing Byrd’s music for our Mass. A concert they gave of it last week received a favorable review in the Washington Post: The repressive atmosphere may have helped produce some of Byrd’s most intense and personal music. There is nothing distant or High Church about these performances; (Chantry Director David) Taylor pulled robust, characterful readings out of his singers. If the effect was sometimes more athletic than atmospheric, it also brought edge-of-seat vitality to the music.
On this day that we celebrate the Body and Blood of Christ, and rejoice in this great gift that Christ gives us only in and through His Church, it is a good time to ask ourselves not whether we have to go to Mass, but what would we do if we weren’t permitted to go to Mass? What would we risk – our property? Our families? Our lives?
Thanks be to God we don’t have to make those decisions. It is always good, though, to remember just what the Mass truly is, and who gave it to us. You don’t have to come to Mass this Wednesday evening, -- but you can.