Papal Mass music connections

As I was charging through the 100-level concourse at Nationals Park conducting interviews before Pope Benedict XVI’s April 17 Mass there, I stopped short. It was a liturgical version of “Name That Tune,” and I had it in seven notes — maybe less. It was “Go Up to the Altar of God,” written by Father James J. Chepponis. It was being used to accompany the procession of bishops. I knew it as the first processional hymn sung for Pope John Paul II’s 1987 Mass at the Silverdome in suburban Detroit.

I had sung with a 1,500-voice choir in the Silverdome, and as the music director of my parish at the time, led my own choir through its paces with the song. Four voice parts, six verses — the Washington Mass used only four — and a terrific “Amen” to end it. At least a dozen of my choir members were in the 1987 papal Mass choir, and three of the sopranos lied about their height, correctly gambling that they’d be able to sit together if they each said they were five-foot-something. One of Detroit’s daily newspapers used a picture of the trio warbling in its Mass coverage.

Intersecting with memories like that was my wondering how many others in the 46,000-member Nationals Park assembly were part of the 95,000-member Silverdome assembly 21 years earlier and had the same flash of recognition I had.

During the Mass, while I was busy trying to pay attention to everything that was taking place and hadn’t thumbed through at my Mass program, along came another distinctive musical introduction: It was Alexander Peloquin’s setting of Psalm 104, “Lord, Send Out Your Spirit,” used as the responsorial psalm.

I leaned over to Maureen Boyle of the Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington, and whispered to her, “Listen to the tension and the dissonance in the verses,” flexing and contorting my muscles to bring home my point.

“Lord, Send Out Your Spirit” I had learned from Peloquin himself in 1976, when he directed a three-day choral workshop at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit. Most of the workshop was focused on his 1974 “Lyric Liturgy,” but there was time for other selections.

I was so impressed by the composition that I adapted it for guitar and have played it as the Pentecost responsorial not only in Detroit, but in the three Washington parishes where I have exercised music ministry.

It made me wonder how many people inside Nationals Park were members of those parishes and had their own flash of recognition.  And, were I to play “Lord, Send Out Your Spirit” this Pentecost, how many in my parish would think, “Aw, he must’ve picked that up from the papal Mass.”


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