From the Archives: MASS Revisited by James Carroll
Posted April 21, 2021
In the late 1960's Jacqueline Kennedy asked Leonard Bernstein to compose a mass in honor of her slain husband to be performed at the dedication of Washington's Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The result was Bernstein's "MASS: A Theater Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers," an extraordinary composition [written in collaboration with Stephen Schwartz] that combined the production values of opera, choral magnificence, the hip choreography of Broadway, intricate symphonic harmonies - and a heartbreaking narrative turning on the figure of an all-too-human young priest. I was such a priest when I attended a performance of MASS in its opening run in 1971, and it left me shaken.
As I recall, critics did not know what to make of Bernstein's work, although President Kennedy's widow pronounced herself well satisfied. Most audience members seemed to find the composition difficult since it squared not at all with the liturgical masterpieces of Mozart, Bach, or even Britten. Bernstein's subject was not the "holy order" of a mass at all; rather, his subject was the frightening disorder of those unholy times. The assassination, after all, was its foundational event, and while Bernstein composed and brought his MASS to the Kennedy Center stage, the war in Vietnam was undercutting the very idea Vatican program of order - religious as well as political. Bernstein's genius was to channel such upheavals into his music, and the dramatic structure of the Catholic liturgy proved to be the perfect vehicle for his expression.
Imagine the scene. The power elite of Washington, the functionaries of the Nixon-Kissinger war, crowded the opulent new concert hall for what all expected to be the society event of the season. The conflicts of the era had been distilled by then into the generational clash between young and old, and there were very few young people in the audience. Thus the first shock of MASS was that the priest-celebrant was himself so young, a boy clothed in silk robes. He seemed so ill at ease in the baroque vestments of the weighty past. The timeless recitation of the arcane formulas kept getting interrupted by "epistles" from the present moment, and the powerful audience began to squirm as MASS made its references to the Vietnam conflict ever clearer. One "epistle" was an actual letter that had been written by an anti-war protester from prison, and the text evoked the counter-priests of Philip and Daniel Berrigan, Philip in prison at the time (as he is today, God bless him), and Daniel a fugitive, soon to be jailed. These references prompted the celebrant to sing a lyric prophetically challenging the audience itself: "You can lock us up," the priest sang in behalf of a throng outside that hall, "but you cannot imprison the Word of the Lord."
My thoughts have returned to Bernstein's MASS because I read recently that it was to be performed in the Vatican as part of the Church's Jubilee 2000 celebration. The news report defined MASS as "exploring a crisis of faith," as if the young priest had the problem, not the institution. The performance took place in the papal audience hall in June. One pictures a squirming audience of the clerical censors and inquisitors who have tried so hard to preserve the patriarchal system of power that MASS stands against. But in truth, the inner circle of the Catholic Church includes, as well, men and women capable of recognizing themselves in this cosmic drama of renewal. One imagines that a wily Vatican misfit arranged for the staging of Bernstein's prophetic work in the heart of the Church, a signal that its renewal is inexorable. Now if Bernstein's MASS could only return to Washington.