Now that Thanksgiving (with stores open), Black Friday, and Cyber Monday have passed, the sales continue but the frenzy takes a pause. It’s an opportunity to recognize “the reason for the season,” as they say, the story of a mother and child, and a good man who trusted God enough to care for them.
It’s that mother to whom a group of Dominican friars turn in song in a new CD, Ave Maria: Dominican Chant for the Immaculate Conception. The schola cantorum (i.e., “school of singers,” an old-school word for “choir”) at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., honors the young woman whose “yes” to God is the stuff of Christmas and salvation history.
In an interview with National Review Online, Brother Vincent Ferrer Bagan, O.P. (for “Order of Preachers,” as Dominicans are known), talks about Ave Maria, music, faith, and Marian misunderstandings.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: First things first: Why did Dominican friars record this CD in a Franciscan monastery? Is this the so-called “Pope Francis effect” at work?
Br. Vincent Ferrer Bagan: While we were not intentionally responding to the “Francis effect,” the album is our first recorded entirely during Francis’s pontificate, so perhaps God’s providence was guiding us in a mysterious way. The conscious reason for recording in the beautiful Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land is that the church has a beautiful, resonant acoustic for chant and for sacred music in general. It was an added benefit that we could be so warmly received by our Franciscan brethren for the project.
Lopez: The Immaculate Conception may just be the most misunderstood doctrine of the Catholic Church. What is it exactly?
Br. Vincent Ferrer: The teaching of the Immaculate Conception is that the Mary, the mother of Jesus, was conceived in the womb of her mother, Anne, without the stain of original sin. This was a singular privilege granted to her so that she would be a worthy vessel for the incarnate Son of God in his incarnation.
Lopez: Why, by the way, are Catholics often accused of worshipping Mary? Why, again, is this so misunderstood?
Br. Vincent Ferrer: The perception that Catholics worship Mary as if she were God can come from not understanding that Catholics believe that the saints are another part of the Church, in addition to the pilgrim Church on earth. While they have no need of our prayers or acts of charity, they are able to pray for us to God. Asking Mary or the saints to pray for us is a lot like asking our friends to pray for us, except that we know that Mary and the saints are in heaven and have a special and certain intimacy with God. The Church honors Mary and asks for her intercession in a special way, as she is the most perfect disciple of Jesus and, as we see in Jesus’ own words to the beloved disciple in the Gospel of John, has been given to all of us as our mother.
Lopez: Why is Mary so important to the Dominican friars of the Province of St. Joseph? Is it a St. Joseph thing?
Br. Vincent Ferrer: Besides being a Catholic thing, the Dominican order has always had a particular love for Mary. The accounts of our early history reveal that Mary had a desire for an Order of Preachers to be founded, and Dominicans have always seen ourselves as under her mantle. We are also the order through which the Rosary became the most popular Marian devotion in the Church. Though Marian devotion is certainly strong in the Province of St. Joseph, it is really a mark of the whole Order of Preachers.
Lopez: The image of Mary on the album cover is from a statue in your chapel, isn’t it? What’s significant about it?
Br. Vincent Ferrer: Yes, it’s from a statue in the middle of our chapel that is actually also a lectern: We call it the Lady Lectern. It depicts Mary as pregnant with Jesus, pregnant with the Word who is proclaimed when the Scriptures are read from the lectern. It is the most prominent image of Mary in our chapel, and the image of her that we face when we sing the Salve Regina, which is one of the tracks on this album.
Lopez: How did your first album, In Medio Ecclesiae, do? What made you go for another?
Br. Vincent Ferrer: Its reach was certainly wider than we anticipated. We were very happy about that because we had put much effort into making the album of good musical quality and spiritual depth in order to lead people to God, of whom even the most beautiful music is but a faint reflection. Our schola cantorum has continued to expand its repertoire with both polyphonic music (music in parts) and chant, and since our last album was mostly polyphony, we wanted to share the chant that we sing as well.
Lopez: Why do the students at the Dominican House of Studies need financial support — all proceeds go to that cause?
Br. Vincent Ferrer: Yes, all of the proceeds support the 55 friars who are full-time students at the Dominican House of Studies. This time of intellectual, pastoral, and spiritual formation is necessary for the preaching and ministry we hope to carry out in the Church, but it also means that we are not earning an income. Supporting the Dominican students, therefore, is a work of supporting the Church’s future ministry.
Lopez: What is a friar exactly? It might sound a little archaic to our secular world.
Br. Vincent Ferrer: Friar is a general word that describes Dominicans, Franciscans, Carmelites, and some Augustinians. Friars are like monks in that we live a common life together and pray together, but rather than doing manual labor to support ourselves, we spend our time ministering to and doing various works of charity for people. For Dominicans, our particular labor is to study and preach for the salvation of souls.
Lopez: Chant doesn’t seem a very modern thing either. Why did you decide to dedicate this album entirely to Dominican chant?
Br. Vincent Ferrer: It’s true that chant is very old. It’s also true that it continues to be sung to this day, though for various reasons it’s often only heard in religious houses or cathedrals. The great thing about chant is that it’s the music that developed along with the liturgy, and for this reason the Church continues to say that it deserves a principal place in our liturgical worship (Sacrosanctum concilium 116). While we do many different forms of sacred music at the Dominican House of Studies, we wanted to share with people this unique offering that comes out of our own liturgical worship. Chant is particularly contemplative music, and with this album, we want to help people to contemplate God and help them to appreciate this beautiful music of the Church.
Lopez: Is there something unique about a Dominican chant as opposed to Gregorian or another kind?
Br. Vincent Ferrer: Many of the religious orders founded before the Council of Trent in the 16th century have their own unique liturgical traditions. This is true for the Dominicans: Since we were founded in the 13th century, our chant books have retained a certain medieval flavor but with our own particular developments over time. For this reason, many of the chants on our album will sound just a little different to people who are used to hearing the Roman form of the chant, and some of them are completely different. Gregorian chant is the general term used for the various chant traditions of the Latin Church and named after Pope St. Gregory the Great, who had traditionally been seen as its originator.
Lopez: What could a “Medieval Mass of the Blessed Virgin Mary” possibly have to offer the modern day?
Br. Vincent Ferrer: We placed the first twelve tracks under this title because, before the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary was proclaimed, the feast commemorating it would have used the chants that were common to feasts of Mary. Under this heading, we include all five of the proper chants (i.e., those particular to Marian feasts) as well as all of the chants of the Ordinary of the Mass (i.e., parts that have the same text every Mass but have special musical settings for Marian feasts) that would have been sung for this feast from the 13th century until the mid-19th century.
The second section of the album is called the “Modern Mass of the Immaculate Conception” because it includes the chants that are now sung on this feast, some arranged from previous melodies, and some newly composed by a 19th-century Dominican friar. After the dogma was proclaimed in the mid-19th century, the feast was given special status by having new proper texts, and the Dominican settings of these texts are the five chants in this section.
In both of these, you can see the continuity and timelessness of the style of chant. In a world where everything seems to be changing, this timeless music is especially helpful to us moderns, so that we can step back and consider what’s truly most important in our lives.
Lopez: Why would you title a track “Preface”? Surely there is something more creative to call it, even if it is an underappreciated part of the Mass. And it does tend to be unappreciated, doesn’t it?
Br. Vincent Ferrer: The Preface is the part of the Mass right before the Sanctus, which is followed by the climax of the Mass: the Eucharistic Prayer, or Canon. The Preface changes depending on the liturgical day and lays out for us the particular reasons for which give praise and thanks to God. At the end, the Preface usually speaks of how we join our voices with the angels as we cry out without end: Holy, holy, holy Lord God of hosts . . . By having a variable text, the Preface gives a particular context to the praise and thanks we give to God in the Sanctus and Eucharistic Prayer, which have an invariable text.
Part of the Preface for Masses commemorating the Blessed Virgin Mary is also the source of one of our Dominican mottoes: laudare, benedicere, et praedicare. Feasts of Mary give us a special reason to praise, to bless, and to preach the God who, through Mary’s fiat, sent his Son to save the world.
Lopez: In his book The Book of Man, former secretary of education William J. Bennett calls the Agnus Dei one of his favorite prayers, noting that “it asks God for the final gift of peace.” What’s so special about the Agnus Dei in your mind?
Br. Vincent Ferrer: The Agnus Dei is the final part of the Ordinary of the Mass, which we sing shortly before receiving Communion. For me, it is a statement of faith that on the altar right now is the true, sacrificial Lamb of God who, by taking away our sins and having mercy on us, gives us the most profound, lasting, and final peace of restoring our relationship with God, who is our eternal happiness.
Lopez: What is Corde et Animo all about?
Br. Vincent Ferrer: Corde et animo is an antiphon for the Canticle of Simeon at the office of Compline (Night Prayer) on Marian feasts. In it, we sing of glorifying Christ with our heart (corde) and mind (animo) — our whole being — as we celebrate this feast of his mother, Mary.
Lopez: What is the Litany of Loreto and why is it worth praying?
Br. Vincent Ferrer: The Litany of Loreto is a Marian litany that started in the 16th century and continues to be used widely to this day. In it, various titles of Mary are used as we ask her many times to pray for us. Using her various titles helps us to see the many graces she has been given by God and the many ways in which she can intercede for us. As with all litanies, we ask a particular saint to pray for us so that the saint can join us in asking God to spare us, to hear our plea, and to have mercy on us. Our recording has a musical tone particular to the Dominican order for praying this litany.
Lopez: Is anything on the album a “most important track,” spiritually speaking?
Br. Vincent Ferrer: While I wouldn’t say that any particular track is the most important, certain tracks do stand out. The Salve Regina and the O lumen Ecclesiae will be familiar to those who know the Dominicans because they are the principal chants we have to Mary and to St. Dominic. The very first track, the Gaudeamus omnes, gives a tone of joy to the whole album, saying that we all rejoice in the Lord as we celebrate the feast days of his saints, and particularly of his Blessed Mother. The album also includes the whole setting of the Ordinary of the Mass that Dominicans use especially for feasts of Mary, which is commonly known in its Roman setting as the Missa cum jubilo.
Lopez: Do you have a favorite? If so, why?
Br. Vincent Ferrer: The Alleluia from the “Modern Mass of the Immaculate Conception” is a favorite because it speaks of Mary as being entirely beautiful. It is an entirely different idea of beauty than modern glamour magazines present, of course, and it’s so moving to think of the holy Mother of our Lord as being not only the most beautiful woman of the year but the most beautiful woman of all time. For the Christian, it is not merely a cliché to say that true beauty is found on the inside, in the beauty of the soul.
I also love the Recordare, the last track on the album. The music is so beautiful and so fitting to the text as we implore Mary to speak well of us, her children, to God.
Lopez: Why is the gift of music so important to the Dominican life?
Br. Vincent Ferrer: St. Augustine said that the one who loves sings. Music is important to the Church as a whole, and especially to Dominicans as both religious and as preachers, because it clothes our words in beauty. Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who is an inspiration to so many of us, speaks of doing something beautiful for God, and that’s why we sing to him constantly: because he deserves the most beautiful expression of our praise.
Lopez: Why is the gift of religious music so important to everyone else’s life? As say, a Christmas gift?
Br. Vincent Ferrer: So much Christmas or holiday music can be somewhat trite or light-hearted. This music is sometimes appropriate, but if we limit our Christmas music listening to what we might hear on most radio stations, we will miss the true importance of the celebration of Advent and Christmas. While our album is not specifically Christmas music, it features the feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, which the Church celebrates on December 8th.
Giving Ave Maria: Dominican Chant for the Immaculate Conception as a Christmas gift is to give someone an aid to prayer and to thinking about the beauty of Mary and of her Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior — something so important at this time of year but something that seems ironically to get overlooked during the hustle and bustle of holiday celebrations.
Lopez: Is there any particular track on the album that can prepare one better for Christmas?
Br. Vincent Ferrer: The last section of the album includes Marian antiphons for different times throughout the year. The first of those tracks is the Alma Redemptoris Mater, which is typically used from the beginning of Advent through the feast of the Presentation of the Lord on February 2nd. This antiphon speaks of Mary as the gate of heaven, through whom the Lord came into the world, first in his conception in Mary’s womb at the Annunciation (celebrated March 25th) and then made manifest in his birth at Christmas.
Lopez: Catholics recently celebrated the feast day of St. Cecilia, who is a patron of musicians. Does she have any special meaning for you, a former music teacher?
Br. Vincent Ferrer: Yes, as a musician, she has always been someone whose intercession I have sought. She is also beloved by Dominicans because, when the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to St. Dominic blessing his sleeping brethren with holy water one evening, she was accompanied by St. Catherine of Alexandria and St. Cecilia. We ask her to pray that many might be brought closer to God through the music on our album and through all sacred music, so that they might be prepared to give their lives for Christ, as she did.
Lopez: Are you beginning to feel like a professional at this music production business? What does the future hold for the schola cantorum of the Dominican Friars at the Dominican House of Studies?
Br. Vincent Ferrer: We’re probably not professionals yet, but we definitely know a lot more about the business than when we started. It has been helpful to have a few brothers with experience not only in music but also in the recording and business aspects of the process. As for the future, we will continue to sing beautiful music in our liturgical worship, and if it seems opportune to make another album at some point, perhaps it will happen. Stay tuned!
Lopez: Are you and your fellow friars excited about the pope’s visit to the U.S. next year? What’s the outlook for Catholicism in the U.S. as you see it?
Br. Vincent Ferrer: We are. While religious practice in general and for Catholics in particular is obviously lower than several decades ago, there are still many committed Catholics in the U.S. today who are zealous in sharing the Gospel with our secular culture. I think Dominicans have much to contribute to the renewal of the faith in this regard, and with our growing numbers, we can assume that God expects much from us. Having Pope Francis visit provides a particular energy for that renewal, as it is obvious that his ministry has touched many hearts throughout the world.
Lopez: What’s your pitch to friends and family about why Ave Maria will enhance their lives spiritually or otherwise?
Br. Vincent Ferrer: It’s typically a great experience for the family and friends of our friars to visit our communities, to pray with us, and see our lives. As they experience a piece of that life together, they often come to have an appreciation for something that at first seemed very strange because they see how the religious life can help people to grow closer to God. With this album, we want to share a particularly beautiful part of our life with those who can’t visit us in person, so that they can join us in seeking God and contemplating his surpassing beauty.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online, and founding director of Catholic Voices USA.