STAMFORD — The Basilica of St. John the Evangelist celebrated the canonization of Cardinal John Henry Newman on Sunday with a performance of the Great Mass in G Major by the legendary Irish composer Sir Charles Villiers Stanford.
The majestic music of the Stanford’s Mass filled the Basilica on the day that Pope Francis elevated Newman to sainthood, along with three religious sisters and a Swiss seamstress during a Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica.
Cardinal Newman was a prominent Anglican priest who converted to Roman Catholicism in 1845 and became the most influential religious leader, educator and theologian of his day. He was also the founder of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in England, and Stanford’s Mass was written for the London Oratory. Newman’s conversion turned his previous life upside down, and friends and family members, including his sister, never spoke to him again.
“That moment in the life of Newman came only after many hours of prayer. It was not a small decision for someone of Newman’s standing, and it cost him dearly,” Father Cyprian La Pastina, pastor of St. Mary Church in Greenwich, said in his homily. “He lost many of his friends. His academic degree was taken away from him. And he had to leave Oxford after some 20 years. It was all very painful for him, but he was convinced that the Heart of Christ had drawn his heart to the one true Church.”
Father La Pastina was the principal celebrant at the choral Mass, joined by Monsignor Stephen DiGiovanni, pastor of the Basilica, along with Father Joseph Gill and Father Albert Audette Jr.
Nicholas Botkins, Director of Music, served as conductor for the U.S. premiere of the Mass in G Major, which employed a full orchestra, the Basilica choir and vocal soloists from the opera program at Yale University.
Father La Pastina said that when Newman was elevated to a cardinal in 1879, he chose the motto “Cor ad cor loquitor,” which means ‘“Heart speaks to heart.” It was borrowed from the writings of St. Francis de Sales, who was known to inspire conversions “by his gentle personality and his friendship with those he converted.”
When Newman became a Catholic priest in 1847, he could have entered a religious order such as the Jesuits or Dominicans; however, he chose parish life at the Oratory in Birmingham.
It was a different path for him.
“Not to academic types that he was used to in Oxford, but rather to poor working-class people, whom he served as a simple parish priest,” Father La Pastina said. “He became part of their everyday lives and established friendships with them. There are countless letters from Cardinal Newman to his friends, asking about family situations, giving spiritual advice, promising his prayers and showing genuine concern.”
In our own age, Newman is one of the most widely read theologians. Father La Pastina said, “His works are studied by scholars, his homilies and meditations help feed our spiritual hunger, and the example of his life inspires so many of us to follow in his footsteps, inviting us to enter into the mystery of God by allowing Christ to penetrate our hearts, which are sometimes cold and sometimes self-centered, and allowing him to find a place there. Cor ad cor loquitor — Heart speaks to heart. It is the message of St. Francis de Sales, of St. Philip Neri, of St. John Henry Newman, but more importantly, it is the message of Christ and of his Church.”
Botkins said the Great Mass was written when Stanford was at the height of his musical powers and calls for a wealth of musical forces.
“Stanford is one of the giants of British music, and I can’t think of a better way for our Catholic community to honor the canonization of a giant figure in our Church, John Henry Cardinal Newman,” he said.
Stanford, who died in 1924, was a major composer, music teacher and conductor and the founding director of the Royal College of Music in London. During his career, he composed seven symphonies, nine operas, five Irish rhapsodies, chamber music and choral works for church performance.
The Great Mass in G Major, Opus 46, was written in 1892 at the request of Thomas Wingham, who was choirmaster of the London Oratory. It was performed only twice in Stanford’s lifetime (Wingham died before he could hear it) and again in 2014 by the Choir of Exeter College at Oxford.
Only in the past few months have the orchestral parts of the Mass been made available to the public, and Botkins was able to obtain them.
“It is a great Mass, obviously under done in the form that you would normally hear it,” he said. “It is a very beautiful Mass so I wanted to give it the proper respect. The orchestra parts have been available to us, so we could do it as the composer intended.”
The orchestra parts had been locked away at the London Oratory, and Botkins had been trying to get them for about five years.
“It was all very providential,” he added. “Monsignor DiGiovanni has ties with the London Oratory and knows the prefect for music there, and I spent some time there and suddenly there was an announcement that Newman would be canonized. I had always wanted to do this Mass … and one thing led to another.”
After the Mass, Botkins expressed his appreciation for the opportunity to bring the work to the United States and for Monsignor DiGiovanni’s support.
“Premieres are always significant in the professional life of a musician,” he said. “The orchestral premiere of Opus 46 was momentous more so by the supernatural nature of the occasion — the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and the canonization of John Henry Newman. I am humbled by the extraordinary leadership of Monsignor DiGiovanni, and I am thankful for his trust in our musicians for such an important event.”