Awaken!

A plaque with saints rising from the dead made in Limoges, France circa 1250. Photo by Marie Lan Nguyen

This is the latest in a series of essays on the topic of reconciliation. You can find links to the previous articles at the bottom of this page.

The year was 1971 and the new John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. was about to have its grand opening celebration. The late president’s widow, Jacqueline Kennedy, commissioned the famed composer Leonard Bernstein to create a new work that would be performed as part of the dedication festivities. Bernstein had already established himself as one of the greatest American musicians of all time, heading up the New York Philharmonic and writing the music for West Side Story and On the Waterfront. However, for this particular occasion, he chose to do something rather unconventional: he wanted to create a Catholic Mass.

Masses intended for performance were nothing new. Both Mozart and Verdi had reached the pinnacles of their careers by writing a Requiem Mass, though Mozart was famously unable to complete his before dying young. Those who went for a more general Mass, as opposed to one for the dead, included Puccini, Liszt, Schubert, Haydn, Stravinsky, Bach, Beethoven, Vaughan Williams, Schubert, Rossini, and Dvořák. The reason for this is obvious: the Mass was always meant to be sung, and it serves as the focal point of Catholic life. Even some Protestants have gotten in on the fun, including a few of the names on that list.

But why should Bernstein wish to compose a Mass? He was, it must be noted, not a Catholic. If anything, he seems to have been a rather secular Jew. He was also homosexual (despite not revealing that publicly and being married for many years) and held some views that were not in complete harmony with Catholic teaching. Yet, the Kennedys were well-known for their Catholicism. Bernstein no doubt wanted to honor this aspect of his friends’ lives, and according to his daughter, Nina Bernstein, he “had always been intrigued and awed by the Roman Catholic Mass, finding it (in Latin) moving, mysterious, and eminently theatrical.”[1] Continue reading