“Don’t Forget”: The Pope’s Final Mass in Philadelphia

by Michael Silhavey

Having been assigned by Fr. Anthony to provide commentary on this final liturgy, I do so with a realization that many Pray Tell readers no doubt viewed the liturgy with Missal and worship aid in hand. Lead up to the Philadelphia liturgy was covered generously in other Pray Tell articles. It’s also true that by this point in the week, various blogs and Facebook comments have discussed a variety of issues including the presence of women liturgical ministers, musical performance and repertoire, and what the Holy Father said – and didn’t say – in the course of these liturgies. It’s hard for all of us not to view these liturgies through those lenses. I hope my comments are received as a springboard for further discussion among readers.

I watched the live stream from the USCCB and they are to be commended for providing coverage free of spoken commentary. Understandably, the networks feel the need to have commentary, but we should be thankful at least one outlet provided coverage without interruptions.

Providing the prelude music, and accompanying the choir, was the Philadelphia Orchestra. Throughout the week, I was intrigued by the solely orchestral repertoire that was chosen for the various liturgies. Certainly, the repertoire needed to be based on realistic instrumentation, budget and space. But I’m surprised that more classical music with religious overtones wasn’t chosen. Somehow Beethoven symphonies seemed out of place. It was odd that twice in the prelude the orchestral music was interrupted by spoken instructions for those assembled. Perhaps the microphones were simply shut off and the orchestra played on, but this was clearly a case of music serving the liturgy, not the other way around. A number of prelude pieces seem to have been cut, so I invite choir members and those present to weigh in.

Michael Joncas’ Exultate Justi was the processional. Like Christopher Walker’s Laudate, Laudate Dominum done in Washington, the piece utilizes a “populist classical” style. Somehow Latin becomes instantly accessible in these pieces. The processional just seemed to begin from the side of the sanctuary; no grand procession down an aisle. Concelebrants had been seated prior to this procession. I’m betting Fr. Joncas was a little than more surprised by the orchestration his piece received….more about that later.

As part of the opening procession, the Holy Father honored the official painting of the World Meeting of Families with incense. The painting was displayed in the sanctuary area and is the work of a local Philadelphia artist, Neilson Carlin. Seizing upon my guest commentator’s prerogative, I’ll offer the opinion that I wish a more contemporary image would have been created, rather than an imitation of older styles.

Perhaps it was my adjusting to his voice over the week, but I sensed Francis’ English was markedly relaxed and more comfortable as he began this liturgy. I’d like to think he gained confidence as the week went on and was buoyed by comments from host bishops and his own staff that his English was more than serviceable. 

I now tread respectfully: we need to address some cantor issues. The cantors possessed lovely, trained voices, and were comfortable as animateurs. Their voices and presence made for comfortable viewing. But once again, we witnessed cantors taking both parts of the dialogues. There was no need to sing the Kyrie/Christe with the people. Some ten minutes later the deacon chanted the Gospel greeting without taking the people’s parts. To no one’s surprise, the scores of bishops, hundreds of clergy and thousands of faithful did just fine on their own.

The readings were effectively proclaimed (by two women lectors) in Spanish and Vietnamese. As seen at previously liturgies this week, the cantor sang the Verbum Domini – and the people’s response – at the end of the readings. This is something that needs to be explored more in American liturgies.

The psalm was Michel Guimont’s setting of Psalm 19, sung trilingually and ending with a choral verse. The melody of the refrain was no doubt sung at thousands of Masses across the US that morning, The familiar James Chepponis’ Festival Alleluia was used quite effectively. . . 

Following the deacon’s chanted Gospel Reading, Pope Francis offered a “modest” Sunday Mass homily. While brief and delivered in low key style, the message was anything but subtle: do not be afraid of change. We must be open to change. God is in charge, not us. I couldn’t but help hear this as a precursor to the upcoming Synod of Bishops. And his advice to families? Some remarkably simple and touching words: Hug one another. Forgive. Speak nicely to one another. It’s also notable what he didn’t say. This was not the time to fret about societal threats to the family or to expound upon the definition of a family. No doubt, plenty of those issues were covered during the week.

Following the sung Creed (Credo III) the intercessions were chanted in multiple languages as has come to be expected at diocesan or international liturgies. While in English only, I did appreciate the brevity of Rick Gibala’s refrain. Could it be that in some liturgies our reliance on lengthy multi language refrains and a string of multilingual intercessions give the Universal Prayers too much weight in the balance of the liturgy? 

The music at the preparation featured Norm Gouin’s and Andrew Ciferni’s Sound the Bell of Holy Freedom, the official song for the World Meeting of Families. Like most of the music sung to this point, the orchestration was politely over the top, befitting an outdoor liturgy and the grand festivity of the occasion. And it doesn’t hurt having the Philadelphia Orchestra as your accompanying ensemble. I enjoyed Gouin’s music and Ciferni had some wonderful turns of phrase and images in his text. I wish some of the false rhymes could be cleaned up; they can be stumbling blocks along the course of the hymn. The music seemed perfectly timed to accompany the liturgical action during the presentation of the gifts and preparation of the altar. (I’d like to think this coordination is due a Master of Ceremonies following the music and setting the pace of how the liturgical actions unfolds, but I’m happy to attribute it to the Holy Spirit. Or some excellent work on the planners’ part.) The organist is to be complimented for providing quality improvisations throughout the liturgy to accompany the actions. A representative group of the faithful presented the gifts. 

Eucharistic Prayer II in Latin was used and Randall DeBruyn’s Mass of the Resurrection Amen concluded the prayer. The traditional Lord’s Prayer Chant and an arranged version of Agnus Dei XVIII were sung. As was the case all week, the Holy Father distributed communion to a small group and then was seated. 

A small quibble from this Midwesterner to my East Coast colleagues: aren’t choral pieces best done at the end of the communion, as opposed to the beginning? I’d be in favor of more congregational music to accompany the procession. The congregational communion songs in the program were solid familiar pieces. Taste and See – the video of which was accompanied by a lovely shot of the Philadelphia skyline in the background – was cut off half way through the refrain so that an announcement could be made. Of course, Robert Kreutz’s and Omer Westendorf’s You Satisfy the Hungry Heart was programmed. The piece was written for the 1976 Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia, hence the tune name BICENTENNIAL. The original choral edition of the piece featured a two bar introduction quoting Irving Berlin’s God Bless America. (Happily, that intro is no longer used in publications!) While the arrangement was by Peter Latona, no credits seem to appear in the booklet as to who the orchestrator of the pieces in the liturgy. He or she deserves a salute, and some calls from film producers. 

Archbishop Chaput was perhaps the most restrained and subdued of the host archbishops who delivered their remarks and thanks to the Holy Father. Archbishop Paglia, President of the Pontifical Council for the Family, offered some remarks and announced that the next World Meeting of Families would be held in Dublin in 2018. Representatives from five continents came forward are were symbolically tasked with taking the Word with them as 100,000 copies of the Gospel of Luke were being sent to select cities on these continents. As the immigration has been one of the central themes of this visit, a family from Syria was welcomed and provided with financial assistance. This should be an inspiration for all parishes to adopt a family for resettlement. I’m proud it is done at my parish.

So what to make of the liturgy? To my mind, it somehow managed to be both modest and festive. Standard musical repertoire was presented in a most festive way. We may not have the Philadelphia Orchestra and a choir of hundreds in our music areas, but we all have those songs in our hymnals. There was a formality to the liturgy, but never a fussiness. Cultural and language diversity were present, but different parts of the country will agree if there was enough or not enough. Perhaps the still current trend of an all male acolyte corps is a 1970’s version of altar boys only in parishes. I sense in time more women will be used at these large scale celebrations, as is the case in my home archdiocese. Then again, should we not be thankful that our seminarians and future priests are getting some good lessons in art of liturgy through their service as acolytes? 

Finally, one of the most anticipated moments of any Francis event are the “off the cuff” moments. Those assembled and viewing were not disappointed. Following the final blessing and dismissal, he purposefully grabbed the microphone in the acolyte’s hand. Clearly this was not planned. Without a script in front of him, Francis expressed his thanks and asked for our prayers, doing so in excellent English. And to emphasize his point, he said “don’t forget.” 

All in all, “don’t forget” are some pretty fine words with which to end such a visit. I know that Pope John Paul’s visit to Chicago in the late 1970’s is still part of this city’s collective memory. I hope that in a similar way, the American Church will have a hard timing forgetting Francis’ visit. Let’s pray his words spoken to us take root and blossom.

Michael Silhavy is associate senior editor at GIA Publications and an alumnus of Saint John’s School of Theology and Seminary.


  1. I was at the liturgy in Philadelphia. I had a double-view of the litugy as I was in the midst of the crowd on the Parkway, while my oldest son was in the reserved seats — 13 rows back from the altar, in the front. An experience he will not forget.

    I would second most of Michael Silhavey’s careful commentary and add only a bit about the distribution of communion. The flow of priests and deacons with the Eucharist, each accompanied by their own umbrella bearer from the main altar out into the crowd was impressive. Barricades served as impromptu altar rails (there was very limited access to the area where people were sitting), and the distribution seemed to me to be reverent and well organized, though it didn’t have the character of a procession.

    Surprisingly, my son reports that the distribution was somewhat haphazard up front, with no clear directions on how to get in and out of rows. He, part of his row and the row behind him ended up having to find a priest in the aisle to give them the Eucharist, then awkwardly climb back into their rows.

    The sudden interruption of Taste and See, which the crowd kept singing quite softly even after the cantor had been turned off mid-sentence, felt like a jolt where I was. The sense of unity we had from the reception of communion and the singing was not well served by the rather unceremonious reminder to meditate quietly. Since the crowd had been hushed and reverent all through the liturgy, it seemed an unnecessary announcement.

    All in all, it was a joyful and reverent celebration and I’m glad I braved the early trains, long walks, security lines and sitting in the dust to go.

  2. “Once again, we witnessed cantors taking both parts of the dialogues. There was no need to sing the Kyrie/Christe with the people. Some ten minutes later the deacon chanted the Gospel greeting without taking the people’s parts. To no one’s surprise, the scores of bishops, hundreds of clergy and thousands of faithful did just fine on their own.”
    I’m glad you noticed. Thank you, Michael. In my few opportunities to lead responsorial psalms, I have found that the people will quickly pick up the refrain and will need no more than some token animation from us. NPM in its cantor certification program may weigh in on this matter, though its learning materials emphasize active performance skills rather than passive encouragement of the assembly. Once I asked why in every photo of a cantor in Pastoral Music the person was singing at the same time as she raised her hands for the people to respond. The answer: every photo received at the journal office showed cantors so engaged.

      1. @Fritz Bauerschmidt:
        Thanks, Ron and Fritz.

        I had seen globes with lighted candles atop tall poles used this way at the cathedral in Cologne. Ah, that was style.

        I think my questions are practical. Umbrellas seem rather big in circumference to be useful in a crowded situation. Are they special, smaller ones? Do they open them only when in place for communion, or in the sanctuary before going out to the nave?

      2. @Rita Ferrone:

        Rita, since the ministers of communion used the empty emergency access lanes, and the umbrellas were rather small, there was not an issue with crowding. Their colors at this time of day glowed (I snuck a couple of photos, I could not resist), lighted candles would not have been as effective in this outdoor daytime situation. I don’t know when they opened them, I was back in the crowd.

        I thought it a practical and fairly elegant solution (the umbrellas reminded me of some I’d seen used in Eucharistic processions overseas, I am thinking of one procession in Singapore in particular). If it had rained, I would rather the umbrellas, than ministers in ponchos with rain soaked hosts – so practical in that regard, too.

      3. @Michelle Francl-Donnay:
        I see two Greek Catholic priests in your photo. Were they distributing the Holy Mysteries in the manner proper to their Church: from the chalice with the spoon, or in the manner of the Roman Church?

    1. @Rita Ferrone:
      Rita, I happen to know an umbrella holder. I may get the story and post it. The simple answer was that it was so people could find communion stations; I’ll see what she has to say.

  3. Rita Ferrone : Can somebody explain to me the business with the umbrellas?

    Rita, I first saw them used at the International Eucharistic Congress in Seoul in 1989. The lay men and women with the umbrellas had been trained to accompany the communion ministers (priests and deacons) to their stations for the distribution of Holy Communion. The umbrellas identified those guide to the ministers; they also indicated to the assembly where those communion stations were.

  4. Michael, you have succeeded in accurately and tactfully describing and assessing certain of the liturgical challenges and peculiarities in the Philadelphia area.
    Perhaps because two generations ago,parish mass was celebrated in the upstairs church on the hour and then the lower church on the half hour, expediency usually trumped beauty. Even today at the resort parishes in the diocese “across the river” from Philadelphia, Mass often follows that older model during the summer season. “Down the shore”.
    As a native of the Philadelphia area, who was adopted by kindly midwesterners, The points you make and the critiques you offer resonate very strongly with me.
    It will be an even greater challenge than it already is, to try to form cantors to allow the assembly to find their voice, and only use their amplified voice when needed. It is indeed unfortunate that extraordinary papal liturgies model practices that we try so hard to modify or eliminate for good parish liturgies.
    Thank you for both your tact and your candor.

  5. It was so that they could be seen in the crowd – so that people knew where the Eucharist was being distributed. Rather brilliant bit of thinking, I think.

  6. I had just assumed that the umbrellas were a defense against birds with no sense of decorum. Using them as a method to find the Communion lines seems logical also.

  7. We certainly used yellow and white umbrellas during the UK Papal Visit back in 1982, and during the more recent one. As well as indicating where Communion is being distributed (as Fritz pointed out), they are also a welcome protection for ministers against sunstroke when the weather is hot. I had never thought about birds, I must say!

    1. @Paul Inwood:
      Well, I’m pretty sure that we had to launder our Eucharistic Procession canopy once due to a bird-related mishap. That’s why I thought about that first. I don’t know what that says about how my mind works, but…

  8. As I look at photos of the eucharistic ministers and umbrellas, it seems clear to me that in addition to making the ministers easy to spot, the umbrellas provide a moving canopy over the Blessed Sacrament, so that’s the same purpose as that of a eucharistic canopy in a Corpus Christi procession. Or perhaps that of a baldacchino over the place where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved.

  9. As a musician and cantor at the Cathedral Basilica of Sts Peter and Paul, I participated in both liturgies in Philadelphia. We had an eclectic and elegant mix of music prepared as prelude and processional pieces, but most were cut on the fly. I’m not sure exactly what caused the last minute changes, but from the confusion displayed by the production directors and the irritation displayed by Yannick Nezét-Séguin, I think it was mostly miscommunication between those “off-stage” and the producer in the orchestra pit. All of the musicians were disappointed, especially considering our months of hard work.
    At Communion, the hymn Taste and See was NOT interrupted to accommodate the announcement, although it may have appeared that way. Again, we had much more music prepared for communion and no one ever expected that we would only get in two pieces. When the Pope placed his zuccheto on his head, we got the signal that music was to stop immediately.
    The orchestral arrangements were written or “enhanced” by the Philorch’s in-house arrangers. I’m so sorry you didn’t get to hear their Copland-esque intro to I Received the Living God. It was stunning.

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