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Faithful unite, awakening a spirit of old and new with the blessing of oils and a musical revival

Singing integration: Composer John Rotar (far left) and Dr Andrew Cichy (far right) leading the responsorial Mass. Photos: Alan Edgecomb

HOLY oils appear all across scripture, from our early Jewish roots to the coming of Christ Himself, the “Anointed One”.

Even more abundant in scripture – and more ancient – was music, a liturgical practice reborn in the composers of every generation.

This year, Chrism Mass embraced both the old and the new, bringing the gifts of oil and music to St Stephen’s Cathedral on Thursday, April 11.

And not counting the sacramental oils blessed on the night, the newest part of the Mass was probably the Mass itself.

University of Queensland doctoral student and music graduate John Rotar composed the Mass setting as a gift to the archdiocese.

Mr Rotar said he was excited to have his music played at such a significant event of the Church year.

“I’ve written a Mass for the choir once before, and another Mass of mine is getting done over the Easter season – on Easter Sunday actually,” Mr Rotar said.

He wrote the Mass as a responsorial Mass, one in which the choir and the assembly interact in a musical dialogue.

“The choir will sing and the congregation will respond, it’s an interesting way of engaging the rest of the congregation in the music as well,” Mr Rotar said.

“I think it’s a great way to get people involved in the music of the liturgy and get people involved in the saying of the Mass as well.”

This practice isn’t new, with a long history behind it, but it represents a revival of a style increasingly heard in St Stephen’s – and the greater Church, especially since the Second Vatican Council. 

Sistine Chapel Choir director Cardinal Domenico Bartolucci led the revival of this style in the late 1960s as a way of balancing respect for the Church’s treasury of sacred music and the assembly’s participation in it.

Mr Rotar said the composition did not take too long to complete, and that compositions came easily to him once he had an idea in mind or a particular group he was writing for.

“With this sort of music, the artistry is subservient to the function it has to the liturgy, I find,” he said.

“There’s this long tradition, not only in the Catholic Church but in protestant and orthodox churches, that music has formed an integral role in the process of worship.

“I think many composers have taken that, and taken that idea, and made music with it. 

“It does hark back to a tradition which is alive with the Cathedral Choir and one I’m immersed in all the time.”

Cathedral music director Dr Andrew Cichy said Mr Rotar was an outstanding composer of his generation.

“He has his own distinctive compositional voice and there is a real vitality in his work,” Dr Cichy said.

“It’s clear to me, while inspired by the treasury of sacred music, there’s no way his work could be described as pastiche or derivative.

“That to me is the mark of a fine composer, the capacity to engage with the past and be inspired by it, but develop their own distinctive voice and add to what’s gone before.”

As for Mr Rotar’s burgeoning career in music, he sagely said, “We’ll see”.

“The career of a musician is generally a very multifaceted one,” he said. 

“It’s very hard to say ‘this is going to be my path’, and everyone who has had success generally doesn’t have success in the way they planned to.”

The theme of old and new was felt throughout the Chrism Mass’ renewal of clerical vows too.

And the renewal came not only from an anointment by the oils but the anointment of the Holy Spirit too.

In his homily, Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge said we had entered a time of the Holy Spirit in Australia.

“The third person of the Blessed Trinity is where our spiritual, theological, and pastoral eye now needs to focus – which is harder than it sounds, in a western Church that has been so Christocentric for so long that we’ve been quite unfocused, almost atheistic at times, when it comes to the Holy Spirit,” he said.

“The journey of the Plenary Council is the work of the Spirit, it was in its origins, it is in its unfolding, and it will be in its outcomes.”

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