What is a Catholic to make of a “Mass” in which the celebrant throws the Host to the ground and smashes the Communion chalice in fury?

The answer should be simple: denounce this sacrilege. And many Catholics did, when Leonard Bernstein’s Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers was premiered at the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington.

Forty-seven years later, as the musical world celebrates Bernstein’s centenary, Mass still provokes a shudder from orthodox Catholics who think the composer was mocking the cosmic miracle of the Eucharist. And, even if he hadn’t made an act of desecration the climax of Mass, how do you defend dousing the Latin liturgy in radical chic?

The year before, Bernstein had been serving canapés to the Black Panthers in their penthouse apartment. It’s no surprise, therefore, that when he came to write Mass at the invitation of Jackie Kennedy, he should have decorated it with “hippie-era nostrums”, to quote the New York Times.

That’s a review from last month, by the way. The piece has just been revived at the Lincoln Center. Zachary Woolfe called it “bloated, bombastic, cloying, quaint and smug … a stale memento of the aftermath of the liberalisations in Catholic ritual inspired by the Second Vatican Council”.

I wish I could agree: it would be so easy to portray Mass, in which soft-rock ballads and the rhythms of the street disrupt the prayers of the liturgy, as the apotheosis of the “folk Masses” that have disfigured worship in the Catholic Church for half a century.

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