Cloistered Dominican Nuns Corpus Christi Monastery

Celebrating the Liturgical Legacy of the Order of Friars Preachers: A Reflection on Last Month’s Mass Celebrated According to the Dominican Rite

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The day had come.  In honor of the Year for Consecrated Life and recognizing the Order’s upcoming 800-year jubilee, our community had agreed to collaborate with the friars and the laity chapter of Corpus Christi in a half-day event, “Dominican Life in the 21st Century”.  The festivities of the day were to begin with a Solemn Mass in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary according to the Dominican Rite.

It was to be the first Mass according to the Dominican Rite held at Corpus Christi Monastery in…well, no one can remember exactly how long.  The only sister in our community who could readily remember and describe a Mass according to the Dominican Rite was our then-postulant, as she had regularly attended the Dominican Rite Mass at her home parish, Holy Family Cathedral in Anchorage, Alaska before her entrance.

Our community’s preparation for the liturgy was extensive.  We needed to learn the chants and the rubrics for the Mass.  We needed to prepare the accoutrements for the proper celebration of the Mass.  But first, recognizing Our Holy Father Dominic’s love for liturgical prayer and how he stressed its primacy as the prayer of his sons and daughters, we wanted to know the history of the Dominican Rite and its relevance to Dominican life and our life as Dominican nuns, today.  To that end, Rev. Br. Gabriel Mosher, O.P. (now Father Gabriel) presented to the community a few lectures on Church liturgy, the Dominican Rite, the relation between the two, and how recent Church and papal instructions and documents, specifically those from Vatican II and later, reveal the Church’s intent and understanding of how and why liturgy is to be celebrated.

And now, the day was here.  Our chapel was filled with people.  The priest, deacon, subdeacon and servers were in place.  This would be a first for many of us – our servers were a few of novice friars; those novices not serving were also in attendance.  We later learned many people present had driven for some distance to be here – many one hour or more, a few even longer.  The priest rang the sacristy bell and the organist played the first intonation of the Introit.  The music rose and floated in the chapel as incense and the ministers and their servers began their prayers and actions.  The introit over, the chantresses began the Kyrie and the ministers and servers changed position, like a dance, and continued with their prayers and actions.

And the music for this heavenly dance is chant: unlike hymns and contemporary music, which has a rhythmic beat (thus attuned to a heartbeat and resonating more with the body than the spirit), chant is the music of breathing, the music of the spirit.  Properly done, through the accelerations and decelerations, the crescendos and decrescendos, one’s spirit can soar to the heights of heaven or plummet to the depths of the earth with joy and sorrow, praise and petition (which helps explain its popularity on the music charts – people are drawn to this music for its calming, meditative and prayerful nature).  And chanting as a community requires listening to the rest of the choir to make sure you are singing as one voice, again, calling upon and reflecting community life.

Mass celebrated according to the Dominican Rite is like watching community life play before your eyes.  Each minister, each server, each chantress, each sister, has his or her respective part.  As the chantresses and choir sing praises and prayers to God, the ministers and servers move as in dance, each trusting the other will have performed their tasks well so the next minister and server can join in, pick up and perform the next task well.  When the ministers and servers move from one side of the sanctuary to the other, it is as if watching the cosmos orbit the center of the universe – all activity pivots around the altar.

The reading from Wisdom was beautifully intoned, as was the Gospel.  Then a shift as we moved into the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  Silence prevails as fewer of the prayers are audible at this point in the Mass.  In the tradition of the Western Church, increased silence is a sign of increased solemnity.  It’s as if words cannot adequately describe or represent what is taking place, like the silence that accompanied the night preceding our Savior’s birth, or the silence that fell at the hour of his death.  Yet, it is familiar.  We lift our hearts and follow the movements of the priest, and we recognize by them where we are in the Canon of the Mass.  We understand the moment is near and something profound is about to happen.  The ministers and servers move closer to the altar and we hold our breath, eyes watching, hearts waiting.

Bells and the elevation!  We are at the foot of Calvary, Jesus is present before us.

The sign of Peace is very different in the Dominican Rite.  A small Pax Instrument with the image of our Savior crowned with thorns in the traditional image of the Man of Sorrows or Ecce Homo engraved upon it comes from the altar and each minister, then server, then friar, kisses it, in order of religion.  Then, a server brings it to the choir window and each sister takes her turn, beginning with the prioress and moving down in profession rank to the youngest in religion. The peace of Christ proceeds from the altar and passes down through the priest, the ministers, the superiors to the youngest member of the Order.

We take our places in the choir and prepare to make a venia.  The entire community makes a venia before God and asks for mercy before receiving our Eucharistic Lord.  Then, the youngest in community receives communion first.  As in family life and in our refectory, the “children” eat first, so too here at the Eucharistic table.

And at some point in the Mass you realize, this is the Mass celebrated for nearly 800 years by our sisters and brothers.  This is exactly as they would have done.  There is a sense of history, of tradition in knowing they could suddenly appear and join in without a moment’s hesitation.  Indeed, there is a sense they are in fact present during this heavenly sacrifice.  And it is that continuity of tradition, of substantial rootedness in something “bigger than us” that is drawing so many young people to the older forms of liturgy.  In today’s society when nothing in permanent, everything is transitory, mobile, and relative, people thirst for stability and are drawn to timeless beauty; they yearn for something that the world, with all its noise and distractions, cannot provide.  Looking out at the people in our full chapel, one could see young and old, families and singles, rich and poor.  All ages, all backgrounds.  All drawn together by the liturgy to reverence and receive our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.

A friar recently commented to our novitiate that it is increasingly difficult to convince people about the truth of God and Jesus through argument.  But beauty, ah, beauty hits at the heart and reveals truth in a gentle unfolding of light.  As nuns, we are positioned to offer the most eloquent preaching through our liturgical prayer with the public.  As a community, we discovered through this experience that by going through the work to rediscover, relearn, reclaim, and preserve a significant part of our liturgical heritage, not only do we, individually and as a community, reap the benefits and lessons of nearly 800 years of Dominican tradition, but we have the opportunity to preach to people who are thirsting for something that the world cannot give them – the Dominican liturgy wraps and clothes the Sacrament of the Eucharist with chant, word, and action that is purposeful, beautiful, contemplative and uniquely Dominican. Below are a few pictures from the Mass (thank you to our volunteer photographers Michelle Cardenas and Balthazar Paguirre who took the pictures on the “outside”!).

This is our history.  This is the legacy we’ve inherited.  This is part of our future.


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The Schola practicing for the Mass the night before

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The day had arrived…

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During the Kyrie


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The preparing of the chalice. Unlike the Roman Rite, the chalice is prepared ahead of time.

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In the Dominican Rite, unlike the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, the Gospel is recited at the chair before it is sung by the deacon. This is taking place during the chanting of the Alleluia.


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The chanting of the Epistle by the Subdeacon. In the Dominican Rite the junior server and the subdeacon are a team.


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Chanting of the Gospel


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The Homily

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The Pax Ceremony: the thurifer presents the Pax Instrument to kiss saying: “Pax tibi et Ecclesiae Dei sanctae”


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Dominican cruciform of the priest’s arms after the consecration. This is something that is not found in the Roman Rite.


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Making a venia before receiving Communion

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The last Gospel


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