Seven questions about the Dominican Rite with Jesson Mata

by Kevin Birnbaum

Father Daniel Syverstad, OP, elevates the host during a Solemn Dominican Rite Requiem Mass on All Souls’ Day 2011. Photos by Pat Bucy, courtesy Jesson Mata.

Tonight (Nov. 8) at 7 p.m., Father Daniel Syverstad, OP, will celebrate a Solemn Dominican Rite Requiem Mass for All Dominican Souls at beautiful Blessed Sacrament Church in Seattle, with music provided by the internationally acclaimed Tudor Choir.

Jesson Mata was the driving force behind restoring the celebration of the ancient Dominican Rite at Blessed Sacrament, where he’s the director of liturgy and music. Jesson is a wonderful liturgist and a good friend, and he agreed to answer seven questions for the candle about this unique and beautiful rite.

1. What is Dominican Rite of the Mass, and what is its history?
The Dominican Rite is a unique 13th-century liturgy belonging to the Order of Preachers, or the Dominican Order, of the Roman Catholic Church. Founded in 1216 by St. Dominic de Guzman, the Dominican Order most likely organized this rite in the mid-13th century to address the prevailing diversity of the celebration of the Mass and the Divine Office from convent to convent. The problem was not peculiar to the Order, however, because it was common practice for regions in the Roman Church to celebrate Mass according to local variations. It was not until the late 16th century when the universal Church was required to pray from the same missal. Thankfully, Pope Pius V’s generous decree preserved liturgical rites that were approved for use for more than two hundred years. The Dominican Rite had been in existence for three hundred years, which gave the Order the unique privilege to celebrate their own rite, even to this day.

The deeper question of the origin of the Dominican Rite Mass can be left to liturgical historians to determine. Some scholars claim it is an early use of the Roman Rite (as celebrated in Rome), others claim it is a variant of the Gallican Rite, and still others claim it is a form of the Roman Rite with Gallican elements. Whatever the origin is of the Dominican Rite Mass, I am eternally grateful that its corpus has been preserved.

2. How does it differ from what the average Catholic would experience on a normal Sunday?
The essential structure of the Dominican Rite Mass is not at all significantly different from the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite—the Mass most often celebrated in parishes through the Roman world. Both contain the two essential forms of the Mass: the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. In essentials, they belong to the same family, but in particulars, they may seem completely different. While the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite can be celebrated in Latin, the Dominican Rite Mass is exclusively celebrated in Latin, just like the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite. The Dominican Rite Mass also contains much more complex liturgical actions and it preserves the role of the subdeacon (in a Solemn Mass), which does not exist in the Ordinary Form. We must remember that although in external appearance both liturgies seem entirely different they are, in essence, one and the same.

3. What about the Dominican Rite of the Mass makes it particularly meaningful to you?
The Dominican Rite Mass is meaningful to me because I was a former Dominican myself. My knowledge of the rite was purely academic in seminary, but I would envision the choreographic elements of the rituals in my head. Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to pray the Dominican Rite Mass in seminary. After I left the Order (convinced that the Lord was not calling me to religious life), Father Daniel hired me to direct liturgy at Blessed Sacrament Parish. In 2008, I resurrected the Dominican Rite Mass and convinced Father Daniel to celebrate it for the centenary of Blessed Sacrament. Since then, we have celebrated the solemn form of the Dominican Rite Mass for the feasts of St. Dominic and All Souls. Also, since that time, I have served as a subdeacon, which is a supreme privilege for a layman. As far as I know, we are the only parish in the world that regularly celebrates the Solemn Dominican Rite Masses. Holy Rosary in Portland regularly celebrates the Low and High Masses in the Dominican Rite and sometimes the Solemn Mass.

4. What is your favorite moment in the Dominican Rite liturgy, and why?
My favorite moment in the Dominican Rite Mass is the preparation of the chalice, which is carried out by the subdeacon. This action is unique to the Dominican Rite and normally takes place at the Gloria (it’s different at a Requiem Mass). Serving at the altar as a subordinate to the major ministers (i.e., the deacon and celebrant) is the most humbling and, undoubtedly, the most privileged function I have ever experienced in sacred liturgy. It seems evident that God has not called me to the clerical ministry, so the role of subdeacon has put everything in perspective—that no matter what I am called to do in life, it will always be at the service of others. The role of subdeacon and its accompanying actions in the Dominican Rite Mass, namely that of the preparation of the chalice, is an expression of my vocation.

5. What kind of effort and preparation has been required to restore the Dominican Rite at Blessed Sacrament?
The restoration of the Dominican Rite would not have been possible without Father Daniel, who is both my pastor and “co-conspirator” (note that this is in jest). Father Daniel fully admits that the Dominican Rite is not his natural “cup of tea” nor does it really fit within the paradigm of his generation. Yet he supported its restoration because he saw and acknowledged its beauty and pastoral need. Without his blessing, I would not have been able to do anything.

As I acknowledged earlier, my understanding of the Dominican Rite was all academic, so its particular expression was a bit of a challenge early on. I conferred with leading experts in the field, namely Father Augustine Thompson, OP, a brilliant historian and scholar; Father Anthony Patalano, OP; and Father Vincent Kelber, OP. These brothers helped me piece together the hundreds of choreographic nuances within the rite throughout the course of months, if not years. I took careful notes and, as a result, have combined my academic knowledge with time-tested practice to restore the Dominican Rite at Blessed Sacrament Church.

6. So what makes it worth all the effort?

It’s really that simple.

Everything that I do and will ever do is at the service of His people. At the end of the day, after the stress and anxiety and lots of practice, I can rest in the fact that I have done my best.

That is all…

…by the grace of God.

7. Why, in your opinion, is it important to have beautiful liturgies?
It’s really not hyperbolic when I say I dreamt about the Dominican Rite Mass. I did. I do. There is something quite soothing about thinking about beautiful choreography in the liturgy. If you look at the actions of the ministers in the Solemn Dominican Rite Mass, you will find a seamless expression of unity. The ministers will often move in circular motions, always staying together, rarely breaking apart. In that oneness of sacred action, you get a glimpse of the transcendental attributes of God: Beauty, perhaps? Goodness? Truth? Yes, it may seem as if I am dancing in my head, consumed by a magical world of lace, incense and chant; but the reality is clear to me: Liturgy must convey beauty in order for us to experience God. If your senses experience beauty, whether seeing or hearing it, then you are one more step closer to God.

Many thanks to Jesson Mata for his very personal and enlightening responses!

This is the second in a series of Q&As with experts in beauty, truth, and goodness. If you have suggestions for future topics or interview subjects, please email me at kbirnbaum(at)gmail(dot)com.