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 | Mitchell Palmquist

Rorate Coeli

St. Francis Xavier Parish rekindles an Advent tradition

“Skies, let the Just One come forth like the dew, let Him descend from the clouds like the rain. The earth will open up and give birth to our Savior.”

By candlelight, the choir processes, voices piercing a pre-dawn silence. Cross and candles, thurifer and priest; “skies, let the Just One come forth ...”

A Rorate Mass, celebrated in Latin or in English, is profound in its rarity, but also in its fittingness to the short days of Advent. The Rorate Mass takes its name from the first lines of the introit chant for the 4th Sunday in Advent. “Rorate coeli desuper … Skies, let the Just One come forth …” The Mass itself is an Advent and Marian tradition going back centuries in the Church, finding its roots in central Europe.

While the aesthetics of this Mass celebrated by candlelight—the sun rising as the Eucharistic prayer is intoned—are something to marvel at; there is also a simplicity to this Mass and a joy to this tradition. Rather than the violet vestments of Advent, the priest wears white for Mary and, as the sun rises during Mass, the symbolism of Mary’s role in bringing the light of the Son to the world is played out in the sunlight pouring into the church.

Father David Gaines, the priest administrator of St. Francis Xavier and St. Patrick parishes, was already celebrating Rorate Masses at his previous assignment in Walla Walla and decided to bring the tradition to St. Francis Xavier Parish as well. The Masses are celebrated in the ordinary form—the Mass most Catholics attend on a weekly basis, and in English with some more traditional elements present.

Just as the Earth awaits the Christmas Solstice for darkness to diminish and the days to lengthen, so, during Holy Advent, our hearts beat expectantly with the awareness that the “Sun of Justice,” the “Morning Star” (Rev. 22:16) will mystically be born again in our hearts. In this Advent preparation, for nearly a thousand years, the celebration of the Rorate Mass facing eastward towards the rising Sun, just before dawn, was a high point of the growing alertness to the approach of the great Christmas Feast.

The darkness outside the church is reflected inside the church as well. All electric lights are dimmed; candles and lanterns fill the church with a soft glow. In the darkness, the candle-bearers process to the altar and the singing begins, anticipating the birth of our Savior.

Father Gaines said he became interested in the Rorate Mass as a tradition at his first parish assignment. “Down in Walla Walla, my first assignment, many families had a great devotion to Our Lady. So I had read about Rorate Masses, and I told a couple of people about it and they were all excited about the Mass.”

This interest grew into a reality in Walla Walla, both as a way to honor Our Lady in Advent, as well as “a way to involve children in the liturgy.” In Walla Walla and now at St. Francis Xavier Parish, Father Gaines recruited children to serve at the Mass and sing in the choir for the liturgies.

The children in the choir and the servers were recruited from both parishes, as well as from some of the homeschool families in the area.

For Father Gaines, the Rorate Masses also are an opportunity to “reach into the beauty of the Sacred Liturgy.” The Second Vatican Council called for Gregorian chant to have pride of place in the musical repertoire of the Church. Father Gaines sees his efforts to use English chants, as well as some Latin, as seeking after the liturgical ideals of the Council. He said, “In my ministry I am trying to help people know of the breadth, depth, and history of our liturgy and for it to be as beautiful as possible because beauty saves, as Dostoevsky wrote in The Brothers Karamazov. Having beautiful liturgy and praying with great dignity and honor to Our Lady and Our Lord can accomplish great things in forming vocations to the priesthood and religious life.”

For Father Gaines, it not only represents an attempt to explore the Council’s vision for liturgical renewal, but it also is a personal passion. “It is also what I love,” Gaines said. “I love beautiful liturgy and I love music, especially sacred music.”

This Advent, if you are in the Spokane area early on a Saturday morning and want to venture out into the dark, head to St. Francis Xavier Parish for a Rorate Mass. The Mass is a chance to experience symbolically the meaning of Advent, the light of Christ piercing the darkness of Advent as we anticipate His light coming forth into the world on Christmas.

Rorate Masses at St. Francis Xavier

545 E. Providence Ave. Spokane, Washington

6:55 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 7;

7:00 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 14;

7:05 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 21.