In the past, March for Life events have been a plea for an end to abortion. This year, after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned its 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion across the country, the events are sure to be more of a celebration.
In San Francisco, the 19th annual Walk for Life West Coast will have a Nashville flavor. Chris Mueller, a musician who grew up in Music City as a parishioner of St. Henry Church, was commissioned to compose original music for a special Pro-Life Mass to be celebrated at San Francisco’s Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption at 9:30 a.m. PST, Saturday, Jan. 21.
“I am told the Walk for Life Mass is the single largest-attended liturgy at the Cathedral every year,” Mueller said. “I hope they will find it moving, beautiful, and prayerful.”
Mueller left Nashville to study music and worked for years as a freelance musician in New York City before being hired as the music director for the Church of Notre Dame in Manhattan.
“I had this idea that I would get a church job in my 50s to atone for my sins, but instead God plopped me into one when I was 27 so I wouldn’t have that extra three decades of dissipation,” said Mueller, who currently works as music director at St. Louis Bertrand Church in Louisville, Kentucky. “I got hired by the Church of Notre Dame in New York City and I’ve been working as a church musician ever since. I am glad God intervened and corrected my plans.”
Mueller wasn’t expecting to be approached for a commission of the size or importance of the Pro-Life Mass. But after working on projects with the Benedict XVI Institute for Sacred Music and Divine Worship in San Francisco, his work caught the ear of San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone. He was approached in April 2022 with an invitation to compose the music for the Pro-Life Mass, and concluded his work on the project in October.
“The opportunity came my way much to my surprise, because I wasn’t soliciting a commission,” Mueller said. “I was completely taken aback, but then very happy to do it.”
The substantial 10-movement work is centered on the texts of the feast day of St. Agnes, which is celebrated on Jan. 21, the same date the Pro-Life Mass will be premiered. Five of the movements are settings of the various proper texts from the memorial of St. Agnes.
The Mass contains multiple movements based on Gregorian chants, a mix of pieces sung a cappella, and others sung with organ accompaniment. The texts, primarily in Latin, also feature some Spanish and English. Choir students from St. Brigid Catholic School in San Francisco, supported by the addition of professional singers, will sing at the Mass.
“Archbishop Cordileone wanted the children of St. Brigid School to sing at this particular Mass as a kind of visual and audial representation of what it is we are celebrating: the beauty of the gift of new human life,” Mueller said. “And what better way to do that than having children singing and worshiping God. It is a strong symbolic gesture.
“The final movement is a post-communion meditation, which is Archbishop Cordileone‘s brainchild,” Mueller said. “This movement sets the opening lines from the book of Jeremiah, where Jeremiah is a youth in conversation with God, who says to him, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you.’ This is a great meditation for a pro-life event.
“Post-communion meditations are not part of the typical mass – they’re optional – but it is a way in which we can meditate on the theme of this event,” Mueller added. “Most of the texts of the Offertory and other propers are taken from the Mass of St. Agnes, but when we address the reality of unborn human life, it explicitly becomes a pro-life event.”
It is a great honor to be given the opportunity to compose music for a Mass like this, particularly for Mueller and his family, who have attended multiple Marches for Life in Washington, D.C., he said. They hold fast to the belief that every human life is a sacred gift from God.
The challenge for any musician approaching liturgical music is to keep God at the heart of the endeavor, and not to produce music that seeks to glorify the composer instead, according to Mueller.
“When I write music for Mass, I am trying to create something reverent and beautiful that will turn people’s hearts and minds to God,” he explained. “I’m not trying to draw attention to myself as a composer. I hope my music will help people to pray and help them to turn away from the challenges of the moment and the cares of the world, and instead be fully present at the liturgy. The word ‘sacred’ means ‘set apart,’ and so the experience of going to Mass should feel set apart from everyday experience.”
Mueller said he is grateful to Archbishop Cordileone for the opportunity to compose the Mass, and praised his work as a strong voice in the public square for Pro-Life causes.