Adoremus Bulletin – An Interview with Father Dennis Gill
Dec 31, 2007

Adoremus Bulletin – An Interview with Father Dennis Gill


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I wanted to do everything I could to highlight the act of Jesus in the Mass

An Interview with Father Dennis Gill

By Joseph O Brien

Managing Editor

Father Dennis Gill, the rector of the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul and head of the committees planning the liturgies
for the World Meeting of Families and Pope Francis s visit to Philadelphia in September, holds the chalice of St. John
Neumann, which the pope will use for Mass. (Sarah Webb for Catholic Philly)

When Pope Francis comes to Philadelphia, Sept. 25-27, he will meet with families from around the world at the conclusion of the World Meeting of Families. He will also be celebrating two Masses. The first will be celebrated on Sept. 26 at the Cathedral Basilica of Ss. Peter and Paul, Philadelphia, and the second on Sept. 27 on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The Mass on Saturday will be a commemoration of Our Lady, Mother of the Church, while the Sunday Mass will be the Mass celebrated on the 26th Sunday of Ordinary Time.

Organizing the liturgy for these two celebrations of the Mass has been the work of archdiocesan liturgist Father Dennis Gill who has accomplished what some might consider a superhuman feat.

Father Gill is rector and pastor of the Cathedral Basilica of Ss. Peter and Paul, the Mother Church of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, and Director of the Office for Divine Worship, for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. He was ordained a priest on May 21, 1983 for the archdiocese and served as parochial vicar at Nativity of Our Lord Parish, Warminster, Penn., and Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish, Southampton, Penn. Completing graduate studies in Sacred Liturgy at the Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C., and the Pontifical Liturgical Institute of St. Anselmo, Rome, Father Gill served as Director of Liturgy at the Pontifical North American College, Rome. He is a professor of Sacred Liturgy at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia, and lectures regularly around the country on sacred liturgy. He is the author of the book Music in Catholic Liturgy: A Pastoral and Theological Companion to Sing to the Lord, and is working on his next book, Ars Celebrandi: An Artful and Careful Celebration of the Eucharist, for Hillenbrand Books.

Adoremus Bulletin interviewed Father Gill by telephone from his home in Philadelphia to find out how he organized the two papal Masses and to find out what he learned in the process of organizing this once in a lifetime visit.

Adoremus Bulletin: When did you first hear the pope was coming?

Father Dennis Gill: I don t remember where I was, but we had a little bit of advance warning before Benedict XVI went to Milan for the last World Meeting of Families in June 2012. Archbishop [Charles J. Chaput] was there because Philadelphia was named as the next city for the World Meeting of Families .We had a little confusion here when Benedict XVI named Philadelphia as the next location. He pledged to come, but then when he resigned Pope Francis was a little slow in letting us know he was coming. I can t remember exactly when he confirmed his coming…

AB: As the Director of the Office of Divine Worship, what were your responsibilities for preparing for the papal visit?

FG: My office takes care of everything concerning the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy from beginning to end, with guidance from the Holy See, especially from Monsignor Guido Marini, Master of Pontifical Liturgical Celebrations. In early September, Monsignor Marini came to visit us to review everything and he was quite pleased with our plans from beginning to end, and with the work of the local Church. He will also be serving as Master of Ceremonies for both Masses.

AB: What sort of guidance did you receive from the Vatican in planning for the papal Masses?

FG: Early on in the planning stages, the Office of Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff sent guidelines and norms for liturgical celebrations presided by the Holy Father. It s about 11 pages, and it s rather complete in describing how to prepare sacred vessels, sacred vestments, liturgical music, and the sanctuary. It s quite detailed, and it covers everything from the responsibilities of the person in charge (that is, my duties) to how to assess the site, and looking at the place, the vestments and all other items needed for Mass. It also looks at concelebrants, servers and choir, and the preparation of texts. It was very complete in what it covered. Basically we take what s given in the missal itself and prepare what the missal describes and put these instructions from the Holy See on top of that initial layer of planning.

AB: What part did Archbishop Chaput play in the liturgical preparations?

FG: The archbishop wanted the celebrations of the Sacred Liturgy to be the most memorable occasions of the Papal Visit. He basically entrusted this task to me. I would meet with him regularly to give him an update and ask his opinion on questions. He expressed relatively few preferences overall.

AB: Is it usual for the local diocesan Church to organize the liturgy for a papal visit?

FG: Since the World Meeting of Families was scheduled to take place here in Philadelphia, it becomes a celebration of the local Church here to do that the Holy See would not be in a position to do it because they don t have people on the ground here. For me, it s the natural way to do it. It was a lot of work and I had fine people working with me, thank God.

AB: Who besides the archdiocese and the Holy See are involved in the planning process?

FG: There are three groups working together, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, the Holy See and the USCCB (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops). While we would do all the work here, we send our work off to the USCCB and the conference sends it to Monsignor Marini for him to sign off on it. The collaboration has been excellent, especially with Monsignor Marini; he has been really fantastic. Because his collaboration is so good, when he met with us, it was more a matter of review. He made very few adjustments because his instruction was very clear and we re following the General Instruction of the Roman Missal as it is supposed to be celebrated, so there are no surprises.

AB: What was the division of labor among those from the archdiocese who worked with you in the planning process?

FG: We have a planning committee which consists of two people who work on sacred music, two on furnishings and appointments, two taking care of the sacristies, two taking care of the liturgical volunteers, and two secretarial members of the committee. The committee is a good mixture of priests and lay people and I have a team of priests associated with me who are going to be masters of ceremonies for the various liturgies for the World Meeting of Families and other non-papal events. We have I d say 1,500 liturgical volunteers, ushering and greeting in various ways on various days. Then we have the liturgical minsters, servers, readers, and gift bearers.

AB: How many people do you expect at each Mass?

FG: Our cathedral holds about 1,200 and a chapel next door which holds about 500 so there will be about 2,000 faithful at the cathedral Mass. It s hard to say for the Mass on Sunday, maybe up to a million maybe less; maybe more.

AB: Did Pope Francis make any personal requests regarding the liturgical planning for the Mass?

FG: Everything was happily as we would want and expect it to be. There were no surprises, nothing unusual. In fact I was pleased with just the opposite. It was a clear presentation of the liturgy as the Church describes it, both for the cathedral and for the Mass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

AB: How will the music be provided at these two Masses?

FG: Both celebrations will be stational [normative] Masses with a full complement of concelebrants. At the same time, the music for both occasions will be a little fuller than usual. The Mass on Saturday will be sung with a 100-voice archdiocesan choir and on Sunday it will be sung with a 500 voice choir (which we put together for this occasion) [with accompaniment by the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra].

AB: Besides the universal language of music present at the Mass, what other languages will be used?

FG: What s interesting is that the Creed will be sung in Latin at the Sunday Mass on the Parkway. It s an international occasion and Latin is the international language of the Church; it just seems right .The Eucharistic Prayer will also be prayed in Latin, while the two largest groups of people coming beside English speaking people are Spanish and Vietnamese. So one scriptural reading will be in Spanish and one will be in Vietnamese.

AB: Why did you choose the particular locations the cathedral and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway for the two papal Masses?

FG: The Mass on Saturday was specifically designated a Mass for the local Church, and since it is for the local Church, it should be in the cathedral, the Mother Church of the archdiocese. And the Mass on Sunday is on the Parkway in part because in 1979 when John Paul II came to Philadelphia we celebrated on the Parkway as well although at the other end of the parkway. For John Paul II s celebration of the Mass, the altar area was directly in front of the cathedral, but this time the altar area is in front of [the Philadelphia Museum of Art]. The location is central, it can accommodate a lot of the people, and it lends it self to a beautiful setting for a Mass outdoors.

AB: Did you learn anything about how to prepare Philadelphia for a papal visit from Pope John Paul II s visit to Philadelphia in October 1979?

FG: I happened to see the notes from the previous visit, and for the visit of Pope Francis, things are more detailed, clearer and more specified for such a huge event. I can see from the development of the notes from when John Paul II was here to these notes with Pope Francis s visit, that the Holy See has learned what works best in these large scale celebrations. That s why in 1979 the notes are rather sparse but in 2015 they re rather complete.

AB: I imagine you will have quite a treasure trove of details and notes for the next papal visit to the City of Brotherly Love

FG: Our plan book is about 400 pages so the next person who is in my position when a pope comes to visit might not be able to use it but they re welcomed to it.

AB: What insights did you discover in the planning process?

FG: I was reminded over and over again in my preparations that this was the Mass, and the Mass has a certain stability regardless of the place or circumstance of the celebration. That was the context and guiding point. It was a challenge though, because we had to constantly keep in mind that we have a very unusual celebrant at the Mass and a very large congregation. Even though the pope is celebrant and several hundred thousand perhaps even a million people attending, the order of Mass is going to be the same if the Mass is celebrated by me tomorrow or a couple Sundays from now, when the pope celebrates it. That was a happy thing to be reminded of, because it allows the faith to stand out. These two celebrations of the Mass are not so much a celebration of a personality or an event but of the Catholic faith.

AB: What talents and skills did you bring to the planning process?

FG: One of the gifts I have, people mention this to me, is that I m a highly organized person. You need that type of organization to pull something like this off, and I m usually collaborative too. Those two things organization and collaboration working together have helped me bring together a nice coterie of people who have worked well together. So here we are in early September and we can say we re in good shape with our liturgical celebrations for the World Meeting of Families and for the papal Masses. There are still many things to do but the bulk of the work is done and we just have to live with the anxiety of these next two weeks

AB: Did you feel prepared for the job or did you find that there was some on the job training?

FG: The entire process was on the job training! [Laughter] I don t see how anything can prepare you for this it s a once in a lifetime event, and so you have to pool your resources and collaborate with assigned people to make it happened. This isn t the type of thing that could have provided much in the way of advanced training.

AB: Had you ever worked on a project this large before?

FG: I had the good fortune of working on two of the jubilee events in Rome with [the late] Cardinal John Patrick Foley, [President of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications (1984-2007)], the Jubilee for Journalists [June 4, 2000] and the Jubilee for the Entertainment World [Dec. 17, 2000]. They were very large events, not as large as this, but they required a great deal of organization with a great number of people. I was in Rome for ten years so I had those two opportunities during the Jubilee Year . You learn that after a while an event attended by a hundred thousand people and one attended by a million become the same if you organize them well.

AB: With such a large congregation, how will you safeguard the Blessed Sacrament against abuse and desecration during the distribution of Communion?

FG: The order of the procession and the training by instruction of the priests and deacons distributing Communion will facilitate a very reverent and careful distribution of the Body and Blood of our Lord. At Communion, the deacons and priests will be accompanied by ushers who will each be carrying a yellow and white umbrella, and they will lead the priests and deacons to the Communion stations. The priests and deacons will also have received instructions as to the proper distribution. We re hoping to have up to a thousand clergy distributing Holy Communion (and we won t have extraordinary ministers because we ll obviously have sufficient priests and deacons). The clergy have been instructed not to distribute more than one host per person and have been given other precautions like that, so that Holy Communion as much as possible will be guaranteed to be a very reverent distribution of the Body and Blood of the Lord. We have been working very hard on this and answering letters from people who have the same concern. There should be a very reverent and careful distribution of communion there must be.

AB: Will there be indulgences provided for those who attend these papal Masses?

FG: While it hasn t arrived yet, we do expect indulgences to be provided. Typically, there is an indulgence in participating in an international liturgical event like this one with the proper features of the indulgence in place, such as no attachment to sin, praying for the Holy Father, and receiving Communion and the sacrament of penance within the framework of the event. The indulgence comes by participation in the World Meeting of Families and under the usual conditions, but we re waiting for an official announcement of the indulgence. It usually comes a week or two before the event.

AB: Why are indulgences such an important part of these two papal Masses?

FG: Indulgences are provided so that people might benefit from this particular work of the Church in terms of their own salvation and the souls in purgatory. Like every good work of the Church, it has an effect outside of ourselves and also for ourselves into the next life. It s another way of demonstrating that this is an ecclesial event that has a real impact on our Christian lives and obtaining the promise of heaven.

AB: What has been the most rewarding aspect of the planning process?

FG: Working with people so committed to the celebration of the sacred liturgy. I ve really enjoyed that. I m someone who is passionate about the liturgy and its authentic celebration and when all of a sudden you run into another person with the same zeal, it s very encouraging. Sometimes you think you re alone.

AB: And the most challenging?

FG: The most challenging aspect has been keeping the focus on Christ.

AB: What sort of advice would you give your counterpart in another diocese about preparation for a visit from the pope?

FG: There are three things you need to have in place. The first is faith. This Mass has to be an event of faith. It could very easily become just a very large event, but it s more than that. It s the coming together of Catholics for a reason, to reflect on the Christian family, what it is and its renewal. So faith is a very important point and it needs to be at the beginning and end of everything that is going to be done. Second, there needs to be excellent communication among everyone who is involved. Third, there has also has got to be great organization.

AB: How is this event of faith also an opportunity for catechesis and evangelization?

FG: All the work we re doing reminds me that there s still so much more to do as far as helping people understand the Eucharist, what the Mass is, and how everything is directed toward it and flows from it. We say that about the Eucharist (and people in general don t have a felt sense of the Eucharist in that way) and I found that understanding of the Mass necessary in planning and preparing for such a large Eucharist. For many Catholics in general, there s a superficial understanding of the Mass. In preparing for the Holy Eucharist on both these occasions, I wanted to do everything I could to highlight the Mass, the Eucharistic prayer, the act of Jesus in the Mass, for Catholics and in a sense for non-Catholics, but especially for Catholics.

AB: How does the liturgy these two papal Masses differ from everything else accompanying the pope s visit later this month?

FG: There are so many parts of this visit that are wonderful, exciting and enjoyable, but the liturgy is the only event that has a divine power within it and is associated with it. The Mass is the event of our Lord s death and resurrection, and that is why the role of the liturgy is so significant, for any event, really. I do get a little annoyed that there s so much papolotry going on everything is about the pope. But it s not. We love and respect the pope, but the pope is not the Savior. I find that hard to get across to some people sometimes. It s great that he s coming; he s the Vicar of Christ and the Successor of Peter, but what he s celebrating on that Sunday a few weeks from now, we celebrate on the altar as well this Sunday, next Sunday and every other Sunday of the year everywhere throughout the world namely, Christ

Joseph O'Brien

Joseph O’Brien lives on a homestead with his wife Cecilia and their nine children in rural southwestern Wisconsin. He is Managing Editor of Adoremus Bulletin, a correspondent for the Catholic Business journal, and poetry editor and cocktail reviewer for The San Diego Reader. He has a BA (1995) and MA (2004) in English from University of Dallas, Irving, TX.