Page 10, 15th September 1978

15th September 1978
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Page 10, 15th September 1978 — Dying speech on Church music P r/
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Dying speech on Church music P r/

Charterhouse Chronicle

By John Harriott

AS EVERYONE KNOWS, to be a Catholic is a blessing, but to be a musical Catholic is a curse. And the only argumenf in favour of public executions is that without them we are robbed of the tremendous orations so many condemned men made from the scaffold, as if they were allowed to leave behind a last gift of concentrated wisdom to compensate for a life cut short.

If this seems a serious nonsequitur, you do not know of Major Daniel Davel whose story is told in Scholes' "Dictionary of Music". He led an insurrection in the 18th century to liberate the Pays de Vaud from the Bernesc Braille. He was caught and sentenced to death by beheading.

He led his own funeral procession from the town to the scaffold and then launched into a spirited dying speech on, of all subjects, Church Music. His remarks were addressed to Calvinist Church students, but they deserve a wider audience.

"As concerns the praise of God", he said, "in what manner is it sung? Is there any sense in orderliness, anything whatever calculated to excite and sustain the devotion?

"Yet this part of the Divine Service is one of the most considerable and the one by which is the most effectively demonstrated the lifting up of our heats to God...

"Such being the importance of this part of Christian worship, I cannot too much emphasise my exhortation to you to give it a new and serious attention, in order to correct the faults of which you are are present guilty...

"You take no pains to learn music, which is so necessary for the singing of God's praises. The songs of the Church form an essential part of divine worship, and have an infinite value in helping us to lift our hearts to God.

"I pray you, then, to apply yourselves with all possible zeal to your preparation for the holy ministry".

After some further words on the quality of sermons, uttered like a true Christian but which I shall tactfully pass over, the gallant major then shook hands all round and put his head on the block.

And, putting my own in the same place, I cannot help thinking that this noble address should be posted in the porch of every parish church except half-adozen whose names can only be circulated in a plain brown envelope.

My impression after wide and much painful experience, is that "Kumbiyah" (or "Coom by Ah?") has now succeeded "Soul of my Saviour" as the only hymn that every Catholic knows; and that a self-denying ordinance should be adopted for at least 10 years. which should be just long enough for a second tune to be learned.

Perhaps the forthcoming National Pastoral Congress will decree that no one can be ordained who has no music in his soul, however gifted he may be for treason. stratagems and spoils; or the new Canon Law slip in a clause . making choirmasters independent of their parish priests.

Drastic action is needed if British Catholics are not to find themselves in paradise. tucked in behind Salvation Army bands, chanting Methodists, Mormon Tabernacle choirs, Irish harpists and the boys of King's College, Cambridge, as a kind of noises off.

Meanwhile where is there a publisher willing to issue a collection of Great Speeches from the Scaffold? There must be other fine stuff like this.

Surprise in a car park

I CALLED in the other day at an olde English cricket ground in an olde English village to watch what I took to be two olde English village teams facing up to each other.

During a lull in the hostilities I noticed to my surpise that in the adjoining car park all the cars were of 'British manufacture, instead of the now familiar job-lot ofJapanese, French and Italian.

I was just thinking what fine upstanding patriots village cricketers must be, and wiping a sentimental tear from my eye, when I asked the wife of one of the players who the teams were. "British Leyland", she said, "and one of their suppliers".

Catholics in confinement

IN THIS WORLD of continual change and vanishing landmarks, it quite cheered me up to see that the summer issue of the New Humanist was going on again about the number of Catholics in Her Majesty's prisons.

Such signs of continuity and attachment to the old ways are reassuring, except perhaps, for humanists who believe that humanism is ripe for renewal, ought to be opening up a dialogue with the contemporary world, should be watching out for the signs of the times, and all that.

But we Catholics must feel some sympathy for those who find it impossible to give up the rituals and incantations of a lifetime. My own experience during a brief pastoral stint in a Borstal was that there were rather more Catholics on the books than had, so to speak, passed through the font.

On close inspection, a number of communicants turned out to be strays from other shepherds' folds, though all the shepherds took a latitudinarian view of these matters, and none seemed to feel that any great harm would come to their sheep if they chose to graze elsewhere.

But being a Catholic while in prison had some mysterious attraction and cachet, though I could never detect any material benefit attaching to it — like being excused church parades in yesterday's Army. It just made one a mite suspicious of statistics.

This is not to say that born and bred Catholics were in short supply in Borstal. Sometimes they seemed to be better Catholics than burglars. I remember a Sunday morning when the Catholics paraded for Mass only to discover that the cleaners had walked off with the keys.

I looked along the serried ranks and, thinking of the accumulation of special skills they represented, asked if any of the experts present would step forward and effect an entry.

There was no lack of volunteers, but the successful applicant, far from producing picklocks from a false heel or performing miracles with a piece of plastic, simply stood on the shoulders of an assistant and kicked in the sacristy window. In no time the congregation was seated in the pews.

But then there was another hitch. The metal cupboard containing the Mass vessels and vestments was found to be locked.

This time at least a dozen practised cracksmen tackled the job but not one of them found a way in, and the whole assembly had to be stood down until later in the day. after I had suitably rebuked them as a disgrace to their profession.

Perhaps the New Humanist could ring the changes on an old theme by discussing whether Catholics, though delinquent, are harmlessly delinquent, and whether humanist delinquents stay out of prison because, being trained in principles of strict logic, they are better at their job.

It was in this same Borstal that we had a regular evening Mass. A sizeable congregation often attended, of which at least half simultaneously acted as altarboys.

At times, for instance when a Liverpool match was being televised, the congregation would melt away, except for one faithful youth who never missed though all about were fled. Let us call him, for discretion's sake, Tommy.

Tommy's devotion impressed me deeply and I had mentally canonised him along with Aloysius Gonzaga and Stanislaus Kostka. One evening I walked into the sacristy to find all the altar-boys knocking the daylights out of each other, with special attention being paid to the boy saint.

"What's up?I asked. A former Irish Guardsman sprang smartly to attention and said in accents of purest Scouse: "It's Tommy he says the only true religion is the Jews".

Tommy, 1 discovered, had been taught by a nun, who, obviously as an antidote to antisemitism, had stressed that Christ and Our Lady and the whole College of Apostles were Jews. Tommy had drawn his own conclusions. But these subtleties and pitfalls of religious education escape the New Humanist, more's the pity.

Pig Knee Dolly and Bd Joe

ENGLISHMEN notoriously have trouble winding their tongues round foreign languages — and if the radio is anything to go by quite a bit of trouble with their own. (My prize goes to the scientist being interviewed on television who said: "This is true in the mouse situation".)

I suspect that Henry V is one of the most popular English kings not just for his victories in battle but for admitting, at least through Shakespeare, that he couldn't get the hang of French.

During the recent papal elections this disability gradually wove a sub-plot that could have been the joint handiwork of Damon Runyan and Ian Fleming.

It began to sound like an international underworld power struggle, with Pig Knee Dolly, who must have had a nasty accident in a gangfight, squaring up to his chief rival, Bad Joe.

Other characters included Otto Vianney (perhaps from Alsace?), retired but still possess ing a legendary reputation, and two wholesome-sounding Englishmen, Bert Oley and Benny Lee, though the latter sounded a truly formidable figure, which is hardly surprising, for everyone called Benny seems to be either a jazz musician or a mobster, or both.

At a stretch, Peer Ronyo could have been another Englishman, though T doubt if he would appear in Burke. The only Irishman, O'Fee, had spent most of his life in the Middle East, which suggests a sinister connection, but far more sinister were the three Chinese, perhaps leaders of Rongs or Triads, Felly Chee, See Ree and Sin.

They were not running for office but simply conspiring away like made in the shadows. Even more shadowy were two mysterious female characters who were not at all in contention but were thought to carry a lot of weight, Donna Roopay and Ma C hink us.

It was quite a relief when at a puff of white smoke, Ladbroke's drowned their book, and this whole cast of fantastic apparitions faded from view.

Belloc quoting Chesterton

NOSTALGIA is in, history is out. Few religious or political discussion these days have much historical perspective, as if every problem arrived on our doorsteps as fresh as the daily milk.

Of course few-of them do, and it can be reassuring to step mentally into the past and contrast what was expected to happen with what actually did.

Church historians have often pointed out that the Church has sailed through many apparently disastrous storms with only a couple of torn sails and a few sprung planks to show for it.

The other day I came across a slightly different version of the argument in Belloc's essay "On the Place of Gilbert Chesterton in English Letters" out of print. I think, in Britain, but re-issued by the Patmos Press in the United States.

He quotes Chesterton's essay on "Why I Am a Catholic" where the great man argues: "When a hammer has hit the right nail on the head a hundred times, there comes a time when we think it was not altogether an accident".

The great heresies, he remarks, would be condemned by common sense, even outside the Church, "once the mood and mania of them is passed".

He goes on: "Nobody wants to revive the Divine Right of Kings which the first Anglicans advanced against the Pope. Nobody now wants to revive the Calvinism which the first Puritans advanaced against the King.

"Nobody is now sorry that the Iconoclasts were prevented from smashing all the statues of Italy. Nobody now is sorry that the Jansenists failed to destroy all the dramas of France" — and so on.

Perhaps Chesterton does less than justice to some of the great heresies, and nowadays we may rightly cringe at the way they were dealt with, but the main thrust of the argument, it seems to me, is true and impressive.

I find myself wondering whether this is not what infallibility is really about — not the sometimes rum ecclesiastical judgments on the minutiae of daily life which send Catholics into a_tizzy, but a kind of divinely infused commonsense that serves humanity like a ship's stabilisers.

So that though on smaller issues and in the short term the Church veers about in a rather alarming fashion, on the big issues after the storms have died down she can be seen riding smack in the middle of the sealane of sanity — like the amiable Chesterton himself, despite his unfashionable paradoxes, so galling to the doctrinaire.

John Harriott contributes the Periscope column for The Talslet. Patrick O'Donovan is on holiday.




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