One of the highlights of my life was the summer of 1969 when I spent six weeks working in a rural parish in eastern Kentucky, USA, with a great priest, Fr Ralph Beiting, now in his 80s and still a parish priest..
Father Beiting had two great gifts, the ability to inspire young people and the ability to organize them. Every summer he’d have college students, and some high school students, from many states to be part of his summer projects. These included Bible classes for kids, summer camps for poor children, house-to-house visitation, and street-preaching. There were very few Catholics in the four towns and wide rural area under his care and that of his two assistants. There were still the remnants of anti-Catholicism to the extent that when he built a church in Mount Vernon, he had some clear windows stretching from the floor to the roof so that people could see that Catholics didn’t have cloven hooves, horns or tails and didn’t sacrifice children.
Yet most of the people were poor, read the Bible and were friendly. Nearly all welcomed the visitors from the Catholic Church to their doorsteps. We always went in pairs. We told them who we were and what the Church was doing and took it up from there. Over the years Father Beiting had helped break down many barriers.
At one of the summer camps, Cliffview, there was a little jetty that needed to be repaired. Two middle-aged carpenters who always addressed each other as ‘Mister’ did the job. They clearly took pride in their work. One of them was a Mister Brickie. He told me how he had found his way to the Catholic Church.
He had believed all the stories about cloven hooves and so on. And he lived in an area where classical music was rarely heard on the local radio stations. They played mostly country-and-western music. Yet he somehow developed an interest in Haydn and Mozart in particular. He found the music of both extraordinarily beautiful. Then, to his astonishment, he discovered that they were both Catholics. Haydn was a particularly devout Catholic all his life. Mr Brickie figured that if Catholics could produce such beautiful music they couldn’t be what he thought they were.
Mozart’s music is still serving God’s people. Zenit.org reports today on the Mozart concert given yesterday in the Vatican for Pope Benedict by Chinese musicians and singers, the Chinese Philharmonic Orchestra and the Shanghai Opera House Chorus.
Afterwards Pope Benedict noted, 'There is another aspect that I wish to emphasize. I note with pleasure the interest shown by your orchestra and choir in European religious music. This shows that it is possible, in different cultural settings, to enjoy and appreciate sublime manifestations of the spirit such as Mozart's Requiem which we have just heard, precisely because music expresses universal human sentiments, including the religious sentiment, which transcends the boundaries of every individual culture'.
Clearly this concert is part of the ongoing dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Chinese authorities, a variation on the ‘ping-pong diplomacy’ that preceded the USA’s recognition of the people’s Republic of China in the time of President Nixon.
But it is the beauty of Mozart’s music that is the key. Real beauty, in whatever form, ultimately comes from God and leads to God. And maybe it’s no coincidence that Mozart was from Salzburg, Austria, the most beautiful city I have ever visited. I was there exactly twenty years ago when it was spring, not yet hot but not cold, the sun shining but the snow still on the surrounding mountain-tops. The movie version of The Sound of Music was shot largely in that area.
The late Swiss Protestant theologian Karl Barth once said, ‘It may be that when the angels go about their task praising God, they play only Bach. I am sure, however, that when they are together en famille they play Mozart.’
Until Sunday you may be able to listen to this: Aled Jones presents music written to honour Mary, mother of Jesus. With works including a Regina coeli by Mozart and a Stabat mater by Nystedt and a Magnificat by Monteverdi. Go here and under 'Listen Again, A-Z of All Shows', click on 'The Choir'. I haven't been able to make a direct link with this programme.
And, probably till Saturday only, you may find ‘Music for Ascension Day: Catherine Bott presents a programme of music associated with Ascension Day, which includes works by Dufay, Biber, Rosenmuller and Gibbons’.