OK, so the performing style of the Sistine Chapel Choir might not have been to everyone’s liking (judging by the Facebook comments I saw, some people had the impression they were hearing the Bayreuth chorus singing Parsifal). And whenever I hear the music for large-scale liturgical celebrations at the Vatican, I cannot help regretting that the plans of the great 19th-century French organ-builder Aristide Cavaillé-Coll to construct an instrument truly worthy of St Peter’s Basilica never came to fruition. But these musician’s pet peeves aside, there can be little doubt that with yesterday’s inauguration of Pope Francis we were witnessing history in the making.
As has been pointed out by many commentators, Cardinal Bergoglio’s choice of Papal name could not be more resonant. ‘Francis’ carries a unique spiritual cachet that commands immediate attention both inside and outside Roman Catholicism, to such an extent that the choice of the Italian saint’s name by any Cardinal designated for the Petrine office has widely been regarded as off-limits. When my own personal hero Olivier Messiaen decided to write his opera St François d’Assise (a project to which he devoted eight years of his life and a scarcely believable quantity of ink), he did so after first having wanted to write a piece on the life of Christ. Judging that his conscience would not allow him to put God the Son on stage, he opted for Francis out of the belief that he was the figure in Christian history who most clearly mirrored Jesus’s life. That is an opinion which is surely widely shared – for many, the word ‘Francis’ is a synonym for a call to Gospel poverty. For efforts towards reconciliation and peace with Islam. For a responsible theology of Creation and care for the environment. For a call to rebuild the Church.
Only time will tell whether Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s Papacy will live up to the huge expectations created by his momentous choice, but for the moment it is remarkable to see how expressions of support for his election have been coming from some surprising quarters. A recent article in Christianity Today (a magazine catering for a constituency not historically known as favourable to things Roman) entitled ‘Argentine Evangelicals Say Bergoglio as Pope Francis is ‘Answer to Our Prayers’ is a case in point. This comes as especially heartening given that it is no secret that relations between the Catholic Church and Protestants (particularly non-denominational groups) have been strained in recent years in Latin America.
For musicians, Francis of Assisi is a figure with a special pedigree. I have already mentioned Messiaen, but he is far from being the only composer to have felt an affinity with Franciscan spirituality, a tradition which dates back at least as far as Franz Liszt (although my own compositional catalogue contains no overt references to the saint as yet, I was deeply impacted by my two visits to La Verna, the site of Francis’s reception of the stigmata, where I had the privilege of giving recitals at organ festivals in 1993 and 2004).
Among living composers Sofia Gubaidulina, on whose ‘kenotic music’ I have commented elsewhere on this blog, is perhaps the most eminent musical devotee of Il Poverello, having written a large-scale Canticle of the Sun for cello, choir, percussion and celesta dedicated to Mstislav Rostropovitch. Further back in time, another well-known French example is Francis Poulenc, composer of Quatre Petites Prières de Saint François d’Assise, while Messiaen’s own interest in the saint was almost certainly influenced by that of fellow organist Charles Tournemire (1870-1939), an unjustly-neglected figure (to whom I will be returning in future posts) whose importance for the history of French twentieth-century has arguably been considerably under-estimated. Tournemire’s prolific output not only includes the massive liturgical cycle for organ (51 offices totalling 14 hours in playing time!) L’Orgue Mystique , but also eight symphonies – of which the monumental Sixth and Seventh on their own ought to be enough to secure the composer’s place in history, and several oratorios including an Il Poverello di Assisi.
Charles Tournemire, who in later life joined a lay Franciscan order, was not only a composer but a man of immense literary culture and encyclopedic interests. Interestingly, like many French Catholic intellectuals in the early decades of the last century, he was an avid reader of the writing of the radical pamphleteer and famous pauper Léon Bloy (1846-1917) (whom Tournemire considered a prophet), who was quoted by Pope Francis during his first homily on the day after his election. The new Pontiff’s improvised words have since gone viral on the internet as a possible indication of things to come from the new occupant of the Throne of Peter:
‘We can walk as much we want, we can build many things, but if we do not confess Jesus Christ, nothing will avail. We will become a compassionate NGO, but not the Church, the Bride of Christ. When one does not walk, one stalls. When one does not built on solid rocks, what happens? What happens is what happens to children on the beach when they make sandcastles: everything collapses, it is without consistency. When one does not profess Jesus Christ – I recall the phrase of Leon Bloy – “Whoever does not pray to God, prays to the devil.” When one does not profess Jesus Christ, one professes the worldliness of the devil.’
For those who know anything about Bloy’s life and writings, the new Pope’s quotation of him right at the outset of his Papacy is startling. Not least because Bloy’s reading of history and world events was indelibly stamped by his commitment to the importance of the apparitions of Jesus’s Mother to two French peasant children in the Alpine countryside at La Salette in 1846. For much academic theology today which either ignores such phenomena altogether or sees them as mere superstition, it may seem incongruous that one of France’s foremost writers should have based his life’s work on an uncomprisingly mystical view of reality. This was however clearly not a contradiction for many leading French intellectuals of the early twentieth-century including the playwright Paul Claudel, novelist Georges Bernanos, scholar of Islam Louis Massignon and Bloy’s godson, philosopher Jacques Maritain, all of whom regarded La Salette as being of prime importance.
There are signs emerging that Pope Francis may well have something in common with Léon Bloy and his intellectual progeny in terms of an openness to Christian mysticism; details have begun to surface from official Vatican sources, reported by eminent ‘Vaticanista’ Robert Moynihan, about Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s personal faith journey which stress the importance of a mystical experience at the age of 17 for his life’s vocation. Furthermore, Pope Francis has in the recent past not been afraid to associate himself with figures linked to the alleged Marian apparitions in Medjugorje currently under investigation by a Vatican commission headed by Cardinal Ruini. The notion that Cardinal Bergoglio may have shown hospitality to the Medjugorje visionaries (similar to that demonstrated by Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna) may be irritating to some, but it appears to have a basis in documented events during his time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires.
To know of this mystically Marian dimension of Pope Francis’s spirituality while also seeing that he has also had relations of unusual institutional warmth with Anglicans and is a personal friend of the famous Protestant evangelist Luis Palau strongly suggests that we are living at a historical juncture when boundaries previously thought impermeable may be breaking down. Which, at a moment in history when the universal Church has both been under attack from aggressive secularization and undermined by internal scandal, ought to be extremely good news. It is also a time at which the potentially explosive idea that God may well be communicating with us not only through ancient Scripture but through contemporary prophetic witness (and the insights of near-death experience reports, many linked to experience of religious conversion) seems to be making a comeback, of which Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s election to the Papacy may well turn out to be a part.
‘Cometh the hour, cometh the man’ ?
The views expressed on ‘Da stand das Meer’ represent the author’s private opinions, not necessarily those of any institution with which he is associated.
 A good example of the appeal of Francis of Assisi across denominational lines is the acclaimed novel Chasing Francis by Anglican Ian Morgan Cron, which includes testimonials from figures as different as Rowan Williams, Tony Campolo and Richard Rohr.
 The sales figures for books relating near-death experiences suggest that this is something of a social phenomenon. A prime example is Proof of Heaven by former Harvard Medical School neurosurgeon Eben Alexander III, who was featured in Newsweek magazine in October 2012 and who recently appeared at an NDE conference in Marseille. The latest addition to the debate about mystical perception of the ‘supernatural’ is the challenging autobiography of the Greek Orthodox author Vassula Rydén, currently in the US on a book tour, entitled Heaven is Real but So is Hell , of which you can read my review here.