Friday, 19 June 2009

An Open Letter to Cardinal O'Brien

This was published in the Scottish Catholic Observer, 19 June 2009


Choirs and, and most especially, their choirmasters are the unsung heroes of the Catholic Church.

I recall 1964, the year in which I celebrated my twelfth birthday, as a series of red letter days, a truly marvellous year. And the marvellocity really began a couple of weeks before my birthday when I sang as a soprano at midnight Mass on Easter Sunday, March 29, in the choir of Our Lady of Good Aid Cathedral, Motherwell, then directed by Fr, now Canon, Kieran O’Farrell.

On Easter Monday morning, the boys of the choir, augmented by a group of basses and tenors recruited from Our Lady’s High School Senior Choir, went to London to take part in a concert in Westminster Cathedral organised by the British section of Pueri Cantores, the organisation of Boys’ Choirs of the Catholic Cathedrals. Well, some of them.

I don’t know if it is true, but I would like to think that the success of that concert, and the publicity it generated, contributed early in the year following to the International Federation of Pueri Cantores being erected as “a moral person”, that is an officially recognised foundation within the Catholic Church, by a decree of Clemente Cardinal Micara, the Pope’s Vicar General for the Diocese of Rome, dated January 25, 1965.

That I have remained true to the Faith gifted to me by my parents ― albeit I am a Catholic much in need of practice ― is in no small measure due to those disciplined but very happy hours spent every week over several years in the organ loft of the Cathedral; and the many more hours necessarily spent in the rehearsal room in St Bride’s Hall.

Are you aware, Eminence, that next year, on March 2, we will celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Scotland’s Papal Patron: Vincenzo Gioacchino Raffaele Luigi Pecci, Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903)? Do you recall that that good man’s very first official act, on the morning of Monday, March 4, 1878, the day following his coronation, was to issue the Apostolic Letter Ex supremo Apostolatus apice?

Addressed to his Venerable and Dear Brothers in Christ, the Bishops of Scotland on their Ad Limina Visit, in that letter Leo wrote in part: “What, therefore, our predecessor (Pope Pius IX) was hindered by death from bringing to a conclusion, God, who is plentiful in mercy and glorious in all his works has granted us to effect, so that we might, as it were, inaugurate with a happy omen our Pontificate, which in these calamitous times we have received with trembling.”

That “happy omen” was, of course, the restoration of our Scottish Catholic Episcopal Hierarchy of which you, Eminence, are now President.

No sooner had Papa Pecci set to his apostolic work than he started to receive earnest entreaties from a very large number of the members of the Sacred College of Cardinals acting jointly, severally and together. Strangely, they were not seeking favours for themselves, or, for this much loved nephew, or, for that old friend. No, what they all wanted was for the Pope to do something that would give himself great pleasure, but which his sense of propriety would not normally have allowed him to countenance.

They all wanted the new Pope to make his older brother a Cardinal.

And so humbly accepting the counsel of his cardinals, on May 12, 1879, at his first consistory, Pope Leo XIII raised his big brother, Giuseppe, to the cardinalatial dignity. He was number 7 in that first list of triskaidekaleonine cardinals (next, at number 8, was the soon-to-be Blessed and Doctor of the Church, John Henry Cardinal Newman, patron of the High School my four children attended here in Bellshill).

Papa Pecci went on to create a total of 147 cardinals. The Popes of the 20th century would add another 640 and our present Holy Father 38 so far. (As you may well know, Eminence, I think there may be seven more cardinal electors named in November.) 818 cardinals after his nomination, Giuseppe Pecci remains the last member of a Pope’s family to be created cardinal.

However, unlike some who preceded him, Fr Giuseppe Pecci SJ entirely deserved his elevation. Not only was he the leading Thomistic theologian of his day, it was also as a direct result of his work that the Code of Canon Law promulgated in 1917 made a study of the works of St Thomas Aquinas, the Angelic Doctor, an absolute requirement in the preparation for the priesthood. (This may very well be the sole example in ecclesiastical history of a Jesuit helping out God’s Dogs, the Dominicans.)

Of course, since the days of Leo XIII and his brother the Sacred College of Cardinals has undergone some significant changes.

Firstly, at Good Pope John’s first consistory (December 15, 1958) the limit of 70 cardinals, in place for almost 400 years, was breached. Next, Paul VI removed the right to vote in conclave from those cardinals who had attained their 80th birthday. He subsequently limited the size of the College of Cardinal Electors to 120. Finally, John Paul II’s second consistory saw the introduction of the practice of appointing to the cardinalatial dignity priests or prelates who had already attained their 80th birthday and who therefore could not vote in a conclave.

Of course, many observers regard these elevations of venerably aged clerics as being for purely honorific purposes. However, Eminence, as you are in a better position than most to realise, this is far from being the case. Apart from becoming trusted papal counsellors who can, for example, take an active part in all the proceedings leading up to the cry of “extra omnes” at a conclave, the appointment of each of these particularly distinguished cardinals always sends out a message “pour encourager les autres”. But in the nicest possible way!

To see who the others needing encouragement are, one needs to look at the background of those already honoured in this way. Some are hard to categorise and many fit into several categories: eight were Jesuits, two Dominicans and one a Franciscan; two were Patriarchs of Eastern Rite Churches; three had suffered imprisonment for the faith and another three the next best thing, they were former Nuncios; four were exceptional archbishops emeritus of outstanding pastoral zeal; another three were Rectors of Pontifical educational institutes in Rome, and; six were eminent theologians. One, Gustaaf Canon Joos, judicial vicar of the Belgian Diocese of Ghent, seems to have been honoured simply as a close personal friend of Pope John Paul himself.

None was honoured for his commitment to sacred music. And sacred music, as you well know Eminence, is dear to Pope Benedict’s heart. He recently said of one particular work and its performance: “In it we can say that music truly becomes prayer, an abandonment of the heart to God with a profound sense of peace.”

Choirs, and most especially Cathedral choirs, the world over strive to make “music truly become prayer”. Is that really and truly any less worthy of recognition than academic excellence in theology or philosophy or canon law or patristic studies or exegesis or sacred liturgy? And yet all of these are lauded amongst those twenty-seven distinguished venerably aged priests and prelates who have already been honoured with “the majesty of the Roman purple”.

Since you are, Eminence, Cardinal Archbishop in those wee bits hill and glen which should forever and honourably be most closely associated with Pope Leo XIII, I ask you to invite your Eminent Brothers in the Sacred College of Cardinals to mark the forthcoming bicentenary of the birth of that great and good man by petitioning the Holy Father to name cardinal his brother, Monsignor Georg Ratzinger, in recognition of his magnificent contribution to sacred music as chorus master of the Cathedral Choir of St Peter’s, Regensburg, for just over thirty years from February 1964.

That choir is reckoned to be the oldest in Christendom, having celebrated its millennium in 1976 when Msgr Georg was named an Honorary Prelate by Pope John Paul II (who in 1994 advanced him to Protonotary Apostolic).

Under Monsignor Georg’s direction, this world-renowned member choir of Pueri Cantores recorded numerous masterpieces: Bach’s Christmas Oratorio and his Motettes and Sch├╝tz’s Psalms of David to name but three classics. Every year they toured Germany and they also undertook international concert tours to, amongst others: the USA, Canada, Japan, Taiwan, Poland, Hungary and Ireland. Needless to say they also sang in the Vatican.

I only got to perform in Westminster Cathedral. But most choir members don’t even get that far. A red hat for Msgr Georg Ratzinger will make all of our sacrifices seem that much more worthwhile. I hope and believe the Very Reverend Kieran Canon O’Farrell would agree.

And like Giuseppe Pecci, Georg Ratzinger entirely deserves it. Irrespective of who his wee brother is!