onsdag 2 november 2016

Some thoughts on the Pope's visit to Sweden

I have to be careful what I commit myself to these days; I can end up having nothing to eat apart from the rice cakes and tinned mackerel which I keep with me as a standby in case the food on offer is unsuitable. Consequently I was unable to attend the Pope's visit to Malmö.

The Catholic Mass at Malmö was an afterthought. The original plans for the visit did not include anything much for the Swedish Catholics, since the visit was to commemorate 500 years of the Reformation. The Mass was held out of doors in a football stadium, which was unsuitable for an event in Sweden in November. It also involved leaving at 03.30 for a start at 09.30.

From one point of view, the liturgy, however, being substantially in Latin, really could not be faulted. The commentator was excellent and gave a detailed explanation for what non-Catholics might find difficult to understand, cued by a co-broadcaster to put the questions to her.

The choice of music was, in part, entirely suitable and familiar to everyone in the multi-national congregation: Missa de Angelis (Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus), Credo III, Mysterium fidei, Pater Noster. That was was a particularly happy choice, especially in the light of the TV commentator's explanation: that the church uses Latin as a universal and unifying language unconnected to any particular nation or ethnic group. Surprisingly, at least one priest who usually takes a strong anti-Latin stance, said afterwards how delighted he was that Latin had made it possible to celebrate the Mass together with the Pope.

Taken as a whole, on the other hand, the musical selection was weird, verging on perverse, especially in the light of what the TV commentator herself had explained about the use of Latin. There were newish pieces of poor quality, with melodies that would be more suitable as accompaniments to advertisements for margarine or cars. There were a couple of nineteenth century Anglican pieces which would have been fine for an English Choral Evensong but were out of place here. There were a couple of Lutheran hymns from the seventeenth century Swedish Empire period of Gustav II Adolf. Thus, the Proper for All Saints' Day was squeezed out. There was nothing - not even the easily sung Introit Gaudeamus omnes in Domino.

Nor were heard any of the compositions that would be expected for a visit from the Pope and which would be a useful addition to the musicians' repertoire - such as Tu es Petrus, not necessarily the well-known Palestrina setting, but others, possibly the Duruffle, Byrd or Victoria compositions.

Clearly this was unintentional, but that does not alter the fact that the overall impression was that the music was for some reason meant to be non-Catholic. The fact that there was some Latin just led to an overall sense of incoherence.

This peculiar choice was the responsibility of the diocese, where there is evidently little sense of, and feeling for, the Catholic musical tradition.

The Lund cathedral service was something else again. It was a strange, cobbled-together happening with no obvious rhyme or reason. If it had been an Anglican celebration it could have been framed as a Choral Evensong; the Swedish church apparently does not have such a thing, but it might on the other hand followed the format of Vespers, with some intercessions. As it was, the service was neither fish nor fowl and lacked coherence

Taking one thing with another, the Mass at Malmö was a memorable day for those with the stamina to attend. The Lund event, however, has produced a confused reaction all-round, especially taken in conjunction with the Pope's comments in the plane on the way home. The Swedish Catholic bishop, who appeared on television with the Lady Archbishop of Uppsala, head of the Swedish National Church, was visibly embarrassed by questions which he could not answer without causing an upset.

At best, the visit will make no lasting impression. The Lutheran church of Sweden will continue its decline, whilst the Catholics, far from the influence of Rome, can continue to try to maintain and build on Catholic tradition. But the diocese of Stockholm needs to get a grip on its music. At present, it is as if the curators of a gallery full of medieval and renaissance art treasures had locked them in the basement and put a collection of popular posters on display instead.

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