Sunday, 3 October 2010


Last post, I wrote about Bernie’s trip to London to see the Holy Father, and the huge impact that has had on her. One of the things she always mentions is the beauty of the music at the Mass in Westminster Cathedral. The Cathedral has a fine choir, and they sang Byrd’s five part Mass. This is an early polyphonic Mass written in the late 16th century when Catholics were still being persecuted in England. It is indeed stunningly beautiful – and it reminds me powerfully of one of the reasons I kept my Faith as teenager.

I was lucky enough to sing in a good Catholic choir: we didn’t sing the Byrd 5-part Mass very often, but the 4-part Mass was a regular part of our repertoire. We also sang great masses and motets by Tallis, Gibbon and others of that period, as well as music from very century since – and indeed some chant, from the preceding centuries. We also sang three or four hymns every Sunday, of varying quality, from truly wonderful to fairly dire.

But what all this means is that there is a permanent soundtrack to my life, in the background, as it were, of fantastic music. And the words associated with that music are the words of the Mass and various passages of scripture used as motets.

So I’ll be walking along, and a tune will come into my head, and almost without noticing it, I will be singing a prayer. It might be Kyrie eleison, or it might be Praise to the Holiest in the Height. But surprisingly often, it is incredibly apt for the moment, either what is going on, or what I am thinking, feeling or worrying about…

It also means that I have in my memory a huge amount of scripture: not because I’ve been made to learn it by rote, but because the best way to learn words (for me, at least) is to attach them to a tune.

Our kids haven’t had the opportunity to join such a choir as there isn’t one locally, but I have tried to give this gift to them in a couple of ways. One is to get them singing the plainchant at the local Cathedral’s Extraordinary Form Mass once a month. In that way, they know the words of the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Pater Noster, and Agnus Dei. It is in fact one of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council that we should all know these in Latin (except the Kyrie, of course, which is Greek!) And I haven’t had to make them learn them off by heart: simply by singing it regularly, they have learned them – and will probably never forget them.

The other thing we do is to sing at home: and this links to a post I wrote a few weeks ago. We try to sing something that relates to the season of the Church’s year. So at Easter, we sing the Regina Caeli and a few favourite Easter Hymns. During Advent, we always sing O Come O Come Emmanuel as part of our Advent Wreath ceremony at prayer time. Christmas, of course, is celebrated with Carols, and Pentecost with the Veni Creator. One of the lovely effects of that is that when they are confirmed, they recognise and can join in with the great chant of the Church, just as when they sang the Credo in Westminster Cathedral, Bernie felt truly at home amongst thousands of strangers.

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