Candle-lit memories

02 November 2006

BRAVO TO BBC1 for broadcasting the mass for Pope John Paul II last Sunday morning, live from Westminster Cathedral.

It will be interesting to see the viewing figures. This broadcast was an immediate response to a religious event, and shows that a proper, formal liturgy proves attractive to a significant audience, for whose existence I have long and urgently argued.

Later that day, Westminster Cathedral again provided the location for a special Songs of Praise (BBC1), which replaced the scheduled episode. This compilation, in which the music was interspersed with archive material recounting the Pontiff’s life and tributes, had its heart firmly in the right place. Unfortunately, it displayed all the regular failings of Songs of Praise.

There seemed to be no appreciation of the qualities of the Westminster choir or its mastery of the greatest repertoire of Christian music. Getting the choir to sing Nonconformist hymns is a waste of talent. Having Aled Jones sing “Lead, kindly Light”, surrounded by candles and flowers in a side chapel, and accompanied by sentimental orchestration, was an insult to the home team.

The choir was allowed one item in which its quality shone through. It was billed as “Kyrie” by Victoria. We were not told which Kyrie (he wrote several), nor which Victoria (our late, beloved Queen perhaps?), nor even what the words meant.

Here, at last, was music that cut to the heart: astringent, deeply passionate, and offering a path to God that involves the head as well as the heart. But the effect was again reduced by a veritable carpet of candles. Does the director think that unless the screen looks like a sentimental Christmas card, the audience will not consider it authentically religious?

The BBC’s Religion and Ethics department redeemed itself later that evening with a splendid Everyman tribute, Pope John Paul II (BBC1, again). Well chosen archive footage gave us a remarkable biography. A range of commentators offered insights and analysis of the Pope’s achievements and significance. Most impressively, the programme found the right balance between respect, admiration and love for this outstanding figure, while questioning some of his convictions.


We felt anew his radical kindliness, warmth, approachability, and ability to create excitement wherever he went. We were firmly reminded just how astonishing was his achievement in the dismantling of Communism. No other pope has galvanised huge meetings of young people or workers, or transformed relationships with Jewry, or formally apologised for the sins of the Church in times past, or sought to engage with other faiths.

But we saw also his dismissal of liberation theology; his intransigence on issues of sexual morality; his failure to grasp the depth of the paedophile clergy scandals; and his insistence on a centralised Church.

We were reminded that, since he lost his mother in childhood, his exaltation of the importance of women was more romantic than experienced. Cristina Odone commented wisely (words I never expected to find myself writing) that John Paul II’s pronouncements about women, while supportive to the poor of the developing world, sound condescending to those in the West.

It was a great programme: inspiring, moving, and thought-provoking.

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