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.