Well, we all knew it would not be long until the next piece of papal perfervidness. It came with the pope’s no-show at a long-standing engagement in the papal diary inherited from Pope Benedict, a concert as part of the Year of Faith held at the Vatican under the auspices of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization. Playing was Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. One does not need to be a culture vulture to recognize at least one movement of the symphony.
The pope, the guest of honour, did not turn up. His non-attendance was only announced on the night. The official line from Archbishop Fisichella was that Pope Francis had an “urgent task that cannot be put off but must be dealt with at the present moment”. This, of course, only raises more questions than it settles. Some are saying it reflects his priority on simplicity and solidarity with the poor (though why these pundits think the poor are against fine music is beyond me). Some have spread word that the pope told his officials that he is not “some Renaissance prince who would listen to music when there is work to be done” – a statement that conjures up images of Nero fiddling while Rome burned – though why he would be working on Saturday night is not addressed. Fr Z wonders if the pope has taken the opportunity of having all the officials out of the house to get some off-the-record meetings in, though how this would not get back to his officials in good time is not addressed. Fr Ray Blake addresses such issues sanely.
Sandro Magister dodges the reasons, and sees an opportunity lost:
“I am not a Renaissance prince who listens to music instead of working”: this is the phrase that was put into his mouth by some of the “papists” of the curia, unaware that they were only doing him harm with this.
For Church historian Alberto Melloni, the gesture has the grandeur of “a solemn, severe peal” that confirms the innovative style of Francis.
But in reality, it has made the beginning of this pontificate even more indecipherable.
The evangelizing impulse of Pope Francis, his wanting to reach the “existential peripheries” of humanity, would in fact seem to have precisely in the language of great music a vehicle of extraordinary efficacy.
In Beethoven’s Ninth this language reaches sublime heights, makes itself comprehensible beyond all boundaries of faith, becomes a “Courtyard of the Gentiles” of incomparable evocativeness.
Benedict XVI followed his public attendance at each concert with reflections that touched the minds and hearts of those present. One year ago, after listening to none other than the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven at the theater of La Scala in Milan, pope Joseph Ratzinger concluded as follows:
“After this concert many will go to the Eucharistic Adoration, to the God who immersed himself in our suffering and continues to do so, to the God who suffers with us and for us and thus made men and women capable of sharing the suffering of the other and transforming it into love. It is precisely to this that we feel called by this concert.”
One thing I think is clear, whatever the real reason for the pope’s non attendance (and for now further speculation will prove fruitless). The Year of Faith is dead. The upcoming encyclical on Faith to be co-authored by Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict will be used by the former for other purposes: perhaps as part of a hermeneutic of continuity linking his papacy with Benedict’s; perhaps as a convenient way to get an early encyclical out and add some gravitas to a largely populist papacy.
However he has not pushed the Year of Faith at all. He honoured Benedict’s commitment as pope to lead the worldwide Eucharistic Adoration on 2 June, but only confirming it at relatively short notice (and so preventing my monastery from pursuing our original plans for a day of activities surrounding the Adoration). For some reason the Year of Faith has not featured in his papal rhetoric and agenda. It seems not to suit him or his priorities so he has been letting it die. And on Saturday night, he probably gave it the coup de grâce.
Perhaps even sadder is the fact that this concert was organised by the Council for the New Evangelization. It might not be dead, but it did suffer a humiliation: it has not enough clout to get the pope to attend one of its major events.
Pope Francis has different priorities. We had best get used to it. And pray for him.