Learning about the Holy See from outside: Resilience and the Power of Music
A holiday always provides a useful opportunity for a diplomat to look at his posting from a different perspective. My leave away from Rome this August has been no exception. While Pope Francis has been working hard in Rome and Brazil, I have been in Slovakia, and on 15 August I visited the Slovak pilgrimage site of Marianka near Bratislava.
The occasion was a music festival for young artists from across Central Europe (www.cefmac.eu), enjoying the extraordinary tranquillity of the Marianka site to improve their technique at masterclasses, perform to local audiences, and play together away from the hothouse atmosphere of conservatory and concert hall.
My own visit helped me better to understand two aspects of the role of the global church.
The first is its staying power. We all like to predict trends and tendencies. Religion is out in secular Europe, many believe. The Catholic Church is a declining force. Yet Marianka’s quiet resilience down the ages reminds us that to understand such an institution, we need to take the long view. The Pauline monastery of Marianka was shut down in 1786 by the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II as he sought to rationalise the church across his domains. It bounced back from that. Again, in 1950, the religious congregation running the shrine was abolished and scattered by the Czechoslovak Communist authorities. Yet as I look around the site now, there are all the signs of recovery. Workmen are renovating the monastery church and statuary in the valley. Pilgrims quietly follow their trail. Young musicians fill the halls with sound, as the religious Fathers go about their devotions. Temporary problems can rock the Holy See. But it draws deeply on a profound history of resilience and a powerful survival instinct.
The music itself provided the second lesson. Although it might be possible to try to write a history of western music without reference to the Christian faith, a great deal would be left out! Most of the great composers of the musical canon – at least before the mid 19th century – learned their craft in the chapel, the choir, the church, or at the organ. As I have seen in Rome, which is a magnet for visiting orchestras and choirs, the tradition of sacred music performance in Europe and beyond remains live and vibrant. Alongside other faith traditions, the role of the Holy See as a cultural guardian remains a vital one. It’s not just prayer that is important for our souls!