St. Francis of Assisi’s canticle is animated by faith and praises God for all of creation. Register file photo

Ours is a religion of culture

  • June 18, 2015

Two recent papal-related events highlighted that Catholicism is meant to be a religion of culture. Every culture, as St. John Paul II taught, answers the fundamental questions of life and different cultures are differentiated by their response to the mystery of God.

Faith can be considered the soul of culture. A faith filled with awe for the beauty of God expresses itself in pious works of beauty. Contrariwise, a culture whose most widespread product is pornography can be said to have faith primarily in transitory pleasures and market consumption.

The Holy Father’s encyclical on ecology was released this week, entitled Laudato Si’, which is not Latin but old Italian. It is taken from St. Francis of Assisi’s Canticle of the Creatures, which begins Laudato Si’ mi’ Signore — Praise be my Lord!  The canticle of St. Francis is considered to be the first great work of Italian literature, written some decades before the capolavoro of Italian letters, Dante’s Divine Comedy. Italian takes its very origins from the language of faith; by its very nature the Italian language is meant to express the truths about God, His creation and His salvific love for mankind.

Many will consider the choice of Laudato Si’ to be mere pious sentiment, akin to the Franciscan birdbaths one can find alongside garden gnomes. The Holy Father had something more in mind. The “Canticle of the Creatures” praises God for the sun, the moon and the stars, using the language of family kinship to speak of man’s relationship with all creation. But the fundamental relationship is with God Himself, for the Canticle ends welcoming death as the means to life eternal, with a stern warning: Woe to those who die in mortal sin. Trendy politics is not what St. Francis is up to in his canticle, nor the Holy Father in his encyclical.

I was personally delighted with the choice of title. For my entire priesthood I have had in my home a cross I bought in Assisi. It’s made of painted tiles with the words of the “Canticle of the Creatures” and scenes from the life of St. Francis. It’s in the original old Italian so every morning at breakfast — it hangs over the coffee maker in the rectory kitchen — I greet the day with Francis’ words, laudato si’ mi’ Signore! An excellent way to begin the day.

St. Francis’s canticle is a song of course, and music is particularly apt to be animated by faith. Man is the cantor of creation, and in Heaven will join the angels in their song around the throne of grace.

Last week in Rome, a new musical composition was premiered at the principal Jesuit church, Il Gesu. The great composer, Ennio Morricone, famous for his movie scores, conducted the first performance of his new Mass for Pope Francis. Morricone, 86, undertook the composition to honour the Holy Father, and also to mark the 200th anniversary of the restoration of the Jesuit order. Morricone is most famous for one of the most magnificent movie scores of all time, The Mission, which tells the story of the heroic Jesuits who defended the truth that God’s salvific love was intended for the aboriginal peoples of Latin America. So in the evening of his life, Morricone returned to the subject of the faith, the Jesuits and the Church.

“My wife asked me for years for a Mass, but I did not ever decide to do it,” Morricone told Vatican Radio, though a request from the rector of Il Gesu finally persuaded him. “The thing that strikes me most about this task is the fact that I wrote the music for the film The Mission, which is the story of the Jesuits in South America, which after some years, in 1750, they were disbanded. In some way I have participated in their dissolution and now I participate in the celebration of the 200th anniversary of their restoration.”

Indeed, The Mission highlights the role of music in evangelization. It is music that bridges the gap between the Jesuits and the native peoples, it is music that shows their acceptance of the faith, and it is music that endures when the mission is destroyed. Morricone’s Mass for Pope Francis is a beautiful example of the bond between faith and culture.

The Mass composition itself is restrained, almost austere, in parts, even during the Gloria. It suggests that Morricone sees in the Holy Father a drama deeper than just a superficial popularity or a Christian joy that is only shallow. There are hints of the music from The Mission in the Alleluia, and then Morricone adds a Finale, which is not customary in Mass compositions, but the reason becomes evident. The Finale is a full-throated reprisal of The Mission theme, linking the restoration of the Jesuits to their heroic work in Latin America.

Language and music, faith and culture, giving expression to the gratitude of mankind for God and all the mighty works of His creation. Laudato si’ mi’ Signore!

(Fr. de Souza is the editor-in-chief of Convivium, a Canadian magazine of faith in our common life:


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