Austria’s president honored Pope Benedict on the final day of his visit to the “Alp Republic” Sept. 9 with Mozart music in the Vienna Concert House. After the music, the Holy Father met with Church and civil volunteers in order to honor their service.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in the Austrian city of Salzburg in 1756, but that’s not why his music was played for the Pope. In fact, there have hardly been any cultural events that Pope Benedict has attended in which a piece of Mozart has not been performed.
That’s because it is well known that Mozart is the Pope’s favorite composer.
Consider what Pope Benedict contributed last year to a book collecting 58 testimonies for the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth:
“When in our home parish of Traunstein on feast days a Mass by Mozart resounded, for me, a little country boy, it seemed as if heaven stood open. In the front, in the sanctuary, columns of incense had formed in which the sunlight was broken; at the altar the sacred action took place of which we knew that heaven opened for us. And from the choir sounded music that could only come from heaven; music in which was revealed to us the jubilation of the angels over the beauty of God. …
“I have to say that something like this happens to me still when I listen to Mozart. Mozart is pure inspiration — or at least I feel it so. Each tone is correct and could not be different. The message is simply present. …
“The joy that Mozart gives us, and I feel this anew in every encounter with him, is not due to the omission of a part of reality; it is an expression of a higher perception of the whole, something I can only call inspiration out of which his compositions seem to flow naturally.”
Music for the Pope is much more than mere entertainment. He possesses a profound sense of aesthetics.
Influenced by the great theological aesthete Hans Urs von Balthasar, in many of his essays the Holy Father has reflected upon the importance of beauty and harmony for the faith and, especially, for expressing faith in liturgy.
“The encounter with the beautiful can become the wound of the arrow that strikes the heart and in this way opens our eyes, so that later, from this experience, we take the criteria for judgment and can correctly evaluate the arguments,” he wrote in August 2002 in a remarkable message, dedicated to the “contemplation of beauty” and directed to a meeting of the Communion and Liberation Movement in Rimini, Italy.
In the same text, he recalls an experience he had after listening to a Bach concert conducted in Munich by Leonard Bernstein.
After the last tone had faded away, he looked spontaneously at the person next to him “and right then we said: ‘Anyone who has heard this knows that the faith is true.’ The music had such an extraordinary force of reality that we realized, no longer by deduction, but by the impact on our hearts, that it could not have originated from nothingness, but could only have come to be through the power of the Truth that became real in the composer’s inspiration.”
Since his childhood, the Holy Father had learned to appreciate music that “had a bigger and bigger role in our family life,” as he recounts in the 1997 book-length interview “Salt of the Earth.”
For 30 years, Msgr. Georg Ratzinger, the Pope’s brother, was the director of Regensburger Domspatzen (The Cathedral Sparrows of Regensburg), perhaps Germany’s most prestigious boys choir. And even as Pope Benedict, Joseph Ratzinger continues to play the piano in some free moments he may find in the midst of his heavy workload.
Before he became Pope, Cardinal Ratzinger wrote that he remembers that Traunstein, where he spent most of his youth, “very much reflects the influence of Salzburg. You might say that there Mozart thoroughly penetrated our souls, and his music still touches me profoundly, because it is so luminous and yet at the same time so deep. His music is by no means just entertainment; it contains the whole tragedy of human existence.”
Pope Benedict’s sensitivity for the beauty in music and art as much as his particular affection for Mozart’s style may well be one of the explanations not only of his well-rounded style, but also of the intellectual architecture of his theological writings, which are characterized by a high degree of perfection, with a rare combination of simplicity, clarity, depth, and both logical and persuasive power.
That’s why Cologne Cardinal Joachim Meisner calls Pope Benedict the “Mozart of Theology.” Cardinal Meisner developed this further in a homily that he gave on the occasion of the Pope’s 80th birthday in St. Hedwig’s Cathedral in Berlin:
“Pope Benedict XVI has the gift of pointing out to people the sanctifying message of the Gospel in its beauty, fascination and harmony, so much so that he is called the ‘Mozart among the theologians.’ His theology is not only true and good, it is also beautiful. His words sound like music in the ears and hearts of people. He manages masterfully to transform the notes of the Gospel into thrilling music. That’s why the stream of pilgrims that flock to his audiences is growing every month.”
The Pope’s appreciation for beauty is by no means blind optimism.
In fact, the Holy Father has remarked that the “wounds of humanity” don’t justify a flight into irrational aestheticism, closing our eyes before the often difficult reality of life. In his 2002 reflection he said that Christ is recognized by the Church both as the “fairest of men” (see Psalm 45:3) and the disfigured one, during his passion:
“Whoever believes in God, in the God who manifested himself, precisely in the altered appearance of Christ crucified as love ‘to the end’ (John 13:1), knows that beauty is truth and truth beauty; but in the suffering Christ he also learns that the beauty of truth also embraces offense, pain, and even the dark mystery of death, and that this can only be found in accepting suffering, not in ignoring it.”
And he continues: “The icon of the crucified Christ, however … imposes a condition: that we let ourselves be wounded by him, and that we believe in the Love who can risk setting aside his external beauty to proclaim, in this way, the truth of the beautiful.”
So it is that the Holy Father’s words in praise of the volunteers in the concert hall on Sept. 9 could just as well be applied to the music that preceded it: “The value of human beings cannot be judged by purely economic criteria. Without volunteers, then, no state can be built up.”
And not without music, either.
Legionary Father Andreas Kramarz is a professor and music director at the Legionaries’ Novitiate and College of Humanities in Cheshire, Connecticut.