China is different.
The Chinese languages, like Mandarin, and the Western languages, like English, are very different in grammar, pronunciation and writing. The history and culture of China and the West are also worlds apart. Western civilization is built upon the Christian faith and values, whereas China is mostly built upon Confucian and Buddhist philosophies and is now dominated by a communist ideology.
Two different ways of speaking, thinking and living. How can the Pope and the Catholic Church reach out to the large population of communist China?
At least that’s how they communicated May 7 at the Vatican’s Paul VI Audience Hall, where the Philharmonic Orchestra of China and the Choir of the Shanghai Opera House interpreted Mozart’s “Requiem” for the Holy Father and about 6,000 guests.
“I note with pleasure the interest shown by your orchestra and choir in European religious music,” Pope Benedict XVI said in his address after the concert. “This shows that it is possible, in different cultural settings, to enjoy and appreciate sublime manifestations of the spirit, such as Mozart’s ‘Requiem’ that we have just heard, precisely because music expresses universal human sentiments, including the religious sentiment, which transcends the boundaries of every individual culture.”
The setting was most fitting to express “universal human sentiments.” The audience hall was full of Western and Chinese people.
At its center sat the Pope, the universal shepherd of the Catholic Church — and “Catholic” in Greek means “universal.” On the stage stood the big statue of the rising Christ with his arms on high, as if to embrace all mankind.
Benedict didn’t overlook the symbolism.
“I should also like to say a word regarding this place where we have come together this evening,” he said. “It is the great hall in which the Pope receives his guests and meets those who come to visit him. It is like a window opening onto the world, a place where people from all over the world often meet, with their own personal stories and their own culture, all of them welcomed with esteem and affection.”
The concert couldn’t have been more Catholic. Mozart’s “Requiem” is a Mass to beg God for the eternal rest of deceased souls. In the text, Jesus Christ is addressed as the King of glory; the personal and final judgments are described; the Blessed Virgin, the Archangel Michael, Abraham and the saints are mentioned.
Yet the Chinese performance was outstanding. Violins, violas, cellos, basses, flutes, oboes, bassoons, French horns, trumpets, trombones, the percussion and the harp were all played skillfully and elegantly. The soloists sang beautifully. Long Yu seemed to be an accomplished conductor.
I wasn’t far from the Pope and saw him excited, smiling, his right hand following the rhythm of the music. Benedict does not often show his inner feelings; this time he couldn’t hide them.
There is no doubt that good music is essentially catholic — it is universal and it is a natural artistic expression of the beauty of Christian Revelation.
That’s why Catholic music and art can serve as great means of evangelization for those who do not know their faith, as in the case of many Western Christians, and for those who have never heard the Good News, as in the case of many Chinese.
“The ‘Requiem’ came into being through this faith as a prayer to God, the just and merciful judge,” said the Pope, “and that is why it touches the hearts of all people, as an expression of humanity’s universal aspirations.”
Good non-Christian music can be said to be a way to express the aspiration to know the fullness of the truth and to attain salvation through Christ’s grace. After the Holy Father’s speech, the Chinese orchestra and choir performed “Jasmine Flower,” the most popular Chinese folk song.
It was most uplifting to listen to the lyrical and restrained joy of this Chinese piece. The East, I thought, is looking for Christ. Such music cannot be but the product of a nostalgic search for transcendence.
“In a group of such accomplished artists,” said the Pope, “we see represented the great cultural and musical tradition of China, and this performance helps us to understand better the history of the Chinese people, their values and their noble aspirations.”
When the Holy Father said that he wanted to reach out to the entire Chinese nation, especially the Catholic people, the guests applauded. China is preparing for the Olympic Games, “an event of great importance for the entire human family,” as the Pope put it.
Art and sports can speak universally, no matter how different our languages, history and cultures may be.
“Beauty will save the world,” Dostoevsky once said. He was right. The Chinese May 7 concert at the Vatican was a proof of it.
And if beauty will save the world, the Pope and the Catholic Church know well where the secret of beauty lies.
Legionary Father Alfonso Aguilar teaches philosophy at Rome’s Regina Apostolorum University.