Much of the world is looking to the Olympics in Beijing next month as the major 2008 landmark in China’s relationship with the West.
But for me, that landmark already came.
I was able to attend in Pope Paul VI Hall when the China Philharmonic Orchestra and the Shanghai Opera House Chorus played and sang for Pope Benedict XVI and about 7,000 people in May.
The press saw this as possibly a warming of relations between China and the Vatican. Some people were making the connection with the ping-pong diplomacy of Richard Nixon.
I saw it as something more: Chinese musicians praying in the universal language of art and the Mass in the heart of the Catholic world.
The orchestra played Mozart’s Requiem. In it, the choir and orchestra ensemble sing out the different parts of a funeral Mass in Latin, interspersed by the voices of the soloists: soprano, mezzo soprano, tenor and base. I could not help thinking to myself: “If only the musicians knew what they were singing (and praying) for!”
Being enraptured in the beauty of the voices, I find myself praying along, and on behalf of the Chinese people.
In the entrance hymn, Mozart begins the piece dramatically. At one point, the chorus repeatedly intoned Exaudi, exaudi orationem meam (hear, hear my prayer). Many times, even without knowing it, we ask God to hear us. There is in the depth of the human heart a yearning to be heard.
The Chinese people, represented by the choir, without knowing what they were saying, are crying out to the heavens to be heard.
In the Latin Mass, the only words in Greek that have been preserved from the ancient liturgy are melodiously repeated: Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison (Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy).
I found myself praying: “God have mercy on me, and on the Chinese people who did not know you.”
We then arrived at the spectacular sequence of Dies Irae, Dies illa (The day of wrath! That day!) It was a rather frightening warning about the reality of the Last Judgment.
The choir continues alternating with the soloists: Quantus tremor est futurus, Quando judex est venturus, Cuncta stricte discussurus! (What trembling there shall be when the Judge shall come to weigh everything strictly!)
As if to placate the divine ire, the stanzas followed with a plea for the mercy of God: Quid sum miser tunc dicturus? Quem patronum rogaturus, Cum vix justus sit securus? (What shall I, a wretch, say then? To what advocate shall I appeal when even the just man is barely safe?)
The tune turns to a very sweet melody of petition. Salva me, fons pietatis! (Save me, fount of merciful love!) This was echoed various times by the Chinese choir.
Looking at the Asian faces of the choir and the orchestra, I felt this is a prayer of all of us, believers or not, of our yearning to be saved.
Recordare, Jesu pie, Quod sum causa tuae viae. (Remember, merciful Jesus, that I am the reason for the path you trod!) The choir sang under the immense sculpture of the Risen Christ arising among the tortuous branches symbolizing the tree of life. It appeared to me as if Christ is stretching out his saving hands to embrace China under the benevolent gaze of the Pope.
The most moving part for me came from the Offertory: Quam olim Abrahae promisisti, et semini ejus (as once you promised to Abraham and to his seed). The word promisisti (you promised) was repeated many, many times.
Yes, God has promised us his salvation through our Father in faith. He will not abandon us; he will not abandon a quarter of the world’s population.
Promisisti. This promise is mysteriously and providentially united to our mission to spread Christ’s Kingdom of love. Surrounded by 400 others of my Legionary family, I felt this to be a part of our call to evangelize China, my extended family and patria.
The rest of the Mass was sung, in Mozart’s characteristic composition of majesty alternating with sweetness: Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus … Osanna in excelsis … Agnus Dei.
At the end, the applause lasted for almost 10 minutes. The Pope was visibly pleased. He went up to greet and shake hands with the director and the soloists. One of them must be Christian, because he kissed the Pope’s ring. Benedict XVI then gave a speech thanking the musicians and organizers of the event.
He noticed how the interpretation of Mozart by Chinese artists “brings together their own musical talent and Western music.”
Chinese musicians could play Western music “precisely because music expresses universal human sentiments, including the religious sentiment, which transcends the boundaries of every individual culture.”
In the end, the Holy Father reminded them that the setting of Paul VI Hall symbolized “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.”
Lastly, the Pope sent his greetings to the entire Chinese people, and “with a special thought for those of your fellow citizens who share faith in Jesus and are united through a particular spiritual bond with the Successor of Peter.”
The Olympics will no doubt be a great tribute to the human spirit. But this calling out of the human spirit to the divine is imbedded in my memory now.
Pray for China with the Pope — and pray with China in the Mass.
Legionary Father Joseph Tham
teaches bioethics at Rome’s Regina Apostolorum College.