This week, we will continue a series of excerpts from Father Ho Lung's
bio, written by Joseph Pearce, 'Candles in the Dark', Chapter Three
While I'm in confessional mode, I should perhaps confess that my own view of the liturgy is modeled on that of Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), as expressed with sublime eloquence in The Spirit of the Liturgy.
I believe that the priest should be facing the same direction as the congregation, ad orientem, so that we are all one in prayer, turning toward the Lord, as opposed to the priest facing the opposite direction, versus populum (the priest versus the people!) with a 'table' between himself and the congregation, much like a public speaker addressing an audience, and with the 'throne' on which he sits placed in the centre of the sanctuary in the place where the tabernacle used to be (the removal of Jesus to make way for the priest!). Furthermore, I like to kneel for communion. I like altar rails. I like to receive Our Lord's corpus on my tongue. I am very comfortable with the Old Rite, or as it is now called, the Extraordinary Form of the Mass. And as for liturgical music, my preference is for Gregorian chant and the Polyphony of Palestrina, Tallis, and Byrd.
I will make a further confession: I have come to really enjoy and appreciate the music of Father Ho Lung. I like the early recordings, particularly Sinner and Babylon a Catch Me;
I like some of the musical numbers, such as Take My Life, I Will Serve You and You are My Destiny. I find the irrepressible joy and jollity of Blessed Be the People and Enter into Jerusalem irresistible, and Father Ho Lung's musical adaptation of the Canticle of Daniel leaves me speechless with delight! And, I will make another confession. I even enjoy Father Ho Lung's Caribbean Mass, especially the infectiously memorable Alleluia, and the rambunctious vivaciousness of the Our Father.
Perhaps the question I posed earlier ought to be redirected towards myself. Am I as guilty as Father Ho Lung of endeavouring to meld together two incompatible and ultimately inimical approaches to spirituality and the liturgy? Should I address the plank in my own eye before I suggest that Father Ho Lung has a splinter in his? Or, perhaps, is there an overarching harmony between Father Ho Lung's music and mission that I have finally managed to see? To continue with the biblical metaphor, had I gone searching for the splinter in Father Ho Lung's eye only to discover that he had removed the plank from mine?
The answers to these questions emerged with time and prayer as I came to know Father Ho Lung better, and most especially from my own discussions with him as I grappled to understand this musical paradox at the heart of his mission.
Interviewing Father Ho Lung, along with Father Brian, one of the original founding Brothers of the Missionaries of the Poor (MOP), I confronted the apparent contradiction between the Jesuit seminarian who had rejected the spirit of the age with which his fellow Jesuits were besotted, and yet, at the same time, seemed to engage the popular culture in the songs that he was writing.
Connecting with the poor
"What made it actually consistent with the priest rejecting the culture of the times," said father Brian, "is that the music that father was writing was an association with the poor and an identification with them. It was an effort to bring the Church into closer communion with the suffering of the poor. Father saw what was happening with the poor, and the music was a way of connecting with them in their suffering."
Father Brian then quoted some lines from one of Father Ho Lung's songs to illustrate his point: "When buried under the mango tree, the board drifts out in the storm like sea, oh Lord have mercy."
"That song just came out of father while he was walking among poor people. A woman had lost her husband; he was a fisherman and the boat drifted out to sea and he was buried under the mango tree," said Father Brian. He also explained the use of the vernacular and patois in the songs as a means of "trying to bring the Church in Jamaica to a place where the Church was not at the time willing to be." And then Father Brian said something that really struck home. "It was like Mother Theresa and her sisters going out to the ghettos of Calcutta and wearing saris."
It was as though a light had switched on in my mind. Of course! Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity wore saris so that they could get closer to the poor whom they served. In order to serve the poor more fully, you have to meet them where they are. As far as possible, you have to live the life of the poor. You have to become poor yourself. If the poor in the ghettos of Calcutta wore saris, the Missionaries of Charity would wear saris. If the poor in the ghettos of Kingston relate to the reality around them through music, the Missionaries of the Poor would reach out to them through the power of music. And then, as if another light had switched on in my mind, I realised that I was also a child of the ghetto, in the sense that I was brought up in a poor area of the East End of London.
The culture in which I was raised was effectively agnostic. My parents didn't practice any faith. If asked, they would have called themselves Christian but their Christianity did not involve any practical commitment to prayer or to Christ. We never went to church. We never prayed.
I had no connection to organised religion, and I, too, was reached through the power of music. An East End boy did not listen to classical music but I liked various genres of popular music. The only Christianity to which I was exposed as a boy was the Gospel music of Elvis Presley and Jim Reeves. This whetted my appetite. It fed my desire for more. As a teenager, I could not and would not have listened to the polyphonous splendor of Thomas Tallis or William Byrd, but listening to Elvis led me in the direction in which, eventually, I would desire other types of religious music. The music met me where I was and led me in the direction in which I needed to go, albeit by small, faltering steps. I realised that what Father Ho Lung was doing with the Caribbean music was exactly the same. He was meeting the poor where they were because you can't meet them anywhere else. I also realised that my initial reaction against such music was a lack of respect for the poor and a supercilious arrogance akin to the Jesuit speech master who had told Father Ho Lung that he would never succeed as long as he had a Jamaican accent. I was mortified and at the same time enlightened. I finally understood.
"It was part of the whole movement to stir in people's hearts the gospel message to reach out to the poor," Father Brian continued, "so the apparent paradox is rooted in the fact that the music was actually a means of reaching the poor people, using their language to express the issues of justice, the tenderness of the poor, their suffering and the joy of the Caribbean life. The music conveyed a lot of that Caribbean joy, the rhythms of the people, and connected them to the Church."
Father Brian mentioned that some of the Catholic priests and bishops mocked Father Ho Lung's music because it was vulgar. They said it had "too much of the local tone of the people, of the simple consciousness of the ordinary person, who was not really connecting with the Catholic Church or with the high alignment of the Jesuits of the time". These priests and bishops who mocked Father Ho Lung, continued Father Brian, "did not understand that it was a desire to bring the gospel to the people and present the gospel in such a way that people are drawn to it, to the music, to the message, to the images that were used in the songs".
Father Ho Lung joined the conversation and explained his feelings of isolation from the Jesuits at the time and how music was, for him, an oasis in the spiritual desert: "I would also add that because you were thrown on your own, you had to dig in very deeply inside yourself, and to my shock and surprise, there was so much there. I mean there was the Lord deep in - I felt the presence of the Lord and I felt Him steering me away from confusion. And, as I said, I was so alone but I began to realise that there's something very, very precious inside of me, which is the interior light. When you think of the interior light, you think of it, of course, like Teresa of Avila and all these great, great writers."
Apart from doctors of the Church, such as St Teresa, Father Ho Lung had also studied psychology under the benign influence of his mentor, Father William Burke, and he found that this also helped greatly. "I had done so much reading about Jung who said that at the very depths of man there is a center point where Christ is, the idea of the mandala and so forth. And I began to really see that this is so. Christ is truly within us. We are temples of the Holy Spirit. So the music, being a natural part of myself, I take as being sacred, as all things within me are sacred, although, of course, there is sin too."
Father Ho Lung also invokes the teaching of the Church on inculturation as a justification for his efforts to evangelise through the music of the poor: "The Second Vatican Council and John Paul II taught that music and language are such a precious part of people's lives, a part of their very selves, that the Church must inculturate. The Church shouldn't try to force upon the people something that is foreign, that is not of the people themselves." It is, however, important to distinguish between genuine inculturation, as taught by successive popes and as practiced by the Church across the centuries, and the sort of modernist inculturation that seeks to undermine orthodox doctrine and authentic tradition.
Genuine inculturation has been practiced by the Church throughout her history, as demonstrated by the adoption of extra-scriptural rituals, rooted in local cultures, in the Christian celebration of Christmas, such as the Christmas tree, the Christmas wreath, and the Yule log. The key component of such inculturation is that it affects only the accidental aspects of Christmas and not its essential meaning.
This understanding of authentic and legitimate inculturation was best encapsulated by St Gregory the Great at the beginning of the seventh century when he taught of the Church's engagement with different cultures that anything that was not contrary to the Gospel could be preserved.
In this spirit, Father Ho Lung's use of Caribbean music is bona fide as long as the meaning of the music is in harmony with the teaching of the Church. Some might see the situation as being more difficult with regard to the use of the rhythms of the Caribbean in the music for the liturgy, especially as recent Church documents have stated explicitly that Gregorian chant has a privileged and preferential position in the hierarchy of musical forms deemed appropriate for liturgical use. It is true also that some forms of music, such as hip-hop, rap, heavy rock, rhythm and blues, and tango, to name a few, are not suited for the liturgy. No doubt, arguments will continue to rage about whether the music composed by Father Ho Lung for the 'Caribbean Mass' is suitable for the supreme sacrifice at the sacred heart of the Church's worship.