In accordance with long established practice, for Mother’s day, we drove up to Petaluma to visit Anne-Martine’s mom, who, as a result of some as yet undetermined illness, was hospitalized last week and is now in a nursing home for at least a while. Prayers appreciated.
We attended Mass at St. Vincent’s, a beautiful church and the church in which we were married coming up on 30 years ago. What we did not know going in was that this particular Sunday, the 10:30 Mass was to be said in Portuguese, and that a procession of an image of the Suffering Christ was to follow:
Seems that several centuries ago in the Azores, a beloved image of the Suffering Christ was feared destroyed in the collapse of a church caused by an earthquake. The weeping locals dug through the rubble and discovered the statue undamaged, and so, in typical Catholic fashion, had a procession and a party!
There is a large Portuguese population in California, clustered in places where fishing and agriculture were early established – Monterey, Pescadero and San Francisco for fishing, and, among other places, Petaluma for farming. So my wife grew up among several large Portuguese farming families, and St. Vincent’s as the local parish incorporated any number of Portuguese devotional practices. Including this procession and party.
I could hardly be more down with all this – rock on, Portuguese Catholics! Party down!
The Mass itself was full of pomp. And noise. I don’t know if the Portuguese are traditionally noisy people in church, or if the spirit of V-II had a disproportionate (or perhaps merely delayed) effect on them. They yak up a storm. But hey, I’ve seen worse. They all showed up for Mass in their Sunday best, which is way cool and to be commended wholeheartedly.
The exception was the music – when the band played on, any singing by anybody in the congregation fell below the sensitivity of my instruments – ears and eyes – to detect. The music itself was all some sort of modern-ish guitar tunes in Portuguese, so I have no idea what they were all about. More melodramatic than modern Mexican liturgical music; much less musically sophisticated than modern Filipino mass songs.
The thought I could not escape: what is now Portugal has been Catholic for about 1,500 years, and, while largely on the periphery of Christendom due to geography, nevertheless was a part of the Church’s general artistic and liturgical traditions for all that time. It a sure bet that there are vast amounts of perfectly wonderful liturgical music used and loved over the centuries in Portugal, some of which was no doubt even produced by locals. In any event, Portugal could not have escaped the effects of centuries of chant, polyphony, and other beautiful liturgical music.
Yet, here we sit in church, listening to music that cannot be more than 50 years old, performed well after the manner of its kind, by people who were pretty decent musicians. But this music is being performed in place of music that would actually have something to do with the events being celebrated in the procession and party! One can’t even use the feeble excuse of active participation – the people are going to sit there and listen, more or less, no matter what the musicians play.
Instead of lavishing the same sort of care on the musical traditions that they obviously lavished on the procession itself, they let die all the art and power that uplifted their ancestors in favor of music that the congregation, as far as I could tell, ignored any way.
The death of a musical tradition is just as sad as if the overall traditions of a people were to die. The Portuguese, and all of us, really, are poorer for it.