Monday, April 14, 2008

A relunctant and much-qualified defense of "Long Live the Pope"

Catholics in this country are wild with anticipation for the Pope's visit this week, and I wouldn't be surprised if the antique hymn "Long Live the Pope" made a comeback in some circles.

Now, the web is filled with jokes about this piece, and I can understand why. It is a silly piece, even ridiculous.

"Long Live the Pope" is written in the style of a military march, with certain strong hints in favor of the temporal power.

Here is a midi file, and the words:

Long live the Pope His praises sound again and yet again
His rule is over space and time His throne the hearts of men
All hail the Shepherd King of Rome The theme of loving song
Let all the earth is glory sing And heav'n the strain prolong.

Beleaguered by the foes of earth Be set by hosts of hell.
He guards the loyal flock of Christ A watchful sentinel
And yet amid the din and strife The clash of mace and sword
He bears alone the shepherd staff This champion of the Lord.

It strikes me as the kind of nostalgia that is best left to nostalgia, not real life. Its German-band style militarism runs contrary to Benedict XVI's well-documented opposition to the temporal power, and its triumphalism contradicts his own belief that the church's influence is primarily cultural, not political.

This quaint little number has a certain charm the way and old movie does: a look back in time. To me, it beautifully illustrates the problem with all vernacular hymnody of the popular sort (and in this we have to exclude many dignified English hymns that are mostly familiar only to the English). This material does indeed date itself quickly. And here is a classic case.

Should it be used in Mass today? I can see no case for it.

So what is my defense? It is only to reflect on Catholic congregations in the 1920s or so singing this in their Churches. It seems almost like a revolutionary action in a country that has been through bouts of extreme anti-Catholicism, where we have long been accused of anarchist tendencies and dangerous disloyalities to the nation-state. Everyone knows the story of how JFK, as late as 1960, had to proclaim his loyalty to the US rather than Rome. In contrast, it must have taken some guts to proclaim loyalities to the Pope and hope for his rule over space and time. During WWI, it might have landed you in the pokey; in World War II, when the US was at war with Italy, it might have been worse.

What else good can be said of this hymn? Well, it is a 4-square, sturdy hymn that might be fun to harmonize from the pews. I'm not sure that even this much can be said of much of the standard fare in parishes today.

At the same time, if you want to consider a hymn to sing for the Pope, see Christus Vincit or Te Deum.

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