My friend was playing some Johnny Cash as we worked together remodeling his rental property one day. As I worked on a kitchen backsplash, I half listened to a song that I gathered was about a pub where people would come from miles around just to hear one particular song in the jukebox. Apparently, that pub was the only place people could hear that particular song.
When the work day was over, I got in my car and had one of those moments of synchronicity that make my ears perk up and pay attention to what God might be trying to tell me. My radio was tuned in to the local classical music station, and the announcer was introducing Allegri’s famous choral piece Miserere.
Legend has it that in 1770, the 14-year-old Mozart was visiting Vatican City during Easter. People had come from miles around, and many of them had made the journey (likely) to hear this one particular song. The song Miserere was allowed to be performed only at the Sistine Chapel and only during the Tenebrae services of Holy Week. No one was allowed to publish or perform the piece outside the confines of the Sistine Chapel during Holy Week “on pains of excommunication!”
Mozart was apparently enamored by the work; after hearing it only one time, he went back to the room that he was sharing with his father and wrote the entire piece from memory. He returned the next day to hear it again and to make sure he had gotten it right.
All five parts of the masterpiece had been perfectly transcribed from memory.
Somehow, word got out about what young Amadeus had done, and the news made its way to the ears of the Pope himself, Pope Urban VIII, who asked to speak to the boy. When they met, Pope Urban said something rather flippant, to the effect of, “You’re a precocious young man. Don’t do it again.”
Miserere means have mercy. As if for the sake of the name of the song, Pope Urban VIII had mercy on young Mozart and did not in fact excommunicate him.
If you haven’t heard, the Latin Mass is a vibrant, growing movement among the Catholic faithful. Every time I travel, I try to visit a Latin Mass. The pews are always full, even at the earliest of Masses. Many of the faithful drive from miles around passing numerous Novus Ordo Catholic parishes along the way.
Why would people make that drive? It seems to me that there’s something special with the traditional, “Extraordinary Form” of the Mass. I’ve found that it’s a place where you can be sure that your fellow parishioners still share a common faith in essential teachings, like the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. In the Latin Mass parishes, I have found a great reverence for God and a real desire to know and please Him.
It’s counterintuitive, but the “rules” we observe are freeing. Why? I think it’s because the rules make us aware of Mercy. How can one experience mercy when there are no rules to follow? How can one experience forgiveness when there are so few rules to break?
When we hear the priest strike his breast three times saying “mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa,” and the alter boys striking their chest three times during the Confiteor, “mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa,” we are made aware of our sinfulness and therefore have a heightened appreciation for forgiveness! It’s worth considering the words of Jesus in Luke 7: “But the one who is forgiven little loves little.”
When the Priest holds up the body of Christ and utters the words, “Agnus Dei, qui tolit pecatta mundi, miserere nobis…Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Have mercy on us,” we respond by striking our own breast and repeating the words of the Centurian: “Domine non sum dignus ut entres subtectum meum. Set tantum dic verbum et sanabitar anima mea. Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.“
Those traditions: the incense, the genuflecting, the kneeling, the rosary, the missal, the confessions, the silence, the reverence…all of those things that modern society has scoffed at, make it more possible to understand and appreciate Mercy, which is perhaps the most beautiful song in the history of humanity.
And that song is worth the drive.