Our Patient and Indulgent Mother Church

A few decades ago, I had lunch with Daniel Carroll in Howard County, Maryland, during which he used a pop-up toaster in his grand dining room, which was hung with ancestral portraits. There were many such portraits, for Dan was a direct descendant of the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll of Carrollton. Doughoregan Manor has been a private residence since it was built in the early eighteenth century, although its family chapel was open to area Catholics in days when the Faith had been proscribed. After the Civil War, the chairs in the chapel, where the signer is buried, were purchased by a maternal antecedent during a trip to Paris when the Church of the Madeleine was being renovated. I never got to go back to Doughoregan, but Dan wrote to say that he was using the incense I had given him.

What matters here are those chairs, for they were used at the funeral of Chopin. The “Raphael of the piano,” as Heinrich Heine called him, had requested that Mozart’s Requiem be played at his obsequies; special permission was granted for female singers, who were concealed behind a black velvet curtain, which must have posed an acoustical challenge. Pauline Viardot, who had affectionately nursed Chopin in his last illness, sang the mezzo-soprano part of the “Tuba mirum” movement. The soprano, Jenny Lind, had recently returned from America, where P.T. Barnum had paid her an unheard-of $150,000; she had vain hopes of returning to New York with Chopin. One of the pallbearers was the Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix, long rumored to have been the natural son of the diplomat and sometime bishop Talleyrand. Three thousand devotees packed the great Neoclassical church. For all the black crepe, Chopin’s funeral was a colorful Catholic moment.

In the peccadillos, inconsistencies, and paradoxes of celebrities like Chopin are displayed the mixture of sublimity and earthiness which constitute the moral texture of Catholicism: an elasticity of accommodation that unsubtle critics confuse with hypocrisy, and a generosity of spirit that zealots (both secular and religious) scorn as indifference. Chopin is but one of many witnesses from his own age to the patience that Catholicism has for the creative mind, and even what the Romantic Age named “genius.” Such patience is at risk today when sentimentality indulges a false mercy, not knowing the difference between steadfastness and rigidity, and confusedly loving the sin as part and parcel of loving the sinner. The Church, rather, is like the Scriptures as described by Pope Gregory the Great in his Commentary of Job: a river broad and deep, shallow enough here for the lamb to go wading, but deep enough there for the elephant to swim—planus et altus, in quo et agnus ambulet et elephas natet.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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That expansiveness expresses the solicitude of Holy Mother Church in nurturing souls. That patience and indulgence is infinite, but humans are not, so her benefaction requires contrition, the lack of which is the sin of presumption compounding all particular sins.

Chopin was born in Poland to a French father and a devout Polish mother. Chopin’s Catholicism was unquestioned but fragile when faced with the social volatility of France, where he immigrated in 1831. Not even worldly Warsaw had prepared Chopin for the louche allurements of Paris, and his string of dalliances are part of musical lore. The demanding polonaises Chopin wrote while living in France seem to sublimate elegantly his frustrations as an exile who was undeniably comfortable with the new kind of domestication offered by the swooning salonistes. Amantine Lucile Aurore Dudevant (known to us as George Sand) was, of course, the most famous of Chopin’s devotees; though the full nature of their relationship remains unclear, it could not have been what Plato proposed in the Symposium. She considered herself a Christian, albeit with an ephemeral, Romantic Christology that did little for Chopin’s theology.

Dying in his apartment at 12 Place Vendôme in Paris circa 1849 at the age of 39, probably from complications of tuberculosis, Chopin politely resisted the pleas of his friend and fellow émigré, the Polish priest Aleksander Jełowicki. Various biographies give the same account: “In order not to offend my mother,” Chopin told Jełowicki, “I would not die without the sacraments, but for my part I do not regard them in the sense that you desire. I understand the blessing of the confession in so far as it is unburdening of a heavy heart into a friendly hand, but not as a sacrament. I am ready to confess to you if you wish it, because I love you, not because I hold it necessary.”

The priest persisted throughout Chopin’s last four days, during which Protestant friends joined Catholics praying at the bedside.

At last, Chopin professed his faith in Christ, and received the sacraments with devotion, asking those present in the room to pray for him. He told Father Jełowicki, “My friend, without you I would have died like a pig.” He called out the names of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph as he clutched a crucifix, saying: “At last I have reached the source of my blessedness.”

Death came for Chopin on October 17 at 2 a.m. In accordance with his wishes, Chopin’s eldest sister Ludwika Jędrzejewicz secreted his heart in a jar of cognac back to Warsaw, where it was buried in the Church of the Holy Cross. Chopin’s heart became so potent a symbol of the Polish national spirit that it was stolen by the Nazis, who kept it until the end of WWII. During the bloodshed of the war, Chopin’s legacy remained a source of solace and strength for the Polish people. One month after the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939, Pope Pius XII comforted the besieged Poles by invoking the genius of “the immortal Chopin,” saying: “If the art of man could achieve so much, how much more skillful must be the art of God in assuaging the grief of your souls?”

Chopin’s contemporary Franz Liszt was another Catholic prodigy often unsuccessful in taming his appetites. There was a bit of give and take between the two composers, expressed on one occasion when Liszt added a few frills as a display of “sprezzatura,” or studied carelessness, to a Chopin piece. Chopin told him to stick to the score. At one point they had their eyes on the same woman, but Liszt was able to fend well enough for himself. By his mistress, the Countess Marie d’Agoult, he fathered Blandine, Daniel, and Cosima, the future second wife of Wagner. By this time Liszt was a sort of mega rock star, giving much of his stupendous earnings to philanthropies, including the restoration of Cologne Cathedral and the Church of St. Leopold in Vienna. Rather like the Irish singer Bono, Liszt performed benefit concerts after natural disasters, such as the great flood of Pest, and the fire that destroyed much of Hamburg.

Although Gregory XVI condemned the political philosophy of Lammenais, the French priest saved Liszt from becoming a diehard rationalist. Liszt was not unique in finding no inconsistency in being both a Catholic and Freemason. He had an antecedent in Mozart. According to the newspaper of the Italian Episcopal Conference, L’Avvenire, and also quoted in the Katholische Presseagentur Osterreich, in an interview at a music conference in Chieti in 2006, Cardinal Schonborn of Austria curiously denied that Mozart had been a practicing member of the Lodge: “There’s no foundation for his frequently mentioned membership in the Masons.” In Vaticanese, this “does not conform to the truth.” Indeed, Mozart’s last work was the “Little Masonic Cantata.” Truths are true, and facts are stern tutors. Later, a spokesman for the cardinal explained that he had been misunderstood, and meant to distinguish eighteenth-century Freemasonry from later forms.

In 1860, Liszt was all set to marry the Polish princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein, but the Russian tsar prevailed upon Pope Pius IX not to annul the princess’s 1836 marriage to a Russian prince and military officer. Instead of marrying, Liszt became a Third Order Franciscan, taking Minor Orders as a porter, lector, exorcist, and acolyte. He was punctilious in his assigned duties. At Castel Gandolfo, the Vatican, and in his own rooms, he spent many pleasant hours with the pope, who called him “my dear Palestrina.” Liszt set about to reform the desultory condition of music in the churches, promoting Gregorian chant and polyphony, and he took some theological studies in 1868 with Don Antonio Solfanelli. When he did perform, it always was in clerical dress, and Pius IX addressed him as Abbé.

There were those who accused Liszt of having sold his soul to the Devil, because his skill seemed preternatural in such works as the Dante Sonata and Mephisto Waltzes. And he could, for instance, sight-read the score of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with his left hand while holding a cigar in his right. The same was said of Paganini and his violin. Actually, Paganini could play three octaves across four strings, because he very probably had the long bones and flexible joints typical of Marfan syndrome. Abraham Lincoln had the same.

Although Lincoln played no instruments, he learned to love opera, having seen his first in New York City two weeks before his inauguration: the American premiere of Verdi’s Masked Ball, with its violent assassination scene. During his presidency, Lincoln attended the opera thirty times and saw his favorite, Gounod’s Faust, four times. The Lincoln boys, Willie and Tad, were required to take music lessons on a new Schomacker piano in the White House’s Red Room, with Polish instructor (and Chopin devotee) Aleksander Wołowski. As an aside, Rachmaninoff almost certainly had Marfan syndrome, and there are those who think that is why he and few others could play as written the opening chords of his Piano Concerto No.2 in C. At his final recital in 1943, Rachmaninoff played Chopin’s funeral march.

As for Paganini, he was as flamboyant a showman as Liszt. He played up the rumors of diabolism by dressing in black and riding in a black coach pulled by four black horses. His gaunt appearance was heightened when he lost all his teeth by the age of 46 in 1828 due, evidently, to what morphological tests have confirmed as mercury treatment for syphilis. His appeal to the ladies increased, nonetheless. In that same year Paganini separated from his mistress Antonia Bianchi, by whom he had a son named Achille. Though ill in 1840 in Nice, he refused the ministrations of a priest sent by the bishop, for he did not think he was dying, though he soon did. Not having received the Last Rites, and compromised by rumors of diabolism, his body was refused interment in consecrated ground. Four years later, Pope Gregory XVI gave permission for burial in Genoa, and in 1876 he was grandly entombed in Parma.

On October 27, 1850, one month following Pope Pius IX’s restoration of the hierarchy to England after three centuries, St. John Henry Newman used the occasion of the installation of Dr. Ullathorne as the first bishop of Birmingham in St. Chad’s Church, the work of Pugin, to defend the patient and indulgent ways of Holy Mother Church toward her beclouded children. As an experiment, I calculated that his sermon “Christ Upon the Waters” must have taken at least one hour and fifteen minutes to preach. He addressed the matter of scandals:

There are crimes enough to be found in the members of all denominations: if there are passages in our history, the like of which do not occur in the annals of Wesleyanism or of Independency, or the other religions of the day, recollect that there have been no Anabaptist pontiffs, no Methodist kings, no Congregational monasteries, no Quaker populations.

One pedantic quibble: the great Newman was wrong about no Methodist kings. Five years earlier, the very year that Newman was received into the Church, the first Methodist king of Tonga was crowned. Tu’i Kanokupolu Taufa’ahau had been converted by Wesleyan missionaries in 1831.

Tom Mozley, the husband of Newman’s oldest sister Harriet, said that his brother-in-law had “attained such proficiency on the violin that had he not become a Doctor of the Church, he would have been a Paganini.” Assuredly this was not a reference to Paganini’s domestic arrangements.

Once in Paris at the tomb of Chopin in Père Lachaise cemetery, I was approached by a woman veiled in black who asked me to place flowers on Chopin’s tomb. That I did, climbing over a railing and scaling the rather high plinth to place the roses in the arms of a mourning Euterpe, muse of music, sculpted by Auguste Clésinger. I can only say that I once prayed for Chopin’s soul and immediately I was able to play the Opus 10, No. 12 Revolutionary Etude with far fewer mistakes than usual. Now, at risk of presumption, I should ask Paganini to help with my fiddle.

Image: “The Death of Chopin” by Félix-Joseph Barrias (National Museum, Kraków)


  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael’s church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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