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Quick Hits: Composer-Doctors of the Church and more

By Thomas V. Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Oct 24, 2017

Most Catholics know St. Alphonsus Liguori primarily for his pious meditations such as those in his Way of the Cross. His contributions to moral theology also gained him the title of Doctor of the Church. Far fewer people know that he was also a composer and harpsichordist (among several other arts he practiced). As it turns out, his best-known piece of music is a Neapolitan Christmas carol, Tu scendi dale stelle, a piece which became so beloved in Italy that the great opera composer Giuseppe Verdi remarked, ‘Christmas without Tu scendi dalle stelle is not Christmas.’ (Several versions of this carol, and some of St. Alphonsus’s other compositions, can be heard on this Redemptorist website.)

Going deeper down the St. Alphonsus rabbit hole, I discovered that Ray Herrmann, a woodwind player who has toured with artists like Santana, Bob Dylan, Whitney Houston and Herbie Hancock, has produced three albums of St. Alphonsus’s prayers and meditations, featuring the saint’s musical compositions. Astonishingly, one of the albums features a reading of St. Alphonsus by…Liam Neeson?!


Another Doctor of the Church, St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), is a seminal figure in music history. (I first learned about her in a class at my secular university, before she was canonized and named a Doctor by Pope Benedict XVI.) There are more extant pieces of music by Hildegard than by any other medieval composer whose name we know. She practically invented the morality play, and wrote musical drama as well as more conventional hymns and chants.

When Hildegard was 80 years old, her nuns buried a man who had been excommunicated from the Church. As punishment, the authorities, not knowing that the man had been reconciled to the Church before he died, put Hildegard’s convent under an interdict, meaning the nuns could not attend Mass, receive the Eucharist or sing the Divine Office (they could only read it). Hildegard wrote these prelates a letter asking them to remove the interdict, which finally happened a few months before her death.

Though surely the loss of Mass and the Eucharist was a severe cross to the nuns, what is remarkable is that Hildegard focused her letter on the issue of music, arguing for the necessity of music in praising God, in restoring to man something of the angelic voice possessed by Adam before the fall, and of the importance of singing and musical instruments in the history of God’s people from the Old Testament to the present day. She even compares the inspiration to sing to the conception of Christ in Mary by the Holy Spirit:

Consider too that just as the body of Jesus Christ was born of the purity of the Virgin Mary through the operation of the Holy Spirit so too the canticle of praise, reflecting celestial harmony, is rooted in the Church through the Holy Spirit. The body is the vestment of the spirit, which has a living voice, and so it is proper for the body, in harmony with the soul, to use its voice to sing praises to God.

Among other things, Hildegard suggests that Satan has a special interest in eradicating or at least compromising the use of music in divine worship, “wherever he can, through dissension, scandal, or unjust oppression.” Thus she concludes her letter with a warning:

Therefore, those who, without just cause, impose silence on a church and prohibit the singing of God’s praises and those who have on earth unjustly despoiled God of His honor and glory will lose their place among the chorus of angels, unless they have amended their lives through true penitence and humble restitution.

Note well: if it is a crime against God’s honor to completely forbid the use of music in worship, it is surely a similar act of theft to render that music profane and mediocre, whether from worldly motives, malice, perversity, laziness or willful ignorance.

Read the entire letter. (Warning: the linked site seems to be associated with the New Age and so is not generally recommended; unfortunately, it is the only place I could find the letter online.)


A very talented friend of mine, Joshua Vargas, has just started selling prints of his religious paintings and drawings. So far he has three available: “Cor Mariam Immaculatam”, “Cor Jesu Sacratissimum”, and “Nuestra Señora de Coromoto” (patroness of Venezuela). I highly recommend taking a look at these beautiful works on his Facebook page!


One of the best essays that has appeared in First Things in recent months is Patricia Snow’s “Empathy Is Not Charity”, which, inspired by the film and historical novel Silence, takes on the increasingly perverse and destructive ways in which modern people have tried to achieve communion with one another without God. The new commandment of empathy requires not just that we are sorry for others’ sufferings but that we feel what they feel (strangely, only their sufferings, not their joys); in effect, individuality is being broken down, producing a society of codependents. “Empathy solidarity…is Christian solidarity’s demonic counterfeit, one that carries within itself the seeds of its own destruction.” Now research is showing that an overemphasis on empathy actually renders love more neurotic, more selfish and less effective.

Snow points out that the central problem facing the main character of Silence—choice between apostatizing and watching others suffer—bears no resemblance to the reality of Christian persecution in 17th-century Japan, since the real individuals on whom the story is based apostatized not to save others but because they themselves were being tortured. Silence is then a projection of the novelist’s uniquely modern anxieties and concerns. Now, in my view there is nothing wrong with a novelist adapting an historical situation to address modern issues, and I don’t agree with Snow that the novel or film necessarily endorses apostasy, but for the purposes of her truly excellent essay, it doesn’t much matter.


On a very different note, I have often found the Assumption of Mary to be a challenging teaching. Not that it is hard to understand why it occurred, but simply because it is one of the few Catholic teachings that is seemingly entirely absent from the Bible, and because the earliest textual evidence of this belief seems to date back only to the fifth century or so. One must ultimately simply take the Church’s word on the matter, but all the same, I found a recent entry at the Shameless Popery blog very helpful, among other reasons because it provided a Scriptural connection to the Assumption in the disappearance of the Ark of the Covenant (and as we all know, Mary is the living Ark).

Thomas V. Mirus is an administrative assistant and writer at CatholicCulture.org. A jazz pianist with a music degree, he often takes the lead in our commentary on the arts. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Oct. 27, 2017 7:48 AM ET USA

    In order to get a flavor of pre-Vatican I, pre-Vatican II, and post-Vatican II thinking, I grabbed a few commentaries close at hand that lend support to the dogma of the Assumption: Haydock's Rheims NT (1859), Orchard (et al., 1953), and the Navarre Bible (1992). All 3 render an interpretation of Revelation 12:1 as consistent with Mary. Although weak, I have used this verse as Scriptural evidence for this dogma. If a valid reading, then the dogma is supported by more than just positive theology.

  • Posted by: brownjudith2930 - Oct. 27, 2017 1:45 AM ET USA

    Thanks to the analogy between the disappearance of the Ark and Mary (Ark of the New Covenant) - I shall explore this further. I have always referred to Psalm 16:10 as scripture supporting the Assumption: "For you will not leave my soul among the dead, nor let your beloved know decay" (Grail, 1962) as well as the O.T. recording of Elijah being taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot. When dealing with Protestants and encouraging meditation on the Glorious Mysteries, one tries to give scripture.