Some of You Thought I Was Wrong About Patti Smith. You May Be Right, But…

Some of You Thought I Was Wrong About Patti Smith. You May Be Right, But… November 16, 2014

Well now!  Yesterday, I wrote about Pope Francis’ invitation to Patti Smith
to sing in the Vatican’s annual Christmas Concert.  Both the Italian newspaper Il Corriere della Sera and the International Business Times reported that Smith is one of the artists invited to perform at the annual Concerto di Natale, which will take place Dec. 13 at Auditorium Conciliazione and will be televised live on Italian television.

I thought the punk rocker was an odd selection, considering the preponderance of great Catholic singers who would do somersaults, were they to receive such an invitation.

Wow, did I get an earful!  Some of you thought that it was a wonderful idea–that Pope Francis was reaching out to someone who needed Jesus, and that this was a missionary opportunity for Patti Smith and her fans.  Others agreed with me that her notorious lyrics (“Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine”) disqualified her from singing in a Catholic concert.

On the “Pro-Patti” side, Deacon Greg Kandra was the first of several people to point out that her more recent performances have been more restrained, and that she’s even included some Christian selections.  And (oh my!) that she performed in last year’s Vatican Christmas Concert, as well.  (That last makes me even more curious about why no one in Rome suggested that they instead give someone else a chance this year.)

Someone else sent a YouTube video of Smith singing “Constantine’s Dream”–which is about St. Francis of Assisi.

On Twitter, one person wrote that “evangelization is a dead letter if it is limited to practicing Catholics.”

Here, as evidence of the dramatic change in her repertoire, is Patti Smith singing “O Holy Night.”

But on the other side, opposing the controversial singer, is the Italian Catholic organization Portosalvo.  Portosalvo has protested Smith’s scheduled concert in Naples, Italy, on December 9, calling it “potentially blasphemous.”

One commenter on Facebook, Brian Williams, offered a thoughtful reflection:

The Church today seems to react to culture instead of influencing it. Maybe the Church could once again be patrons of the arts?…just a thought. Also, not every moment or event, needs to be excused away by stating, “maybe people will convert”…and therefore we forego beauty…or God forbid, tradition. Let’s try occasionally to evangelize the world by presenting them something true, objectively beautiful and counter-cultural.

So who’s right?  I think you can make a strong case either way.  I am sympathetic with those who see it as an opportunity for evangelization–but my personal view is that this is not a confessional, this is a public performance, and we should be putting our best foot forward.  Patti Smith’s discordant riffs are hard on the ear–at least, hard on my ear.

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Veering slightly off-topic:  I learned recently that the classic hymn “O Holy Night”, which Patti Smith sings in the video above, was actually penned by an atheist.  In 1843, in the small town of Roquemaure in southern France, the church organ was renovated.  To celebrate the event, the parish priest asked wine merchant and poet Placide Cappeau to write a Christmas poem.  Cappeau, a professed anti-clerical and atheist, wrote the lyrics to “O Holy Night.”

Shortly after, French composer and music critic Adolphe Adam wrote the music.  The song was premiered in Roquemaure by the French opera singer Emily Laurey in 1847.

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