Don’t sing unless it’s in Maltese!
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Don’t sing unless it’s in Maltese!

Last week, at a funeral in Gżira, the parish priest forbade the singing of Panis Angelicus, a most beautiful, soulful song written by none other than St Thomas Aquinas. The reason, the kappillan argued vociferously, was that it was not in Maltese.

Erm. Come again? Yes, he said, Panis was not in Maltese and therefore mhux fer ħej, people would not have been able to understand the lyrics. It did not matter to the parish priest that the distraught relatives of the dearly departed were upset because they could not bid their family member farewell with his favourite song.

It did not matter to the parish priest that this was a classic song, historically entrenched in the traditions of the Church. No, what mattered was that the flag of the Maltese language was held up high. Panis Angelicus? Pfft. Give us a whiny Nersqu Lej’ l-Artal any time.

I hope the Archbishop choked on his breakfast the morning the story of Fr Carmelo Tanti came out. And I hope he summoned him over and made him write on some Curia blackboard ‘Latin is the official language of the Church’ a thousand times. And after that, I hope that the parish priest was given a karaoke set and made to sing O Sanctissima and Salve Regina over and over. These beautiful, centuries-old hymns, which enlighten the spirit, whether you are Catholic or not and whether you understand Latin or not, ought to heal Fr Tanti of his bizarre approach to life and language.

The story is incredulous on many counts. First of all, there is the fact that we are talking about a funeral. Not any ordinary Mass, or wedding or one of them happy-clappy ‘rock Masses’.

This is a closure Mass, the Mass where the congregation is made up of people who are there to pay their respects to the departed, where relatives and friends are grieving, distraught, heartbroken, because they have to suddenly come to terms with a life without the person they love. Instead, the Malta-flag-wearing parish priest ‘informed’ the family of his decision a day earlier. Erm, and how does that make it right? In case he mistook his job description for a tedious technocrat, a priest’s job is first and foremost to comfort souls at the hour of need and if for them a song in Latin was important, then so be it.

It could have been in Mandarin Chinese or Africaans, for all I know. The point is that as long as it is a song which fits within the rites of the Church, then the language is irrelevant. It is called empathy.

Secondly, the priest defended his position by saying the funeral was being held during a scheduled Mass and said: “I do not think it is right for people to come to church for Mass and then hear something they do not understand.” Which makes me very worried about what they teach seminarians during their long years of study. Don’t they touch slightly on the psychology of singing, seeing that there’s a lot of it happening in church?

As long as it is a song which fits within the rites of the Church, then the language is irrelevant

Singing is not about understanding the lyrics. Singing is therapeutic. In Italian there’s a saying which goes canta che ti passa – Fr Tanti is probably scowling at this point because it’s not in Maltese, but he’ll be pleased to know that the meaning encourages people to let out all their steam with singing and all will be better.

With singing in church, it does not matter if you don’t know the words, you can hum, or you can just sit and listen – the fact that you are doing so among a crowd of people is very uplifting. The language of music is international: can you imagine if we all had to shut up and sulk on New Year’s Eve because we don’t know the meaning of the Auld Lang Syne lyrics?

Lastly, Fr Tanti said he “appreciated” the Maltese language so much and could not understand how the people were so happy when Maltese had been accepted as an official EU language but then “did not give the new hospital a Maltese name”. Presumably he wanted Mater Dei hospital to be called Omm Alla, so we’ll have people saying “Isma’, dil-bus tmur s’għand Omm Alla?”

Clearly our man in Gżira needs to think a bit outside the box to address his parochial language question issues.

All he needs to do next time someone asks for Panis Angelicus is put up a projector and a screen with the translation during Mass, and then sing along: Panis Angelicus/fit panis hominum/Dat panis cœlicus/figuris terminum/O res mirabilis!/Manducat Dominum/Pauper, servus et humilis.

May the Bread of Angels/Become bread for mankind/The Bread of Heaven puts/All foreshadowings to an end/Oh, thing miraculous!/This body of God will nourish/the poor, the servile and the humble.

krischetcuti@gmail.com
Twitter: @KrisChetcuti

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