Conducting the Symphony of Truth

Harmony Brings Diversity Into Unity, But Not Uniformity

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When I was in high school, I went to the symphony for the first time. I was impressed by the sound, the acoustics of Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center. But I didn’t get the conductor. He didn’t play any instrument, and the musicians all had the music in front of them, anyway. Seemed like useless hand-waving, window dressing to me. Non-essential.

Like so many high school thoughts of mine, it was dead wrong. If we human beings are to do anything together, there must be a person to focus on, who coordinates our efforts toward the intended goal. A six skull crew boat could shed weight by ditching the coxswain, but at the price of the concerted strike that is the secret of their speed.

During his homily on Pentecost Sunday, Pope Francis spoke of the Holy Spirit’s role in the Church. His three-word (oh, how Jesuit) summary was “newness, harmony and mission.” The Holy Spirit is the source of many different gifts. (Though we name seven specific gifts, the number seven is also symbolic of fullness.) So it would seem that the Spirit is a source of diversity and confusion, like the different tongues at the Tower of Babel.

But the Holy Spirit is harmony. “One of Fathers of the Church has an expression which I love: the Holy Spirit himself is harmony – ‘Ipse harmonia est’. He is indeed harmony.” Harmony brings diversity into unity, but not uniformity.

We have all been to 5th grade band recitals with seven trumpets, five trombones, ten clarinets, eight flutes and the kid who was born to play the tuba, embracing his destiny. Jingle Bells thumps, unjinglingly, along: bum-bum-bum, bum-bum-bum, bum-BUM-bum-bum-BUUM… The band director does all she can do to keep them in rhythm. But the music is uniform.

It is a victory over total cacophony, but, -to borrow Robert Frost’s phrase- “still artless, uninspired, unenhanced.”

Now, the New York Philharmonic is a different story. It is a true symphony. Different sounds and rhythms arranged and brought into harmony. There is a unity of key and of purpose, not merely a uniformity of rhythm. It is unity through and despite the diversity of musical instruments, tonal qualities and dynamics. And it is glorious. And the person who brings it together is the conductor.

In the Church, it is the power of the Holy Spirit that helps bring diverse gifts together for the same mission, who helps us appreciate diversity and not manufacture it artificially (for there is nothing lamer than fake diversity.)  His Holiness said, “Only the Spirit can awaken diversity, plurality and multiplicity, while at the same time building unity. Here too, when we are the ones who try to create diversity and close ourselves up in what makes us different and other, we bring division.”

As our wonderful parish choir director says, “To blend, you have to be able to hear a voice, a part that is not the one you are singing.” If in our work for the Church we can only hear ourselves, we probably are out of tune.

On this Solemnity of Pentecost, as she conducted us through Gabriel Faure’s Cantique de Jean Racine, I knew that we could not do it without her. She brought the diverse voices into a unity. She was doing for us what the Holy Spirit does, invisibly, for the Church.

But the Spirit assists the Holy Father in a special way. He conducts the 1.4 billion piece orchestra which is the Catholic Church. He reminds us what the notes are (for if we are off the page, we are not into unity with the Church), but no tone quality or culture is out of place. The pastors of the Church, and the Supreme Pastor above all, animated by the Holy Spirit’s special help, are the von Karajans that bring us into harmony. “Journeying together in the Church, under the guidance of her pastors who possess a special charism and ministry, is a sign of the working of the Holy Spirit,” Pope Francis reminded us.

Pentecost repairs Babel. It is a diversity that blossoms in unity, not uniformity. It is a unity made up of many gifts, many voices singing the same tune. It is symphonic.

Pentecost is the birthday of the Church. At my house, we always have a cake and candles. Those little fires and the breath that blows them out are traditional symbols of the Holy Spirit. But I may start a new tradition this year. As we sing Happy Birthday to the Church, in thanksgiving for the gift of the Spirit and of the Papacy, I think I’ll wave a baton.

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Reprinted with permission from the Gregorian Institute at Benedictine College.

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Edward Mulholland

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