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The Beatles never entirely shook off the Catholicism of their youth

Their songs included powerful and touching hymns to Mary and to creation

By on Monday, 19 July 2010

The Beatles grew up in Liverpool at a time when Catholic children learnt all the basic prayers by heart (CNS file photo/Capitol Records)

The Beatles grew up in Liverpool at a time when Catholic children learnt all the basic prayers by heart (CNS file photo/Capitol Records)

I find myself in an unusual and slightly strange situation: I am in disagreement with Cardinal George Pell. This has never happened to me before, and I’m not sure that I like it. In a sermon last week, the cardinal had a go at the Beatles, and in particular John Lennon, whom he described as “the best known of the Beatles, who once claimed they were better known than Jesus Christ”.

Well, so he did: but John Lennon wasn’t the same phenomenon at all as the Beatles. Cardinal Pell attacked in particular Imagine, in which, as the cardinal reminds us, “Lennon urged his listeners to dream of a world where there was no heaven, no hell… Lennon was working for a peace resulting from the disappearance of religion… We are gathering some of the fruits of his mistaken teaching today…” All true: but Imagine had nothing to do with the Beatles, it was a much later solo production.

Imagine is undoubtedly a hateful piece, with all that ludicrous blether about “the brotherhood of man”, which reminded me at the time of something Harold Macmillan, that great friend of Mgr Ronnie Knox, once said: “How can you have the brotherhood of man, if you don’t accept the Fatherhood of God?”

But I repeat: John Lennon wasn’t the Beatles. And as Cardinal Pell also said: “The Beatles had more than a touch of genius.” As the Osservatore Romano put it: “It’s true… swept up by their success, they lived dissolute and uninhibited lives, but, listening to their songs, all of this seems distant and meaningless. Their beautiful melodies… live on like precious jewels.”

One could go on and on, not simply about the melodies, but the words: the pathos and deep understanding of loneliness of Eleanor Rigby; the almost Chestertonian gratitude for the beauty of creation that comes over in songs like Here Comes the Sun, and:

Blackbird singing in the dead of night
Take these broken wings and learn to fly
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to arise

John Lennon, in particular, seems to have totally shaken off the Catholicism of his childhood: but did he really? And what about the rest of them? They were brought up, don’t forget, in the Liverpool Catholicism of pre-Worlock days, when children learned all the basic Catholic prayers by heart: that tends to stick, even if at an unconscious level. And on at least one occasion, it emerges fully in what is for me the most beautiful (in both words and melody) of all their songs, Let It Be: a title and refrain which surely in context can only be a reference to the Angelus response “let it be to me according to your word”, which they must all have repeated hundreds of times. And if this song isn’t a most touching and powerful Marian hymn, I don’t know what else it could possibly be. It’s surely quite explicit:

When I find myself in times of trouble
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be

And in my hour of darkness
She is standing right in front of me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be

Let it be, let it be
Let it be, let it be
Whisper words of wisdom
Let it be….

And when the night is cloudy
There is still a light that shines on me
Shine on until tomorrow, let it be
I wake up to the sound of music
Mother Mary comes to me
Speaking words of wisdom, let it be…

Listen to it again, all the way through; I cannot even read its lyrics out loud without tears. I rest my case.

  • Julie

    Imagine when you die, you're gone forever. No one morns, no long lost relatives or loved ones waiting for you on the other side to take your hand. Imagine…That's why it's called FAITH. Perhaps when you die, you will prefer to go, as George Carlin said, to a garage in Buffalo.

  • Julie

    It's ironic that people who don't believe in God, or the Blessed Mother, believe in movies about Mayan culture and the end of the world in 2012. I believe in the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy before I believe a movie from Hollywood about anything. You say you don't believe in Santa? Tell me, what does this person Santa who you don't believe in, look like? What color of suit does he wear? What color is his hair? Does he have a beard? And for the record, I firmly believe in God, and His Blessed Mother.

  • McCartney uses hair dye

    Playboy….now there's a bastion of journalistic integrity. *LMAO*

  • john grosvenor

    But to whom do we repent? Ehich one of the many gods on offer? It could be important to pick the right one. Then thinking about it it's probably safer to remain an atheist, because if one day we end up on our knees in front of the great tooth fary she may say to me that I had lead a dcent ,charitable and honest life and let me into the great wherever. But may look upon others as those that believed in a false god despatch you quickly to that other place. Oh well back to my mother mary

  • John g s

    Its about a MARY JANE which is POT!


    When I find myself in times of trouble= When I am down.

    Mother Mary comes to me=someone gets me weed(MARY JANE)

    Speaking words of wisdom, let it be And in my hour of darkness=He is toking the MARY JANE for song ideas(Wisdom) at night.

    She is standing right in front of me( his looking at the MARY JANE vertical in his hand after a toke of it) Speaking words of wisdom, let it be= the high for being buzzed with weird thinking for songs(CREATIVITY)

    Let it be, let it be Let it be, let it be= Not a Holy Amen but let it stay lite to smoke and inhale as he looks at it.

    Whisper words of wisdom( now that I am high giving me song Ideas) Let it be…. Stay lite… smoke

    And when the night is cloudy= He is so high not able to be lucid!

    There is still a light that shines on me=the light of the Mary JANE as he puffs to what?

    Shine on until tomorrow, let it be= keep smoking and watching the shine of light from the MARY JANE because its a buzz for ideas

    I wake up to the sound of music=More creative ideas come with music in my mind or while other music is playing also

    Mother Mary comes to me=He lites up another MARY JANE

    Speaking words of wisdom, let it be…=Bringing more song ideas to him so good let it be… and so on…

    He is a stoned song writer.

    This is the period of their heavy drug use. Remember Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds= LSD trip!

    Also the Satanist Alester Crowley's picture is next to Mae West and Marilyn Monroe on the Album “Sergent Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band”

    What does that tell you?

  • Ablemom

    Let it Be is not a depressing song. I guess people who have no real hope in God, or anything good, think everything is depressing. Even Mother Theresa felt depressed at times. Anyone who claims someone sold their soul to the devil, is doing the same thing when they judge. Jesus warned about judging. Priests and Pastors who judge humanists, might try to remember that they are are human too – at least while they survive struggling to fit themselves into heaven. No one can change anything without God, because God created everything and everyone. Music is the universal language. Jesus said, where two or more of you agree on anything and ask in my name, it will be done. Lennon and McCartney agreed together to write this song. Who knows whether either of them asked in Christ's name that that they could sing it, write it, record it, and it would be re-played and liked? It happened. It's not demonic – its harmonic. Maybe in another few decades, it will be accepted as a Marian hymn. So what and who really cares if any one of the Beatles were in their minds, singing about Jesus's mother, Paul's mother, John's Aunt Mimi (Mary Elizabeth) and Mary Jane! We inhale incense at Mass too. At least Paul, and John, like the apostles, got people thinking and imagining giving peace a chance.

  • RidersontheStorm

    Like an artist creating a work does not attach instructions for what one is to perceive in it – that is left up to oneself to perceive in it whatever one wants

  • Jim

    Nor was he raised a Catholic. He was raised Anglican. Get your facts straight — seriously. This information has been out there since 1964. If nothing else, read Wiki before you write.

  • Georgia

    yes it was written about his mother, under the name of the beatles, but you can also take it in a catholic way aswell, so they aren't technically wrong, you can take it in more than one manner.

  • Georgia

    let it be was not a drug song, do you know why it was written!? but i have to agree, with you about lucy in the sky with diamonds though…

  • Bfawcett

    It should be noted that Steve Turner records in his book *The Gospel According to the Beatles* that John Lennon had a “born-again phase” near the end of his life. (The relevant chapter is online at the Christianity Today website.) It lasted for a few months, but apparently he was taking it seriously enough that he was going to church and writing worship songs; when Yoko challenged him he at one point accused her of colluding with Satan in her occultic practices. Still, her influence won out in the end and he abandoned his fledgling Christian commitment, and he became increasingly antagonistic to the Faith as he drew closer to the end of life. One can only hope that this was him kicking against the pricks, and if Maria Simma’s testimony is to be trusted he finally stopped kicking at some point.

  • Bfawcett

    Also, back in February of last year Ringo Starr announced that he had found God again and was attending an Evangelical church in Liverpool.

  • Olli

    Speaking about the catholic background of the beatles, don’t forget to ponder where their ‘choral’ sound of singing came from. My thesis is that The Beatles were the ones to introduce the music of the Catholic Church to pop, rock, and whatnot.

  • Thomas Girvan

    Paul McCartney’s mother was called Mary. It’s not a reference to the Virgin Mary.
    John Lennon was Protestant.
    Ringo was Protestant and his mother came from an Orange family.
    George Harrison was baptised Catholic but was never con firmed.
    He rejected Catholicism at an early age.
    It’s all in the Beatles Anthology.