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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.

  • Patjones

    Nearly all the songs you refer to were written by Paul McCartney, with the exception of Here Comes The Sun – written by George Harrison. You clearly did not read John Lennon's “Playboy” interview where he explains who wrote what!

  • burritobob

    Isn't it disputed? The official credit for Let It Be is Lennon/McCartney.

  • Patjones

    I don't think there is any dispute about Let it be or Blackbird, possibly about Eleanor Rigby (although the main part is almost certainly McCartney). All Beatles songs are credited to Lennon/McCartney even though most of them were either written separately or with minor contributions from each other. For what it is worth I believe there is a lot of Catholicism in Lennon – all be it one we see in many who have lapsed. The spiritual search and the passionate, all be it often distorted, concern for peace and justice.

  • nytor

    “Liverpool Catholicism of pre-Worlock days”

    Ah yes, Worlock, that destroyer of the faith. Most of the current bishops are his acolytes, either in fact (Murphy-O'Connor was his chaplain at one point and Nichols was a Liverpool priest under him) or in spirit.

    That's one reason why they're so utterly un-Catholic.

  • Oliver

    “Let It Be” was written by McCartney. 'Mother Mary' is McCartney's mother, Mary McCartney, who died of cancer when he was fourteen. The song is not a “Marian hymn”.

  • michael

    You don't rest your case, Let It Be is a McCartney tune. This article is ridiculous.

  • W Oddie

    I did not intend to attribute Let it Be to John Lennon. The headline is not mine

  • W Oddie

    The song was produced by 4 named writers, not just by McCartney. And I think you''re wrong.

  • Bill Downey

    All good comments by everyone. My two cents — Lennon never said there wasn't a heaven or hell —- he only asked us to IMAGINE IT ——- not want it. Each person — will have a different thought — -some in the belief that it would be WORSE — some BETTER. My pastor said it best when it came to the Beatles —- first they were HUMANISTS……believing that PEOPLE could change things without GOD. And they learned how wrong they were with there Apple Venture. Second — the YOUTUBE press conference has Lennon saying that he wasn't knocking Christ ——- that he was stating a fact — that they meant more to kids than Christ. We can deny it — but he was right. He was knocking it —- not bragging it. In the end — Lennon was the one who hated the “beatles” thing the most. We can learn from Lennon the lesson of how important it is to have the “biblical” knowledge of real Christian doctrine. That Christ — not people —- will bring a “brotherhood of man.” None other. Otherwise — we'd already be there. I thought it was a positive step for the Beatles/Lennon thing to be forgiven —– because as humanists —- they wrote some great songs —- for many of us — a soundtrack to our childhood. Finally —- the idea of Peace, love, brotherhood, anti-violence — anti-war ———– is certainly going to be in full swing once Christ comes back. Isn't that what he is bringing ?

  • Pat

    So much talk this year about John Lennon. I wonder what is going to happen this year 2010 in regards to John Lennon. Something big folks. Remember the movie 2010 the year we make contact. Well, think of it as 2010 the year we learn the truth about John Lennon. The whole truth and nothing but the truth. Any day now.

  • http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/ The Catholic Herald

    Yes, it was our mistake: the article does not claim that any of the songs are written by John Lennon. The headline, and the picture, have been changed.

  • W Oddie

    The headline (which was to do with John Lennon alone) has now been changed at my request.

  • http://twitter.com/stpetric Steve Petrica

    “Let It Be” is credited to Lennon and McCartney, but it was essentially created by McCartney. In interviews he himself allows ambiguity in interpreting the song, but he does specifically cite his biological mother, Mary (who died when he was 14). However, in concert the song is accompanied by videos of ever-increasing number of candles, arrayed as in votive racks.

  • http://twitter.com/stpetric Steve Petrica

    John Lennon was raised in the Church of England. He went to Sunday School and sang in the choir of St Peter's Church, Woolton, a few blocks from the home of the aunt who was his foster-mother. If there's Catholicism in his childhood its either mediated through Anglicanism, or it dates to his infancy (and so is unlikely to have lodged in his consciousness).

    The more interesting case — which I would like very much to know more about — is George Harrison, who was indeed baptized in the Catholic Church and later in life quite famously cultivated his spiritual life — but he did so through Indian religion. I've long wondered what kind of Catholic upbringing he had, and what his relation was to it.

  • PaulinLodi

    I always remember John Lennon in my prayers after Mass because it was Lennon who inspired me to read English literature, which eventually led me to Belloc, Chesterton, McNabb, Knox and Waugh.

  • Timmsy

    I agree with prior comments. Paul McCartney's biography clearly states that he was the writer of Let it Be (he was the only Beatle to go and accept the Grammy for it) and that it refers to his Mother who died when he was 14.

  • Timmsy

    I agree with prior comments. Paul McCartney's biography clearly states that he was the writer of Let it Be (he was the only Beatle to go and accept the Grammy for it) and that it refers to his Mother who died when he was 14.

  • Michael O'Connor

    McCartney and Harrison may have been Catholic, but they left the Church in spirit for good before they even went to Hamburg. Lennon was raised Anglican and seems to have the best knowledge of the Bible, albeit a spotty one. He constantly references it, usually in a mocking one. He was quite under the influence of people who dismissed Christ's divinity, claiming it was thrust upon him by his disciples. This really resonated with Lennon, who had a classic Christ complex. His ill-advised comment on the Beatles' popularity was no doubt prompted by his immersion in this thinking. BTW he actually became a born-again Christian in the late 70s (following Dylan's lead) but quickly tired of that.

    McCartney's “Let It Be” — who can dispute the authorship with any credibility? — does what great songs can do. He pays homage to his mother with a very “churchy” anthem (organ part mostly). He probably realized quite quickly that his mother's faith and name created a double-layered meaning for the song and played that up. There's no need to hear it as one or the other, but best as both, like lots of great art. His religion since the 60s can best be described as practicing agnostic without offending anyone.

  • Hoops

    I have always thought so, myself. However the problem with Lennon is that he had a gift for suffering. I think a via negativa can be discerned even in Lennon. Perhaps in purgatory (if he's there) he can reflect on his treatment of his first wife and son. I think the movie “Nowhere Boy” was a really poetic insight into malformation and truth-seeking. Even beneath the cross the song” Imagine “might find a place “Eloi eloi lema sabach thani”. Perhaps “Mother is the song of alienation to Mary.

    I think some reflection in this direction might help get a more realistic appreciation of sacramentality and even Evelyn Waugh's idea of grace working behind the scenes with recalcitrant and proud, tortured and torturing souls.

  • Brendan

    You may think Oliver is wrong, but that doesn't change that McCartney has stated fairly firmly that Mother Mary refers to his mother and not Jesus'. In fact, John Lennon ridiculed the song and disavowed any connection to it.

    “John Lennon hated this song because of it's apparent Christian overtones. He made the comment before recording it, “And now we'd like to do Hark The Angels Come.” Lennon saw to it that “Maggie Mae,” a song about a Liverpool prostitute, followed it on the album.”

    What's more “Here Comes the Sun” was written by George, and Eleanor Rigby's lyrics by Paul.

    To call Imagine hateful is dumbfounding. Imagining a world with no heaven or religion is not hateful, but it does challenge people to consider a life of good action for motivations other than a selfish reward. The implication that areligiosity is akin to amorality is a blight on religious commentary at present and only serves to strengthen the arguments of ethical atheists.

    You can rest your case and refuse to listen to Oliver's comments, though such stubbornness demonstrates the terrible quality of your arguments. Still, at least you have shown the courage to disagree with Cardinal Pell. I find myself disagreeing with him as often as I agree.

  • Brendan

    You may think Oliver is wrong, but that doesn't change that McCartney has stated fairly firmly that Mother Mary refers to his mother and not Jesus'. In fact, John Lennon ridiculed the song and disavowed any connection to it.

    “John Lennon hated this song because of it's apparent Christian overtones. He made the comment before recording it, “And now we'd like to do Hark The Angels Come.” Lennon saw to it that “Maggie Mae,” a song about a Liverpool prostitute, followed it on the album.”

    What's more “Here Comes the Sun” was written by George, and Eleanor Rigby's lyrics by Paul.

    To call Imagine hateful is dumbfounding. Imagining a world with no heaven or religion is not hateful, but it does challenge people to consider a life of good action for motivations other than a selfish reward. The implication that areligiosity is akin to amorality is a blight on religious commentary at present and only serves to strengthen the arguments of ethical atheists.

    You can rest your case and refuse to listen to Oliver's comments, though such stubbornness demonstrates the terrible quality of your arguments. Still, at least you have shown the courage to disagree with Cardinal Pell. I find myself disagreeing with him as often as I agree.

  • Brendan

    Regardless, the song Let It Be is not a Marian hymn.

  • Brendan

    Regardless, the song Let It Be is not a Marian hymn.

  • Brendan

    At the foundation of the Beatles, John and Paul agreed to credit all songs either wrote to both of them. This meant they would not fight over whose songs made it on to albums (resulting in one getting more money as a songwriter) and would choose songs on merit. There are many example though, in biography and interviews, where a Lennon/McCartney song is actually understood to be the work of one or the other. See Patjones' comment above.

  • Brendan

    At the foundation of the Beatles, John and Paul agreed to credit all songs either wrote to both of them. This meant they would not fight over whose songs made it on to albums (resulting in one getting more money as a songwriter) and would choose songs on merit. There are many example though, in biography and interviews, where a Lennon/McCartney song is actually understood to be the work of one or the other. See Patjones' comment above.

  • OneTonyGreen

    Interestingly one of John Lennon's ancestors was a priest who left the Roman Catholic priesthood for a woman so you can see the roots of his spirituality and rebellion. Harrison also had Catholicism in his family and with a name like Starkey and being born in the Dingle area of Liverpool the chances are so did Ringo. However it would be hard to see anything but drug induced hedonism and a woolly spirituality in most of their stuff.

  • AML

    Church of England and Catholicism are almost interchangeable, so are the hymns. The Church of England didn't separate with Luther they separated for Henry's ability to get a divorce.

  • MK

    http://www.rock-songs.com/songfacts/let-it-be-b

    Actually, the song was written about his mother, not Our Lady. You're right tho. Whether he intended it or not, it certainly does evoke “Catholic” sentiments…

    However, look at Sergeant Peppers cover. Alasteir Crowley and Karl Marx are in the crowd, among others. Never underestimate the devil to use apparently harmless means to deliver quiet, insidious messages…

    While I recognize their “greatness” from a musical stand point, I cannot condone them from a theological one. I'm with Cardinal Pell on this one….

  • Arthur

    Let me help you deluded people. The beatles were most likley possessed of demons. There is a book out that claims Lennon sold his soul to the devil for 20 years of fame. The devil came for him when it was time. In any event, the devil loves to give special powers to his minions to lead the masses astray, He comes as an angel of light. This is especially true with catchy modern music that mesmerizes and enchants; such as with the beatles. The fatct is that it is really not uplifting music but leaves you empty and depressed.

  • Bob G

    And looking at the news with the recent issues with Mel Gibson, who, of course, did the Passion, we must realize that, except for a few saints, we are all flawed human beings and we must beg God's mercy for ourselves and for all others.

  • Peter

    When John Lennon said that The Beatles were more popular than Jesus, he was not boasting about it – he was complaining about it. The furore among Christians that followed was the result of a realisation that in fact what he said was true – that a four piece band from Liverpool was more popular than Jesus Christ and rather than admit to their own failings in letting Christianity fall into this deplorable state they instead attacked a man who told them the truth. May he rest in peace.

  • JeannieGuzman

    Gee: I hate to throw cold water on this party, but I lived thru the late 60's and early 70's in both the States and in Europe. Ask any old hippie what the “Cloudy” lyrics of this song mean, nine out of ten will probably tell you that “Mother Mary,” absolutely does NOT refer to the Virgin Mary! “Mother Mary” refers to an herbal remedy for depression, blues, arthritis, a hang-over, cancer, chemo-therapy and anything else that may bother you: It refers to Marijuana! If you don't believe me, ask any old hippies in Amsterdam, and 99.9% who are not still totally stoned, with affirm that “Mother Mary” is a universal euphemism for Marijuana!

  • Hilgre

    Let It Be may or may not have been a Marian hymn in origin but it is perceived to be one by young people in deep trouble. During the trial of Amanda Knox in Perugia Italy, RAI news reported how the student accused and later found guilty of murder used to sing this song on her guitar in prison as a form of solace and prayer to Mother Mary.

  • David

    I sometimes wonder if Chesterton had lived to see England in the sixties, this would have been his response.

    “They call themselves the flower children, but if one tends to examine a bit closer they seem to be a bit weeded. ; )

  • johnc

    Their music wasn't that great . You give then too much credit. It's because we live in a time of mediocrity in the arts. What do you have to compare it to?

    I visited the National museum it Ottawa last month. Out tax money payed over 200,000 dollars for a picture that looked like a modified dart board. Everyone stood in awe at the so called ' deeper meaning' of the painting, The Emperor has no clothes.

  • Dunn_2006

    I thought the Mary referred to here was Our Blessed Mother too, but was informed Paul McCartney was referring to his mother Mary. I prefer to think of it in the terms you expressed.

  • tpj

    Imagine no heaven no hell…nufff said…

  • Laurie

    If only they had listened to Mother Mary. I am with Cardinal Pell.

  • Tedsec

    “Let It Be” was a tribute to Paul's deceased mother, Mary.
    The words are about her, from her son who missed her.

  • Tedsec

    “Let It Be” was a tribute to Paul's deceased mother, Mary.
    The words are about her, from her son who missed her.

  • Guest

    There was an Austrian woman by the name of Maria Simma who had been gifted with visits from the souls in purgatory. She was able to ask the souls about many people, and if they were in purgatory or Heaven. She stated in the book “Get Us Out Of Here” that John Lennon is in Heaven. My point is, before you accuse people of being posessed by demons, or selling their souls to the devil, remember that it isn't the people on earth who decide where others go when they die. The final, and only, judge is God.

  • Guest

    There was an Austrian woman by the name of Maria Simma who had been gifted with visits from the souls in purgatory. She was able to ask the souls about many people, and if they were in purgatory or Heaven. She stated in the book “Get Us Out Of Here” that John Lennon is in Heaven. My point is, before you accuse people of being posessed by demons, or selling their souls to the devil, remember that it isn't the people on earth who decide where others go when they die. The final, and only, judge is God.

  • Guest

    There was an Austrian woman by the name of Maria Simma who had been gifted with visits from the souls in purgatory. She was able to ask the souls about many people, and if they were in purgatory or Heaven. She stated in the book “Get Us Out Of Here” that John Lennon is in Heaven. My point is, before you accuse people of being posessed by demons, or selling their souls to the devil, remember that it isn't the people on earth who decide where others go when they die. The final, and only, judge is God.

  • Tipper200822

    Yes, absolutely true. A person can repent in their last breathe and be forgiven. I don't recommend waiting that long, but nevertheless, repentance is the key.

  • Tipper200822

    Yes, absolutely true. A person can repent in their last breathe and be forgiven. I don't recommend waiting that long, but nevertheless, repentance is the key.

  • Tipper200822

    Yes, absolutely true. A person can repent in their last breathe and be forgiven. I don't recommend waiting that long, but nevertheless, repentance is the key.

  • Dan

    You are correct Oliver, but when questioned on the song's meaning McCartney said he was okay with people associating the song with Our Lady.

  • Jmjdaigle

    Beautiful song, but when John Lennon said the Beatles were more popular than God I threw all the albums I bought for my children out the window and burnt them.

  • Sealthebet

    To say that John was defending Christianity (from a comment below) by saying The Beatles ‘were more popular than Jesus now” is accepting the spin. If John had said, he was worried about the state of Christianity and was respectful of Jesus and the disciples …that’s another thing, but what he said:
    “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue with that; I'm right and I will be proved right. We're more popular than Jesus now; I don't know which will go first – rock 'n' roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It's them twisting it that ruins it for me.”
    Where is the defense?
    I always believed that the song ‘Imagine’ (John admitted was anti-religious) was a direct response to Paul and the ‘RAM’ album. Paul used the RAM album to take a parting shot at the Beatles, particularly John. On the back cover is a picture of 2 beetles copulating; on the inside fold is a picture of 2 clowns in a bag (John and Yoko – bagism); and in song lyrics: To Many People – “you took your lucky break and broke it in two” etc. etc. But were there other messages Paul was sending to John on the RAM album. He may have been reminding John of his occult ties. Did John use the occult to achieve fame and fortune? On the back cover of the album is a drawing of the Sun Face (A picture of a sun face may seem innocent enough, but the myths they represent clash with Christianity on every point. Those who turn from Him to “other gods” face destruction) and what looks like a numerology chart directly below it. The strongest message to John may have been the RAM album cover where Paul is pictured holding a ram by the horns. The ram has deep roots in the occult. Satan is frequently pictured as a ram. This is a direct mock of Jesus as mild and meek and a lamb. In the lyrics to the song Ram On, Paul may have been giving John spiritual advice he did not want to hear:
    Paul: “Give your heart to somebody soon right away, right away!”
    John’s response: “Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try, no hell below us above us only sky.”
    In the same way Paul wrote one of his biggest hit records in response to John’s remark, “the world is tired of silly love songs.” Was the song Imagine a direct response to Paul? I believe so!
    Whatever messages Paul was sending to John on the RAM album one thing is certain John immediately went into the studio to respond. If Paul wanted to reach John on the deepest level he may have been reminding him of his occult ties.
    Nothing in the world of The Beatles is simple and clear. As Philip Norman said, “The Beatles is not a normal story, it's a supernatural story, and the pressure was supernatural, and it required supernatural luck to recover from it. And George has recovered from it. He's the one we're going to have to ask about the Beatles, there's no one else to ask now, because Paul won't tell you and Ringo doesn't know. Paul re-writes history, all the time. Ringo – well he just doesn't know, he drank the drink, he smoked the joints, he had the girls and he drummed the drums. That was Ringo. And John isn't here.” (And now George is no longer here to tell)
    Supernatural is not a word to be used lightly.

    Father Oddie! Have you ever listened to the song Serve Yourself by John Lennon, here’s a link: I guess I missed his ‘sense-of-humor’.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oXd25Jqi7G0

  • Julie

    Their music wasn't that great? It's over 40 years since they broke up and their music is still being played and resonating throughout the music industry. In another 40 years it will still be played and written about. Name one musical artist of today that's better and whose music will be last. There is none. What an idiotic comment to make. Comparing the Beatles to your “national museum in Ottawa” is ludicrous and is irrelevant. The museum thanks you for coming to see the Emperor. *LMAO*