Philadelphia glorifies God in a beautiful autumn surprise

Sometimes people do such lovely things that the blogger is forced to turn his back, just for a moment, on the differences, the anger, the bitterness, the paranoia, the spite, the wrangling, the logic-chopping, the anathemas that (angrily, spitefully and bitterly) he customarily feeds on and to reflect that nice people (and perhaps nasty people, too) sometimes do nice things.

That’s how I felt, anyway, when I saw this clip (thanks, Fr Z) of more than 600 choristers apparently breaking into an impromptu performance of the Hallelujah Chorus at Macy’s department store in Philadelphia. It was a “random act of culture”. Do look at it.

Maybe I am an old softie, but I smiled, and perhaps shed half a tear, when I played the clip. It was fitting that the random act should have happened in Philadelphia, which, if you forget its huge, grey, menacing Masonic temple, is rather an enchanting city, very 18th century, but a bit 17th century. It was the first capital of the United States, and in the 18th century was the largest English-speaking city in the world after London. In the 1730s it was the only city in the British Empire where Mass could be celebrated in public. William Penn, the pacifist Quaker who founded Philadelphia and gave his name to Pennsylvania, meant it when he said he believed in religious freedom.

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The local Catholics were quite a presentable bunch, and rather establishment-minded. St Mary’s Catholic church in Philadelphia was the site of the first public religious commemoration of the Declaration of Independence: on 4 July, 1779, Mass was sung before the Continental Congress, the President, and the French and Spanish Ministers.

John Adams, second president of the US and a bit of a puritan, once visited the St Mary’s and wrote about it in a letter to his wife Abigail: “The music, consisting of an organ and a choir of singers, went all the afternoon except sermon time, and the assembly chanted most sweetly and exquisitely. Here is everything that can lay hold of eye, ear, and imagination, everything which can charm and bewitch the simple and ignorant. I wonder how Luther ever broke the spell.”

Cheeky booger, Adams, but he was a sound, conservative fellow. As the first American minister to the Court of St James, he had an emotional meeting with George III in the early summer of 1785. “Sir,” he said to his former sovereign, “the United States of America have appointed me their Minister Plenipotentiary to your Majesty . . . It is in Obedience to their express Commands that I have the Honour to assure your Majesty of their unanimous Disposition and Desire to cultivate the most friendly and liberal Intercourse between your Majesty’s Subjects and their Citizens . . . I think myself more fortunate than all my fellow Citizens in having the distinguished Honor to be the first to stand in your Majesty’s royal Presence in a diplomatic Character…”

The King replied: “I wish you Sir, to believe, and that it may be understood in America, that I have done nothing in the late Contest, but what I thought myself indispensably bound to do, by the Duty which I owed to my People. I will be very frank with you. I was the last to consent to the Separation, but the Separation having been made and having become inevitable, I have always said, as I say now, that I would be the first to meet the Friendship of the United States as an independent Power… let the Circumstances of Language; Religion and Blood have their natural and full Effect.”

They were better men in those days.

A final English connection: William Cobbett lived in Philadelphia as an unashamed and unapologetic monarchist from 1793 to 1800, when he had to return quickly to England to avoid the consequences of a lawsuit brought against him by Dr Benjamin Rush, one of the Founding Fathers. Cobbett had accused the good doctor of killing patients (among them George Washington) through his bleeding and purging technique. Some people are easily offended.

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