The Beatles never entirely shook off the Catholicism of their youth

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.