The mercy of God is more life-changing than a David Bowie concert

Flowers are left below a mural of David Bowie on the wall of a Morley's store in Brixton, London (Photo: PA)

The Sunday Telegraph printed extracts from a new book by Pope Francis: The Name of God is Mercy, a book-length interview with the Italian journalist, Andrea Tornielli. What interested me in these extracts was a subject the Pope has often referred to and indeed, incorporated into his episcopal motto, “miserando atque eligendo”: an experience of the Sacrament of Confession when he was aged 17.

Pope Francis says: “I don’t have any particular memories of mercy as a young child. But I do as a young man. I think of Fr Carlos Duarte Ibarra, the confessor I met in my parish church on September 21, 1953, the day the Church celebrated St Matthew, the apostle and evangelist. I was 17 years old. On confessing myself to him, I felt welcomed by the mercy of God. Ibarra … was in Buenos Aires to receive treatment for leukaemia. He died the following year. I still remember how when I got home after his funeral and burial, I felt as though I had been abandoned. And I cried a lot that night, really a lot, and hid in my room? Why? Because I had lost a person who helped me feel the mercy of God, that miserando atque eligendo, an expression I didn’t know at the time …

“I learnt about it later, in the homilies of the English monk, the Venerable Bede. When describing the calling of Matthew, he writes: ‘Jesus saw the tax collector and by having mercy chose him as an apostle, saying to him, “Follow me”.’”

I was very moved by the Holy Father’s deeply personal memory and the simplicity and clarity with which he recalled it years later. He wept at the death of the young priest because he knew he had lost the person who, in a brief encounter in the Sacrament of Confession, had performed the greatest office a friend can ever perform: bringing one into the presence of Christ. It proved life-changing for Pope Francis, as it led to his vocation to the priesthood.

I mention this because a friend visited me on Monday. In her younger days as a wild art student (she is now a mother of a large family and a grandmother) she had been a devotee of the music of David Bowie, who died this week. She hadn’t actually wept at the news of his death, but she told me she felt very sad to hear of it. I was curious about this as my own rather boring life had been totally untouched by the Bowie phenomenon. My friend explained that as a teenager, knowing nothing of religious faith, Bowie’s music had temporarily filled a vacuum and “spoken” to her; she had thought of him as “immortal” and so, when he had heard of his death, she had mourned his mortality as well as the memory of her own younger days.

As I am clearly not equipped to give an opinion about David Bowie’s legacy I was interested to read the somewhat critical essay about him by Fr George Rutler, a parish priest in New York, whose books I have reviewed in the Herald. He quotes Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who is known for his love of music: “Rock … is the expression of elemental passions and at rock festivals it assumed a cultic character, a form of worship, in fact in opposition to Christian worship. People are … released from themselves by the experience of being part of a crowd and by the emotional shock of rhythm, noise and special lighting effects. However, in the ecstasy of having all their defences torn down, the participants sink, as it were, beneath the elemental force of the universe. The music of the Holy Spirit’s sober inebriation seems to have little chance when self has become a prison, the mind is a shackle and breaking out from both appears as a true promise of redemption that can be tasted at least for a few moments.”

To be human is to worship. If we don’t discover the true God who has revealed himself to us, not least in the merciful encounter of Confession, as Pope Francis relates, we will worship at the altar of a false god. In reading the adulatory accounts of the life and death of Davie Bowie this week I searched for “the music of the Holy Spirit’s sober inebriation” in Pope Benedict’s arresting phrase – and could not find it.