How the Church’s ‘harsh beauty’ shaped two rock stars

“Pope Francis is a true rock star.” Who says? An actual rock star. Sting, formerly of the Police, attended a general audience recently and went on social media to report that Francis had “a genuine charisma that filled the room”.

So far, so glib, perhaps. But why was Sting at the Vatican in the first place? What is his relationship with Catholicism? This is where things get a little more meaningful.

Listening to Sting speak, one would struggle to catch any trace of a Geordie accent, but Gordon Sumner (his real name) was born on Tyneside in 1951, the son of a hairdresser and a milkman. He grew up near the shipyards. His songs are often laced with nautical themes and imagery.

But Sting also grew up in the Church. He was educated at St Cuthbert’s Grammar, a Catholic boys’ school in Newcastle. As an altar boy, he would have been part of the last generations to serve routinely at the Latin Mass.

Indeed, Sting recently told the National Catholic Register that he loves plainsong and Gregorian chant, and that he still carries some of the cadences of the sung Mass when he composes.

While Sting has been hostile towards organised religion in interviews, one senses a man slowly edging back into at least the outer orbit of his childhood faith. Over the years he has dabbled continuously in the Catholic musical canon. In the 1990s, he sang Panis Angelicus with Pavarotti. In 2004, he gave a concert in Durham Cathedral which included the Marian hymn There Is No Rose of Such Virtue. And he has just written a new setting of the Dies Irae.

While albums like The Soul Cages (1991) and Ten Summoner’s Tales (1993) contained sardonic blasts at what he seemed to perceive as his father’s failed religion, a decade later came Sacred Love, full of songs drenched in Christian imagery and language, belying a gentler, needier, more questioning mindset: “Inside my head’s a box of stars I never dared to open”.

Might that “box of stars” be Catholicism? In his Register interview, Sting was coy about whether he would return to practising the faith: “I have my own church and I’m grateful for my Catholicism but also – I don’t know, I’m not ready yet, like St Augustine.”

There is a curious symmetry between Sting’s story and that of another senior rock colossus, Bruce Springsteen. They are near contemporaries, with Springsteen slightly the older of the two. Both grew up Catholic in working-class communities.

For “The Boss”, this was Freehold, New Jersey. He recalls “business as usual” in a 1950s Catholic school: “my knuckles classically rapped, my tie pulled ’til I choked”. He says it left “a mean taste in my mouth”.

Some of that meanness resurfaces in his early lyrics: “Nuns run bald through Vatican halls pregnant, pleadin’ immaculate conception”. But later on Springsteen seems to begin revisiting the sermons of his youth to help him paint a troubled world where the poor are still “Waiting for when the last shall be first and the first shall be last” (The Ghost of Tom Joad).

Springsteen has proved an attractive subject for American Catholic writers. Back in 1988, Fr Andrew Greeley wrote a 2,800-word essay about him for America, the Jesuit magazine. In the same publication two years ago, Angela Alaimo O’Donnell wrote about “Praying with Bruce Springsteen”. And on Bishop Robert Barron’s Word on Fire website, Fr Damian Ference made this intriguing observation about a song from 2012: “For much of Springsteen’s career the car has been his vehicle of salvation. Think of Thunder Road, Born to Run, Racing in the Streets etc. But on Land of Hope and Dreams, Springsteen introduces us to the train, which carries a lot more people. The train is Springsteen’s metaphor for the Church as a pilgrim people, a people on the move.”

Springsteen is an artist who, as F Scott Fitzgerald put it, can hold “two contrary truths together at the same time”: despair, anger and damnation; and faith, hope and love. For Fr Ference, this is an “undeniable product” of the songwriter’s Catholic imagination.

For his own part, Springsteen tried to capture how the faith moulded him in his 2016 autobiography:

This was the world where I found the beginnings of my song. In Catholicism, there existed the poetry, danger and darkness that reflected my imagination and my inner self. I found a land of great and harsh beauty, of fantastic stories, of unimaginable punishment and infinite reward. It has walked alongside me as a waking dream my whole life.

Rock’n’rollers tend to be apostles of individual liberty. Sting and Springsteen are no different in this respect. All the more intriguing then to see them both casting somewhat longing backward glances at the Church of the original Apostles and the faith of their fathers.

Michael Duggan is a freelance writer

This article first appeared in the August 17 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here