“Masses on earth and prayers in heaven”

Flyer for performance of Elgar’s Gerontius for Papal visit to England 2010
I make this posting this evening because an elderly priest, a very dear man and a faithful priest for over sixty years, greeted me on the campus mall this evening and recited by heart the final lines of Newman’s Gerontius. There was a tear in his eye. We were just chatting about the ailments of age, such as the decline of memory, sight, and energy. (I, a spry 60, too begin to suffer them); he said that his memory is “fragmented” and he remembers things he probably has no need to remember. But then he tossed out the following from Newman’s Gerontius, the final lines which the guardian angel addresses to the soul of Gerontius as he is lowered into purgatory. A very fine memory I should say, to recall them on the fly.
Softly and gently, dearly-ransom’d soul,
       In my most loving arms I now enfold thee,
And, o’er the penal waters, as they roll,
       I poise thee, and I lower thee, and hold thee.
And carefully I dip thee in the lake,
       And thou, without a sob or a resistance,
Dost through the flood thy rapid passage take,
       Sinking deep, deeper, into the dim distance.
Angels, to whom the willing task is given,
       Shall tend, and nurse, and lull thee, as thou
And masses on the earth, and prayers in heaven,
       Shall aid thee at the Throne of the Most
Farewell, but not for ever! brother dear,
       Be brave and patient on thy bed of sorrow;
Swiftly shall pass thy night of trial here,
       And I will come and wake thee on the morrow.
I found these lines a source of great hope, and I too held back a tear. I recalled to this priest the joy of discovering Newman’s Gerontius (found here) on my first week in St Andrews, Scotland, while beginning sabbatical study in 2001; Elgar’s musical version was performed one evening at Younger Hall  by the St Andrews Chorus. I think it was this experience of Elgar’s Gerontius that led me to devour the Parochial and Plain Sermons during the long nights off the North Sea and to make a Newman pilgrimage to Oxford that spring upon the invitation of Professor Peter Hodgson.

 Newman’s poem relates the journey of a pious man’s soul
from his deathbed to his judgment before God and settling into Purgatory. Newman said that “it came into my head to write it, I really can’t tell how. And I wrote on till it was finished, on small bits of paper, and I could no more write anything else by willing than I could fly.” We are conducted beyond the veil of the material and temporal to the presence of the invisible God and the judgment seat before which each soul must stand.I have five additional posts on The Dream of Gerontius (find them by looking on the labels index to the right)

In 1900 Elgar wrote an 2 part oratorio (a musical composition for solo voices,
chorus, orchestra, and organ) based upon the poem. It is widely regarded as Elgar’s finest choral work. It was composed for the Birmingham Music Festival of 1900 and first performed on 3 October in Birmingham Town Hall. In 2010 it was performed in honor of Pope Benedict’s visit to England for the beatification of Cardinal Newman. The performance in St Andrews in 2001 was quite moving. The Scots (presbyterians amongst them) were enthralled by the hymns about purgatory. Many in the audience appeared to be deeply moved at its beauty and stirred by its deep hope, despite its Catholic thematic.

What parting words  of faith and hope: “Farewell, but not for ever! brother dear.” And counsel for us all even here on earth below: “Be brave and patient on thy bed of sorrow. Swiftly shall pass thy night of trial here.” As we are assured of “prayers in heaven” let us do our part to offer “masses on earth” for our departed brothers and sisters that they may wake into glory.

Sunday 18 March 2001


  1. Lest we forget: "Chinese" Gordon, the British general leading the losing battle against the self proclaimed Mahdi on the war path in Egypt, was reading the 'Dream of Gerontius' as he awaited the certain death at the hands of the attackers, even as they were at his door.
    He too found comfort in Hopkins inspired words.I believe it was this story that first inspired Elgar, who was given this copy for a wedding present.

  2. correction to previous comment- Gordon died while under attack in Khartoum in the Sudan.

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