Joseph Mohr – a saint? (#9)

In the previous blogs we hav been thinking about the story behind the individual verses of SILENT NIGHT.

Has everything been said already? Oh no, not at all! Today’s topic: Joseph Mohr, the priest

There exist many deeply moving, beautiful legends – also about Silent Night. But Silent Night is somehow different, isn’t it? Isn’t this song more than „beautiful“?

Should we ask philosophers, theologians, or maybe artists about that? They all would have a lot to say about it!

I want to take a different path with you: I want to meet directly the two creators of Silent Night, Joseph Mohr and Franz Xaver Gruber.

Today we are going to look at, or rather to meet the priest Joseph Mohr. In the following blog, we will meet the teacher, Franz Xaver Gruber. And in the blog after that – just before Christmas – we’ll be thinking about the encounter of these two.

Imagine, more than 200 years ago, in 1792, when Joseph Mohr was born, an archbishop ruled Salzburg as a spiritual prince, that meens, a ruler over “heaven and earth”. The bourgeoisie, however, after the French Revolution began to emancipate themselves. Structures and traditions that had grown over the centuries, began to dissolve. The good Lord and his “representatives on earth” have lost their power. Now the individual person had to take on responsibility! The saints have had their day! What a challenge! The era of enlightenment is also an era of the search for identity. In other words, a time of serious upheavals in church and society, with painful tensions between preservation and new beginnings.

Joseph Mohr was born in Salzburg. His mother Anna Schoiber was unmarried. She named the deserted soldier Joseph Mohr (senior) as the father. The baby’s godfather was the wealthy executioner Wohlmuth! He wanted to do something good, too! Children of unmarried mothers were considered to be a shame on society, „children of sin“ for the Church! Anna had to pay a fine for that. In the fornication protocol (= whore protocol) she stated that she had committed a „carnal crime“ on the Mönchsberg. Anna had four children – from different men! So: not a good reputation! What a humiliation! Joseph Mohr was born into these social circumstances! It was a world from where petty criminals also came from!

Do you dare to judge Anna Schoiber? No, right?! We feel for her, don’t we? What lies behind this? At the age of 8, Anna lost her father, who had been a Salt Secretary in Hallein. Especially at this age, her longings as a young girl were awakening, she would have needed him so urgently. She was left alone with her dreams. When she moved to the city of Salzburg, she also lost her friends of Hallein. She made her living in Salzburg as a knitter, yet the longing for love remaind.

We do not know whether Anna was gentle with little Joseph. But love, which perhaps only consisted in longing, made the boy so strong that this love became music in the little Joseph. His voice was so beautiful that the cathedral choir vicar Hiernle discovered him for the boys‘ choir in St. Peter and enabled him to have an education. This is how Joseph Mohr came to the priesthood. Was that a voluntary decision? In any case, Mohr was a thoroughbred musician. At the aage of twelve he was already playing the violin in the university orchestra in the Kollegienkirche – balm for his self-confidence! When during the Napoleonic period (1809/1810) things were really bad for everyone in Salzburg, Mohr earned his studies as a musician in the monastary Kremsmünster. – but: registered as an orphan! Only Hiernle is named as a foster father. How’s that?

Did Joseph Mohr deny his mother? Had he repressed his origin? I think such dark sides of life were just taboo. A musician knows “God and the world”, plays his role in society and in church life – there was simply no space for shame! I see Mohr as someone who had covered up his inner turmoil in everyday life with music and actionism. He is also said to have had a rebellious character traits towards the church authorities. I think he was a devout daredevil with a numbed guilty conscience! And how was he doing in his first post as a priest in Mariapfarr?

In the city of Salzburg Joseph Mohr had played his role. As a musician embedded in social life, successful in studying theology, open to modern Enlightenment thinking, viewed as a budding priest,…. And now in Mariapfarr? Far away from friends in the city of Salzburg, arduous country life, working in agriculture, alone in the cold parsonage! Did his fellow priests understand all these new ideas this young priest brought from the city?. “What do I do with my theology now?” he may have asked himself.

Now, in the loneliness his personal fate, repressed throughout his life, came mercilessly in his mind. „Who am I, what do I want, what am I able…?“. All these questions a pure torment – consciousness of shame? His vocation and his ideals as a priest, his longing for love, all that must have drawn his heart. I am very sure that he spent many nights crying.

Lying crouched on the floor in pain, feeling alone, abandoned by any theology – – then at Christmas: “Look! – I am not alone, I have a brother, helpless as a child like me! I am also safe like in the arms of my mother! ”The pain of birth was now turning into joy! His theology suddenly took on life – trust and hope. „I am not a child of shame, but a child of love“. Joseph Mohr puts his joy in a poem: Silent Night. He wrote it just for himself – until two years later he found a friend to share it with. Franz Xaver Gruber, a teacher in Arnsdorf.

We’ll meet him in the next blog.

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