by Father John O'Brien, OFM Profiles in Catholicism
After the Napoleonic wars much of Europe was left in sadness. There were so many dead and wounded, so many families devastated and there was much poverty and hardship. It was in this world Fr. Joseph Mohr served. In 1816 he wrote the words to ‘Silent Night’. He hoped somehow it would bring peace to a troubled world. He served in Austria and he was moved to Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, Austria.
In his church the organ was damaged on Christmas Eve. On Christmas Eve Mohr brought the words he had written to his friend Franz Gruber and he asked him to compose a melody and guitar accompaniment for that night’s Mass. It would not be right not to have music at the Christmas Eve Mass. He felt the need to bring peace to his flock and this ‘SilentNight’ was born. This happened on 24th December 1818.
Karl Mauracher, an organ builder who repaired the organ in Oberndorf, heard the tune and brought it to his village. It spread from village to village. Two familiars of folk singers, the Strassers and the Rainers includedthe song in their shows.
Through them the song reached the ears of Franz I of Austria and Alexander I of Russia. They performed the song in New York in 1839. For a while the names of Mohr and Gruber were forgotten but modern research has rediscovered them. The song spread worldwide. Bing Crosby recorded a version which sold millions of copies (1944).
During the First World War in 1914 troops on both sides sang their versions of Silent Night. An unofficial trucewas called and soldiers from both sides met and peace broke out just for a little while. Fr. Mohr’s vision came true one more time. However there was no repetition of this truce ever again. The High Command did not encourage a repeat because it would be very hard to kill someone you had become friendly with.
Yet the words of Silent Night touch many people from all nations and cultures. the words ‘Silent Night, Holy Night’ is an expression of the deepest reflection and spiritual longing for peace.