AM NOT SURE if the name of Cardinal Virgilio Noè is familiar to my readers. I think it should be. Virgilio Cardinal Noè (30 March 1922 – 24 July 2011) was an Italian Roman Catholic prelate. In 1970, he was appointed the first Master of Pontifical Liturgical Celebrations by Pope Paul VI, and continued on for some time under John Paul II. Indeed, if you look at a photo from 1979, you will see Saint John Paul II celebrating Mass at Yankee Stadium on one of his trips to the USA with Virgilio Noè at his side.
He was very involved in liturgical reforms, considered always on the progressive side, and served in several high level positions in the curia, including being Secretary for the Congregation of Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. John Paul II made him a cardinal in 1991 and it is because of this that I came to know him quite well.
In 1990 I started singing in the Capitular Choir at Saint Peter’s Basilica, and there in 1993 I was offered the position of substitute organist for the Vatican City Vicariate. Cardinal Noè became Archpriest of the Basilica in those years and was my superior. Maybe you think that he did not care, as many prelates, about who was playing and what was played. You would be hugely wrong. He would listen to everything that was sung and played, and at the end of the Mass would wait for the singers and organist in the sacristy to present them with a list of mistakes, according his own judgment. You may also think that he would just talk in general terms: you would be hugely wrong a second time. He would include the smallest of details, down to the number of seconds the organist should wait before starting the second part of a reciting tone in a psalm. One day, he was waiting for me in the sacristy and commented that my left hand did not know what my right hand was doing. It was his way of saying that I did not play very well that day.
CARDINAL NOÈ WAS AN IMPOSING FIGURE, respected and feared in the Curia. He was very kind in his dealings with other people, but wasn’t easy to approach. There was always a clear distance between him and others. Even if my liturgical sensitivity has developed in a way that is different from that of Cardinal Noè, I cannot deny that he taught me a lot. Among the things I cannot forget is the attention to detail and the need for care regarding the décor of liturgical rite.
He retired from his position as archpriest in 2002. He started to have health issues and was forced to a wheelchair. I visited him often, even after I relocated to Macau where I currently reside. Every time I visited Rome I would call and visit him in his apartment in Piazza della Citta’ Leonina, the same building as Cardinal Ratzinger. During my visits his attitude was different; I feel he was grateful that I still remembered him and he was always very happy to receive my books, many of them having something to do with liturgy. We talked about many things, including my difficulties and challenges in Asia. I enjoyed listening to him recall the people he met, many of them of historical importance.
Cardinal Virgilio Noè died in July of 2011, at the age of 89. He was a man of great culture, strong positions and ideas, and was one of the protagonists of a turbulent period in church history. What his legacy is will be asked to future historians.
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