Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Ostensus et datus

Many of us are still strongly attracted to the memory of The Smiling Pope, Pope John Paul I (Papa Luciani)

Someone with a particular devotion is Lori Pieper, SFO, Ph.D in her fine blog On Pilgrimage

She has devoted more than 50 posts to Pope John Paul I

All fifty articles can be accessed at

It is quite an education.

As a young man of seventeen Albino Luciani read The Story of a Soul, the autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux. He described its effect on him as like “a lightning bolt.”

Dr Pieper explains the spirituality of Papa Luciani and the foundations for it.

In Italy there is a strong saccharine sentimental element to reminiscences of the late Pope. It can be quite off-putting. No such criticism can be made of Dr Pieper`s work (She has also said that she plans an English biography of the late Pope. That will be most interesting)

She provides translations of many writings of Papa Luciani written before he became Pope. Again it is rare to find these outside Italy and they are usually in Italian.

She fillets the gross inaccuracies in Wikipedia, Lucien Gregoire`s "biography" Murder in the Vatican and the claims by David Yallop In God’s Name about Pope John Paul I. Because not much is known about Papa Luciani these authors and others like them use Pope John Paul I to further their agendas in issues like contraception, abortion and homosexuality

Interestingly she points out that one of the Encyclicals of Pope Paul VI which Luciani particularly favoured was Populorum Progressio, the foundation of Pope Benedict XVI`s most recent Encyclical Caritas in Veritate

To get more of his writings, articles about him, and news of the cause for his canonisation, you can write to get an English magazine called Humilitas from Ray and Lauretta Seabeck, The Missionary Servants of Pope John Paul I, 22 Boyd Hill Road, Gilford, NH, 03249.

Other dedicated and important websites on the successor of Pope Paul VI are

The Papa Luciani website:The music is extremely distracting but when you manage to switch it off, you can relax again.

In the Albino Luciani website is the homily preached by the then Archbishop of Munich and Freising, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger at the pontifical Mass in suffrage for Pope John Paul I, October 6, 1978, at the Cathedral of Munich.

The main issue he tackled was the shortness of the Pontificate in human terms: only thirty three days. He reminded the congregation, that for Christians time is transformed, radically changed by faith.

Amongst other things he compares the shortness of his term to Pope Marcellus II who only was Pope for twenty two days. (And Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina`s Mass dedicated to Pope Marcellus II, Missa Papae Marcelli, has made his name better known to more people than say Julius III or Paul III who reigned much longer)

"Dear Brothers and Sisters,

We have come together for the Eucharist in sorrow at the sudden death of our Holy Father John Paul I, and in this liturgy we bring our sorrow to the light of the love of Jesus Christ, which is stronger than death. We want to draw close to this love, to purify ourselves in it and to prepare ourselves for the resurrection and eternal life.

Brothers and Sisters! It has not yet been a month from the day in which we were together, filled with joy, in this cathedral, to thank God for having given us the new Pope John Paul I. Then we couldn’t foresee how soon he would be taken and we still cannot understand the reason. “God gave, God has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord”, we can say with Job.

In the history of the popes there is a person similar to him in his destiny and who could help us to bear this better; this is Marcellus II, next to whom John Paul I has now found his final resting place.

It was the year 1555: The Council of Trent had been interrupted without concrete results and there did not seem any possibility of it beginning. Thus the Church remained torn between renewal and reform, as if sunk in a deep depression, unable to pull itself out. Thus in one of the shortest conclaves in history, Cardinal Cervini was elected by acclamation. He was one of the presidents of the Council of Trent, a person who even in that obscure period had tried to live the Gospel in a credible way to bring to fulfilment the “Christian reality” from his deepest center, as a goal of greatest importance. He began immediately with actions that attracted attention and brought a refreshing breeze. He refused the ostentation of the papal coronation and began with a very simple ceremony, which saved enormous sums which ordinarily would have been spent for such ceremonies. He decided that half of it would be used to cover papal debts and the other half would be distributed to the poor so that the day of his installation would be above all a day of joy for the poor.

Rome was, at that time as now, stamped with the sign of violence. But she changed her face, men put down their arms and turned over a new page. The general of the Augustinians, Father Serepando, said that he had prayed for a pope who could renew and restore honour to three words fallen into disrepute: church, council, reform, and he considered that with this election he had been heard. There were no preferences for his relatives. Rather he let them know that they needn’t come to Rome. He did not meddle in the disputes of the factions, but he called all to peace and he lived his mission, from the heart of the Eucharist, in a manner which had long since become unknown.

After 22 days he died. And another Augustinian, Parvenio, applied to him with sorrow the words which Virgil had once written for another Marcellus: Ostensus est nobis, non datus. (He was only shown to us, not given.) In spite of this, historians of the papacy affirm that this pontificate of only 22 days represented a true turnabout, a point of departure, a great step from which there would be no return.

The door was thrown open. The reform had turned into a reform; that is, there could no longer be a return to a comfortable existence, but rather an aiming towards the center of the faith, and the church began again to live.

Ostensus non datus: shown to us but not given. This is what we would like to say about Pope John Paul I, whose smile conquered the attention and gaze of the world. “The Pope of the Smile” the Italians called him with affection and the whole world agreed. The morning of his death, when Cardinal Confalonieri entered the room of the dead man, his face was only slightly inclined and in his expression was still present that inimitable smile which had made this man stand out in a particular way.

This smile was not a mask, behind which a person can hide himself nor was it a studied gesture to obtain something, but the expression, unconscious and natural of a soul transparent and luminous to its very depths. Yes it is not a question of a gift received from nature, but rather something acquired from Jesus Christ, living at an ever-deeper level.

We can glimpse a part of his spiritual journey from his letters, gathered together in this very beautiful book, Illustrissimi which in its simplicity, serenity and greatness has remained as his enduring testament.

Particularly moving is his letter to Therese of Lisieux with whom he had a special intimate affinity. He says to her:

“Love in little things. Often this is the only kind possible. I never had the chance to jump into a river to save a drowning man; I have been very often asked to lend something, to write letters, to give simple and easy instructions. I have never met a mad dog; instead I have met some irritating flies and mosquitoes. I have never had persecutors beat me but many people disturb me with noises in the street, with the volume of the television turned up too high or unfortunately with making noise in drinking soup. To help, however, one can not take it amiss, to be understanding; to remain calm and smiling (as much as possible) in such occasions is to love one’s neighbour without rhetoric in a practical way”.

He also remembers the name which Dante gave Our Lord, “Lord of all courtesy”. He finds this Lord in Sacred Scripture, speaking of the faults and stubbornness which he had to put up with in his apostles. He finally told them, “You are those who have borne with me in my trials”. What!

There came to his mind the saying of the great Teresa. “A sad saint is a sorry saint”.

He also tells a little parable in which he himself is reflected. “An Irishman died whose life had not been overflowing with good works. At the time of judgment he stood in line waiting his turn. He looks and sees the Lord turning over the cards of the various people and he says to the first: ‘I was hungry, you gave me to eat. Heaven!’ To the second, ‘I was thirsty, you gave me to drink. Heaven!’ To the third, ‘I was naked, you gave me clothes. Heaven!’

The Irishman’s heart was more and more uneasy because he had never done any of that. Trembling, he stepped before the judge, not daring to look at him. But glancing up timidly he noticed in his eyes something like a hidden furtive smile. The Lord took out his card and told him, “well, there’s not really much here. But once I was sad and you told me a joke which made me laugh. On your way to Heaven!”’

Such was John Paul I. That’s how he was. He didn’t just tell us a story, he made us a gift of his smile; he allowed us to get a glimpse into the depth of the “human essence” to guess something of paradise lost.

However, he was certainly not a simple minded, good little old man, unaware of the gravity of live and the reality of today. I have personally seen, in Latin America, with what gratitude and relief his words on the theology of liberation were received – that it is not a theology because it is not founded on God but rather on the struggle between the classes and it does not aim at liberty but rather the dictatorship of the party.

How simple and great are his words: “It is not true, Ubi Lenin, ibi Jerusalem – where Lenin is, there is Jerusalem”. And what was our gratitude when he condemned that false creativity in the liturgy which does not celebrate the common mystery of the Church, but honours one’s own “creativism” precluding and harming in the way for many, access to the renewed liturgy.

What importance there was to have broken the deadly silence of the West concerning Lebanon. We were convinced quite willingly that there were only a few privileged people, probably fascists, defending their interest. A Lebanese once told me sadly, “For you oil is more important than the spirit”. We have turned our gaze elsewhere, in order not to see because we didn’t want to risk our interests. But he stripped the veil away and made us see that between the pan islamic aspiration to power and the social utopia of the Palestinians, there was a small Christian minority which was trampled on.

Ostensus, non datus – he was shown to us, not given, Can we truly say that? No, I hold that the correct formulation should be: Ostensus et datus – he was shown to us and he gave himself to us, with his soul, to the limits of his strength.

On the death of Cardinal Dopfner he mentioned the consoling figure of St. Christopher who carried Christ across the rivers of history. On the death of Pope Paul VI there shone the light of the transfiguration of Christ. Pope John Paul I departed during the night of the feast of St. Michael called by tradition the “Psychopomp” the escort of souls, who escorts it through the night of death to the light of the Lord. He was buried on the day of St. Francis of Assisi, the amiable saint that he resembled so much.

For us believers it is not foolishness.

It was the authentic expression of the fact that faith has transformed time, that is no more the sum of anonymous days, the empty net of death in which some day or another we will be caught without escape. Time has been transformed.

By the action of the Lord it has become the history of God, men who proceed from that history and who accompany us, consoling us, acting as our guides, as symbols of hope and faith. Time is no longer the net of death, but rather the hand of God’s mercy held out, who supports and seeks us.

His saints are the columns of light who show us the way, transforming it certainly into the path of salvation while we pass through the darkness of earth. From now on he too will belong to that light. The one who was given us for only 33 days; from him, however, there shines a light which can no longer be taken from us. It is for this that we know want to thank the Lord with our whole hearts. Amen"

Monday, August 30, 2010

Servus servorum Dei

Pier Francesco Sacchi (Called "Il Pavese") (1485 - 1528)
Detail of St Gregory the Great from The Four Doctors of the Church 1516
Oil on wood
1.96 x 1.67 m
Musée du Louvre, Paris

The above detail is from a work commissioned for the Church of San Giovanni di Pré (later Sant` Ugo) at Genova. It is now in the Louvre.

It depicts St Gregory the Great, one of the original four Doctors of the Church, without decor or attributes other than the large book and papal tiara (and a bull underneath the table) to identify him as the Pope said to have left the greatest number of writings.

It must be said that the present Pope looks likely to overtake St Gregory in the number of works stakes. Or at least give him a good run for his money.

The painter conveys a definite idea of the intellectual work of Gregory and the other three Doctors through the great attention to detail and the perspectival accuracy.

Sacchi is recorded in Genoa in 1501 (where he was apprenticed to the Lombard painter Pantaleo Berengerio), and throughout the second and third decades of the 16th Century is known to have continued working in that city.

Note the strong Flemish flavour. There is a suggestion that the painter may have used a Flemish source for his painting. Of all the cities in Italy, Genova - and indeed Liguria as a whole - was one of the richest areas in Flemish painting at this time. It has been argued that, due to the significant number of Flemings in Genova during the first decades of the 16th Century, there was almost a 'Flemish painters' colony'.

The present Pope has talked about St Gregory the Great (c. 540 – 12 March 604), (San Gregorio Magno)

Gregory is considered a saint in the Roman Catholic Church, Eastern Orthodox Church, Anglican Communion, and some Lutheran churches. John Calvin admired Gregory and declared in his Institutes, that Gregory was the last good pope

His influence on the forms of public worship throughout Western Europe was enormous

Monk, preacher, Pope and Servant of the Servants of God, “the last of all and the servant of all.”

It was Gregory who first adopted the title "Servant of the Servants of God". In similar vein, Pope John Paul I was the first pope to choose an "investiture" to commence his papacy rather than the traditional papal coronation

Two extracts follow from talks by Pope Benedict XVI on Gregory the Great

The first one is about the title "Servant of the Servants of God". The other is about the Magno`s discussion about those weak in faith and in Christian life.

Both appear to have contemporary significance.

"Before concluding it is necessary to say a word on the relationship that Pope Gregory nurtured with the Patriarchs of Antioch, of Alexandria and of Constantinople itself. He always concerned himself with recognizing and respecting rights, protecting them from every interference that would limit legitimate autonomy.

Still, if St Gregory, in the context of the historical situation, was opposed to the title "ecumenical" on the part of the Patriarch of Constantinople, it was not to limit or negate this legitimate authority but rather because he was concerned about the fraternal unity of the universal Church.

Above all he was profoundly convinced that humility should be the fundamental virtue for every Bishop, even more so for the Patriarch.

Gregory remained a simple monk in his heart and therefore was decisively contrary to great titles.

He wanted to be - and this is his expression - servus servorum Dei. Coined by him, this phrase was not just a pious formula on his lips but a true manifestation of his way of living and acting. He was intimately struck by the humility of God, who in Christ made himself our servant. He washed and washes our dirty feet. Therefore, he was convinced that a Bishop, above all, should imitate this humility of God and follow Christ in this way.

His desire was to live truly as a monk, in permanent contact with the Word of God, but for love of God he knew how to make himself the servant of all in a time full of tribulation and suffering. He knew how to make himself the "servant of the servants".

Precisely because he was this, he is great and also shows us the measure of true greatness. "

"Let us now entrust ourselves to the reflection that St Gregory the Great in his Homilies on Ezekiel has interwoven with the sentence of the Psalm on which we commented earlier: "Your eyes beheld my unformed substance; in your book were written every one of them [my days]" (Psalm 139[138], v. 16).

On those words the Pontiff and Father of the Church composed an original and delicate meditation concerning all those in the Christian Community who falter on their spiritual journey.

And he says that those who are weak in faith and in Christian life are part of the architecture of the Church.

"They are nonetheless added... by virtue of good will. It is true, they are imperfect and little, yet as far as they are able to understand, they love God and their neighbour and do not neglect to do all the good that they can.

Even if they do not yet attain spiritual gifts so as to open their soul to perfect action and ardent contemplation, yet they do not fall behind in love of God and neighbour, to the extent that they can comprehend it.

"Therefore, it happens that they too contribute to building the Church because, although their position is less important, although they lag behind in teaching, prophecy, the grace of miracles and complete distaste for the world, yet they are based on foundations of awe and love, in which they find their solidity" (2, 3, 12-13, Opere di Gregorio Magno, III/2, Rome, 1993, pp. 79, 81).

St Gregory's message, therefore, becomes a great consolation to all of us who often struggle wearily along on the path of spiritual and ecclesial life. The Lord knows us and surrounds us all with his love."

The Great St Gregory

Jacopo Vignali (1592-1664)
Detail of St Gregory the Great c.1630
Oil on canvas
128.27 x 106.05 cm
The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore

In the run up to the Papal Visit we commemorate this week St Gregory the Great. The commemoration is quite apt. Without St Gregory, there would have been no St Augustine and no mission of St Augustine to Britain

In Britain the Church is one of the spiritual children of St Gregory (as indeed is Western Europe).

Christianity would probably have reached Britain even if there had been no mission to Britain by Augustine at the command of Gregory. But then there is the question "What if ...?"

What if Gregory had not so commanded and there had been no mission by Augustine to Britain ? Would not the whole course of British history have been completely different ?

Gregory is one of the few Pontiffs to merit the title "Magno", "Great".

Another of the "Great" Popes, Pope John Paul II considered (22nd October 2003) why his predecessor St Gregory should be designated "Great" in this extract from a talk to commemorate the 1400th anniversary of the death of St Gregory:

"I would like here to emphasize certain aspects of his personality that I consider particularly important.

Gregory was the son of an old Roman family which had long been Christian.

The atmosphere of his home and the education he received enabled him to become familiar with the heritage of the different branches of knowledge and of classical literature.

As an attentive researcher of the truth, he realized that the patrimony of classical antiquity, in addition to that of the Christian heritage, was a valuable basis for subsequent scientific and human development.

Still today, his insight has retained its full value for the future of humanity and, especially, of Europe. Indeed, it is impossible to build the future by ignoring the past. ...

Another significant feature of St Gregory the Great was his commitment to shedding light on the primacy of the human person, considered not only in his physical, psychological and social dimensions but also in constant reference to his eternal destiny. This is a truth on which today's world should focus greater attention if it wishes to build a world with deeper respect for the multiple needs of every human being.

St Gregory the Great has often been called "the last of the Romans".

Indeed, he had deep roots in the city of Rome, its people and its traditions. As Supreme Pontiff, he never lost sight of the Orbis Romanus. Not only did he take care of the part of the Roman Empire, Byzantium, that he knew well due to his long stay in Constantinople, but he extended his pastoral care to Spain, Gaul, Germany and Britain, all of which were then part of the Roman Empire.

Motivated by exemplary zeal to spread the Gospel, he encouraged an intense missionary activity which expressed a Roman spirit purified and inspired by the Gospel, no longer concerned with asserting political power but keen to bring the saving message of Christ to all peoples.

The great Pontiff's inner disposition is evident in the directions he carefully imparted to the Abbot Augustine, whom he sent to Britain: he explicitly asked him to respect the customs of those peoples, as long as they did not conflict with the Christian faith.

Thus, Gregory the Great, in addition to fostering the missionary concern that was inherent in his ministry, made a crucial contribution to the harmonious integration of the various peoples of Western Christendom.

Consequently, the witness of this distinguished Pontiff lives on as an example for us too, Christians of today who have only recently crossed the threshold of the third millennium and look confidently to the future. To build a future of serenity and solidarity, it is right to turn our gaze to this true disciple of Christ and to follow his teaching, courageously presenting anew to the contemporary world the saving message of the Gospel. Indeed, it is only in Christ and in him alone that human beings of every epoch can find the secret to the total fulfilment of their most essential aspirations"

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Talks on Catholicism in .mp3

If you are a fan of podcasts, then you may be interested in the following websites which provide (in .mp3 format) talks by eminent Catholic speakers on a wide range of subjects.

The files are recorded in .mp3 format and can be listened to through Windows Media Player or similar.

(Right click the link and click save target as - to save) They can also be saved on a computer's hard disc and then burned to a CD with suitable software.

In the interests of making the teachings of the Catholic Church available to all, the speakers have donated these recordings for free downloading and distribution

The first is Guardian Angel.

It has talks by Daphne McLeod, Archbishop Sheen (Ye Shall Know the Truth -a series of 50 talks), Father Hugh Thwaites SJ, Michael Davies and others

The site also has a great number of other resources such as Daily readings. Do visit. It`s worthwhile exploring

Another great site is Sonitus Sanctus

A blog, it is dedicated to bringing you free orthodox Catholic audio

Gregorian chant, Catholic chant, talks, Scripture readings, lectures on each of the chapters in our Holy Father's book, Jesus of Nazareth, as well as a large list of audio books or links to them (G K Chesterton, Thomas à Kempis - The Imitation of Christ, Tolkein) including the famous Father Z podcasts.

Again well worth the time to just look around and explore.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Sixty Years On

1st November 2010 (All Saints Day) marks the sixtieth anniversary of the Definition of the Dogma of the Assumption of Mary by Pope Pius XII

Here is a photograph of the ceremony of the definition of the Dogma in St Peter`s Square on 1st November 1950:

The Definition was proclaimed in a three day ceremony.

Below is the gathering of 37 cardinals and more than 600 patriarchs, archbishops and bishops joining Pius XII in a Pontifical Mass at the closing rite of the three day ceremony. Until Vatican II, it was one of the largest gatherings of the Church`s hierarchy in all history.

The ceremony was one of the high points of the Holy Year (1950)

However the declaration was not without its opponents both within and without the Church

In Northern Europe, the Anglican Archbishops of Canterbury and York both declared themselves against the declaration and warned that it would widen the separation between the Churches.

Rather bizarrely Carl G Jung declared the definition as the most important event since the Reformation and praised its profound significance for the human psyche of completing a "Quadernity by exalting female flesh iinto the highest heavens, otherwise reserved to the male flesh of the ascended Jesus and the spiritual but putatively male remainder of the Blessed Trinity"

At the time and afterwards, some commentators and historians described it as "the peak of Papal absolutism" Perhaps as a result of this some commentators felt that Vatican II under-emphasised devotion to Mary as a result of which Pope Paul VI had to work hard to foster such devotion again.


In essence, it provides that Mary, like Christ her Son, overcame death and is already triumphant in heavenly glory, in the totality of her being, "in body and soul".

One of the problems regarding acceptance of the Dogmas is its apparent "lack of pedigree" as well as apparent lack of scriptural warrant

Some appear to think that Pope Pius XII simply conjured the Dogma out of thin air. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Bull Munificentissimus Deus goes into some detail about the history of the Assumption.

Pope John Paul II on 2nd July 1997 once expostulated at a General Audience:

"How can we not see that the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin has always been part of the faith of the Christian people who, by affirming Mary’s entrance into heavenly glory, have meant to proclaim the glorification of her body?

The first trace of belief in the Virgin's Assumption can be found in the apocryphal accounts entitled Transitus Mariae, whose origin dates to the second and third centuries. These are popular and sometimes romanticized depictions, which in this case, however, pick up an intuition of faith on the part of God's People.

Later, there was a long period of growing reflection on Mary’s destiny in the next world. This gradually led the faithful to believe in the glorious raising of the Mother of Jesus, in body and soul, and to the institution in the East of the liturgical feasts of the Dormition and Assumption of Mary.

Belief in the glorious destiny of the body and soul of the Lord's Mother after her death spread very rapidly from East to West, and has been widespread since the 14th century. In our century, on the eve of the definition of the dogma it was a truth almost universally accepted and professed by the Christian community in every corner of the world....

Therefore in May 1946, with the Encyclical Deiparae Virginis Mariae, Pius XII called for a broad consultation, inquiring among the Bishops and, through them, among the clergy and the People of God as to the possibility and opportuneness of defining the bodily assumption of Mary as a dogma of faith. The result was extremely positive: only six answers out of 1,181 showed any reservations about the revealed character of this truth."

The Bull itself also recalled the scriptural basis of the Dogma.

It may surprise some to realise that the Sistine Chapel (one of the most important chapels in the life and history of the Church) which takes its name from Pope Sixtus IV della Rovere (pontiff from 1471 to 1484) was consecrated on 15 August 1483 by him and dedicated to Our Lady of the Assumption.

The central altarpiece was originally a fresco by Perugino of Our Lady of the Assumption. The chapel was remodelled and redecorated under Pope Julius II (nephew of Sixtus IV). On the completion of the Ceiling in October 1512, Julius II reinaugurated the chapel on the Feast of All Saints (1 November), and confirmed the dedication of the Chapel to Our Lady of the Assumption.

Towards the end of 1533 Clement VII de' Medici (pontiff from 1523 to 1534) (and his successor Paul III) gave Michelangelo the task of further altering the decoration of the Sistine Chapel by painting the Last Judgment on the altar wall.

Clement VII had wished to commemorate in this way the tragic events of the year 1527, the sack of Rome. This caused the loss of the altar-piece of the Virgin assumed among the Apostles and the first two episodes of the Stories of Moses and of Christ, again painted by Perugino.

Neither Clement VII nor Paul III wanted to lessen the importance of the original Assunta. It would appear that Clement VII had asked Michelangelo to work round Perugino`s altar piece and Michelangelo had produced sketches to show how this could be done. Paul III commissioned a tapestry of the Assumption and this tapestry of the Assumption was used when the Sistine Chapel was used for special ceremonies up to the 18th century.

In the Last Judgment itself, Mary in physical human form is among the people of Heaven touching Christ and within his mandorla. The reference is clearly to Mary having been assumed and her subsequent coronation. See below

The image reminds us of Apocalypse 12:1 where the woman "robed with the sun" and "beneath her feet the moon" and Apocalypse 12:14 where the woman flies to the place out of reach of the serpent. Both passages have been used to defend the belief in the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption since the fourth century.

Such an interpretation is even more evident from Michelangelo`s preparatory sketches.

One of the few records which we have of what the fresco by Perugino looked like is a sketch by a pupil of Pinturicchio below:

Pupil of Pinturiccio's school from 1481
Assumption of Mary with Pope Sixtus IV
Drawing of Perugino's destroyed fresco in Sistine Chapel.
The Albertina, Vienna

Here is the detail of Mary and Christ from the Last Judgment:

Michelangelo (6 March 1475 – 18 February 1564),
The Last Judgment 1537-1541
Dimensions 1370 cm × 1200 cm (539.3 in × 472.4 in)
The Sistine Chapel, Vatican City

In his Homily on Sunday 15th August 2010, Pope Benedict XVI went into some detail with an explanation of the Assumption

He said:

"[W]e believe that Mary, like Christ her Son, overcame death and is already triumphant in heavenly glory, in the totality of her being, "in body and soul".

In today's Second Reading St Paul helps us to shed a little more light on this mystery starting from the central event of human history and of our faith: that is, the event of Christ's Resurrection which is "the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep".

Immersed in his Paschal Mystery, we are enabled to share in his victory over sin and death. Here lies the startling secret and key reality of the whole human saga.

St Paul tells us that we are "incorporated" Adam, the first man and the old man, that we all possess the same human heritage to which belong suffering, death and sin. But every day adds something new to this reality that we can all see and live: not only are we part of this heritage of the one human being that began with Adam but we are also "incorporated" in the new man, in the Risen Christ, and thus the life of the Resurrection is already present in us.

Therefore this first biological "incorporation" is incorporation into death, it is an incorporation that generates death. The second, new "incorporation", that is given to us in Baptism is an "incorporation" that gives life.

Again, I cite today's Second Reading: St Paul says: "For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ, the first fruits, then at his coming, those who belong to Christ" (1 Cor 15: 21-24).

Now, what St Paul says of all human beings the Church in her infallible Magisterium says of Mary in a precise and clear manner: the Mother of God is so deeply integrated into Christ's Mystery that at the end of her earthly life she already participates with her whole self in her Son's Resurrection. She lives what we await at the end of time when the "last enemy" death will have been destroyed (cf. 1 Cor 15: 26); she already lives what we proclaim in the Creed: "We look for the Resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come".

We can then ask ourselves: what are the roots of this victory over death wonderfully anticipated in Mary?

Its roots are in the faith of the Virgin of Nazareth, as the Gospel passage we have heard testifies (Lk 1: 39-56): a faith that is obedience to the word of God and total abandonment to the divine action and initiative, in accordance with what the Archangel announced to her.

Faith, therefore, is Mary's greatness, as Elizabeth joyfully proclaims: Mary is "blessed among women" and "blessed is the fruit of [her] womb", for she is Mother of the Lord" because she believed and lived uniquely the "first" of the Beatitudes, the Beatitude of faith. Elizabeth confesses it in her joy and in that of her child who leaps in her womb: "And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord" (v. 45).

Dear friends, let us not limit ourselves to admiring Mary in her destiny of glory, as a person very remote from us. No! We are called to look at all that the Lord, in his love, wanted to do for us too, for our final destiny: to live through faith in a perfect communion of love with him and hence to live truly."

That is in fact what Michelangelo has depicted in The Last Judgment when he depicted Mary: Mary "triumphant in heavenly glory, in the totality of her being, "in body and soul""

And when the thousands of visitors to the Chapel troup through the Chapel to see one of the great works of Western civilisation, they are doing so in a chapel which has been dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin for centuries and that they are gazing in awe at a painting whose centrepiece is, amongst other things, a celebration of the Assumption of the Virgin.

Friday, August 27, 2010

A Portrait of a Writer

Domenichino 1581 - 1641
Oil on canvas 259 x 199.4 cm
On loan from a private collection
The National Gallery, London

The National Gallery in London is presently exhibiting one of the finest Baroque paintings still in private hands by the Italian Baroque master Domenico Zampieri – known as Domenichino (1581-1641)

The painting had been destined for sale overseas. However, its export was deferred by the United Kingdom Government in the hope that funds could be found to keep the painting in the UK.

Fortunately, a private collector came forward to buy the painting, making provision for its regular public display. The painting will be on loan to the National Gallery from May 2010 until November 2011.

The painting is of a first century non-fiction historical writer from the Middle East, possibly in what is now modern Israel. He is primarily known for a number of non-fiction works. He is a rather shadowy figure as precise details as to his life and death are not exactly known.

HIs work is mystical and many regard his historical accuracy as somewhat doubtful

His works have been translated into most languages and his works have never been out of print.

And who is the author ?

The work is of course a painting of Saint John the Evangelist painted in the late 1620s

Why the reticence about identifyiing the painting ?

In the today`s Guardian Maggi Dawn posed the question: What is the point of Christian arts?

In her essay she made a number of important points. One important point was emphasised.

In this post-Christian age where the knowledge of Christianity is positively discouraged, are the British in danger of diminishing or throwing away their culture ? Are such works as the painting by Domenichino (above) comprehensible or capable of being fully appreciated except to a small minority ?

In a few decades what will the captions underneath such paintings as Domenichino`s be like ? Will Museums and others be able to assume any Biblical knowledge on the part of their viewers ?

How does one explain who St John the Evangelist was ? Or any other subjects of religious paintings or paintings with a religious theme ?

Already there is evidence that there is a significant lack of knowledge of Christianity in the population.

Does this mean that we are already in a period of cultural decline with all that that entails for a civilised life in this country ? Are the Vandals and the Goths now going to be the majority ?

Here is what she said:

"Early last year in a Guardian interview Andrew Motion, then poet laureate, lamented the increasing level of biblical illiteracy he found among his students.

Reading literature, he said, "…requires you to know things about the Fall, who some of the people in the Bible are, ideas of sinfulness and virtue. It's also essential for Tennyson, Browning and Arnold, and needs to be there in the background of the modernist period." He called for teaching of the Bible to be included in general education, not for religious reasons, but because "…it's an essential piece of cultural luggage."

I couldn't agree more. Without knowing Genesis you miss many of the undercurrents to Chaucer, Milton and Dante, say nothing of modern writers like Steinbeck and T S Eliot; and without the gospels a good slice of Shakespeare is torn from its roots. "Measure for Measure" makes us think of Shakespeare; his audience would have thought of Jesus.

Last year I went to two large exhibitions of Van Gogh's paintings, each of which included several of Van Gogh's paintings of "the Sower" – a subject he returned to a number of times. The galleries had provided many good notes, showing the influence of other painters he had followed, how he had developed the theme over time, and how his use of colour changed between the paintings. Yet nowhere was there any comment on the fact that, as can be seen from Van Gogh's letters, an important inspiration was the parable of the sower, which he spent much time contemplating, and regarded as a metaphor for his own work.

Van Gogh's work is evidence of the fact that good art goes beyond merely illustrating or re-telling an old story; it creates a dialogue with its sources, taking an old established idea and giving it a new twist.

I recently studied various poems, paintings and sculptures of the Annunciation, a story originally told in Luke's gospel. Many medieval depictions of the annunciation show Mary's meek submission to the will of God, but more recent works subtly shift her role so that she is seen as a woman empowered to choose her own destiny.

Both Noel Rowe's Magnificat and Edwin Muir's Annunciation suggest that God doesn't hold (or hold on to) all the cards but takes the highly risky and self-effacing strategy of placing the destiny of the world into the hands of an unknown peasant girl. This is the glory of art – to overturn the well-worn tracks of unchallenged ideas and make us see the world through new eyes.

There is a "cultural cringe" about Christianity at present; in a post-Christian age many people want to distance themselves from a religion they no longer wish to be associated with. The place of religion in public life needs to continue to be negotiated, but it would be a mistake, in my view, to let such discussion extend to cutting ourselves adrift from layer upon layer of understanding of our cultural heritage."

Thursday, August 26, 2010

An Anniversary

Thirty two years ago on this day Pope John Paul I was elected Pope.

It was the day when the world first saw "Il Papa del Sorriso" (The Smiling Pope).

His patently transparent joy, humility and humanity immediately captured the hearts of people. People genuinely mourned and grieved when the news of his sudden death was announced. The sense of loss was palpable

His last Angelus talk was on Sunday 24th September 1978.

Here it is:

"Yesterday afternoon I went to St. John Lateran. Thanks to the Romans, to the kindness of the Mayor and some authorities of the Italian Government, it was a joyful moment for me.

On the contrary, it was not joyful but painful to learn from the newspapers a few days ago that a Roman student had been killed for a trivial reason, in cold blood. It is one of the many cases of violence which are continually afflicting this poor and restless society of ours.

The case of Luca Locci, a seven-year-old boy kidnapped three months ago, has come up again in the last few days. People sometimes say: "we are in a society that is all rotten, all dishonest." That is not true.

There are still so many good people, so many honest people. Rather, what can be done to improve society? I would say: let each of us try to be good and to infect others with a goodness imbued with the meekness and love taught by Christ. Christ's golden rule was: "do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself. Do to others what you want done to yourself." 'And he always gave. Put on the cross, not only did he forgive those who crucified him, but he excused them. He said: "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." This is Christianity, these are sentiments which, if put into practice would help society so much.

This year is the thirtieth anniversary of the death of Georges Bernanos, a great Catholic writer. One of his best-known works is "Dialogues of the Carmelites". It was published year after his death. He had prepared it working on a story of the German authoress, Gertrud von Le Fort. He had prepared it for the theatre.

It went on the stage. It was set to music and then shown on the screens of the whole world. It became extremely well known. The fact, however, was a historical one. Pius X, in 1906, right here in Rome, had beatified the sixteen Carmelites of Compiègne, martyrs during the French revolution.

During the trial they were condemned "to death for fanaticism". And one of them asked in her simplicity: "Your Honour, what does fanaticism mean?" And the judge: "It is your foolish membership of religion." "Oh, Sisters, she then said, did you hear, we are condemned for our attachment to faith. What happiness to die for Jesus Christ!"

They were brought out of the prison of the Conciergerie, and made to climb into the fatal cart. On the way they sang hymns; when they reached the guillotine, one after the other knelt before the Prioress and renewed the vow of obedience. Then they struck up "Veni Creator"; the song, however, became weaker and weaker, as the heads of the poor Sisters fell, one by one, under the guillotine.

The Prioress, Sister Theresa of St Augustine, was the last, and her last words were the following: "Love will always be victorious, love can do everything."

That was the right word, not violence, but love, can do everything. Let us ask the Lord for the grace that a new wave of love for our neighbour may sweep over this poor world."

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

A Vision of Heaven

Fra Angelico 1417 -1455
The Last Judgement
Oil on wood
1.050 x 2.1 m
Museo di San Marco, Florence

Jean Fouquet 1420 - 1477/81
Les Suffrages des Saints, la Trinité from Le Livre d'Heures d'Etienne Chevalier Ms71-folio27recto
Musée Condé, Chantilly

Jacopo Robusti [Tintoretto] (1518 - 1594)
Paradise: The Coronation of the Virgin/ Le Couronnement de la Vierge, called Le Paradis 1580
Oil on canvas
1.43 x 3.62 m
Musée du Louvre, Paris

Antonio Campi (c1523- c 1587)
The Ascension (detail) from Les Mystères de la Passion du Christ 1569
Oil on canvas
1.64 x 2.03 m
Musée du Louvre, Paris
(The entire tableau encompassing the Passion, Resurrection and Ascension of Christ was commissioned for Saint Cardinal Charles Borromeo`s "small oratory" in Milan)

Johann Boeckhorst (1605-1668),
The Resurrection of the Blessed
Oil on wood
1.197 x 0.934 m
Staatsgalerie Flämische Barockmalerei, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Neubourg

William Blake 1757 - 1827
The Meeting of a Family in Heaven
Pen and black ink and watercolour over pencil
234 by 133 mm.; 9 1/4 by 5 1/4 in
Private collection

Koloman Moser (1868 - 1918)
Paradise 1904-8
Design for stained glass entry for the Church of Am Steinhof in Vienna(consecrated in 1913)
4.15 x 7.74 m
Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Denis Maurice Denis 1870 -1943
Le Paradis / Paradise 1912
Oil on wood
0.500 m. x 0.750m
Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Sir Stanley Spencer 1891-1959
The Resurrection, Cookham 1924-7
Oil on canvas
Support: 2743 x 5486 mm
Tate Britain, London

Sir Stanley Spencer 1891-1959
The Resurrection: Port Glasgow 1947-50
Oil on canvas
support: 2146 x 6655 mm
Tate Britain, London

Séraphine Louis (1864-1942)
L'arbre du paradis / Tree of Paradise 1929
Oil on canvas
1.95 x 1.3 m
Musée d'Art et d'Archéologie, Senlis

Chagall Marc Chagall (1887 - 1985)
Paradise 1961
Oil on isorel
45.5 x 59.8 cm
Musée national Message biblique Marc Chagall, Nice

This is one of many Chagall`s depictions of the Terrestial or Earthly Paradise of Eden before the Fall: a different concept from the Celestial or Divine Paradise after Death. It is strange that the word "Paradise" is used to describe both.

Max Ernst 1891 - 1976
The Marriage of Heaven and Earth 1962
Oil on canvas
116,2 x 90 cm
Private collection

The Papal Homily on this Year`s Feast of the Assumption at the Church of St. Thomas of Villanueva in Castel Gandolfo did not attract much attention

In so far as it was noticed, it did not unfortunately attract wholly favourable comment.

See, for instance, Sophia Deboick in The Guardian on Monday 23 August 2010

I can well understand where Miss Deboick is coming from.

In reflectiing on the Dogma of the Assumption when Mary was bodily taken up into heaven at her death, the Pope sought to explain what exactly "heaven" is. Always a very difficult (impossible ?) subject.

Here is what he said:

"In this connection, I would like to pause on an aspect of the dogmatic affirmation, where it speaks of assumption to heavenly glory.

All of us are conscious today that with the term "heaven," we do not refer to some place in the universe, to a star or something similar: no. We refer to something much bigger and more difficult to define with our limited human concepts. With this term "heaven," we mean to affirm that God, the God who has made himself close to us, does not abandon us, not even in death and beyond it, but that he has a place for us and he gives us eternity; we want to affirm that there is a place for us in God.

To understand this reality somewhat more, let us look at our own life: We all know that when a person dies he continues to subsist in the memory and the heart of those who knew and loved him. We could say that a part of that person continues to live in them, but it is as a "shadow" because this survival in the heart of his loved ones is also destined to end. God instead never passes and all of us exist because of his love. We exist because he loves us, because he has thought of us and called us to life. We exist in the thoughts and love of God. We exist in all our reality, not only in our "shadow."

Our serenity, our hope, our peace are founded precisely on this: on God, on his thought and on his love, it is not only a "shadow" of ourselves that survives, but that in him, in his creative love, we are kept and introduced with our whole life, with our whole being into eternity.

It is his love that conquers death and gives us eternity, and it is this love that we call "heaven": God is so great that he also has a space for us. And the man Jesus, who is at the same time God, is for us the guarantee that being-man and being-God can exist and live eternally in one another. This means that each one of us will not continue existing only in a part that has been, so to speak, wrenched from us, while the rest is ruined; it means rather that God knows and loves the whole man, what we are. And God receives in his eternity what now, in our life, made up of suffering and love, of hope, of joy and sadness, grows and comes to be. The whole man, the whole of his life is taken by God and, purified in him, receives eternity.

Dear friends! I think this is a truth that should fill us with joy. Christianity does not proclaim merely a certain salvation of the soul in some imprecise place beyond, in which everything in this world that was precious and loved by us is erased, but it promises eternal life, "the life of the world to come": Nothing of what is precious and loved will be ruined, but will find its fulfillment in God.

All the hairs of our head are numbered, Jesus said one day (cf. Matthew 10:30). The final world will also be the fulfillment of this earth, as St. Paul states: "creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God" (Romans 8:21).

Understood therefore is that Christianity gives strong hope in a luminous future and opens the way to the realization of this future. We are called, precisely as Christians, to build this new world, to work so that it will become one day the "world of God," a world that will surpass everything that we ourselves could build. In Mary assumed into heaven, fully sharing in the resurrection of her Son, we contemplate the realization of the human creature according to the "world of God."

Let us pray to the Lord to make us understand how precious our life is in his eyes; may he reinforce our faith in eternal life; may he make us people of hope, who work to build a world open to God, people full of joy who are able to perceive the beauty of the future world in the midst of the cares of daily life and, with this certainty, live, believe and hope."

For some, heaven is very clearly defined as an afterlife reward. For others, heaven is a place or state of happiness achieved through more tangible and immediate pleasures.

Both visions are rejected

Perhaps the use of the word "Paradise" to describe the Earthly Paradise of Eden before the Fall has led to confusion with the Celestial Paradise or Heaven for the period after death.

On first sight, the Papal exposition of "The Beatific Vision" is abstract to the nth degree. For us, grounded in physical bodies, the vision of utter lack of physicality is meaningless and depressing. It is experience (sensory and otherwise) which underlies our ability to conceive and to know.

A vision of subsisting as an eternal fragment of perfect memory within and united with the mind and heart of an eternal and all loving Being is perhaps not a vision which would inspire men and women to love, hope, faith and action.

But the Pope`s reflection on the "something much bigger and more difficult to define with our limited human concepts" is worthy of careful study.

He is using language and expressly using very limited metaphors and similes

The belief in heaven is an expression of faith: in the existence of God, that God is close to us, that he loves us and the purpose of human existence is to be eternally united in and with Him

God is Love and He Loves us. This Love far exceeds any love which a human can feel towards another human. Human Love is a pale imperfect and impermanent shadow of what constitutes Divine Love.

Most importantly, this unity with Divine Love or the quest for it does not happen after death or in another place away from Planet Earth but here and in the now. "Heaven" is closer than you think or would like to think. As is anywhere else which is "not Heaven".

Mary who shared in the Resurrection of her Son illustrates that human beings can achieve and realise such union within "the World of God": the quintessence of human perfection in perfect and eternal union with God.

And how are we to work towards this ? Prayer and contemplation on the Divine Love. The Divine Love which holds how most precious "our life is in his eyes", how all human life and lives are "in his eyes".

It is fundamental to our conception of heaven, of union with the diviine that we realise and appreciate this unlimited regard of God towards his human creatures and of God`s creation. This realisation of being loved perfectly arouses in us love towards God and makes us people of eternal joy, faith and hope. And why the Christian is the messenger of what Pope John Paul II called, Evangelium Vitae, the Gospel of Life. It is a timely reminder of why for the Christian the question of abortion can never be a question of the human rights of Woman. The matter of Abortion is a matter which goes right to the heart of the purpose of human existence.

It is perhaps unfortunate that our knowledge of the Pope`s words are partial.

The sermon was delivered as the homily in Italian at a Mass in a Church in Castel Gondolfo.

We read it in translation. We do not see and hear the speaker, the intonations and the conviction behind the words: much more convincing, much more persuasive

That is why the forthcoming Papal Visit to Britain is so important. We shall fully hear and see the messenger and his message.

And that is also why artistic conceptions of heaven are so important. Artistic works can go beyond the confines of language in Literature and speak to parts of us that the written word and even the spoken word cannot communicate. As also can music.

But in the history of art, a terrestial vision of Heaven as "another place" is not dominant. The subject of "Heaven" in the history of art is a large subject which would cover : The Resurrected Body; Notions of Paradise and the History of Heaven; The Hierarchy of Heaven; Angels and Mortals; The Communion of Saints; The New Jerusalem; Seeing God and the Beatific Vision.

But the above examples illustrated above show that the artistic conception of heaven are incitements and encouragements to prayer and the contemplation of Divine Love. Heaven is a place where the normal human laws of time and place are suspended and overturned, a place of wonderment, mystery and paradox.

The English artist Sir Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) was convinced of the relationship between Love and Heaven. For him, Love could transform the everyday world into 'a sort of Heaven'.

He wrote:

'Love is the essential power in the creation of art and love is not a talent. Love reveals and more accurately describes the nature and meaning of things than any mere lecture on technique can do'.

But the First World War intervened. It not only destroyed Europe . It led to the end of his early visionary period as well as the visions and beliefs of millions of others caught up or affected by the conflict.

He wrote:

'My ideas were beginning to unfold in fine order when along comes the war and smashes everything. When I came home (from the war) the divine sequence had gone. I just opened a shutter in my side and out rushed my pictures anyhow. Nothing was ever the same again'.

Spencer visited Port Glasgow, 20 miles from Glasgow, in 1940 to fulfil a commission to paint its shipyards and was attracted by the cemetery there. Many civilians in the town had been killed in the German Blitz, He planned a vast shaped canvas fifty feet wide which would portray the Last Judgement and Resurrection taking place in this cemetery. The painting above is the central section from the project and shows residents of Port Glasgow climbing out of their graves and greeting one another

The cemetery has hardly changed since the time of Spencer. Visiting the cemetery and the view from the cemetery of the Firth of Clyde and the mountains and lochs beyond, one can understand why Spencer may have been particularly struck by the cemetery. This time his reaction was not the same as that in the First World War. His Christian faith appears to have strengthened and led him to a different resolution.

Was it through the 'loss of Eden' in the First World War that Spencer through the difficulties and vicissitudes of the inter-war years able to come to a new vision and reality ?

The cemetery is about twenty miles by motorway from Bellahouston Park where the Pope will shortly celebrate Mass for the Catholics in Scotland.