The Michelangelo Code

The glory of God and the liturgy, a mysterious fresco, a important announcement in the year 2000, a visit to the Apostolic Palace, the Galileo case, and a Roman hail-storm

By Robert Moynihan, reporting from Rome

“The glory of God is the living man, but the life of man is the vision of God.” —St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies, 4, 20, 7

I had a conversation today having to do with the essence of this pontificate — with essence of the great battle of our times.

The statement of St. Irenaeus (above), writing in France during the Roman Empire in about 180 A.D., is an astonishing statement

And it is a statement very dear to Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI (photo); he has cited it often.

It is a statement which in just a handful of words sets forth the essential, profoundly beautiful, dignity of man.

In an age when human dignity is under seemingly relentless attack, this statement is powerful and important.

It is so important that if I were never to write another word, it would be sufficient that I cite these words of Irenaeus, and that readers meditate on their meaning, for me to accomplish, at least in embryo, the true purpose of all this writing.

How can “the glory of God” be “the living man”?

Isn’t God’s glory something far above man?

Isn’t it almost a blasphemy to say that “God’s glory” is “the living man”?

It sounds very humanistic.

It doesn’t seem to respect the holiness of God, the transcendence of God.

Could Irenaues have been wrong?

And why, then, has the Pope cited these words so often?

Let’s read the words again: “The glory of God is man alive; but the life of man is the vision of God.”

Irenaeus tells us that the “life of man” is “the vision of God.”

Wait a minute…

If the essential life of man is “the vision of God” — the beatific vision, actually seeing God — that means that man is not truly alive unless he sees God.

And this means that man cannot be “the glory of God” unless he has seen God, and having seen him, become truly alive.

Stated in this way, it doesn’t seem quite so blasphemous to say that “The glory of God is man alive.”

Because the “man alive” is living, is truly alive, only because he has “seen” God, and, in seeing God, has in some way been touched by God’s own divinity.

So the glory is still all God’s, not man’s.

It isn’t a humanistic statement after all.

It is not man by himself who is the glory of God, but man in the presence of God, man seeing God.

Man seeing God, and becoming truly alive through this seeing, is God’s glory.

That’s what Irenaeus was trying to say.

And that is what Pope Benedict has been preaching, month after month, year after year.


But there remains a problem.

I’m sorry to have to bring this up.

Because, as Jesus himself told us, “No man has ever seen God: the only begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.” (John 1:18)

Do you see the problem?

This is a bit worrisome.

If no man has ever seen God, then no man has become truly alive, and there is… no one to be “the glory of God”!

And we know that even Moses, who was so close to God, who spoke with God, did not see God’s face: “But He said, ‘You cannot see My face, for no man can see Me and live!’ Then the LORD said, ‘Behold, there is a place by Me, and you shall stand there on the rock; and it will come about, while My glory is passing by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock and cover you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you shall see My back, but My face shall not be seen.'” (Exodus 33:20-23)

Again, God says: “No man can see me and live.”

But Ireneaus said: “The life of man is the vision of God.”

Houston, we have problem!

In order to truly become alive, and be “God’s glory,” a man needs to see God, to have a vision of God.

Yet no man, seeing God, can live.

And now I am getting close to my point.

I will call it “The Michelangelo Code.”

I call it the Michelangelo Code to distinguish it from the “Da Vinci Code,” which seems to have been what we in Italy call a work of “depistaggio” — literally, “sending off the track.” A work, that is, of disinformation. A “cover story” in the face of a serious problem invented to send everyone who hears it off on the entirely wrong track, leaving the true story uninvestigated.

This is classic.

The truth is hidden in the Michelangelo (photo) frescoes in the Pauline Chapel — the chapel that was just restored during eight years of hard work by a team of Vatican Museum restoration experts… and where Pope Benedict ordered the altar, which Paul VI had moved in the 1970s, to be moved back where it was…

Pope Benedict XVI has always been deeply concerned about the liturgy — the way the Church carries out her public worship.

He has written numerous books about the liturgy, spoken repeatedly about it, taken important decisions about it as Pope (for example, restoring the celebration of the Mass according to the old, pre-Vatican II rite).

Concern for the liturgy is a constant in his life.

But why this interest? Is it because he is concerned about the external things of the liturgy, like vestments, incense, all the gestures of religious ritual?


Or at least, not primarily.

Then why? What is the primary interest?

His primary interest in the liturgy stems from the fact that the liturgy is a type of doorway, or passageway, leading to the vision of God, that is, leading to eternal life.

And since eternal life is the ultimate hope of man, the doorway or passageway that leads to that hope — the liturgy — is of the utmost importance.

This does not mean that external things likes vestments, incense, and ritual gestures, are of no importance.


But it does mean that they are of just relative importance.

They adorn the doorway; they are not the doorway itself.

The adornments of the doorway are not as important as the reality of the doorway itself.

“Man becomes glory for God, puts God, so to speak, into the light (and that is what worship is), when he lives by looking toward God,” Joseph Ratzinger wrote in his great book on the liturgy (The Spirit of the Liturgy, Ignatius Press, 2000, p. 20)

The liturgy, Ratzinger writes, is “a kind of anticipation, a rehearsal, a prelude for the life to come, for eternal life, which St. Augustine describes, by contrast with life in this world, as a fabric woven, no longer of exigency and need, but of the freedom of generosity and gift.” (The Spirit of the Liturgy, p. 14)

In his past writing, Ratzinger saw the question of the liturgy, of the right worship of God, as ultimately leading us to the central question of human history: What is mankind’s purpose? Where is mankind going? How can we avoid false turns and get to our right goal?

Writing about Israel, the Chosen People, and their exodus from Egypt, and the covenant with God on Mt. Sinai, Ratzinger said:

“We must not forget that there is an essential connection between the three orders of worship (Note: i.e., true liturgy), law, and ethics.

“Law without foundation in morality becomes injustice. (Note: There are many laws today which are not just, but have been legislated, against morality.)

“When morality and law do not originate in a God-ward perspective, they degrade man, because they rob him of his highest measure and his highest capacity, deprive him of any vision of the infinite and eternal….

“When human affairs are so ordered that there is no recognition of God, there is a belittling of man. That is why, in the final analysis, worship and law cannot be completely separated from each other.”

He added: “God has a right to a response from man, to man himself, and where that right of God totally disappears, the order of law among men is dissolved, because there is no cornerstone to keep the whole structure together.”

And he then added (referring specifically to the history of the Jewish people in the Old Testament, and the Babylonian Captivity of the nation, but metaphorically also to the Gentiles):

“Whenever Israel falls away from the right worship of God, when she turns away from God to the false gods (the powers and values of this world), her freedom, too, collapses.

“It is possible for her to live in her own land and yet still be as she was in Egypt.

“Mere possession of your own land and state does not give you freedom; in fact, it can be the most base kind of slavery.

“And when the loss of law becomes total, it ends in the loss even of the land.”

On June 27, 2000, in Rome, the La Repubblica newspaper, one of Italy’s leading dailies, had two headlines on its front page, one on the left side, one on the right.

One said “the secret of man” had been revealed, referring to the cracking of the human genetic code, which had been announced the previous day in London. The underlying idea was that, by examining and charting the entire DNA code of a human being, man had come to understand the “secret” of his nature and destiny.

The other headline said “the secret of God” had been revealed, referring to the Third Secret of Fatima, which had been announced by the Vatican, also the previous day.

I had an important meeting in the Vatican at noon today, so I could not attend an very interesting press conference on the Galileo case (photo) — the great example, for many in the modern world, of the inevitable “conflict” between “faith” and “science.”

The press conference was for the presentation of a new edition of a book containing all of the documents. The book was presented by its author, Bishop Sergio Pagano, the Prefect of the Vatican Secret Archives since 1997 (he was also my teacher for one year, when I studied paleography — the word means “ancient writing” — with him in the late 1980s).

(For a more complete report, see:

Arcbishop Hilarion and Stalin

Debate in Russian Church over Stalin

A very interesting interview has just appeared in Russia with Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev (photo), the “foreign minister” of the Russian Orthodox Church.

I am interested in Russia because it is the home of the largest Orthodox Church, and so is critical for Catholic-Orthodox dialogue; and because so many Christians suffered so much under communism; and also because the prophecies of Fatima refer in a mysterious way to the coming “conversion” of Russia.

For this reason, I have always tried to pay close attention to events in Russia, and also in Belorussia, Ukraine, and the East in general.

In his interview, Hilarion criticized Stalin, the leader of the USSR in the middle of the 20th century (he died in 1953).

The interview caused a considerable stir in Russia, where Stalin is still regarded by many as a national hero.

We give selections below from the Hilarion interview, and from some of the reactions it sparked, which say that Hilarion exaggerated Stalin’s crimes.

What does it all mean? That there is considerable ferment in Russia as the Orthodox Church today as the Church leadership attempts to define its relationship to the Soviet and post-Soviet Russian governments.



by Konstantin Matsan and Nikolai Silaev

Ekspert Online, June 15, 2009

(portion of the interview deleted)

How do you assess the relations between the Church and the state in the prerevolutionary years (prior to 1918)? Today it is common to be nostalgic about those times and to view them as a kind of ideal…

Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev: If everything had been good in the pre-revolutionary Church, then there would not have been the massive departure from it in the revolutionary and post-revolutionary period. Perhaps there would not have been a revolution itself.
It seems to me that the causes of the spiritual crisis that led to the revolution are very well disclosed in his memoirs by Archpresbyter Georgy Shavelsky. He was the head of the military chaplaincy, was close to the imperial family, and personally conversed with the sovereign. And he knew the Church extremely well at all levels.
His memoirs constitute, in essence, a collection of facts. He shows the great degree of spiritual decomposition that existed in both the Church and the Russian state. He shows the enormous distance that separated the imperial family and the people, despite the ardent love that members of the tsarist family had for the people and the desire to be close to them and to understand them.
He shows the chasm that existed between the Church and its upper leadership, on one hand, and the real world, on the other.
It seems that there was much that was positive in the pre-revolutionary position of the Church in the state. But to try to recreate the prerevolutionary situation now is not necessary in any case. We should create a new model of Church-state relations, which would exclude those negative phenomena in Church and public life that led to the revolution.

Today the liberal part of society says that the state has become ecclesiastical and leans toward Orthodoxy as almost the state religion. Doesn’t it show a different tendency when the Orthodox Church snuggles up to the state? Do you see here a danger from the point of view of the ability of the Church to exist independently and not depend on politics?

Archbishop Hilarion: In my view, nobody is now inclined in that direction. Neither the Church toward the state nor the state toward the Church.
There is separation of Church from state which is discernable at both the juridical and the political level. The state does not interfere in the internal life of the Church. And the Church does not participate in the political struggle and does not show support for one or another party. The Church is open to interaction with all. Any political figure—in office or in opposition—may be a member of the Church.
I do not think that the state is risking becoming clericalized, nor the Church, a state Church. But at the same time it is necessary to take into account the fact that the popular phrase “multiconfessional state,” which often is applied to Russia, does not take into account the obvious reality that a majority of Russians belong to the Russian Orthodox Church, even if they do not attend church regularly.
Around 80 percent of citizens of Russia identify themselves with the Orthodox Church. And that means the Russian Church is the religion of the majority.
At the same time, we have millions of people who belong to other confessions or do not profess any faith. We should respect everybody and be cordial to all.
We should create a unified cultural space. But it is impossible to forget that it is the Orthodox Church that, over the course of centuries, exerted the decisive influence on the formation of the spiritual pattern of Russia and the Russian people.

But it cannot be denied that the Church has certain firm ties with the state.

Archbishop Hilarion: The Church and state have very many common tasks, connected primarily with the spiritual and material welfare of our citizens. There are tasks which cannot be solved in isolation.
For example, the demographic problem. It is impossible to solve it only by way of material resources or social rhetoric on television. This requires the joint efforts of state and Church.
At the same time, when I am talking about the Church I am also talking about the cooperation of the Church with traditional religious confessions. In this regard representatives of the traditional religious confessions have views that, as a rule, are very similar and at times identical.

A recent statement of Patriarch Kirill devoted to the victory in the Great Fatherland War evoked a rather sharp criticism, including from people in circles near the government. The patriarch was criticized for assessing the victory as a miracle, while the hardships of the war were a recompense for apostasy from God. The patriarch was criticized also for not sufficiently assessing the role of Stalin and the Bolsheviks. To what degree are you prepared to refute such criticism?

Archbishop Hilarion: I am ready to refute it and, even more, I am ready to provoke a wave of criticism against me when I express my personal opinion about Stalin. I think that Stalin was a monster, a spiritual freak, who created a horrible, antihuman system of administration of the country, built upon lies, violence, and terror. [Emphasis added —The Editor]

He unleashed genocide against the people of his own country and he bears personal responsibility for the death of millions of innocent people.
In this regard we fully equate Stalin with Hitler.
Both of them brought into this world so much grief that no amount of military or political successes can redeem their guilt before humanity. There is no essential difference between the Butov Polygon and Buchenwald, or between the GULAG and Hitler’s system of death camps. And the number of victims of Stalinist repressions is fully equal to our losses in the Great Patriotic War.
The victory in the Great Patriotic War was really a miracle, because before the war Stalin had done everything he could to destroy the country. He annihilated the entire upper leadership of the army and as a result of massive repressions he led a once mighty country to the brink of extinction.
In 1937, when the census of the population was taken, the country was short tens of millions of people. Where had these millions gone? Stalin destroyed them. The country entered the war almost lifeless.
But, despite all of the monstrous repressions, the people displayed unprecedented heroism. How can this be called anything but a miracle!
The victory in the war was the victory of the people. The people, who showed the mightiest will to resist. The miracle of victory in the war was the great manifestation of the strength of the spirit of our people, that neither Stalin nor Hitler were able to break.

(tr. by PDS, posted 28 June 2009)
Russian original posted on, 26 June 2009



by Andrei Rogoziansky

Russkaia liniia, 25 June 2009

Andrei Bronislavovich, what do you say about the recent statement in the magazine Ekspert by the head of the Department of External Church Relations, Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev and, in particular, about his historical assessment of the personality of Stalin?
Andrei Bronislavovich: I think that it is a rather significant statement. Until now the Church has restrained itself from strong assessments of this history of our fatherland in the 20th century. And that is not because such topics are forbidden.

Bronislavovich: In Russia much has been said and written about the Stalinist period. “The truth about repressions,” which would have been unknown or sensational, or which would give a new word and somehow give a new twist to Soviet history—as far as I know, it just does not exist. Or virtually doesn’t. Let historians correct me if that is not so. So far the Church has tried to restrain itself, being more sensitive in comparison with others. It hasn’t shot down the Soviet past in order to find favor conventionally in Russia.

Then what is the sensation of the interview?
Bronislavovich: Of all the things that Fr Hilarion could have talked about he chose Stalin and his tone was categorical.

In other words, the statement claims to be programmatic…
Bronislavovich: Yes, possibly.

What has changed and what do you think brought about Fr Hilarion’s desire “to shoot”?
Bronislavovich: Within the hierarchy there has blossomed a greater desire to play a role in politics… The conversation is about an ideal, improved Russia, but it is not clearly stated who is to blame and what is to be done. Now, thanks to Master Hilarion, this has been clarified for us. At least, who is to be blamed, has been clarified.

And for you, if it is not a secret, how do you regard Stalin?
Bronislavovich: I consider him to be the personification of his difficult times. That does not justify him. Among my relatives on my mother’s side, everyone was repressed. The demons of violence reaped an abundant harvest in those years.
It is important to understand that there was no other sovereign state in this specific historic period. Or, like the Russian bourgeois republic in 1917, it would have been crushed.
Totalitarianism was the social historical form for the first half of the 20th century, and not only in USSR and Nazi Germany. Society of all the large countries of the world existed in a totalitarian format, including USA, England, Japan, etc. The others were colonies or were occupied. Read the history of prewar United States—everything, what you will, from semi-prisoner coerced labor to industrial coupons and prohibition. Raids, purges. Millions disappeared without a word. One simply prefers not to recall.

Do you want to say that Stalin was not the key?
Bronislavovich: Yes, just so. And therefore Archbishop Hilarion’s statement, which was on the whole structured personally against Stalin, seems somewhat strange. As if the bishop had the goal of gaining the advantage and not analyzing the topic…
If there appeared at the apex of the pyramid, instead of Stalin, Kirov, or Trotsky, or Kamenev, or somebody else—the differences in the scale of violence would have been limited. As they say, people with “vegetarian tastes” did not survive in this system.

(tr. by PDS, posted 28 June 2009)



By Alexander Eliseev

Russkii obozrevatel, 19 June 2009

In his extremely polemical interview, Archbishop of Volokolamsk Hilarion repeated the old liberal-perestroika scenario according to which the “good” nation triumphed despite the “bad” Stalin. However such an approach is devoid of logic.

Stalin stood at the head of a rigidly centralized, mobilized state. All the threads of administration came to his hands and therefore it is possible and necessary to name Stalin the creator of the Great Triumph with every good reason….

There exists an enormous number of direct proofs pointing to the existence of a military conspiracy against Stalin…

Already long before 1937 there were several intelligence reports telling about Tukhachevsky’s conspiracy. According to French Prime Minister Daladier, People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs Litvinov told Stalin about the conspiracy. This also is stated in a secret letter to Czech President E. Benes from his ambassador to Berlin, Mastna…

But what is especially interesting, in my view, is the evidence of the director of political intelligence of the Reich, V. Shellenberg, who reported about secret (from the political leadership) contacts of Soviet and German military figures.

Stalin was able to win in this struggle by the “party” of Tukhachevsky, from which came the repression of the military figures. But removing such people from leadership meant not weakening the army but precisely strengthening it…

In respect to personnel, we had in 1941 an army that was better than that which existed before 1937. And it was created in 1939-1941 by Stalin, taking advantage of the breathing space provided to him by the Soviet-German rapprochement…

Now, finally, about the scale of the repressions. The archbishop maintains: “And the number of victims of Stalinist repressions is fully equal to our losses in the Great Patriotic War.” Again, this exaggeration is completely in the spirit of liberal-perestroika propaganda. Historians have long ago established the precise number of repressed persons.

Here is the basic document, a memorandum presented to Khrushchev on 1 February 1954. It was signed by the Procurator General R. Rudenko, Minister of Internal Affairs S. Kruglov, and Minister of Justice K. Gorwhenin. “The document says that, in the period from 1921 to the present, that is, to the beginning of 1954, for counterrevolutionary crimes, 3,777,380 persons were convicted…, of whom 642,980 received the supreme penalty, 2,369,220 were confined in camps and prisons for terms of 25 years or less, and 765,180 were exiled or deported… At the present time, the memorandum says, 467,946 persons were incarcerated in camps and prisons, convicted of counterrevolutionary crimes, and besides this there were in exile after serving sentences for counterrevolutionary crimes 62,462 persons…” (V. Zemskov, Political repressions in USSR).

Many patriots who occupy anti-Stalinist positions should seriously reconsider before repeating hackneyed phrases engendered in the period of perestroika in pro-Western circles. Isn’t it strange that such patriots often are aligned with those who love to shout about the “threat of Russian fascism”?

(tr. by PDS, posted 29 June 2009)

Russian original posted on site, 26 June 2009

This evening, after an hour of growing gloom and rumbling, a heavy rain fell upon the city.

For a few minutes, there was a hailstorm.

Pieces of ice which clattered like pebbles on the streets and sidewalks.

Some of the ice-drops were as big as peas, and a little pile, like evanescent pearls, filled the surface of the planter outside my window, until the storm ended and the summer heat returned.

“The story of the golden calf is a warning about any kind of self-initiated and self-seeking worship. Ultimately, it is no longer concerned with God but with giving oneself a nice little alternative world, manufactured from one’s own resources. Then liturgy really does become pointless, just folling around. Or still worse, it becomes an apostasy from the living God, an apostasy in sacral disguise. All that is left in the end is frustration, a feeling of emptiness. There is no experience of that liberation which always takes place when man encounters the living God.” —Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy (p. 23)

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