Half-Moon Over Rome

Monday was marked by St. Paul, the apostle to the nations who — blinded by a mysterious light — fell from his horse on the road to Damascus, then — his sight restored — devoted his life to the proclamation of that light

By Robert Moynihan, reporting from Rome

“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands.” —Psalm 19:1

The moon in Rome tonight is precisely half a circle — the right half — a bit fuzzy in the humidity of the evening. In my imagination, it seems tinged with holiness. As the Psalmist said, “the heavens declare the glory of God…”

There is too much to write, so again I must send only fragments, impressions, incomplete and inadequate. Only hints, half-guesses…

And the first point concerns the upcoming social encyclical, Veritas in caritate (“Truth in charity” or “Truth in love”; “caritas” can be translated by either word).

Yes, the Pope signed the encyclical on June 29.

No, the text is not yet available.

This morning I spoke to Father Federico Lombardi, S.J,, the head of the Vatican Press office, and he told me it will still be five or six days before the encyclical text is published. The presentation will likely be next Monday or Tuesday. July 6 or 7.

Everyone in Rome is now thinking about the arrival in Italy of US President Barack Obama. He will come to the “G8” meeting to be held in Aquila on June 8 and 9, and then he will visit Pope Benedict on July 10 for their first meeting ever.

There has been considerable controversy recently about the editor of the Osservatore Romano, Gian Maria Vian. I have known Vian for 20 years, and years ago occasionally had dinner at his house with him and his wife, before she passed away from an incurable disease.

Last night, as I was coming down the hill from my office on the via delle Mura Aurelie, I met Vian coming up the hill; he lives on the same street.

I asked him about why the Osservatore has taken such a positive line on Obama, and he told me he was trying to keep open the possibility of a dialogue between the Church and the US President, so that there may be a possibility of collaboration in certain areas, even if there is open disagreement on some issues, like abortion and the drive to legalize homosexual marriages.

Vian said he meets regularly with Pope Benedict.

This persuades me that there is an element of hopeful pragmatism in this current period in the Vatican toward the Obama presidency.

But whether this will continue, and to what extent, and in what precise directions, or be revealed to be naive, is likely to depend greatly on what occurs on July 10, and in the immediate aftermath of the meeting.

Obama and the Pope will meet face to face. It will be an historic meeting. Will it have a truly historic significance?

Will it be an opportunity lost?

In the battle for a culture of life, it could be a turning point. Or not…

I will write on this in coming days.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Pallium — vestment proper to the Pope, who confers it on archbishops in token of their union with and obedience to him. It is a band of cloth worn around the neck and has a 2-in. (5.1-cm) pendant hanging down in both front and back. There are six black crosses on the pallium. It is woven of wool from two lambs presented to the Pope at the Church of St. Agnes on her feast day. Certain liturgical functions, such as ordination, require the use of the pallium, and an archbishop may not perform those until he has received it. The pallium dates at least to 500s A.D.

Today began with memories of yesterday, the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul (June 29) when Pope Benedict bestowed the pallium on the shoulders of 31 men from around the world, five of them from the US, all archbishops named during the past few months.

The Church is certainly in crisis — indeed, she is always in crisis. Ecclesia semper reformanda (“The Church is always in need of being reformed”).

But the unity of Peter with all of his bishops around the world, exemplified by the pallium ceremony yesterday, was a compelling image of the universality of the Roman Catholic Church.

This is not to say there are not modern heresies, willed and unwilled, which, like ancient ones, harm and undermine our true understanding of the Catholic faith, but it is to say that the structure of the Church is still visible, global in scope, universal — as seen in ceremonies like the one yesterday.

This was how Archbishop Timothy Dolan, the jovial, good-humored new archbishop of New York, put it during a small press conference in the North American College, just a few steps from the Vatican, after the morning Mass: “Today’s ceremony was a living mosaic of the unity and diversity of the Church.”

Dolan said he was moved by the sense that this ceremony was at once a consolation and an obligation: “The wool of the sheep, symbolizing the Good Shepherd who carries his sheep, is also… a yoke!”

Speaking with a certain emotion, he said he felt a double bond at the moment the Pope set the wool cloth (the pallium) on his shoulders: “It had somewhat the atmosphere of a wedding,” he said. “At that moment, we are intimately bound as shepherds to our people, our sheep, and we are also bound to Pope Benedict.”

Archbishop Alan Vigneron, the new archbishop of Detroit, used Christ’s metaphor of the vine and branches to describe his own feelings. “Peter is living. The Church is a real, organic, living thing, a personal reality. In his homily, the Holy Father spoke of us being co-heirs of the kingdom. That is what I thank God for — that I belong to the family of Peter and Paul.”

I spoke with Vigneron about the economic situation in Michigan, where the car industry is contracting enormously.

He told me that there are many, many parents who have a number of children who have lost their jobs, and that his heart goes out to these people.

He said he will make it part of his mission as a shepherd to help find concrete solutions.

“I will encourage our political and economic leaders to be as creative and far-sighted as they can be,” Vigneron said. “And we will try to give people a sense that the person of Christ can be relied upon. I will personally lead prayers every Tuesday night to Our Lady of Perpetual Help. My father did seasonal construction work, and every winter when he was laid off we would pray together as a family to Our Lady of Perpetual Help that he would be called back to work. And we went through some very tough times, but Dad will turn 93 in six weeks. We must find a way, with God’s help. I pray that families stay together, and the Church will give all the help she can in these hard times.”

The other three American archbishops who received the pallium were Gregory Aymond of New Orleans, George Lucas of Omaha, and Robert Carlson of St. Louis (“Oh my gosh, he’s wonderful,” says Barbara Middleton, an old freind from Detroit, who is visiting Rome with her husband Mark; Barbara and Mark are sitting at the next table as I write at 11 pm in the sidewalk cafe at the bottom of via delle Fornaci. “Archbishop Burke yesterday asked Carlson to take over the cause (of canonization) of Father John Hardon, S.J., and Carlson agreed,” Barbara adds: “Twelve years ago, Father Hardon had a meeting with Pope John Paul II and the Holy Father told him the crisis in the Church is the lack of belief in the true presence, and the next day Father Hardon flew to America and met with us and we founded our Holy Trinity Apostolate to educate on the Holy Eucharist because of the crisis in the Church.” Barbara and Mark live near Detroit.)

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Today began with the unveiling of the restored Pauline Chapel in the Vatican.

This was an extraordinary moment, for the Vatican, for world art, and even, perhaps, for theology — if we are permitted to allow Michelangelo to affect our theological reflection (as I think we are).

Where is the Pauline Chapel, and what is it?

Imagine you are in the Sistine Chapel. Over your head is the great painting of the creation of man. On the wall in front of you is the Last Judgment. Behind you is the back wall of the chapel. There is a door in that wall. You go out through that door. Now you are in a huge hall. You turn and look to your right.

The hall is called the Sala Regia, the Royal Room, where Popes once consecrated the kings of Europe. Enormous frecoes cover the high walls, showing the battle of Lepanto in 1571, the return of Pope Gregory XIII to Rome from Avignon, France, in 1376 (you can remember the date of the return because it was 400 years before 1776, the founding of America through the Declaration of Independence), and Pope Alexander III’s reconcliation meeting with the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I.

At the far end of the hall, there is a door. The door opens into another chapel, not as large as the Sistine Chapel, but still the second-largest chapel in the Vatican.

It is the Pauline Chapel (photo).

And for the last eight years, restorers have been cleaning it — after 400 years when hundreds of candles spread soot over the walls and ceiling.

And today, the chapel was opened again for the first time.

Inside the Pauline chapel are two enormous frescoes which Michelangelo did just after he finished the Sistine Chapel. One depicts the crucifixion of St. Peter. The other depicts the conversion of St. Paul.

And these two frescoes are among the most powerful works Michelangelo ever executed.

(Many artists would have depicted the death of St. Paul alongside the death of St. Peter; or the conversion of St. Paul alongside the calling of St. Peter; but Michelangelo chose to depict the conversion of Paul and the crucifixion of Peter — the beginning of faith, and its end in persecution and martyrdom.)

The striking thing is that Michelangelo painted the face of Peter in such a way as to have Peter’s eyes look directly toward the doorway. When a Pope comes into that chapel, he has to look into Peter’s eyes. And what does he see there?

Well, that is the question….

The director of the Vatican Museums, Antonio Paolucci, in this morning’s press conference, spoke about the look in Peter’s eyes.

He said the look was angry. And he said Peter’s expression contained doubt about the meaningfulness of his sacrifice, his willingness to be executed for Christ.

I don’t see any doubt in Peter’s eyes.

I do see a challenge. The challenge is to those walking into the chapel, including every Pope. The challenge is: “Be ready to be as strong as I am, as I have to be, to die for the faith. Don’t even think about holding back. Give everything, as I am doing.”

In this regard, I was reminded of something which Pope Benedict said on the day he was crowned, in his homily on April 24, 2005.

I was in St. Peter’s Square that day, and I listened very carefully as he spoke.

And there were only two sentences in his homily that really moved me, and have remained with me to this day.

The first was when he spoke about the deserts which can surround us and cause us pain, the deserts of confusion, the deserts of the loss of love. Benedict said:

“And there are so many kinds of desert. There is the desert of poverty, the desert of hunger and thirst, the desert of abandonment, of loneliness, of destroyed love. There is the desert of God’s darkness, the emptiness of souls no longer aware of their dignity or the goal of human life. The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast. Therefore the earth’s treasures no longer serve to build God’s garden for all to live in, but they have been made to serve the powers of exploitation and destruction.”

And the second was when he asked for our prayers. He directly asked us, right out in the open, on the first day of his papacy, for our prayers, for one thing:

“My dear friends – at this moment I can only say: pray for me, that I may learn to love the Lord more and more. Pray for me, that I may learn to love his flock more and more – in other words, you, the holy Church, each one of you and all of you together. Pray for me, that I may not flee for fear of the wolves.”

Those were the Pope’s words: “Pray for me, that I may not flee for fear of the wolves.”

The fresco depicting the conversion of St. Paul is striking in a different way. It shows the descent of a divine light, from the hand of Christ, upon St. Paul. The light, which is depicted like a white cloud or mist, doesn’t seem harmful, but it blinds Saul.

This depiction reminds me of the God on the Sistine Chapel ceiling creating the world, and the Christ of the Last Judgment. Both are visions of a divine realm which contacts this realm, brings it into being, judges it, and, in the case of Saul, blinds it — in order to open its eyes to new light.

The altar in the Pauline Chapel has been restored. Benedict made the decision in February this year.

Paul VI had selected a new, modern altar, and moved it away from the back wall of the chapel.

Benedict, when he came in to look at the nearly-finished restoration work in February, ordered that the old altar be put back closer to the wall, but leaving a small space so that the tabernacle could be reached (the tabernacle is directly behind the altar, and it would be too far for the priest to lean across the altar and open the tabernacle, so the Pope, instead of moving the tabernacle from the very center of the chapel wall, had the altar moved just about a yard away from the wall).

Mass will no longer be celebrated in this chapel with the priest facing toward the people, but with both priest and people facing the tabernacle, the cross above it, and the East.

I enjoyed a lovely lunch today with Joan Lewis, the EWTN correspondent in Rome. It was her birthday.We ran into Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster, England, at Il Mozzicone on the Borgo Pio. And we also saw Bishop Kevin Vann of Forth Worth, Texas, an old friend whose diocese is filled with young families and strong Catholic schools.

This evening I had dinner — before Jack and Barbara showed up — with the only woman who teaches in the journalism department at the Gregorian University, Miriam Diez y Bosch, who is from near Barcelona, Spain. She and her husband, Joan Andreu, are also heading up a journalism program in a university in Barcelona. Miriam has been involved with the Spanish edition of the new service, Zenit, and is the chief editor of the new H2O Catholic video news network.

Miriam had just presented a book by Pope Benedict XVI on St. Paul at a Vatican press conference. The book collects all of Benedict’s reflection on St. Paul from throughout this past year, and was beautifully produced and illustrated by the Vatican Press.

But what interested me about my conversation with Miriam was her revelation to me about her native town.

“I was born in Gerona, in Catalonia,” she told me. “My city is very important for the Jews. They come from New York City and they want to buy pieces of stone from my city, because it was a center of the Kaballah. And they come to study the Jewish presence in Spain before 1492, when the Jews were expellled from the country, in the same year that Columbus discovered America. My city is a very symbolic place for the world’s Jewish community. Nachmanides lived there. He was a master of the Kaballah.”

So I went to read up a little on Gerona. I found this:

“The largest body of Kabbalistic works predating the ‘discovery’ of the Zohar by Rabbi Moshe DeLeon in the 13th century, originated from a circle of Kabbalists writing in Gerona, Spain. These adepts were disciples of Rabbi Isaac the Blind, two of whom were especially prolific: R. Ezra ben Solomon and his younger colleague, R. Azriel. Dan and others claim that these two mystics, and their disciples, laid the foundation for all future Kabbalistic speculation; for example, much of the terminology and basic ideas that prevailed in the Kabbalah for the next seven hundred years were formulated in Gerona.” —http://www.kheper.net/topics/Kabbalah/Gerona.htm

And this:

“Ours is an age hungry for meaning, for a sense of belonging, for holiness. In that search, we have returned to the very Kabbalah our predecessors scorned. The stone that the builders rejected has become the head cornerstone (Psalm 118:22). —Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, Dean of the Conservative Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in the American Jewish University

To apprehend the point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint.
No occupation either, but something given
And taken, in a lifetime’s death in love.
Ardour and selflessness and self surrender.
For most of us, there is only the unattended
Moment, the moment in and out of time,
The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,
The wild thyme unseen, or music heard so deeply
That it is not heard at all, but you are the music
While the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is
Incarnation.

—T. S. Eliot , Four Quartets

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