Brother André becomes Holy Cross Congregation’s first Saint

By Tania Mann

They gave the newborn Joseph Alfred Bessette no more than a day to live. They were wrong. Instead, Brother André – as he was later called – would persevere until age 91, continually beating the odds and giving hope to others that miracles really do happen.

An orphan from age 12 who was frequently ill and barely literate, Br. André’s life was riddled with suffering. But in the nearly 40 years of his work in the Holy Cross Congregation as a doorman, he found meaning and healing in Christ and helped those he encountered to do the same.

“When I joined this community, the superiors showed me the door”, Br. André is known to have said kiddingly of his job as the porter at Notre Dame College in Montreal. Joking aside, however, the Holy Cross Congregation had in fact once turned André away, thinking his poor health would impede his ministry. Rather his humble work of hospitality carved a path of holiness that has now extended all the way to Rome. On Sunday, 17 October, Br. André became the Congregation’s first Saint.

Photo by Steven Scardina

Fr Edwin Obermiller, CSC, Assistant Provincial of the Indiana Province, was one among the thousands of pilgrims who travelled from across the globe to Rome for Br. André’s Canonization. After the ceremony on Sunday, he said: “My experience today took me back to the heart of why I became a Holy Cross religious: that sense of hospitality and care for those among us, especially for those who are in need of not only physical but also emotional and spiritual healing”.

The Holy Cross Congregation was established in 1837 by Fr Basil Anthony Moreau, who Benedict XVI beatified in 2007. Today the legacy of both Bl. Moreau and St Bessette lives on through the Congregation’s presence in 16 different countries.

The Order runs several universities in the United States, for example, including the University of Notre Dame in Notre Dame, Indiana. In his homily during Opening Mass this fall, the institution’s President, Fr John Jenkins, CSC, emphasized a need to learn from Br. André’s example: “André has something to teach us”, Jenkins said. “He did not make great plans, but simply watched the door, and waited… He saw each visitor as a call from God to respond with compassion, attentiveness, and faith. And, remarkably, miraculous healings occurred”.

Indeed, André came to be known in his day as the “Miracle Man of Montreal” – a nickname to which he objected. He pointed instead to St Joseph, the patron of the Holy Cross Congregation.

In addition to fervently encouraging prayer for Joseph’s intercession, the doorkeeper also emphasized a view of the Lord as one who is near to us and always listening. He was known to say, for example, that “when you say to God, ‘Our Father’, he has his ear right next to your lips”.

This intimate relationship was what bolstered André’s faith in God’s aid. “André’s own innate trust in Divine Providence” – explained Fr Andrew Gawrych, CSC, Associate Director of the Office of Vocations in Indiana and the Eastern Provinces — “was so nurtured in Holy Cross that it empowered him to persevere in building St Joseph’s Oratory despite all the setbacks, famously asking for a statue of Jesus’ foster-father to be placed inside the unfinished shrine so the Saint himself might do the final fundraising. And he did!”.

Br. André was to work 16-hour days in the Oratory as its guardian, welcoming the pilgrims who flocked there and praying with them for healing. Often, those prayers were said to be miraculously answered. Today, St Joseph’s Oratory of Mount Royal is the third-largest basilica of its kind in the world and draws close to 2 million visitors a year.

Photo by Steven Scardina

Aside from running the Oratory and several top-tier universities, the Holy Cross Congregation is also dedicated to serving the poor. One of their best known efforts in this vein is André House, which serves the poor and homeless Arizona, U.S.A. Gawrych, who was recently stationed there, described the House as one way that André’s charism “continues to flourish in the community’s ministry today”.

With André’s official recognition as a Saint comes an invitation to the universal Church to participate in carrying on his legacy. It is a call to “search for God with simplicity, in order to discover him always present at the core of our lives”. as the Holy Father said in Sunday’s Canonization Mass Homily.

“Canonization allows people to see that they can make a difference in the world,” said Obermiller. “We begin to realize the capacity we each have to effect change in the world. Looking to St André, who didn’t even have a sixth-grade education, we can start to imagine the kind of potential we have to give back to the Church – to show the face of Jesus to others, in compassion, understanding and support”.

© L’Osservatore Romano English edition 10/20/2010

Botanical findings tell story of the Turin Shroud

By Tania Mann

Over 1.7 million pilgrims have already booked their visit to the first public exposition of the Shroud of Turin in 10 years. But is the piece of cloth that so many visitors are flocking to see really  the same one that was wrapped around the dead body of the man Jesus Christ? While many have questioned the Shroud’s true origin, one small book by a widely-respected Jewish botanist provides strong evidence of its authenticity.

In only about 100 picture-filled pages, Prof. Avinoam Danin – professor emeritus of the Department of Evolution, Systematics and Ecology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem – tackles the ambitious goal of answering every question he has ever been asked during his 14 years of research on the Shroud. His book Botany of the Shroud: The Story of Floral Images on the Shroud of Turin (Israel 2010:  Danin Publishing, pp. 104) clearly outlines the steps which led Danin to reach a set of highly significant conclusions.

As Danin explains, what has occurred on the Turin Shroud is similar to the process of drying flowers between the pages of a book. Hundreds of plant images have remained imprinted on the cloth. These images thus help to determine facts pertaining to where and when the flowers could have originally been strewn across it.  Also decipherable are the images of: nine thorns (most of which appear around the head and shoulders); a reed laid alongside the body of the “Man of the Shroud”, as he is called; approximately 2,600 fruits that were spread over the body; and partial images of a rope or cord.

The author’s research on the Shroud began when he was shown enhanced photographs of it in 1995.  At first glance, he immediately recognized the images of plants from the Jerusalem area.  The list of this prolific writer’s accomplishments in the field of botany – specifically pertaining to plants in the Middle East – is extensive. Suffice it to say that his 44-year-long career has involved discovering plant species never before found in Israel, Sinai and Jordan; and his work has enabled the creation of a data base from which a new phytogeographical map of Israel was drawn.

Danin’s first conclusion from his botanical findings is that, since the plant images appear in the same locations on photographs produced by different photographic techniques and on the linen of the Shroud itself, they must be real and not artefacts created by one photographic method or another. Of the hundreds of flower images, Danin focused his research on those which are most useful as geographic indicators, as well as on those with the most specific blooming times. He concludes that “the area where the assemblage of the three indicator plants could be freshly collected and placed on the Shroud near the man’s body is the area of Jerusalem to Hebron”. As for flowering seasons, he deduces that “March-April is the time of year when the whole assemblage of some 10 of the plants identified on the Shroud is in bloom”.

Regarding the thorns, Danin suspects that they belong to the plants Ziziphus spina-christi and Rhamnus lycioides, “an important historical indicator”. Both of these are considered among the “most ferocious” plants in Israel, and the thorns of the latter were once “used by Arab farmers to make the ‘knife’ of the plough”, he said.

The cord images on the Shroud show that the ropes were made from plant fibres using the same ancient method that has been used for thousands of years in Jerusalem. This cord is believed to be the one with which Christ was tied to the Cross.

For the Jewish botanist, sindonology – the study of the Shroud –  has always been an intriguing endeavour from a botanical forensic perspective, but Danin says he is completely detached from any religious significance the Shroud might possess. Recounting a conversation he had in 2000 with the then- Apostolic Nuncio of Jerusalem, Danin writes: “I described to him my excitement upon first seeing on the Shroud itself the plant images that I had seen on photographs. I said that I did not feel any particular emotion towards the object revered by millions…. I was a bit apologetic when I was telling him about it. He told me to keep on with my work, because if I were not a Jewish but a Christian botanist, only a few people would believe me”.

Since then, Danin’s years of work as a sindonologist have led him to conclude that the burial cloth already existed in the 8th century CE, and also that “the high similarity of the face of the Man of the Shroud to an icon of ‘The Pantocrator’ in the St Catherine Monastery, Sinai, takes the Shroud back to 550 CE”.

What the botanist calls “the holographic era” of sindonology began in 2007. This involved his collaboration with Dr Petrus Soons, who was responsible – along with his collaborators in the Dutch Holographic Laboratory in Eindhoven – for the creation of three-dimensional holograms of the Shroud. During this period Danin was able to observe that there is “an almost continuous carpet” of more than 300 flowering heads that were arranged in an orderly fashion on the forehead of the “Man of the Shroud”.

Another discovery resulting from his work with Soons was that it was a helmet – not a crown – of thorns that was used to torture the Man. Soons explained that “when he created life-size holograms and displayed them in Regina Apostolorum in Rome, they had to take a ladder to see the top of the head. This part of the body of the Man of the Shroud had not been seen by anybody before”. There Soons observed many small wounds that had been bleeding, whereas these wounds were not visible on the forehead.

The theological significance of Danin’s conclusions is immense. Each of these scientific observations recall Christ’s suffering: his Passion and Crucifixion as they were recently commemorated in the Catholic Church worldwide. Danin’s research – accompanied by that of other sindonologists – can help to reveal a physical reality that points to a transcendent truth: that of Christ’s death and Resurrection. Studies like his help to identify a tangible connection with those mysteries that stretch far beyond the capacity of the human mind.

In the words of Pope John Paul II: “The Shroud shows us Jesus at the moment of his greatest helplessness and reminds us that in the abasement of that death lies the salvation of the whole world” (Address, Pastoral Visit to Vercelli and Turin, 24 May 1998).  Indeed, when Christians speak of the Shroud, they speak of the very cloth that was wrapped around the only human ever to break the chains of death. It is a concrete record of his extraordinarily temporary state of death – the “mystery of Holy Saturday”, as Benedict XVI called it during his Visit on Sunday.

And as his Venerable Predecessor said years ago, “The Shroud thus becomes an invitation to face every experience, including that of suffering and extreme helplessness, with the attitude of those who believe that God’s merciful love overcomes every poverty, every limitation, every temptation to despair”.

© L’Osservatore Romano English edition 05/05/2010

Student Cross pilgrimage: more relevant today than ever

By Tania Mann

Over Holy Week, more than 250 people of all ages walked across England to participate in Britain’s oldest annual pilgrimage: Student Cross. Upon arrival on Good Friday, the majority of the pilgrims had travelled about 120 miles, carrying a life-size wooden Cross in small groups along city streets and country paths to reach their destination: the National Shrine of Our Lady in Walsingham, Norfolk.

Though it may be the oldest yearly pilgrimage in Britain, it is “more relevant today than it has ever been”, said the national director of this year’s event, Dave Stanley. Amid an increasingly complex and uncertain society so laden with material burdens, “going on pilgrimage is a fantastic way to strip back to the basics and examine the fundamental questions in life”, he said. L’Osservatore Romano spoke with Stanley on his way to Walsingham on 30 March.

The pilgrimage – which began in 1948 and became officially ecumenical in 1972 – is a way to observe Holy Week that attracts all kinds: “from people who feel secure in their faith as Christians, to people who have simply found that walking with friends restores them in some way; fit and unfit, wildly enthusiastic and apparently reluctant. What we have in common is that we find this pilgrimage an invaluable way of connecting with what is most important in our lives”, said the director, adding that this year’s Student Cross has drawn people from New York, Mexico and the Philippines.

From its founding group of 30 students, the pilgrimage has grown to see numerous participants return year after year. It is divided into 10 different groups, called “Legs”, that depart from various parts of England and travel different distances. Six of the 10 groups walk approximately 120 miles over Holy Week, but there are also less intensive programmes, such as the two organized for families. These meet in Norfolk for a series of short walks and activities.

And that is precisely how Dominique Gelder Smith, a 22-year-old student of Durham University, has gone on Student Cross every single year of her life. Her parents had participated in the pilgrimage since they were students, and they took her with them on these  family pilgrimages when she was an infant.

Now, for Gelder Smith, Student Cross and Holy Week are inseparable. The same goes for Stanley, who said that the pilgrimage offers a unique way to celebrate the holiday. But he added, “To me, it’s not just something that I do at Easter; it’s become a cornerstone of my life”.

Stanley – who met his wife on Student Cross – spoke of the strong intimacy intrinsic to this experience of carrying the Cross together. He emphasized just how profound the relationships are that form over the week and endure long after Student Cross is finished. This intensity stems not only from the opportunity to spend a week so charged with meaning with a close-knit group of people but also from the difficulties that the group must overcome.

“It seems that there’s nothing that could make you imagine how terrible the experience of Christ actually was until you carry a Cross across the country”, said Gelder Smith in a telephone interview given en route with the “Midland Leg” on 31 March.  “You get a mixed reception – there are lots of people who are encouraging and welcoming, but often you come across people who are quite hostile, as well”, she said. “But because we’re all sharing the experience, carrying the Cross together, it brings us closer. To actually be carrying a symbol of faith – it’s a really good witness to what we’re doing and what we’re all about”.

Beyond these reactions, the physical aspect itself is the most difficult, said Stanley. “One hundred and twenty miles is a long way, and it hurts. Even with three people carrying –  two in front and one in back – the Cross feels heavy, particularly as the miles go on”.  But at the same time, he continued, “You do feel that very immediate connection between the witness of carrying it on the road and the suffering that Jesus went through”.

The Crosses that each “Leg” carries are all the same size – over 7ft tall and over 4ft wide – but are made of different kinds of wood and thus vary in weight. On average, the pilgrims who walk the entire week spend from about 9a.m. to 6p.m. on the road each day, with a break for lunch and 2-3 other rest stops. As they walk, some pilgrims sing or even play instruments. There are also “stations”, modelled after the Stations of the Cross, during which they pause to share and reflect.

When the ten groups converge on Good Friday, they walk the last mile into Walsingham –  a place of pilgrimage since medieval times – together.

“Even though I’ve been going for so many  years, it’s always overwhelming to arrive on Good Friday, if only for the sheer number of young Catholics that descend upon the town”, said Gelder Smith. “We all meet just outside the Shrine, and go in group by group. There are always people cheering you on as you walk into the Shrine, where each group spends a few moments of silence, and prays together for the last time on their own”. Everyone is very emotional when they arrive, she said, after having reflected for the whole week on the significance of the weekend’s celebrations.

In Walsingham they participate in a Good Friday service at the Church of the Annunciation, and on Holy Saturday, an ecumenical prayer service is held in a Methodist church. Easter Vigil Mass is followed by a celebration that begins at 2a.m. and, for the majority of pilgrims,  lasts until Sunday. Since there are so many regular participants, the event functions as a sort of yearly reunion for people who do not see each other otherwise. Easter Sunday begins with an Anglican service, followed by a “holy trot”. This entails parading the Crosses –  decorated with flowers – around the holy sites of Walsingham, pausing three times for reflection.

“Student Cross enables people to think deeply about the direction they are taking, how they can see their role in the world and how God can play a part in their lives”, concluded Stanley, who hoped that every pilgrim might come away with a similar experience to his very first, when he was 19:

“I was awestruck by how powerful it was. It makes you look at life and at relationships in a completely different way. You start to think not just about what makes you happy, but about how to serve others”. Likewise Gelder Smith said that the pilgrimage is a wonderful way to reaffirm one’s faith, and that “you go home filled with the grace of God”.

Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster also commented to L’Osservatore Romano on the profound significance of the event: “Going on pilgrimage is one of the oldest expressions of our Christian discipleship”, he said. “Carrying the Cross on pilgrimage shows our awareness of our own sins and the forgiveness that comes from the Lord”.

“May this Student Cross Pilgrimage bring us all closer to Christ”, the Archbishop concluded.

© L’Osservatore Romano English edition 04/07/2010

Turning darkness into light: Interview with Tomm Moore

By Tania Mann

“I have seen suffering in the darkness, yet I have seen beauty thrive in the most fragile of places. I have seen the Book – the Book that turned darkness into light”.

The Secret of Kells opens with these whispered words. The independent film produced in Kilkenny, Ireland, was one of this year’s surprise Oscar nominees. It was up for Best Animated Feature against such box office hits as Disney-Pixar’s Up and Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox. The film’s plot centres on 12-year-old Brendan, an orphan in 9th-century Ireland living among a community of monks who practice illumination, the art of illustrating and embellishing Gospel texts.

All images courtesy of Cartoon Saloon

Brendan’s adventures begin when a quirky old illuminator named Aidan arrives with his cat Pangur Bán. The monk is renowned for his work on a famous Gospel manuscript  under the legendary St Columcille (also known as St Columba). Br Aidan’s seemingly whimsical arrival is a harbinger of danger, however; he comes seeking refuge, having fled from the Viking raids that destroyed his home of Iona.  Prompted by Aidan’s request for inkberries, Brendan ventures beyond the village’s fortified walls against the wishes of his stern uncle, the Abbot of Kells (voiced by Brendan Gleeson). There in the forest he meets Aisling, the sprightly and boisterous girl who accompanies him on his journey.

Director Tomm Moore, a 33-year-old Irish illustrator, comics artist and filmmaker, spoke about the significance, historical background and creation of The Secret of Kells in a telephone interview granted to L’Osservatore Romano‘s English edition on 12 March.

Moore explained that extensive research was involved in the making of the film. This included studying the actual Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript of the four Gospels which is considered Ireland’s finest cultural artefact. Today it is displayed at Trinity College in Dublin, but originally it was housed at the Abbey of Kells, the monastery founded by St Columba where the story is set.

By combining history, fantasy, and myth, Moore’s team aimed to illustrate the importance of preserving valuable traditions and shed light on the truth common to all faiths. The result is a dream-like journey that speaks of sacrifice, gaining strength through suffering, reconciliation and hope.

Several of these themes emerge in the way the film’s catch phrase – turning darkness into light – is interwoven with the story: “We took that language from a poem that a monk wrote about his cat, Pangur Bán, and it’s a direct translation from the old Gaelic”, said Moore. “He wrote it in the corner of the Gospel he was transcribing. He said that his cat had a like path to him – that his cat was chasing mice but he was chasing words, and that they worked all night turning darkness into light”.

Brendan’s adventures involve facing the darkness both within and without. As the boy struggles with the idea of leaving to brave the forest, Br Aidan assures him of the importance of experiencing the outside world: “I lost my brothers to attackers from the outside. Now I only have the Book to remember them by. But if my brothers were here now, they would tell you that you will learn more in the woods … than from any other place. You will see miracles”.

In the forest, Brendan’s enemy takes the form of Crom Cruach, known in Irish legend as a pre-Christian deity to whom pagans would make human sacrifices in the hope of good crops. But in the film Crom appears as a snake-like creature that devours its own tail, an Ouroboros.

“The Ouroboros is a symbol that you see a lot in the Book of Kells”, said Moore. “It was a symbol of eternal life that was used often in the crossover period between pagan and Christian faith in Ireland”. He explained that the scene symbolizes an inner battle: “We decided to make Crom very abstract so that it was more Brendan’s own fears that he was defeating rather than a specific pagan god. It’s Brendan’s journey into his own subconscious where he has to fight with his own fears, and then comes out triumphant with a new vision”.

In his defeat of the creature, Brendan’s character parallels the figure of St Patrick, who was said to have struck down Crom Cruach, bringing an end to paganism in the country.

If Brendan can be likened to St Patrick, then perhaps the film’s illustrators can be compared to the Gospel illuminators.  “Whenever we were looking at the Book of Kells, a lot of people pointed out that it must have taken a certain meditative quality to create that work. The monks would have had to be completely calm and focused, because it’s almost impossible to imagine how they created such detail with such rudimentary tools that they would have had at the time”.

Similarly meticulous is the work entailed in creating a 2D animated film like this one, which is 95% hand-drawn and produced “without a lot of fancy computer equipment”, Moore said. “People are forgetting how magical it can be that just a pencil and a piece of paper can bring something to life”.

The director explained that each second of animation took approximately 12 drawings per character, in addition to the extremely elaborate backgrounds. “We spent four years working full-time on creating the film, but prior to that there were about six years of designing and developing”.

These artists’ pencil-sketched creations include a diverse group of monks from Italy, Africa and the Middle East. Moore explained that the choice of characters came from researching the Book of Kells, in which there are inks from Afghanistan, Moroccan designs, and other foreign influences. The artists imagined that perhaps people had come from across the world to work on the Book. “We also read a book that talked about how Ireland was a kind of a refuge, that the library in Kells was one of the few refuges existent in the Dark Ages”, he said. “That’s how Ireland became known as the land of saints and scholars, because during that period people came from all over the world to study or to work whenever it was more dangerous on the Continent”.

Moore’s favourite character, however, is Aisling. The fairy-like girl seems to be bursting with both youthful energy and ageless wisdom. Her character grew out of ideas from literature and from real life. “Aisling is often a figure in 18th-century Irish poetry, where Ireland is represented by this beautiful woman, very serene, and she appears to the poet in a dream – because aisling means ‘dream’ in Gaelic. We decided to turn the tradition on its head and make her a mischievous little girl instead of a sombre matriarchal figure”. Moore based Brendan’s relationship with Aisling on his own relationship with his younger sister, whose personality he claims is similar. “My sister even looks a little bit like her, except for Aisling’s white hair!”.

As the film begins to open to record-breaking crowds in the United States, it seems the “secret” is definitely out. And with it comes a message rife with Christian meaning.

“The Book was never meant to be hidden away behind walls, locked away from the world which inspired its creation”, Br Aidan tells Brendan, destined to become Abbot of Kells. “You must take the Book to the people, so that they may have hope. Let it light the way in these dark days”.

For further information visit the film’s production blog, http://theblogofkells.blogspot.com

© L’Osservatore Romano English edition 03/17/2010

Unveiling the paradox of Christ’s love

“The birth of Jesus Christ in that stable in Bethlehem is where all my questions begin to be answered”.  The late Cardinal Basil Hume, Archbishop of Westminster, wrote these words when nearing the end of his life. “If I want to look on the face of utter love, if I want to see what the lover will do for the beloved, I have to take myself with faith to the crib and look at the image of the Child lying in the manger”, he added (1).

Looking at the scene of Christ’s birth – this is exactly what Benedict XVI invited the faithful to do when he blessed the Bambinelli that children had brought to the Angelus Reflection in St Peter’s Square on Sunday, 13 December.  He asked the “little ones” and their families to open their eyes to the mystery of this familiar scene of the Child Jesus and his Holy Family in the stable. In Italy the presepe, or nativity scene, remains the focus of Christmas decorations, with elaborate displays adorning piazzas and churches throughout the country.

As the Pope recalled, the tradition of the nativity scene began when St Francis of Assisi organized a re-enactment of the night of Christ’s birth in a mountainside cave in the small Italian village of Greccio:

“I want to do something that will recall the memory of that Child who was born in Bethlehem, to see with bodily eyes the inconveniences of his infancy”, St Francis explained during preparation for that first live nativity scene in 1223, as Thomas of Celano recorded in his biography of the Saint.

In that time, Thomas writes, “in the hearts of many the Child Jesus really had been forgotten, but, by his grace and through his servant Francis, he had been brought back to life”. What Francis most wanted to show the people, the Holy Father said on Sunday,  was that because of his love for us the Son of God emptied himself completely and came down to earth as a tiny baby.

The depth and nature of this love is a mystery that – while remaining hidden to many, past and present – has been revealed to the “little ones”.  Understanding the profound importance of this mystery and realizing what kind of person might begin to grasp it are both topics on which the Pope has consistently reflected, especially since the beginning of the new Liturgical Year.

“He concealed the great mystery of the Son… from the wise and the learned, from those who did not recognize him. Instead he revealed it to the children”, the Holy Father said. In order for our eyes to be opened, we need the grace to become small, he said. This is not to say, however, that the “becoming little” that is necessary for a deeper understanding of the faith means an abandonment of reason or a reversion to ignorance (2).

Instead, this process of becoming small involves the acknowledgement and consequent renouncement of the kind of foolishness that often leads to blind pride. All too often, people tend to think they “know everything” and see their own methods as “above God”.  In order to look at the Christ Child and truly see what lies there before him a man must open himself in humility, recognizing how little he is in comparison to the greatness of God. It is “precisely by accepting his own smallness… that he arrives at the truth” (3).

So we are to look to children for inspiration, the Pope says. A large part of what makes them worthy role models seems to be their ceaseless wonder at the world. “God speaks very gently to children, often without words…. Creation provides the vocabulary – leaves, clouds, flowing water, a shaft of light. It is a secret language, not to be found in books” (4).

Indeed, seeing God in nature is often how mankind has come to experience this same mystery whose truth is revealed in Christ.  In every age the beauty of Creation has brought Christians and non-Christians to catch a glimpse of that mystery.  One might begin with St Francis, so well known for his exuberant praise of God’s handiwork, as expressed in his Canticle of the Sun. But someone like Albert Einstein, for example, found transcendent meaning in Creation as well. His religion consisted in “a humble admiration of the illimitable superior spirit who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble mind”, he said. And he also had an appreciation for the importance of being like children: “People do not grow old no matter how long we live. We never cease to stand like curious children before the great Mystery into which we were born”.

The greatest minds – from theologians to philosophers to scientists – have often concluded their life’s work with a sense that  what they know is, in the grand scheme of things, not much at all. St Thomas Aquinas is a prime example. His thought remains to this day an invaluable foundation upon which a considerable part of Catholic Doctrine firmly stands. Having produced a large body of theological and philosophical work, St Thomas reached a point late in his life when he decided to stop writing. This was prompted by a realization, as he described it, that all he had written seemed to him to be mere “straw”.

But the Baby Jesus was not to become a Man who spoke of his utter lack of wisdom. Instead, “slowly he grew to man’s estate, increasing in wisdom and grace before God and man, adding to the fruits of his knowledge by experience… growing conscious of the outward fabric of the universe which his own hands upheld”, writes English Dominican Bede Jarrett (5).

It is only with the realization of Jesus’ true identity, then, that the extent of his humility can even begin to be perceived. And it is this realization that lies at the very core of the mystery of the faith: “that at a given moment in history the Trinitarian God entered our history, as a man like us” (6).

Thus the Holy Father has asserted time and again that Christianity is no myth: “the Gospel is not a legend but the account of a true story…. Jesus of Nazareth is a historical figure” (7). By coming down to earth, God revealed a great deal of the mystery of his love.  But in illuminating this mystery, “he cannot help blinding me even while he enlightens me, not because of his limitations, but of mine…. In other words, just because God is infinite and I am finite, it is to be expected that everything that he tells me of himself, while increasing light, will increase darkness at the same time. In those countries where the sun is brightest, there are the deepest shadows; the very brilliance of the sun adds to the blackness of the shadow that it casts” (8).

An awareness of Jesus’ identity and his humility unveils what seem at first to be contradictions. The paradox of his life emerges – a life begun on a bed of hay and finished on a wooden cross. If Christ is truly King, why would he lower himself to that kind of existence? Why would he choose to place himself in such poor circumstances? A helpless child might be considered the very epitome of vulnerability.  But then, “to love at all is to be vulnerable”, as C.S. Lewis writes (9).

Christ knows the human condition inside out, but instead of exploiting humanity for its frailty, he chose to share in its trials. It was this loving desire that led him to dwell among us: “In becoming Man, the Lord himself wanted to love us with a heart of flesh!”, the Pope explained (10).

The moment in which that heart of flesh started beating, the course of human history was drastically changed.  Christ’s entrance into the world would bring a new intimacy to mankind’s relationship with its Creator, one that did not end when he ascended into Heaven. He is still present today: “God is here, he has not withdrawn from the world” the Pope said, explaining that this phrase constituted “the essential meaning of the word adventus” for Early Christians (11). He described the Advent Season as a chance to “pause in silence to understand a presence. It is an invitation to understand that the individual events of the day are hints that God is giving us”, signs of his love (12).

Yet Advent is also a time of anticipation. “The Lord is at hand!”, we heard during Sunday’s Liturgy in the Letter of St Paul – notably the very same “great scholar” who had become a “little one” and was hence able to perceive “the folly of God as wisdom” (13).This anticipation is expressed, for example, in the way that in Italy traditionally the Infant Jesus is not placed in the manger until Christmas. The tension between this sense of expectation and the divine presence that can be experienced today is in itself symbolic of the Christian journey.

The balance between them was illustrated poignantly in St Peter’s Square on Sunday. There in the centre of the piazza was the large, covered manger scene, soon to be unveiled.  But from the Square filled with the faithful, Baby Jesus figurines in hand, one could see the Virgin holding a newborn Child just to the right of the Basilica. Upon the mosaic, a work commissioned by Pope John Paul II,  are written the words: Totus Tuus – totally yours. Parallel to Mary and Jesus stood the Holy Father at his window, reminding the faithful that “the crib is a school of life, where we can learn the secret of true joy”. This consists “in giving oneself as a gift for others and in loving one another” as God loved humanity – completely.

For Christians, it is a joy rooted firmly in hope. Christ did not come only to share in the human condition, he came to sanctify it, to lift it to himself:  “Christ’s nativity places ‘in our hands’ the potential of personal participation in God’s sacred life and love in an endless progression” (14).  The sense of anticipation that comes with Advent is in fact reminiscent of humanity’s insatiable longing for union with its Creator, its waiting to return home to him.

This same Creator made himself a humble servant out of love for his creatures. It is the Christ Child, both vulnerable Infant and Almighty God, both ever present and near at hand, who makes possible “the hope of our salvation”. Such is the message that Benedict XVI has continually sought to convey. Thus whoever can look – through the eyes of a “little one” – at the nativity scene, welcoming the Baby within as the centre of their lives, will find both “the source of true joy” and “the heart of the world” (15).

Notes

1)    Cardinal Basil Hume, Mystery of the Incarnation, (London: Dartman, Longman and Todd, 1999), p. 10.

2)    Cf. Benedict XVI, Homily During Mass for the Members of the International Theological Commission, 1 December 2009; L’Osservatore Romano English edition [ORE], 9 December, p. 6.

3)    Ibid.

4)    Text of a French catechetical document as cited by Cardinal Hume in his above-referenced work, p. 60.

5)    “Jesus Christ”, Bede Jarrett Anthology, ed. Jordan Aumann, OP, (London: Aquin Press, 1961), p. 35.

6)    Benedict XVI, Homily During Mass for Members of the International Theological Commission; ORE, 9 December 2009, p. 6.

7)    Angelus Reflection, 6 December 2009; ORE, 9 December, p. 1.

Note: This latter description can be dangerous when taken alone, however. Many academics have reduced the “great mystery of Jesus, the Son made Man” into a historical Jesus, “a tragic figure; a ghost, not of flesh and blood; a man who stays in the tomb” (Homily, Mass for Members of the International Theological Commission).

8)    Bede Jarrett, OP “Faith”, Bede Jarrett Anthology, p. 296.

9)    The Four Loves (London: Harcourt Brace, 1960), p. 111.

10)  General Audience Catechesis, 2 December 2009; ORE, 9 December, p. 16.

11)   Homily During First Vespers for the Beginning of Advent, 28 November 2009; ORE, 2 December, p. 7.

12)   Cf. ibid.

13)   Benedict XVI, Homily During Mass for Members of the International Theological Commission; ORE, 9 December 2009, p. 6.

14)   Bartholomew I, Patriarchal Proclamation Upon the Feast of Christmas 2008.

15)   Benedict XVI, Angelus Reflection, 13 December 2009.

– – – –

12/16/2009

© L’Osservatore Romano English edition

Meeting Michelangelo

I met Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. There he pointed out to me why the Jesus of The Last Judgment was the best part of the whole Chapel, all of  which was of course “bellissima”: “It’s in the way he’s holding up his hand – he’s giving us a special sort of greeting”, he said.

Detail, Jesus in Michelangelo's The Last Judgment

A small, curly-haired boy of about six, Michelangelo was paying his first visit to the Vatican Museums, or the “Michelangelo Museum”, as he called it. He said that he was happy to be there at last, because, as his mother explained, it is usually too crowded and hot for the family to make the trip. But this evening was an opportunity to visit it without the usual inconveniences of a tourist-packed museum, for the first ever nighttime opening of the Vatican Museums in their five-century-long history.

It was a night to give the Museums back to the people of Rome, according to Prof. Antonio Paolucci, Director of the Vatican Museums. And indeed many Italian families with children, as well as other Romans and pilgrims from all walks of life, attended the historic event on Friday evening, 24 July.

Mothers explained the paintings to their little ones whilst elderly couples strolled along, taking it all in. Many paused at the arched windows to admire the view of the subtly illuminated gardens and of St Peter’s dome at dusk. One woman enjoying the evening breeze at a large window even removed her heels, in a simple gesture that hinted at the true sense of the evening – to make the Romans feel at home amid their own city’s world-renowned cultural heritage.

Paolucci inaugurated the evening by accompanying Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, newly appointed General Secretary of the Governorate of Vatican City State, and Mauro Cutrufo, Vice-Mayor of Rome, through the first leg of the tour. The Director proudly pointed out the highlights to his special guests, inviting them to look more closely and even encouraging them to touch certain statues.

Visitors were offered a special itinerary that included the Octagonal Court, the Upper Galleries of the Vatican Museums – displaying Candelabras, Tapestries and Maps – the Stanze di Raffaello (Raphael rooms), the Sistine Chapel and the Galleries of the Apostolic Library.

That evening, one entered the Octagonal Court to strains of Renaissance dance music played on authentic wooden instruments from the same period. In their playful renditions – resounding throughout the courtyard against the basso continuo of the fountain’s rushing water – the two musicians, Tullio Visioli and Fabio Refrigeri, recreated the atmosphere of the Papal Courts of the past. It was in this evocative setting that Prof. Paolucci commented to Archbishop Viganò on the beauty of the “museographic composition – embracing sky, statues and music”.

Octagonal Court, Vatican Museums

Inside, the sculpted detail of the men and women immortalized in marble emerged with new clarity in the marked shadows. Their faces, lining the Museum’s impressive corridors, seemed to take on an almost suspicious air in the evening light, as if to wonder what the visitors were doing there after hours.

There was in fact something about walking through the halls in semi-darkness that almost felt like sneaking around in a secret, forbidden place. Paolucci had indeed wanted to let the public in on this “secret” for some years now, so as to make them aware of the immense beauty of the “culture on their doorstep”, he said.

“It often happens that citizens of cities like Paris, Rome and Florence feel deprived of their museums”, said Paolucci. There has been a worldwide movement to make the museums of these famed cities more readily accessible for their respective citizens, he explained.

The response was overwhelming. Over 2,600 people entered the Museums in the first 40 minutes. Those who bought tickets online beforehand numbered about 4,000, and more than 3,000 reservations were booked through the Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi, which had joined in the initiative.

The prospect of opening the Museums in the evening is also practical, as explained Fr Bruno Silvestrini, an Augustinian friar and parish priest of St Anna’s Church which stands just inside the Vatican City walls. “For all those who work, it’s a chance to be able to see the Museums peacefully and in new colours”, he said, having been pulled momentarily from his animated explanation of the surrounding artwork to a group of his colleagues from the Vatican. “This is so beautiful, especially during the summer period, when the light of dusk is still streaming in”, he said. “Everything is illuminated in a different way; it allows the visitor to discover these works of art in a new light. I think that it must definitely be repeated”.

Indeed the common sentiment at Friday’s event was the hope that it would continue in the future, and Paolucci expressed every intention of making it a regular occurrence from this September onwards. Plans are also underway for similar events to take place throughout the city of Rome to include weekend nighttime openings of sites such as the Colosseum, the Forums, the Capitoline Museums and the Ara Pacis Museum.

Mr Enzo Mattina was quick to point out however that, more than these, the Vatican Museums are what draw visitors to contemplate the religious elements of Roman culture. Originally from Naples but a resident of Rome for about 40 years, the elderly Mattina could be found that night strolling arm in arm with his sister, Elena.

“We were captivated”, he said of the guided tour given by the Museums that they had taken. “Italians travel around the world, but they also need to realize what’s sitting right here in front of them”, he continued. “Trying to speak about the art in the Museums would be ridiculous. No description would suffice. There are no words”.

The Libyan Sibyl, Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo

Thus the historic nighttime opening resulted in what might even be called an indescribably memorable evening for visitors of all ages. As the end drew near, Paolucci, now free of the press, took in the scene of enchanted visitors on an adjoining candlelit terrace. From it the imposing, illuminated cupola of St Peter’s – yet another of Michelangelo’s masterpieces – glowed like a moon over water.

Perhaps the great artist’s legacy will inspire another. Because little Michelangelo told me when we met: “My teacher said that I’m very good at drawing and that I too could become an artist someday”.

“Do you think you’ll be remembered in the same way this Michelangelo is now?” I asked as we gazed up at The Creation of Adam. He responded confidently and thoughtfully: “Yes, I really think so!”.

07/29/2009

Copyright (c) L’Osservatore Romano English edition

Sweet Home Chicago

From cotton fields to city streets, blues music tells the story of a people struggling to survive. Its syncopated rhythms convey a meaning as deep as the raspy voices crooning its melodies. The blues has evolved along with the history of black people in the United States – a journey marked by persecution but also by progress.

Theirs is a story that today opens to a new chapter, being written by a man who calls the city that transformed the face of the blues:  “Sweet Home Chicago”. Thus a closer look at the origins of blues music provides insight not only into black history but also into the context from which President Barack Obama, who lived in the Windy City before his move to the White House, entered the international scene.

It was in Chicago that blues music was modernized, where it adapted into a form that could then be easily diffused into popular culture. It would permeate many other musical genres and create the foundation of rock ‘n’ roll, gospel and the British pop made famous by the Beatles. Today, the blues rhythm beats on as the heart of American mainstream music, which in turn plays an influential role in the music world across the globe.

The twelve-bar structure found in the blues today is the same as that which the slaves invented as they worked in the fields, using music to communicate. This system of “field hollering” allowed the slaves to exchange secret information and indicate potential escape routes.

Chicago blues grew from these roots in the Mississippi Delta, where thousands of blacks lived before moving north during the Great Migration, which occurred in two waves between 1913 and 1970. Its heavy backbeats recall the oppression of slavery, while the charged guitar riffs and gravelly voices in the foreground express an insatiable longing for freedom.

In the 1930s, the Great Depression propelled the blues forward by providing not only greater reason for people to lament but also more opportunity to come together to perform and listen to music. From that decade on in the ghettos of Chicago, residents organized “rent parties” to raise money for families with financial difficulties. Thus listening to the blues also became a concrete experience of solidarity.

By this time, blues musicians in Chicago had already begun to create a more urban sound, distinguishing their own style from more rural or classic forms. This new sound reflected, with its quicker tempos, the frenetic pace of working life in an industrial metropolis.

“It was in these neighbourhoods that I received the best education I ever had”, President Obama said in a speech announcing his presidential bid. With this statement he recalled his work in Chicago from 1985-1988, organizing job training and other programs for the working-class residents of Altgeld Gardens, a public housing project amid shuttered steel mills.

The blues is a lyrical expression of both “the agony of life and the possibility of conquering it through sheer toughness of spirit”, writes Ralph Ellison in Invisible Man(Random House, 1952). This work, set in the newly industrialized Chicago of the 1930s, analyzes the problem of the black man’s identity in U.S. culture.

The people of Chicago are generally known as being “tough”, if only for having to endure the severe weather that results from its position on the edge of Lake Michigan. For this reason the blues, in the tenacity of its sound, personifies the Windy City (even if it was originally named as such in reference to its long-winded politicians, not its notorious weather).

The spirit of a city ever aware of life’s challenges – of a city where people are accustomed to adapting to change – is manifest in the blues. The city and the music have each shaped the other into what they are today.

But the influence of Chicago blues has extended much further than its own streets. This is seen clearly in the career and the heritage left by the man who is said to have defined its sound:  Muddy Waters.
His grandmother gave the musician this nickname, after the puddles of the Mississippi River in which he played as a child. Waters transferred to Chicago in 1943, where he received an electric guitar as a gift from his uncle. With this instrument – the volume of which he intensified by using a pick – Muddy Waters revolutionized the city’s musical scene.

In addition to the guitar, the harmonica and bass were also amplified in order to compete with the loud atmosphere of the locales where blues bands played. The first to win this battle against the noise with his harmonica was Little Walter. He did so simply by cupping his hands around the instrument.

From then on these methods of amplification and electrification characterized the Chicago blues sound. This new sound was part in thanks to the new possibilities that came with the end of the Great Depression and World War II. Muddy Waters and the other blues artists in Chicago became a vehicle for the optimism emerging at this time. It was here that the now widespread image of a small stage in a smoky bar, crowded with musicians improvising on the electric guitar, harmonica, piano, bass and drums, was born.

Today, it is not difficult to find evidence of the impact these musicians have had on the music world. It was, for example, Water’s song “Rolling Stone” that both the magazine and the rock group took their names. The same song was very probably an inspiration to Bob Dylan when he wrote “Like a Rolling Stone”. And it was reported in Rolling Stone magazine that among the playlists on President Obama’s iPod are songs by the group of the same name, by Dylan, and also by Howlin’ Wolf, who was known as Waters’ rival.

The list of artists and musical genres influenced by Chicago blues is endless. Among the numerous names of note are Chuck Berry, Elvis, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and also Eric Clapton, who has carried the inheritance of the blues from the seventies through to the present.

In the hands of the same “Slowhand”, as Clapton is known, the Chicago blues sound has evolved with the changing music scene while still remaining faithful to its deepest roots. A powerful witness to this is one of his recent albums, “From the Cradle”, composed entirely of songs by traditional blues musicians. Among them is Willie Dixon, one of the greatest musicians to have played with Muddy Waters.

But the electrified blues that was founded in the post-war era is not only a thing of the past. The music continues because the stories it recounts are still being written. Worth noting is that this year’s list of Grammy nominees for blues music included several protagonists of Chicago’s musical revolution. Among those carrying this tradition into the modern day is Buddy Guy – known as Muddy Waters’ successor – who opened his own club in 1989 in the heart of downtown Chicago.

The culture which developed around the blues clubs that have sprouted up around the city over the years is indeed thriving, creating a music scene that draws tourists and natives alike. Today, many of the most popular blues clubs are found in neighbourhoods inhabited predominantly by young white people.

In fact, the evolution of blues music in the city also entailed a diffusion into white culture. For proof of this on a wider scale, one can look to artists such as Clapton, Dylan, and even younger musicians like John Mayer. The latter, an artist who had already gained wide acclaim on the pop scene, surprised everyone with a blues album in 2005, featuring Clapton, Guy and B.B. King as collaborators.

Surely one cannot fail to acknowledge the extent to which the famous Blues Brothers, with their “mission from God”, have served to propagate blues music and culture into the mainstream. Working on the Chicago-based film inspired the “brothers” John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, never before musicians, to form their own group modelled after that featured in the movie.

While Chicago blues has survived in its purest form through the revolution’s biggest names and their successors, the deep influence it has had on the many genres of today’s chart-topping music is not to be ignored. Just one example is the widespread diffusion and popularity of rhythm and blues (R&B), a term that was originally used for Chicago blues but has extended to encompass much of black music heard today.

It becomes evident from the longevity of Chicago blues – in its original form as in its many variations – that at its heart this music expresses a depth of human emotion which stems from the very essence of human experience. For Ellison, the blues does not offer a solution to the human condition. It offers instead a strong resolution to overcome suffering:  a “yes” to a life marked by grace and irony, and a defiant decision to preserve the human spirit. Its sound is marked by sadness but also by fierce determination, thus reflecting the history of blacks in the States. In a time of global crisis, the President who pens this story’s newest chapters meets a challenge that will undoubtedly demand the same tenacity.

04/08/2009

Copyright (c) L’Osservatore Romano English edition

(Original version was written in Italian and published in L’Osservatore Romano’s Italian daily edition – 03/11/2009)