A force of unity against factories of extremism

By Tania Mann

“Interfaith cooperation isn’t just about trying to find harmonies between Islam and Christianity… it’s about building real relationships between Christians and Muslims”, says Eboo Patel, the founder and President of Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC), an organization building a global movement to empower young people of all faiths to work together in service. Named by US News and World Report as one of America’s Best Leaders of 2009, Patel has emerged as one of the most prominent mainstream voices — in print, TV and radio — for interfaith dialogue and action worldwide. Last year, he was appointed by President Obama as a member of the newly established Advisory Council of the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Patel was born in India but grew up in Chicago, where the IFYC is based today. He attended Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship — receiving a doctorate in the sociology of religion — and is the author of the award-winning book Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation . In the following telephone interview with L’Osservatore Romano, Patel speaks on the roots of his passion for interfaith action and on how youth can fight in favor of unity and against the distorted depictions of religion so rampant today.

Eboo Patel (Photo courtesy of IFYC)

What led to your founding of the IFYC?

It was my introduction to the Catholic Worker movement, where my experience showed me that the heart of religion is about serving others, and about bringing creation in line with the intention of the Creator. And that, I believe, is about people from different backgrounds living together in equal dignity and mutual loyalty.

There, I saw Catholics taking the social dimension of their faith so seriously that they were truly living it. My Catholic Worker time shaped how I understood the relationship between faith and service. That is what led to me founding this organization. I later discovered that same drive and impulse in my own religion, and I realized that so much of how religion is portrayed on the evening news is just the opposite. It is depicted as a barrier of division instead of a bridge of cooperation. I figure that, if so many young people can be involved in these factories of extremism — these forces of intolerance where religion serves as a barrier or a bomb — then young people could be equally mobilized while working to form a bridge. Because so many of those changes happened for me in college, I happen to think that college is a very special space and a really powerful time in a young person’s life when they make certain value commitments. They commit to the ethics that they are going to carry into the world.

How did the organization itself come about?

When I was a grad student at Oxford, I would leave for one or two months at a time to run interfaith youth service projects around the world — in South Africa, India, Sri Lanka, and across Europe. I was convinced by the young participants in these projects that there was a critical mass of young people inspired by faith to work with people of different religions, and to apply that shared value to the way they could affect other people’s lives. The evidence was there and it was inspiring.

By the time my PhD was finished, I had developed a methodology, and I knew that this was what I wanted to do with my life. I was tired of the factories of extremism and forces of intolerance being so strong. I thought: “Why can’t we build a movement for interfaith cooperation that is stronger?”

The U.S. has recently seen heightened tensions between Muslims and those of other faith traditions. What do you think lies at the root of these tensions? How can they be overcome?

In my view, at various times in American history, forces of intolerance have targeted different groups. Earlier, it was Catholics, but these forces have also targeted Jews and African Americans, among others. Now its Muslims. But the good thing is that every time these forces have gone into action, they have been defeated by the forces of unity. It is our time to be the forces of unity. In the previous generation we had leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr but those leaders are no longer around, so now we have to do that.

Can you explain a bit about President Obama’s Advisory Council of the White House Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships — its function, your role, and how you came to be involved?

One day, I received a phone call and was told: “Congratulations! The President has selected you for his Advisory Council”. That is a special phone call to get! Our initial meeting was in February of 2009, during which the President said: “I want this council to focus on four things: 1) Faith communities have to be involved in service, especially in this time of recession, 2) members of those communities ought to view service as a shared value that they can build better understanding upon, 3) we ought to show the world that this is what America is about: that we can work together and be a model of cooperation and harmony, and 4) young people should be the leaders in this”.

Well, my jaw about hit the floor when I heard that! So I got up the gumption to stand up and thank the President, and to add that: “The vision that you just laid out is exactly our vision at the Interfaith Youth Core”. He looked at me, smiled, and said: “We will be following up with you about that”. It was very inspiring to me to learn how close to the President’s heart this vision is. My formal term on the Council is over now [council members serve one-year terms] but as a part of it I helped make progress concerning the importance of interfaith movements on college campuses. The White House also hosted an interfaith summit in June, and will be kicking off two interfaith leadership training institutes with hundreds of students in late October.

How have your studies in the sociology of religion affected the way you think about religious interactions?

One of my main influences is Wilfred Cantwell Smith. He was very focused on the notion that interfaith cooperation isn’t just about trying to find harmonies between Islam and Christianity, for example, but it’s about building real relationships between Christians and Muslims. It’s not just in how you learn things about other traditions; it’s in the way you interact with them. Just because you can identify the commonalities among certain faiths doesn’t mean you have the skills to do something with that knowledge.

At Interfaith Youth Core, we believe that just as college campuses have been models and beacons for promoting environmental and multicultural causes, they can do the same for interfaith cooperation. That’s why we are training college students to run an interfaith action campaign called “Better Together” on their campuses. The goal is to teach college students to be interfaith leaders; to lead a concrete campaign, to mobilize large groups of people to participate in interfaith service projects, and to speak compellingly about the importance of interfaith cooperation.

Over 100 campuses are participating this fall, many of which are Catholic schools, and that doesn’t surprise me at all. My parents went to Catholic schools in India, the reason I came to this country was because of my father’s studies at Notre Dame, and my son goes to Catholic school now. Catholic institutions take very seriously the values of learning, diversity, faith and service. Today there is a need to lift up these shared values as a priority and integrate them into the way we live our lives. That’s what the Interfaith Youth Core seeks to do through our programs.

Interview conducted 10/1/2010. © L’Osservatore Romano English edition 2/23/2011.

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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

Interview with Archbishop Vincent Nichols

The Church in England and Wales has become a “meeting point of Catholics from all over the world”, having recently grown significantly in diversity, said Archbishop Vincent Gerard Nichols of Westminster in an interview on Monday, 25 January 2010. The Archbishop, who is President of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, also expressed the Church’s hopes for Benedict XVI’s upcoming Visit to Great Britain, as well as for the Beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman. The following is the full transcript of the interview, which he granted to L’Osservatore Romano‘s Tania Mann and Nicola Gori at the beginning of the Bishops’ ad Limina visit to Rome.

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How would you describe the proper role of faith in public life?

At this time in England, I believe, society is at a point of change. I think there is the beginning of a greater openness to the expression of faith in public life. For some years now, there has been a great scepticism and suspicion of religious faith, because in many minds it has been associated with extremism and a lack of rationality.

But I think there is a sense of uncertainty in our society and people are asking about the kind of values that we want to live by; the values around which might hold us together. In that search, there is a greater openness to the light which comes with religious faith, especially in the Catholic tradition, which lays such emphasis on the partnership, the combination, of faith and reason.

There are small signals of this shift in English public opinion. For example, the visit of the relics of St Therese of Lisieux attracted a great and wide interest. On the whole, that visit was received very positively in the public arena.

Just now, an art exhibition has finished at the National Gallery. It has been open for three months, and it is called “The sacred made real”. It is an exhibition of Spanish religious art from the 16th and 17th centuries which is very direct, very vivid and contains very strong images of the Christian faith. Many people have said that 10 years ago it would not have been possible to show this art. But this exhibition has been very successful — attendance has been 250% higher than the Gallery expected. One of the exhibits is particularly dramatic; it’s a polychrome sculpture of the dead body of Christ. It has been said that in the middle of the art gallery people have knelt and prayed. It has been a very remarkable lifting of a kind of deep-rooted unease in English culture about the art which in our country disappeared at the Reformation, but now in this exhibition is being seen again. So there are small indicators that the contribution which religious faith can make is finding a cautious welcome again.

The Catholic Church is manifest in very diverse ways throughout the world. Beyond the stereotypes, are there aspects that particularly characterize the English Catholic Church?

Well, one of the most evident characteristics of the Catholic Church in England at the moment is that it’s changing rapidly, and that it is very diverse. It is in fact a meeting point of Catholics from all over the world, from many different cultures and languages and ethnic groups. So in most parishes in the Westminster Diocese, in the Birmingham Diocese, and in the big cities, every parish has a great international feel to it now. There are parishes in Westminster where there are 90 different languages spoken by the congregation. That would be true of parishes in many of the other big cities as well.

I was in a parish yesterday, in North London. I was there 10 years ago; 10 years ago it was predominantly Irish, and yesterday there were people from five different continents. So there is a great enriching in this diversity of Catholics present now in the Church in England and Wales, and the contribution that those who are coming make to our churches is one of great strength, enthusiasm and vibrancy. So, there are many Polish Catholics; there are Catholics from Kerala, from the Philippines, from Africa. They are fervent in their faith, and they help to revitalize the English expression of faith as well.

It also means we have a number of different liturgical rites. In Westminster Diocese, we have about 60 different ethnic chaplaincies in the diocese, and a whole number of different Catholic rites. So we are slowly deepening our appreciation of the diversity within the unity of the Catholic Church.

Speaking of bringing new people into the Church, would you like to speak a bit about the initial reactions to the recent Apostolic Constitution, “Anglicanorum Coetibus”?

For 20 years now we have been developing the process of the rite of Christian initiation of adults as the normal way in which people come into the Church. So, at the beginning of Lent, Westminster Cathedral will be filled with those who are becoming Catholics and with their sponsors, for 2 days in succession. It’s not big enough to accommodate all those people in one day..

Some of those seeking membership in the Catholic Church will be people coming from different religious backgrounds. A large proportion will have had no religious upbringing. Some will be people who have been baptized and so are candidates for full communion. Some of those will be from the Church of England, and that has become part of our routine, year by year.

The Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus I think it’s very important to understand that this was not put in place particularly with England in mind. As you will know, the issuing ofAnglicanorum Coetibus was a response by the Holy See to requests that had been made to the Holy See by people within the Anglican Communion from all over the world, principally from America and from Australia. The request that was made to the Holy See was, “Is there a way in which we, who are convinced of the primacy of the Pope and of the gift of visible unity around the Pope as that ministry is at present fulfilled — is there a way for us who have that conviction to come into full communion with the Pope and bring with us some of our patrimony which is consistent with Catholic faith?”. So that was the question. And the response was Anglicanorum Coetibus.

In England we remain to see how many people will decide to respond to that opening by the Holy Father. There is in the Church of England quite a strong Anglo-Catholic tradition, but that’s not the focal point of Anglicanorum Coetibus. The focal point of Anglicanorum Coetibus is those, who have not just a deep understanding of the Catholic nature of the Church’s life and the Christian discipleship but, as its central point, an understanding of the papacy. There are many in what is called the “Anglo-Catholic” part of the Church of England who would not share that view of the papacy. So I hope the Anglo-Catholic feature — strength — of the Church in England will continue and I don’t think Anglicanorum Coetibus, as it were, is going to have a significant impact on that.

There are some who, as well as sharing that Catholic sense of Christian discipleship also have a definite and positive regard for the role of the Bishop of Rome. Now they will have to choose. As Archbishop Rowan Williams and I said in our Joint Statement, the issuing of this Apostolic Constitution could well “bring to an end a period of uncertainty” — a period of uncertainty for those who didn’t know whether they wanted to act on their conviction about the papacy. So I think now it will be a moment of decision.

We know that there are people within the umbrella of the Church of England who at this time are pondering that over carefully. They have chosen the 22nd of February, the Feast of the Chair of Peter, to begin to formulate their response.

It’s important to remember, however, that Anglicanorum Coetibus refers to groups of Anglicans, not individuals. It’s a way for small communities of members of the present Church of England, or the Anglican Communion, to enter into full communion.

There have always been conversations with individual members of the Church of England. That continues, but Anglicanorum Coetibus is not just talking about maybe half a dozen clergymen but rather it’s talking about groups of laypeople. We have to wait and see.

What can be said of the current dialogue between Christians and Muslims?

In England and Wales we recognize the very great importance of the interfaith dialogue. We would also want to emphasize the importance that this is not simply a dialogue with Islam.

I have just come from Birmingham, and in Birmingham there is a very fruitful interfaith leaders’ group and series of contacts, but it is with the six or seven major faiths. In Birmingham, there is a large Christian community. Then, probably, the next biggest communities are the Sikhs, Hindus and Buddhists. There is a small Jewish community and a growing Muslim community. There we have tried to maintain the dialogue with all the different faiths. I think that’s important to remember —that the interfaith issues are not just to do with Islam.

What is particularly a challenge with regard to Islam is that neither in Birmingham and nor in London is there a leadership or a coherence or a uniformity about Islam. In Birmingham now, there are about 160 mosques. But a lot of them actually relate to a single village — in Pakistan, or in India. They don’t necessarily have any great cohesion.

In London, there are Muslims from all over the Muslim world. But African Muslims have a quite different agenda to those from Iran, or from Turkey, who have a quite different stance to those from Pakistan, or from India. So it is not really possible to talk about Muslims as a generic whole.

I think also we understand a little bit, as a Catholic community, about what it is to arrive or to emerge as a minority in England and to be the focus of a lot of suspicion. I think we have an empathy with Muslims who, because of an atrocity carried out by extremists, who use the title of Islam to excuse what they have done. Because that has resonances with the Catholics in England and their experience at the time of bombs set off by the IRA for which all Catholics were blamed. So there is some empathy for the moderate Muslims — which is the majority of those in Britain —who want to live peacefully, who see their faith as a motivation for good, and who want to play their part in British society.

This kind of contact can happen at local level, and it can happen at the level of Church leaders. It’s important that we give that witness, so that those in authority slowly move away from a position that they sometimes take up, of viewing religious faith as a problem for society; whereas in fact we believe that religious faith is an enrichment of society and an important contributor to the work of fashioning a modern city. And there is evidence to support this view.

Looking to the future of the Church in England and Wales, what are your greatest hopes?

We are obviously looking forward to the proposed Visit of Pope Benedict XVI. While that Visit hasn’t been officially confirmed, we are confidently getting ahead with preparations. It is very encouraging that the British Government and of course Her Majesty the Queen are extremely positive about the Visit of Pope Benedict.

We are working closely with both Ministers and officials of the Government in fashioning a short but what we believe will be a very effective program for the Visit. This program will focus, we hope, on the role of faith in what Pope Benedict often describes as a society of “positive and open secularity”.

Then, of course, we are looking forward very much to the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman, who everybody knows as a scholar, as a famous convert to the Catholic Church, and we would very much want to present him as a man of English culture, as a man who has great stature within the cultural and literary life of our country. We would very much want him to be appreciated as a parish priest because for over 30 years he was a parish priest in Birmingham, and his beatification comes at the end of the Year for Priests. So here we have the Beatification of an English parish priest, just as we close the Year for Priests. We hope that that will lead to a greater understanding of the role of Catholic faith, how it is really part of an English way of life, and perhaps a flowering of new vocations to the priesthood.

I think our hopes would go wider than that as well, because we hope for continuing fruitful dialogue with the Church of England and other Christian partners, and we are very pleased to see the announcement of the third set of International Anglican Roman Catholic Dialogue, ARCIC III, and obviously the outflowing of that into a refreshing of a vision about what a good modern society stands for

Because sometimes I sense that British society today tries to hold together around negatives. It holds together round its determination to be non-discriminatory. It holds together round its determination to be tolerant. But these are not substantial enough a vision to motivate people, to lift their spirits. And so I hope that together we might be able to have more positive convictions about what is for the good of a human society and for families within that society.

And your greatest fears?

My fears would be to do with a failure to get beyond the cynicism and the suspicion of religious belief. Such cynicism impoverishes everybody and therefore it will lead to a greater fragmentation of society. We do have — perhaps in a particular way — a great capacity to be cynical.

It’s the marginalizing of religious faith that is the biggest fear, because I think that would be really corrosive of good things in society. What would go with that would be a loss of confidence, even within the communities of faith themselves.

I think that one of our biggest challenges is to deepen faith within the Catholic community and to strengthen the substantial understanding of faith, because in these circumstances, anyone who wants to be a disciple of the Lord has to be strong from within and therefore needs an understanding and needs a practice of prayer which is quite deeply rooted. So they are the big challenges, too.

Your last book was entitled “Missioners”. Would you like to speak about the importance of mission?

Well, the book called Missioners was actually about the ordination of priests and deacons. I gave it that title because when the diocese in England and Wales were re-established in 1852 after the Reformation, one of the great founding Bishops of the Diocese of Birmingham, Bishop Ullathorne, spoke of priests who, if they had the right spirit and the right heart, deserved the name “missioners”. So his view was that every priest was essentially a missioner.

And that is partly because, at that time, priests had been moving around the country, using places of safety for Catholics to gather Catholics together and celebrate Mass. And these were not called parishes, they were called missions. What became a parish at the beginning of the 20th century up to that point had been called a mission. So the very nature of what we would call a parish was to be missionary.

It was that spirit that I was trying to recall by using that as the title of the book. The double movement in the life of the Gospel and in the life of the Church, because it reflects the inner mystery of the life of God, is outward and back. So we breathe out and we breathe in. We breathe in when we are drawn into the life of God and into a communion of life, and we breathe out when we engage in expressing our faith in action or in word.

And the interesting thing, when we take that reflection back to our understanding of God, is that in a way the first thing we know of God is because of God’s mission of sending — the missio, the sending of the Word in the act of creation, and the sending of the Word in the action of the Holy Spirit in history, and then in the incarnation in the person of Jesus. So the missio of the Trinity comes first, and in a way, the mission of the Church is what gives it its reason for being. The communion that we celebrate in Liturgy and in prayer and when we try to be closer to God is like the breathing in, and the mission is the breathing out. So they are inseparable in the life of the Church.

Of course, mission is as subtle as breath or breeze; and yet also as evident, at other times, as a storm. Just as the creative action of God is sometimes entirely delicate and entirely unseen, and other times quite remarkable, vivid and very visible, so too the way a disciple of Christ, a member of the Catholic Church, fulfils their mission sometimes will be very delicate and very unseen, within the context of a family or towards a neighbour, and at other times it will be quite public and maybe even controversial.

What is the current state of vocations in England and Wales?

It varies, I think, from diocese to diocese. My sense is that some of the bigger diocese are able to generate interest and momentum, and some of the small diocese are finding it more difficult. In terms of diocese, I can only speak for Westminster, and we have about 35 in the seminary and we have nine people who are applying for interview and selection this year. I think there is overall an increase, but it varies from place to place.

If you were me, what would you ask you today, and then of course what would be the answer?

Perhaps I’d ask about the role of modern media and things like digital communication, particularly how people relate to each other. With communication today, young people now talk to each other online. How does that work in terms of the way the Church communicates?

In terms of young people communicating through Facebook, Twitter and all these different forms of communication; these are quite superficial. They don’t necessarily invite people to reflect, and to spend time thinking about where their life is going. It’s very quick and immediate, whereas our message very often requires some reflection. Engaging with that level of communication — that can be quite challenging.

Just as a discussion point, there’s a very interesting topic of study at the moment around uncertainty. I read a most fascinating paper arguing that since the Enlightenment, Western efforts in the face of uncertainty have been based on the belief that if you get more information about something, then you remove the risk, you remove the uncertainty. So if you talk about health and safety, risk assessment and security issues, the more information you can have, the less that is left to risk and uncertainty.

But in fact the opposite is true. The more information you have, the more uncertain everything becomes. Once you begin to think you can base judgments primarily on information, then you find that everything becomes more uncertain. There what you find is that you end up with everybody having their own view of things and there is a greater degree of uncertainty.

I think that’s the perspective we have to get past. In a way, we are all beguiled by fact and information and the latest. Yet information overload doesn’t invite us to sense deep uncertainties which of themselves begin to open us to a new set of questions, which are much more the realm in which the invitation of God works.

02/03/2010

© L’Osservatore Romano English edition

Interview: Canon of Florence Cathedral

Mons. Timothy Verdon’s work as the Canon of Florence Cathedral brings him into constant contact with some of the most awe-inducing, world-renowned art in the Catholic Church’s cultural heritage. Among all of this, however, the most beautiful work of art he has come across is one that many do not even consider as such: the Liturgy.

As a man whose ministry involves reawakening believers and non-believers alike to the deep significance of the Incarnation as communicated through Renaissance art, Mons. Verdon’ s roles are many. They include, among others: President of the Diocesan Commission for Ecumenism and Inter-religious Dialogue, Professor of the Stanford University Program in Florence and Director of the Diocesan Office for Catechesis through Art. A respected art historian who has authored many books on sacred art, he was also a member of the scholarly committee invited by the Vatican Museum to advise on the restoration of the Pauline Chapel in the Apostolic Palace.


Your work has been described as focusing on the dynamic bond between the realities of the Mystery of God, the Liturgy of the Church and art in the service of the faith. Could you speak on the relationship among these three?

God is infinitely beyond human comprehension – God is God, we are creatures. And yet in everything that the Judeo-Christian tradition tells us about God, it is clear that God wants to communicate with his creatures, God wants to be known by his creatures. The whole point of the law and the prophecy in ancient Israel was that God wanted his creatures to understand him and themselves – a creature is a reflection, to some degree, of the Creator. This will of God to make himself understood – and in that process help us understand ourselves – reaches fulfilment in Christ. Christ is the Word of God where the Scriptures are many words that come from God and are filtered through the inspired authors; Christ is the very Word that all those other words try to give partial expression to.

Christ assumes a form that makes him intelligible to human beings – the Word becomes flesh. And then the Gospel of John immediately adds that he dwelt among us, and we saw his glory. What Christ did while he was on earth was to reveal the identity, the personality of the Father: all of the wonderful things that he did that reveal the father – the words he spoke, the miracles, the acts of mercy – even after Christ’s Resurrection and Ascension, they continue. All of these communicative actions continue in the sacraments of the Church.

What Christ did while he was on earth is materially continued in the sacramental actions of his mystical Body, the Church. So when a priest baptizes, consecrates bread and wine, when two Christians commit themselves to each other in marriage, when a penitent makes his confession – in all of those situations the saving actions of Christ are again fully present. Rendering Christ’s action continually, we see God, we understand God, we experience God.

What’s the relationship of all of this with art (which is my specific field)? The relationship is simple. When Christ took a Body – when the Word of God took a body from the humanity of Mary – it was to be seen. Christ is now invisible except in the abstract forms of the sacraments – we see water and we know that we’re being cleansed, we see bread and wine and we know that his Body and Blood are present, but we don’t really see the body and blood. But somehow the extreme simplicity of that communication that God wanted in Christ’s Incarnation is now filtered by a symbolic system of sacraments and signs. So we don’t actually see, but the art of the Church allows us to see. It extends down through the centuries, something like that privileged experience of the people of Jesus’ own time when they saw him and intuited that there was more than just a man here. Art allows us to continue to enjoy that experience.

It is no accident that historically speaking, most of the monumental art of the church… [was] made as a context for the Liturgy. Small paintings were made for the home. The church building itself really has one function, to house the celebration of the Eucharist. The works of art that allow us to imagine ourselves present really become the backdrop for efficacious signs and sacraments in which really is present, and when Christ is present then God is present.

So the ancient desire of human beings to see God, Moses on the mountain asks God to show him his face…. In Christ people really contemplated the Face of God. Christ tells us that we see him in the poor and the needy, and so on. But the works of visual art that surround these privileged moments in which [people] come into direct contact with Christ, and which usually tell stories from the life of Christ, or of Mary or of the saints, in whom we also contemplate Christ – the works of art are part of this process.

How have you incorporated all of this into your work as an art historian?

Much of what I’ve done as an art historian is to try to remind other art historians of this whole dimension that I’m describing, which usually has not been discussed. And that’s a grave omission, because the artists and the patrons were more or less conscious of all of this. They lived within this system. So the art historians should be aware of it, because if not they are going to talk about these works in a way which is misleading. Certainly the style, the economical features – all of these things are interesting and real and an important part of the history of art, but the larger framework within which these works were meant to function was something more like what I’ve been describing.

I try to call the attention of colleagues to these things, and even more, perhaps, I try to reawaken Christians to the extraordinary eloquence and beauty of this visual heritage which today ordinary believing Christians have the equipment to understand. They may not be art historians but they have keys to understanding the works of architecture and painting and sculpture that many art historians don’t have. And those keys come from their own faith, from the simple experience of life in church, the life of the sacraments.

One could add that something that Christians tend not to reflect upon and that historians of art and of sacred music and sacred architecture similarly tend not to reflect upon, is that the great work of art that Christianity has produced since its beginning is the Liturgy.

What believing Christians have been harried by the Spirit to do right from the beginning is to seek those poetic forms of expression and those physical actions and those material objects that can be called into play to express their faith. Really Jesus himself taught us to do this. At the Last Supper, he took bread, and then he said words: “This is my Body”. Jesus, who is himself the Word made flesh, in order to communicate, takes physical things that already have their own range of meanings and says words that open that implicit range of meanings to a much more specific and explicit communication.

So Jesus himself is the first teacher of how you combine things and actions and words in order to create a composite work, which is basically a work of art. At the Last Supper, he puts on an apron, he kneels down, he washes their feet. He’s continually doing things that invite reflection and then making sure that we understand what he’s doing.

What I’m saying is that you can’t really just talk about the visual art of the Church, or the music of the Church, or the Liturgy. All of this is part of a single creative impulse that flows from the experience of Christ himself, the Word who becomes flesh. A conceptual expression of God who becomes visible and tangible. The First Letter of St John says that this is what we have seen and touched and contemplated with our own eyes; it’s a total sensory and intellectual experience. The Liturgy is that. So an artist working for the church and for its Liturgy is within this millennial creative action which, in the last analysis, is a continuation in time and space of the Creation described in Genesis.

Can you speak on your role as President of the Diocesan Commission for Ecumenism and Inter-Religious Dialogue? How does, or how can, art factor into that dialogue?

It’s a delicate question. The art of course is a kind of non-verbal communication that in a sense can get us beyond things that could otherwise cause problems….

I think the art that probably could make it possible for all of us to talk is architecture. Certainly if one begins to reconstruct the spatial interest and grandeur of the Temple of Jerusalem as described in Scripture and reconstructed by archaeologists. That remains an important part of the history of Judaism, and it also offers a number of fascinating keys as to the ways the ancient Hebrew imagination communicated the idea of the sacred in space. If you start with the temple in Jerusalem, and then talk about the early Christian basilicas in Rome, or the Renaissance churches, you’re talking in the same language, because you’re always talking about walls and roofs, large or small spaces, going from an outer courtyard to an inner courtyard to the Holy of Holies, and so on. The basic dynamics are somewhat more abstract, and so too with mosques.

For example, a very interesting line of reflection is the mystical significance of the space of one of the greatest Byzantine churches, Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, which was later transformed into a mosque, but its basic basis remains as it was designed in the 6th century, when the building was constructed to be a church. Then, as everyone knows, the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople and changed the name to Istanbul. In the later 16th century, the Sultans constructed a building which basically was an imitation of Hagia Sofia right there in Istanbul, what’s called the Blue Mosque [Sultan Ahmed Mosque]. But there are a series of subtle architectural changes, which oblige you at that point to say: “If what we have here are Muslim architects interpreting a 6th century Christian basilica in the perspective of their own faith, let’s try to understand why they’re introducing these changes”. I think that that kind of study can be of enormous help in discovering universal spiritual values and also defining – in a way which is not as limiting as actual theological argument – some of the differences of sensibilities between Christians and Muslims.

Another marvellous case is the beautiful mosque in Cordoba, Spain – built when that area of Spain was a Moorish Emirate, and the official religion was Islam – which is actually built on the site of an early Christian church. At the moment of thereconquista when the Christian Spanish kingdom reclaims those parts of the country that had been under Muslim rule, the same building becomes a cathedral. They kind of eviscerate the centre of the mosque and built a mini gothic cathedral rising out of the mosque. But today when you enter, you enter into what used to be the outer courtyard of a mosque, where for centuries people spread their carpets and prayed. If you go into this forest of columns and Moorish arches that was a genuine mosque… in the centre of all this, suddenly the walls soar up, you have stained glass windows, and you have a big Spanish retablo.

Architecture which documents these historical changes also provide a vehicle for discovering the beauty of the other faith. They oblige you to say that “even if I don’t agree with what these people believe, I have to recognize that there’s great beauty in it”. There are elements of great beauty, there are genuine reflections of God in all the great faiths of history.

In that respect, one of my dreams is to be able to one day do a very beautiful photo exhibit of all the things I just described – the Temple, Christian architecture and mosques – here in Florence. Florentines are very sensitive to the quiet eloquence of architecture.

You also served as a consultant at the Synods of Bishops of 2005 and 2008. Are there certain ideas that have remained with you from those sessions that you care to share? What do you think or hope that the upshot of these Synods will be?

It is significant that someone like myself was invited. The recognition that the presence of a person familiar with the relationship between art and the life of the Church could be useful seems to have come about with the Papacy of Benedict xvi. I think it really has to do with his extraordinary awareness of the role of beauty in the life of faith, that larger art form which all of the Liturgy is.

Certainly the Synod on the Eucharist saw Benedict’s insistence on this, expressed in the Sacramentum Caritatis, the Document that sums up the work of the Synod. In it he insists on the ars celebrandi, the art of celebrating Mass. Yes, we receive the real Body of Christ, but the whole process in which we’re called to become a part – the Mass, with the Church, the priest, the vestments, and so on – is a work of art. The priest has to learn to be that beautiful sign of Christ’s presence that he’s called to be, in his movement, in the way he pronounces the words, so as to communicate that creative, artistic character of everything that goes on.

I think that it really is a function of the Holy Father’s own sensitivity and his conviction, which he expresses in the introduction to the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Remember that he both supervised the work on the production of the Catechism and then, at John Paul II’s request, prepared the short Compendium.

In his own introduction – which he wrote first as Cardinal Ratzinger but has reissued now as Benedict xvi – he stresses the fact that in our modern, image oriented society, sacred images can often say more even than the words of Scripture. That’s an extraordinary affirmation, and I believe that he’s absolutely right! That would help explain why he wanted me at the Synod on the Eucharist, and then the Synod on the Word of God is the same sort of thing. It wasn’t just on the Bible as Bible. When the Church summons Bishops for a Synod on the Word of God, it’s talking about the word of God as Bishops and priests have to communicate it to the faithful, and we do that in the framework of the Liturgy. Whereas in many centuries people couldn’t understand the Gospel because it was proclaimed in Latin, even today, when people are half-attentive, the images that are there reinforce, flesh out and in some cases probably even take the place of listening to the Gospel. So images have been so much a part of the context in which we Catholics actively transmit the word of God.

There is an increasing interest in what the history of communications – and the art of the church is one of the forms of communication – can tell us about the way we have approached these things in the past, and from the past, you can sometimes find ways to follow in the present.

Speaking of the convergence of past and present: some people question whether the money spent on Cathedrals and other great works of religious art would be better spent to help the poor or in other similar ways. But others argue that a Church’s beauty is important because, for instance, it serves as a place where past, present and future come together – a place where we can understand better where we come from, where we are now, and where we hope to be headed.

First of all, the Church over the years has spent great deals of money for the poor. But one of the great things we can give to the poor as well as to the rich – maybe we’re all poor when it comes to this – is that harmonious sense of how the distant past and the remote future are present. Any one of us who is in Church is there because someone else has helped to communicate these things. There’s the immediate past of those that gave us the faith, but then there were those who gave them the faith. We go to Church and we pronounce words that were written a long time ago, and we listen to words written such a long time ago. We really are in communication with that past.

What happens during the Celebration, in the here and now of any Catholic Liturgy, is that the past becomes present, because Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary becomes genuinely, if not visibly, present in the Bread and Wine. It’s an objective link between past and present – not just emotional or poetic – and it’s there in a way that it can’t be anywhere else. All of this is in the perspective of the final day. “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again”. All of it is looking toward that eternal Liturgy in heaven to which we are called.

As a teacher, do you find that your students help you to see things in a new way? What are for you the most important messages that you hope they leave your classes having grasped?

Yes, because the temptation for all experts is to lose touch with the much simpler questions that people have who haven’ t studied the material in depth. Experts tend to get lost in theoretical questions, whereas a bright undergraduate student – or sometimes even better, a young child – will ask some obvious questions and suddenly you realize that you have to be simpler in your way of thinking about these things.

All of this art was not created for art historians or for theologians; it was created for ordinary people, who, in every age of history, have been extremely diverse – with different sensibilities, different levels of culture, and different interests. Those works which have survived down the centuries because they continue to speak to people are somehow masterpieces of mass communication.

Students can help me find a language adequate to communicate the genuinely universal values both of the faith and of the particular style of the work I’m talking about, and that’s very important.

As to the second part of your question, I always invite them to consider – even if they’re not Catholic or Christian – the historical, cultural interest of the basic Christian message of a God who becomes a human being. Much of the art is involved in a communicating aspect of Jesus’ humanity – as a child, a man on the Cross, a man who rises. It all has to do with the idea of a God who assumes a body and who goes through all these things. Certainly what I teach, Italian Renaissance art mainly, is an art which focuses on the physical humanity – on the body, on the emotional configuration, facial expression, gesture, and so on. I invite them to grow in their sense of the beauty of our own humanity.

I try to make them aware that for many centuries many people, certainly the patrons, believed that our human condition is so important that God himself entered into it – in order to save it from destruction, to elevate it to the level of his own divinity. Even if you don’t want to believe this, it is a part of understanding Western culture. You really have to be aware that these dynamics were at work for 1500 years, if not more.

As Canon of the Florence Cathedral, if you were able to point out one thing to every visitor to “il Duomo”, what would it be?

It would be the most obvious thing, which is that it is very big, like many cathedrals and churches. There is an urge to try to configure a human space that is worthy of our concept of God – a space which, in the simplest terms, is going to be very big. Because God is infinitely above us; God occupies the entire universe.

That first, most obvious, most simple, most universal impression that you get in our Cathedral, as in many churches, really has to be taken seriously. Why do people want these enormous spaces?

Then from the very size, you move to the sense of order, articulated in a different way according to the different period or architect. There always is some more or less legible sense of order. You find something that is much bigger than most spaces you’ve been in that is then ordered in a particular way that engages your intelligence. Why this large central area, these smaller side areas? What goes on down at the far end? In the chapels? The order itself interests people. And then you start to talk about specific works.

The one thing that I do tell all visitors to the Cathedral – or indeed any church where I might have the task of helping them understand – is that if we are there for a visit, we are seeing it in our own way. The church isn’t built to be visited by tourists. We really should come back when the church is full of worshippers, when the central nave becomes the space through which a procession enters to go to the altar. We have to experience these spaces within that framework of total art that I talked about, in a liturgical situation.

If we believe in a Word who became flesh, then the experience of an ordered space that becomes animated, alive with people, with the Liturgy, is very close to the heart of what we believe. It’s about a conceptual Word that becomes man. But it would be true in any religious situation – you have to see these buildings in use.

The real church is not the building, the real Church is the people. The building assumes the name “church”, which in the Christian Scriptures is used almost exclusively to refer to the community of people.

The building is just a container – beautiful, historical, rich in memory. But if something were to happen to it, we would be sorry, but we would go on.

08/26/2009

Copyright L’Osservatore Romano English edition