Feasting on Relics; What Makes a Bioethicist

The Veronica and the True Cross Make Annual Appearance

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, MARCH 17, 2005 (Zenit.org).- By the fifth week of Lent, little sacrifices can start to seem enormous. Whatever penitential measures we have adopted, they begin to weigh on the flesh and often the temper. Easter still seems far away and we wonder if we will make it through our 40 days in the desert. One needs a light at the end of the tunnel.

And the Church understands. Like water in the desert, she offers the weary pilgrim his ardent desire, the chance to look upon the face of Christ.

On the Fifth Sunday in Lent, the «station church» is St. Peter’s Basilica. Among its many treasures, are a relic of the True Cross and Veronica’s veil. This one day a year, the Veronica and Cross are taken from their chapel to be shown to the faithful gathered in the basilica.

The Veronica is a holy relic of a veil with the image of Christ’s face imprinted on it. According to an ancient tradition, on the road to Calvary a pious woman gave Our Lord her veil to wipe the blood from his eyes — and the miraculous image remained.

Veronica comes from «vera icon,» or «true image,» but over the years the name of the woman and of the object became one and the same. Today it is kept in the pier of St. Peter’s above the 15-foot statue of St. Veronica by Francesco Mocchi.

While recently professor Heinrich Pfeiffer of the Gregorian University has claimed that another, authentic Veronica has been found in the Abruzzo region, on this day the question of the authenticity of the veil takes second place to the anticipation and excitement of seeing the relic.

Entering the basilica at vespers, it was clear that something special was in the works. A red-and-gold banner hung from the balcony of the Veronica and the pews by the altar of Peter’s throne were packed.

The papal altar under Bernini’s canopy was crowded with reliquaries. At the four corners of the altar, glass reliquaries shaped like obelisks pointed heavenward, while another, shaped like a silver portrait bust, held court in the center. Surrounding it were many other glass boxes, silver caskets and golden urns containing primarily relics of popes. They were arranged with martyrs at the center, confessors next and then saints.

The ceremony began in Lenten silence. First the choir came in and took their places and then the extensive procession of more than 40 cardinals, bishops, priests and acolytes entered. On hand were Monsignor Vittorino Canciani, apostolic protonotary and Vatican canon, and the archpriest of the basilica, Cardinal Francesco Marchisano. They processed up and back down the 187-meter nave of the basilica with the faithful following.

After vespers, both clergy and congregation gathered by the pier of the Veronica as the choir sang the sixth-century hymn «Vexilla Regis» (The Banners of the King). One of the canons came out on the balcony with the Veronica in a glass frame. He held the image first toward the center, then to the left and then right. Many knelt before the image on the cloth.

At the exposition of the Veronica the low hum of tourists, pilgrims and visitors ceased entirely and the church fell silent. This silence, one of the most striking features of this event, was broken by silver bells, arrayed on a wheel, tinkling as the wheel was turned.

Then the relic of the True Cross was brought out. Holding it aloft, Monsignor Canciani blessed the crowd with it. Then chanting, the clergy filed back to the sacristy.

Reinvigorated by this vision, we went home ready to face the last two weeks of Lent.

* * *

When Scientists, and Celebrities, Overstep

Art historians delight in the multiple facets of art. A different view, a new detail, can open up a fresh avenue of thought. It is delightful to discover the same quality in other fields.

Media reports on the bioethics conference held at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University last week rightly focused on the three main issues of the conference: embryo death, altered nuclear transfer (for the possible creation of non-embryos for the purpose of harvesting stem cells) and embryo adoption.

As fascinating and significant as these issues are, it was another topic that, like a splendid illumination on an important manuscript, captured my attention: the authority of «experts» to offer counsel outside of their field.

The highly articulate neuroscientist, Maureen Condic of the University of Utah, illustrated the relationship between science and ethics with colorful, provocative and refreshingly honest comments.

Condic started out by putting things in black and white. «Science as a profession is fundamentally amoral,» she stated. «There is no moral judgment in science. To say what’s the scientific view of a moral issue is a question that is fundamentally nonsensical.»

She continued: «Scientists, however, are human beings and we are all striving in our own way to reconcile our personal beliefs with our profession, what we do and why we do it. And yet my personal opinion about the morality or immorality of what I do is simply that: It is not a scientific position.»

Pointing out that scientists are not moral theologians, she added, «to ask a scientist what their position is and then to credit that position with some dignity due to the fact that the person is a scientist is misleading.

«We put up scientific experts and say, ‘Well, because you’ve won the Nobel Prize, what is your moral feeling?’ But the reality is that winning the Nobel Prize does not mean that the person has any particular capacity to evaluate the moral dimension of his or her work.»

«Anyone who has worked hard enough to win the Nobel Prize has probably been putting in 80-hour weeks in the lab, and really hasn’t had a lot of time or inclination to think deeply and meaningfully and powerfully about the ethical-moral issues surrounding their work.»

The neuroscientist concluded these thoughts with a warning for people to «not to conflate the expertise of a scientist in the field of science with credibility to their moral position. I think ultimately society is responsible to come up with these judgments and scientists are obliged to bow to those judgments.»

Talk about shattering idols.

Condic’s reflections struck home after a year of listening to movie stars, pop musicians and other celebrities pontificate on everything from the presidential elections, to the morality of embryonic stem-cell research to the war in Iraq.

If a person’s scientific acumen has little to do with his ethical expertise, the same must be applied to a person’s theatrical abilities or popular celebrity. Artistic sensibility is not always accompanied by moral sensibility. Often the common sense of the rank and file seems to hit the mark better than the expertise of the intelligentsia.

For all their great designs they frequently have only a limited palette.

* * *

Panorama of Rome

Feb. 11 marked the 76th anniversary of the signing of the Lateran Pacts which cleared the way for the modern-day Vatican city state in the wake of the unification of Italy in 1870. Rome commemorated this anniversary by opening a new exhibit in the Capitoline Museums called, «Imago Urbis Romae: Images of Rome in the Modern Age.»

Well, «modern» to a 2,700-year-old city. These were more than 100 images of Rome from the 17th to the 19th century — a nostalgic view of the city in the final years of the «Papa Rex,» a pope who was not only the head of the Roman Catholic Church but also the king of central Italy.

Engravings, watercolors and oils allow visitors to walk through a Rome of ruins submerged under earth and greenery or sunlit streets enlivened by the ornate carriages and elaborate gowns of Roman aristocracy.

Housed in the spectacular main hall of the museum are two splendid works by Giovanni Paolo Pannini, Santa Maria Maggiore and the papal palace on the Quirin
al Hill also known as Monte Cavallo painted in the mid-1700s.

The Santa Maria Maggiore panel shows the basilica bathed in the unique golden light of Rome as Pope Benedict XIV arrives at the church. Franciscans, Dominicans and Swiss Guards are dotted around the piazza, like the glittering mosaic tiles that ornament the church.

The Monte Cavallo serves as a reminder of the pope’s kingly role, as he lived in the Quirinal palace until 1870, when he was forced to return to the Vatican and Victor Emmanuel II, first king of Italy, took possession of the palace. Today it is the official residence of the Italian president.

The next rooms feature Gaspar Van Wittel’s almost photographic paintings of the city. He offers a vision of the Piazza del Popolo from 1718. Instead of the grand oval that greets visitors today, the old piazza was a rectangular channel, ushering pilgrims from the northern city gate to the dramatic trident of roads leading to the main centers of the city.

An interesting contrast to this work is Canaletto’s 1720 view of the Capitoline Hill. Not merely quaint, with laundry hanging in front of apartment buildings nestled at the foot Michelangelo’s monumental square, but also a very different technique, employing a softer brushstroke. Van Wittel renders a precise study of the cityscape, Canaletto offers an impression.

Surprising diversity distinguishes the exhibition. Huge panoramic views, including the 1781 Vasi map, adorn one room, then close-ups of city life populate the next.

The Tiber river, secret of Rome’s success and instrument of her decay, commands a section of its own. Several oils show the Tiber trafficked with large boats hauling wares up from the seaport. In the shadows the monumental façade of Castel Sant’Angelo, workmen busily unload crates or sacks or barrels.

Other paintings such as Van Wittel’s «Via Giulia,» show celebrated landmarks, such as the Florentine church of St. John’s, with the Tiber lapping at its foundations. The river seems ever ready to consume the works of man.

The show closes with views of the Vatican area. The first painting show the normal, everyday activities that take place in the neighborhood, kids swimming in the river or donkeys carrying their loads around the Vatican walls. But Panini’s sweeping view of St. Peter’s Square with the shining façade of the basilica brings front and center the ever-beating heart of the Eternal City.

* * *

Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Rome campus. She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org.

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