A More-Than-Academic Visit; Brains and Beauty

Benedict XVI Unveils a Bust of John Paul II

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, DEC. 1, 2005 (Zenit.org).- After seven months of papacy, this week Benedict XVI paid his first visit to a Vatican department. Surprisingly to many, the Holy Father chose to visit the charming little Casina Pio IV, nestled out in the Vatican gardens, home to the Pontifical Academies of the Sciences and the Social Sciences.

Taking advantage of the occasion, as many as 10 cardinals and a dozen bishops were present. The purple and red robes arrayed around the white papal throne made for an impressive tableau against the ivory walls of the small meeting hall of the Academy.

The reason for his visit seemed clear enough. Two memorial inscriptions in Latin and a bronze bust of Pope John Paul II had just been completed for the headquarters of the Academy and Benedict XVI was there to dedicate them.

But more than a dedication ceremony link Benedict XVI and John Paul II to these academies. Even prior to his election as Bishop of Rome, Benedict XVI was a member of the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences and John Paul II founded the Academy of the Social Sciences in 1994. Both Pontiffs share an intense interest in establishing and maintaining dialogue among faith, science and society.

In his welcome speech, Nicola Cabibbo, president of the Academy of the Sciences, praised John Paul II for his concrete efforts to reconcile the Church and science, most significantly in his re-examination of the Galileo case concluded in 1984. Galileo Galilei had been the president of the Academy of the Lynxes, the name first taken by the Academy of the Sciences when it was founded in 1603.

Cabibbo recalled that John Paul II had further reiterated that there were no irreconcilable differences between faith and science, in his 1998 encyclical «Fides et Ratio.»

Nominated honorary member in the year 2000, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was active in the Academy of Sciences, attending meetings and celebrating a special Mass for the members in the Benedictine monastery at Montecassino in November 2004. The second academician after Pius XII to be elected pope, it seems clear that Benedict XVI’s interest in the work of these scientists will continue.

The president of the Academy of the Social Sciences, Mary Ann Glendon, opened her welcoming address by recalling that John Paul II had «called our Academy into being 11 years ago» and had charged them with the duty to ensure that «social doctrines do not ignore the spiritual nature of human beings.»

Glendon then noted that Benedict XVI had also contributed to their work, with his timely «warnings about the encroachment of relativism.» She informed the Holy Father that their reflections during the week’s meetings had been on the human person, a topic very dear to John Paul II as well as central to Catholic social thought.

Closing with the words of the Academy’s founder, Glendon promised that the academicians would «be not afraid» to listen to modern science and to pursue the quest for social justice.

The Holy Father returned the greetings of the Academy, expressing his pleasure with the chosen topic of «The Concept of the Person in the Social Sciences.» He stated that the «human person is at the heart of the whole social order,» and that the «status of the human person» is a «theme which must continue to be part of the dialogue with science.»

As Benedict XVI prepared to unveil the bronze sculpture of his venerable predecessor, he observed that John Paul II’s «undisputed contribution to Christian thought can be expressed as a profound meditation on the person.»

After the speeches and formalities, the much-anticipated moment arrived — the individual introductions to the new Pope. The members of the Academy were brought forward and presented one by one.

Those of us who had never greeted the Holy Father since his election were captivated by his friendly and charming manner. A few scientists were pleased to hear Benedict XVI say that he had read their work. Some he greeted as old friends with a joyous exclamation and an embrace. He dedicated several moments to each person in the room, shaking hands and smiling warmly at each of us as we were presented.

He came across as a shy man, asked late in life to become a public figure and finding strength from God’s grace to do so. He smile was sincere, his eyes friendly and interested and he took each person’s hand in both of his in a warm, lingering clasp that gave no impression of being hurried.

Maybe Benedict XVI is not an ultra-charismatic, superstar Pope blazing the trail to heaven, but a warm and gentle Holy Father, aware of our weaknesses and failings but ready to encourage and guide us along our path to God.

* * *

She Had It All

The celebration of the encounter between faith and reason continued with the feast of St. Catherine of Alexandria on Nov. 25. St. Catherine, patron of philosophy, was one of the most popular and beloved saints from the Middle Ages through the 17th century. Devotion to this great saint over the centuries has inspired artists, poets and scholars to great heights.

St. Catherine lived in the early fourth century under the reign of Emperor Maximinus who was cruelly persecuting Christians in Alexandria. The well-educated daughter of King Costus met with the emperor and berated him for torturing Christians and worshipping false idols.

The golden legend narrates that, besotted by her beauty and enraged by her eloquence, Maximinus found himself unable to refute her arguments and assembled the 50 most learned men in Egypt. They were ordered to lead Catherine into error and contradiction through their sophistry. They failed, converted and died martyrs encouraged and comforted by Catherine.

The empress, curious about such an exceptional young woman, arranged to meet the saint and she too converted and was put to death. The emperor, infuriated at the conversion of his scholars, soldiers and consort, decided to devise an exemplary death to deter the further spread of Christianity.

Maximinus created a spiked wheel intended to rend and tear the flesh of the 18-year-old woman. St. Catherine, fearless before traps of the mind and tortures of the body, knelt and prayed before the machine, which was miraculously destroyed.

The emperor finally had Catherine beheaded and she was buried on Mount Sinai where later a church and monastery would be founded.

St. Catherine’s story of a young and privileged woman who decided to forsake all for God, who was able to defend her faith with persuasive reason against the most sophisticated arguments, rendered her one of the most popular female saints of all time.

Catherine’s fame was so widespread that St. Joan of Arc claimed to have seen her in visions. Victoria Colonna, a Renaissance noblewoman and renowned scholar herself, dedicated a sonnet to the saint.

The greatest artists paid homage to her, from Simone Martini’s delicate gilded portrait, to the powerful image by Michelangelo in the Last Judgment. Caravaggio’s realistic depiction made Catherine seem accessible — a normal young woman who did extraordinary deeds with the help of God.

Despite this rich tradition of devotion to Catherine, the Enlightenment proved to be one of the saint’s fiercest adversaries. The «halo of charming poetry and miraculous power,» as described by the Catholic Encyclopedia, was seen as myth and superstition, and by the end of the 18th century she disappeared from the Breviary of Paris. In 1969, she was dropped from the Roman calendar.

But John Paul II, the philosopher Pope, saw the importance of this ancient devotion in the modern world. During his Jubilee Year pilgrimage to Egypt and the Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai, the Holy Father declared that «the fame of St. Catherine lives on in Christian devotion and in the name of many churches in all parts of the world.»

John Paul II saw in St. Catherine an excellent example of «Christian hu
manism,» the encounter between faith, culture, art and science that played such a large role in his teachings. The Pope also emphasized the common veneration of St. Catherine between the Churches of the East and the West.

A special conference between southern Italian region of Puglia and the Sinai monastery in 2002 researched the life and influence of the saint and recognized her importance in helping the Church breathe again with «two lungs.»

In 2002, the virgin martyr of Alexandria was restored to the calendar.

* * *

Mosaic Touch

Benedict XVI’s election to the pontificate has now been etched in stone. Literally. On Tuesday the mosaic medallion of the new Pope was put in place in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls.

This tradition of decorating the ancient basilica with papal portraits began in the fifth century under Pope Leo I. Many other churches copied this motif of lining the nave with the images of the Successors of St. Peter, most notably the Cathedral of Siena and the Sistine Chapel.

But St. Paul Outside the Walls has the most complete set of St. Peter and his successors with a new medallion made for each newly elected pope. Some of these paintings were executed by great Renaissance artists, such as Pietro Cavallini.

A fire destroyed the basilica in 1823. During its subsequent rebuilding, Pope Pius IX commissioned the Vatican Mosaic laboratory to replace the images in the more durable medium of mosaic. It took almost 30 years to create the papal portraits.

These medallions measure nearly 4 feet in diameter and vary considerably in representation. Some popes are seen in severe profile, some look down at passers-by while others gaze heavenward. The new medallion by the Vatican studio shows Benedict XVI looking toward the altar, gently smiling as the new shepherd of the Catholic flock.

* * *

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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