Of Angels and Angles; Navarro-Valls Remembers

Exhibit Tells Story of Rome’s Venerable English College

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By Edward Pentin

ROME, NOV. 5, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Next year promises to be a particularly historic one for the Catholic Church in England and Wales.

Not only is there likely to be the first-ever papal state visit to Britain and the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman, but there is also now the prospect of Anglicans coming over to Rome in large numbers.

As if in preparation for these events, the Venerable English College in Rome, which trains students for the priesthood in England and Wales, has just completed two major projects: a full restoration of its beautiful church, and the opening of an impressive exhibition showing the history of England’s religious relationship with Rome and the role played by the College, otherwise affectionately known as the «Venerabile.»

The college church, dedicated to the Most Holy Trinity and St. Thomas of Canterbury, is perhaps best known for its 19th-century frescoes depicting historic scenes of martyrdom from English church history. Based on originals executed by Pomerancio in the 16th century, they also include the masterpiece known as the «Martyrs’ Picture,» painted by Durante Alberti in 1580. The painting depicts two martyrs inviting the viewer to pass through a Roman gate and head toward England.

Now they have all undergone two years of renovations, completed, as it happened, at the same time as the opening of the college’s new exhibition, which is titled «Non Angli Sed Angeli — A Pilgrimage, A Mission.» The Latin means «Not Angles, but Angels» — allegedly the words spoken by Pope Gregory the Great after seeing Anglo Saxon slaves in Rome, and which prompted him to send St. Augustine of Canterbury to evangelize England in 595.

The attraction explores the history of the «Venerabile» — the nation’s oldest institution outside Britain – including its foundation as a hospice in the 1300s, its transformation into a seminary in 1579, and its contribution to the Counter-Reformation. The exhibition is striking, taking the visitor through a large cavernous space underground and ending in the church’s crypt. The journey is presented as a virtual pilgrimage from England to Rome and, using multimedia and digitally reproduced documents and paintings, it places particular emphasis on the Tudor period when the «Venerabile» saw 42 of its students martyred between 1581 and 1679.

In the «Tudor room,» fascinating stories are told of how priests would seek refuge in «priest holes» in English manor houses. It records the life of Nicholas Owen, otherwise known as Little John, who was such a master at designing these hiding places that some have been discovered only recently (you may stumble across a replica «priest hole» but look carefully or you’ll miss it).

Also recorded are Tudor spies who would infiltrate the «Venerabile» so they could recognize seminarians when they returned to England as priests. But the exhibition tries to be balanced, too. It makes the assertion, for example, that there were more Protestant martyrs during Queen Mary’s reign than there were Catholic ones under Elizabeth I.

On the way back, heading toward the exit, you are no longer a pilgrim but a missionary, on your way from Rome to England. Through the thoughtful and clever vision of the exhibition’s curator, Father Andrew Headon, and the impressive skill of the exhibition’s Italian architects, you effectively pass through Alberti’s masterpiece — but to know exactly how, you’ll have to go and visit.

«Non Angli Sed Angeli» is an exhibition rich in symbolism. Father Headon points out that the combination of pilgrimage and mission, of coming and going, and the iconography of the objects on display «have their source and origin in the processions within the Trinity — the Father sending the Son, and the Son returning to the Father.»

Yet further, unintended, symbolism was the timing of the exhibition: It opened on the very same day that the Holy Father announced his Apostolic Constitution for Anglicans. «That wasn’t planned,» said Father Headon, smiling. «But I’m sure the Holy Spirit was at work somewhere there.»

More details on the exhibition can be found at: www.angelisunt.it/

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Keeping Pace With John Paul II

Dr. Joaquin Navarro-Valls served over 20 years alongside Pope John Paul II as his press spokesman.

Since leaving the Vatican in 2006, the former journalist and medical doctor has devoted much of his time as president of the advisory board of the University Campus Bio-Medico in Rome.

But he has also found time to write his first book. Titled «At Walking Pace — Memories, Encounters and Reflections Between History and Today,» is not a memoir in the strict sense of the word, but rather a series of reflections on the world today and some events of the past.

In an e-mail interview, Navarro-Valls said he decided to write it principally for two reasons: «To put in order and recount some memories related to occasions I experienced that I think are exceptional, and then to reflect on daily events to understand their meaning.» He added: «Ultimately, it is an attempt to reason together with the reader.»

He said the book only briefly covers «the era of major changes in Central and Eastern Europe.» But he also explained that he uses the book «to clarify the many different roles of John Paul II, President Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev during that time.»
He said he understood «the desire of readers to know more about those 20 years I spent close to John Paul II,» adding that he hoped «one day to write a book when I can tell, from within, this fascinating period of modern history.» But he said any subsequent memoir would have to be written «without haste» in order «to weave in the history of our time with the personal, human, history of John Paul II.»
The second part of this book is therefore devoted to areas of interest to him, in particular some burning moral and philosophical issues questions of today. I asked him why he chose to focus on this area. «It seems to me that most tensions between tradition and modernity exist predominantly within modernity itself,» he explained. «The concrete idea about what it is to be a human is lacking. We all accept — or nearly all accept — the idea of human rights, but I see only the refusal to define what are human rights. There is much talk — and rightly so — of human dignity, but we don’t know the foundation supporting this dignity. So we are in a very ambiguous cultural moment.»

Navarro-Valls said that since leaving the Vatican, he decided to spend much of his time devoted to the field of bioethics, not only because it was his «first professional love,» but because the discipline «applies the great moral principles to concrete human cases.»

He added: «If the basic idea of the human being is flawed, if you do not know ‘who’ the human being is, then we run the risk of treating the human being as just an evolved primate instead of treating him as a ‘person.'»

«A passo d’uomo. Ricordi, incontri e riflessioni tra storia e attua» is published so far only in Italian by Mondadori.

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Edward Pentin is a freelance writer living in Rome. He can be reached at: epentin@zenit.org.

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