Thursday, March 31, 2011

Saint Alphonsus Maria de`Liguori

The author of the favourite traditional Italian Christmas Carol, Tu Scendi dalle Stelle ("You Come Down From The Stars") was the subject of the latest talk by Pope Benedict XVI on the Doctors of the Church

Here is the late Luciano Pavarotti (with choir) singing the carol in his inimitable way:

Saint Alphonsus Maria de`Liguori (1696 - 1787) was founder of a major religious order, the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, Bishop and great moral theologian.

As a moral theologian, his word was law in the Confessional for very many years. It was there that his effect on priests and the laity was at its greatest. His view was the antidote to Jansenism. Pope Benedict XVI said:

"[I]n his principal work, titled "Moral Theology," St. Alphonsus proposes a balanced and convincing synthesis between the demands of God's law, sculpted in our hearts, revealed fully by Christ and interpreted authoritatively by the Church, and the dynamics of man's conscience and his liberty, which precisely by adherence to truth and goodness allow for the maturation and fulfillment of the person.

To pastors of souls and to confessors, Alphonsus recommended faithfulness to Catholic moral doctrine, accompanied by a comprehensive and gentle attitude so that penitents could feel accompanied, supported and encouraged in their journey of faith and Christian life.

St. Alphonsus never tired of repeating that priests are a visible sign of the infinite mercy of God, who forgives and illumines the mind and heart of the sinner so that he will convert and change his life. In our time, in which there are clear signs of the loss of the moral conscience and -- it must be acknowledged -- of a certain lack of appreciation of the sacrament of confession, the teaching of St. Alphonsus is again of great timeliness."

He was canonised by Pope Gregory XVI and declared a Doctor of the Church by Blessed Pope Pius IX.

In April of the Holy Year of 1950, Pope PIus XII declared him to be the Patron of Confessors and Moralists

Like the other Doctors of the Church mentioned in the cycle of talks by Pope Benedict, the importance of prayer was at the centre of his teaching

Pope Benedict XVI said:

"He insisted a lot on the need for prayer, which enables one to open to Divine Grace to carry out daily the will of God and to obtain one's sanctification. In regard to prayer, he wrote:

"God does not deny to anyone the grace of prayer, with which one obtains the help to overcome every concupiscence and every temptation. And I say, and repeat and will always repeat, for my entire life, that the whole of our salvation rests on prayer."

From which stems his famous axiom:

"He who prays is saved" (From the great means of prayer and related booklets. Opere ascetiche II, Rome 1962, p. 171).

There comes to mind, in this connection, the exhortation of my predecessor, the Venerable Servant of God John Paul II: "Christian communities must become genuine 'schools' of prayer. Therefore, education in prayer should become in some way a key-point of all pastoral planning" (Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte, 33, 34).

Outstanding among the forms of prayer fervently recommended by St. Alphonsus is the visit to the Most Blessed Sacrament or, as we would say today, adoration -- brief or prolonged, personal or in community -- of the Eucharist.

"Certainly," wrote Alphonsus, "among all the devotions this one of adoration of the sacramental Jesus is the first after the sacraments, the dearest to God and the most useful to us. O, what a beautiful delight to be before an altar with faith and to present to him our needs, as a friend does to another friend with whom one has full confidence!" (Visits to the Most Blessed Sacrament and to Mary Most Holy for each day of the month. Introduction)."

Bust of St Alphonsus Liguori c.1816
102 x 70 x 44cm
Parish church of The Assumption of the Most Holy Virgin, La Souterraine

Blessed Pope John Paul II devoted a good deal of his teaching on the importance of Saint Alphonsus Maria de`Liguori and his works.

It is however unfortunate that the Vatican website does not translate these from Italian into English.

One of John Paul II`s major works on St Alphonsus LIguori is his Apostolic Letter "Spiritus Domini" (1st August 1987) issued to commemorate the 200th Anniversary of the Death of the great Doctor. Unfortunately as mentioned it is only on the Vatican website in the Italian language notwithstanding that John Paul II mentioned the Apostolic Letter in a number of later works.

In his Apostolic Letter, John Paul II recorded his debt to the Doctor and said that it had influenced a number of his Encyclicals such as Dives in Misericordia, Redemptor Hominis and Redemptoris Mariae.

In November 1990, John Paul II made a Pastoral Visit to Salerno in Campania. A number of sites he visited had a connexion to St. Alphonsus including the Basilica of Sant`Alfonso at Pagani (Salerno) where he venerated the relics of the Saint. Unfortunately once again his lengthy homily is only in Italian.

The late Pope reflected on the title of Saint Alphonsus as Patron of Confessors. The good Confessor is like a father, a doctor, a healer, a theologian, and a judge.

He also wrote a letter on the 300th Anniversary of the Saint`s birth- again only in Italian and talked of the Saint having created "a new style of evangelisation", a point also brought out in the most recent talk by Pope Benedict XVI

"These religious, guided by Alphonsus, were genuine itinerant missionaries who reached the most remote villages, exhorting to conversion and to perseverance in the Christian life, above all through prayer. Still today, the Redemptorists spread over so many countries of the world with new forms of apostolate, continue this mission of evangelization. ...

Alphonsus' spirituality is in fact eminently Christological, centered on Christ and his Gospel. Meditation on the mystery of the Incarnation and the passion of the Lord were often the object of his preaching: In these events, in fact, redemption is offered "copiously" to all men.

And precisely because it is Christological, Alphonsus' piety is also exquisitely Marian. Most devoted to Mary, he illustrated her role in the history of salvation: partner of the Redemption and Mediatrix of grace, Mother, Advocate and Queen.

Moreover, St. Alphonsus affirmed that devotion to Mary will be of great comfort at the moment of our death. He was convinced that meditation on our eternal destiny, on our call to participate for ever in God's blessedness, as well as on the tragic possibility of damnation, contributes to live with serenity and commitment, and to face the reality of death always preserving full trust in God's goodness.

St. Alphonsus Maria Liguori is an example of a zealous pastor who won souls preaching the Gospel and administering the sacraments, combined with a way of acting marked by gentle and meek goodness, which was born from his intense relationship with God, who is infinite Goodness. He had a realistically optimistic vision of the resources of goods that the Lord gives to every man and gave importance to the affections and sentiments of the heart, in addition to the mind, to be able to love God and one's neighbour."

Another important talk by Pope John Paul II on Saint Alphonsus was on 3rd October 2003 when addressing the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer

He said:

"At the school of your Founder, be teachers of evangelical life, remind all the baptized of their call to holiness, the ""high standard' of ordinary Christian living" (Novo Millennio Ineunte, n. 31), adopting the popular style which distinguishes your pastoral methodologies.

St Alphonsus Maria de' Liguori devoted his energies to educating Christian men and women in this awareness. "It is a great error", he wrote, "when some say that God does not want everyone to be saints. Rather, St Paul says: "This is the will of God, your sanctification' (I Thes 4: 3).

God wants everyone to be holy, each one according to his state of life" (cf. Pratica di Amar Gesù Cristo in Opere Ascetiche [The Practice of the Love of Jesus Christ, in Ascetic Works], vol. 1, Rome, 1933, 79).

The search for holiness should be the foundation of every pastoral programme and your communities seen as an "oasis" of mercy and of welcome, schools of intense prayer that do not, however, distract us from our commitment to history (cf. Novo Millennio Ineunte, n. 33).

The paths to holiness are personal and require a true and proper training in holiness, easily adaptable to each person's needs (cf. ibid., n. 31). In today's complex society, the importance of such apostolic service becomes all the more urgent, beginning with the young people who are often faced with conflicting choices in life.

Share your charism with the laity, so that they too are able to "give their life for abundant redemption". In this way, your missionary service becomes a "service to culture, politics, the economy and the family" (ibid., n. 51)."

Sant`Alfonso Maria de`Liguori at aged 90 years

For more about the great Doctor:

The Paradise of God in the Heart of Love

The Museum of Sant`Alfonso Maria de`Liguori. (Pagani) It is attached to the Basilica in Pagani near Salerno. It has reconstructed its website and is worth spending at least 30 minutes. It is quite fascinatiing

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Via Crucis

Lucio Fontana 1899 - 1968
Two of fourteen ceramic tiles in the series of Via Crucis, 1953/1954,
41,5 cm x 21 cm circa
Private collection

The Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy (December 2001) Chapter 4, paragraphs 131 - 135 explains the devotion of the Via Crucis (or Stations of the Cross)

As regards the history of the devotion the Directory states:

"132. In its present form the Via Crucis, widely promoted by Saint Leonardo da Porto Maurizio (+ 1751)was approved by the Apostolic See and indulgenced, consists of fourteen stations since the middle of the seventeenth century."

St Leonardo da Porto Maurizio (1676-1751) was a formidable Franciscan saint from Liguria in Italy. A reformer, a great preacher, an ascetic, a great writer.

In 1750, under the auspices of Pope Benedict XIV he initiated the rite of the Via Crucis at the Colosseum in Rome. It was this same rite which was revived in 1964 by Pope Paul VI and which continues to the present day.

Saint Leonardo instituted 571 such rites the length and breadth of Italy and also in Corsica.

One of his monasteries was situated beside the Church of Saint Bonaventura on the Palatine in Rome. He died in the Convent and is buried inside the Church.. Outside the Church and Convent is a beautiful set of 14 Stations of the Cross.

The Via Crucis outside the Church of San Bonaventura al Palatino, Rome
Source: Wikipedia

Nowadays because of its location and views and its sumptuous interior, the Church is very popular for Roman weddings. There is some irony that before and after the wedding, both the groom and the bride have to walk the Via Crucis.

Frederick William Faber in the Nineteenth century wrote a small biography of the Saint. It ccan be consulted and downloaded on Google Books. The biography is in his book entitles Saints and Sinners of God (Volume 4)and was written before the saint`s canonisation by Blessed Pope Pius IX.

Below is a print from 1863 of the chapel made from the cell of the Saint in the Convent in Rome

Théodore Müller
The Cells of St Leonardo of Porto Maurizio, The Convent of San Bonaventura, Rome
From Les sanctuaires de Rome, Paris 1863

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Catholics in Orkney

The Orkney Islands lie off the north coast of Scotland. They are to say the least rather remote. Because they are remote, there are many well preserved historic sites, some of the best in Western Europe.

In the Second World War the Isalnds were used as a place of confinement for Italian prisoners of war.

On the bare desolate rainy island, the prisoners built a chapel of great beauty - now simply known as The Italian Chapel.

The chaplain was Father Giacombazzi and one of the main artists was Domenico Chiocchetti (who died in May 1999)

The chapel has been preserved and is one of the main tourist attractions

The Italian Chapel, Exterior

The Italian Chapel, Interior

Before the chapel was built the prisoners were extremely depressed because of their situation and morale was extremely low. The construction of the chapel raised morale considerably.

The chapel also had other effects.

One of the residents in Orkney at the time was the poet and novelist George Mackay Brown (1921-1996).

He wrote in 1945:

"'Where the English captive would build a theatre or a canteen to remind him of home, the Italian, without embarrassment, with careful devout hands, erects a chapel... The Italians, who fought weakly and without hope on the battlefield, because they lacked faith in the ridiculous strutting little Duce, have wrought strongly here.' (Maggie Fergusson, George Mackay Brown: The Life, John Murray, 2006, p. 84)

That chapel and reading Newman's Apologia shifted him decisively towards Catholicism. He converted to Catholicism in 1961 He practised his faith quietly.

Some have seen him as Britain`s greatest modern poet.

Some of his works and readings can be accessed at The Poetry Archive

You may also wish to see the excellent website on George Mackay Brown which contains many extracts from his works and essays about him and his work

The poet Seamus Heaney once described Brown`s poetic vision thus:

"What George Mackay Brown saw was a drinking deer
That glittered by the water. The human soul
In mosaic. Wet celandine and ivy.
Allegory hard as a figured shield
Smithied in Orkney for Christ's sake and Crusades,
Polished until its undersurface surfaced
Like peat smoke mulling through Byzantium"

(Seamus Heaney: Electric Light, March 2001)

Here is a short extract from Brown`s "An Orkney Tapestry: Martyr" (1969):

"Into the hands of every unborn soul is put a lump of the original clay, for him to mould vessels – a bowl and a lamp – the one to sustain him, the other to lighten him through the twilight between two darknesses, birth and death. He refreshes himself, this Everyman, with mortal bread; he holds his lamp over rut and furrow and snow and stone, an uncertain flame. Now and then the honey of a hidden significance is infused into his being. By the vessels that he has moulded to his wants he calls this mystery of longing The–Immortal–Bread, The–Unquenchable–Light . . . At death he leaves behind the worn lamp and bowl, and (a peregrine spirit) seeks the table of the great Harvester, where all is radiance and laughter and feasting.

And some there are – God take pity on every soul born – that love their lamps and their bowls more than the source from which clay, corn and oil issue for ever; and, their vessels failing at last by reason of age or chance, they set out dark into the last Darkness, a drift of deathless waiting hungers . . ."

Saint Laurence of Brindisi, Doctor Apostolicus (1559 - 1638)

Peter Reinicke (1715-1768)
Bust of Saint Laurence of Brindisi
White Meissen Porcelain
Museo Francescano dei Frati Minori Cappuccini, Rome

Saint Laurence of Brindisi with book
Oil on canvas
Museo Francescano dei Frati Minori Cappuccini, Rome

Saint Laurence of Brindisi in meditation
Oil on canvas
Museo Francescano dei Frati Minori Cappuccini, Rome

On 19 March 1959 Blessed Pope John XXIII declared St Laurence of Brindisi (Doctor Apostolicus)(1559 - 1638) a Doctor of the Universal Church (Apostolic Letter Celsitudo ex humiltate)

It was a cause of great celebration naturally in Brindisi, the city port in the south of Italy. See below.

Santa Maria degli Angeli, Brindisi 1959
Celebration of the Proclamation of St Laurence of Briindisi as a Doctor of the Universal Church

He was one of the great saints of the Counter-Reformation. He had quite an exciting life being involved in diplomacy and war. There is an excellent biography of his life by Brian Kelly in

Brian Kelly wrote that "He is perhaps the least known of the thirty-three doctors of the Church. That should not be so."

To help spread the word about Saint Laurence the Pope in his last Wednesday audience dedicated his catechesis to the life and works of St Laurence

The Pope emphasised a number of points about Saint Laurence.

First, his great knowledge of Scripture and howit was fundmental in his theological works:

"A theologian versed in sacred Scripture and the fathers of the Church, he was also able to illustrate in an exemplary way the Catholic doctrine to Christians who, above all in Germany, had followed the Reformation.

With his clear and quiet exposition he showed the biblical and patristic foundation of all the articles of the faith called into question by Martin Luther. Among these, the primacy of St. Peter and his Successors, the divine origin of the episcopate, justification as man's interior transformation, the need of good works for salvation.

The success that Lawrence enjoyed helps us to understand that also today, in carrying forward ecumenical dialogue with so much hope, the confrontation with sacred Scripture, read in the Tradition of the Church, is an irreplaceable element of fundamental importance, as I wished to recall in the apostolic exhortation "Verbum Domini" (No. 46)...

I would like to complete this brief presentation of the life and doctrine of St. Lawrence of Brindisi underscoring that all his activity was inspired in his great love for sacred Scripture, which he knew in great part by heart, and by the conviction that the listening and acceptance of the Word of God produces an interior transformation that leads us to holiness.

"The Word of the Lord," he affirmed, "is light for the intellect and fire for the will, so that man can know and love God. For the interior man, who through grace lives from the Spirit of God, it is bread and water, but bread that is sweeter than honey and water that is better than wine and milk. ... It is a hammer against a hard heart obstinate in vices. It is a sword against the flesh, the world and the devil, to destroy every sin." "

Second, his great preaching ability and his ability to evangelise peoples of all backgrounds and abilities:

"Even the simplest among the faithful, those not gifted with great culture, were benefited by the convincing word of Lawrence, who addressed humble people to call them all back to a coherence of their lives with the faith they professed.

This was a great merit of the Capuchins and of other religious orders that in the 16th and 17th centuries contributed to the renewal of Christian life, penetrating society profoundly with their testimony of life and their teaching.

Also today the new evangelization needs well-prepared, zealous and courageous apostles, so that the light and beauty of the Gospel will prevail over the cultural orientations of ethical relativism and religious indifference, and transform various ways of thinking and of acting into a genuine Christian humanism.

It is amazing that St. Lawrence of Brindisi was able to carry out uninterruptedly his activity as an esteemed and tireless preacher in many cities of Italy and in several countries, despite carrying out other onerous tasks of great responsibility."

Third, at the foundation of his life, his works and preaching was his cultivation of his spiritual life through prayer, the Mass and his meditation on the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ:

"In the school of the saints, every presbyter -- as was often stressed during the recent Year for Priests -- can avoid the danger of activism, that is, of acting while forgetting the profound motivations of the ministry, only if he takes care of his interior life.

Speaking to priests and seminarians in the cathedral of Brindisi, the city of St. Lawrence's birth, I recalled that "the time he spends in prayer is the most important time in a priest's life, in which divine grace acts with greater effectiveness, making his ministry fruitful.

The first service to render to the community is prayer. And therefore, time for prayer must be given a true priority in our life. If we are not interiorly in communion with God we cannot even give anything to others. Therefore, God is the first priority. We must always reserve the time necessary to be in communion of prayer with our Lord."

With the unmistakable ardour of his style, Lawrence moreover exhorted everyone, not just priests, to cultivate the life of prayer because through it we speak to God and God speaks to us. "O, if we only considered this reality!" he exclaimed.

"Namely that God is really present to us when we speak to him by praying; that he really listens to our prayer, even if we only pray with the heart and mind. And that not only is he present and listens to us, but that he can and desires to willingly comply, and with the greatest pleasure, to our requests." "

Fourth was his great commitment to peace found on his faith:

"Another trait that characterizes the work of this son of St. Francis was his work for peace. Both Supreme Pontiffs and Catholic princes repeatedly entrusted to him important diplomatic missions to settle controversies and foster concord between the European states, threatened at the time by the Ottoman Empire.

The moral authority that he enjoyed made him a sought after and listened to counselor. Today, as in the times of St. Lawrence, the world is in such great need of peace, in need of peaceful and pacifying men and women.

All those who believe in God must always be sources and agents of peace. It was precisely during one of these diplomatic missions that Lawrence concluded his earthly life in 1619 in Lisbon, where he had gone to the king of Spain, Philip II, to plead the cause of the Neapolitan subjects oppressed by the local authorities."

Fifth, he had a great devotion to the Virgin Mary:

"Moreover, being a Mariologist of great value, and author of a collection of sermons on Our Lady entitled "Mariale," he made evident the unique role of the Virgin Mary. He affirmed with clarity the Immaculate Conception and her cooperation in the work of redemption carried out by Christ."

Sixth, his theology and preaching was centred on the Mystery of the Incarnation:

"[H]e was the author of numerous works of biblical exegesis, theology and writings designed for preaching. In these he gives an organic presentation of the history of salvation, centered on the mystery of the Incarnation, the greatest manifestation of divine love for men."

Seventh, Saint Laurence emphasised the importance of the Holy Spirit on religious life:

"With fine theological sensitivity, Lawrence of Brindisi also highlighted the Holy Spirit's action in the life of the believer. He reminds us that with His gifts the Third Person of the Most Holy Trinity illumines and aids our commitment to joyfully live the message of the Gospel. "The Holy Spirit," wrote St. Lawrence, "makes gentle the yoke of the divine law and its weight light, so that we observe the Commandments of God with great facility, even with pleasure."

It is clear that Pope Benedict thinks that Saint Laurence is a figure of great relevance and importance in today`s world and we have much to learn in re-discovering him and his works.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Faithful Art of Sir Stanley Spencer

The Rt Revd Lord Harries was the Anglican Bishop of Oxford from 1987 to 2006. He was previously the Dean of King's College London

Amongst his other posts he is Gresham Professor of Divinity at Gresham College, London

He recently delivered a lecture on the art of Sir Stanley Spencer: "Christian Themes in Art: Understanding faith through the eyes of Stanley Spencer"

Here are some of the many paintings of Spencer which he discusses.
Sir Stanley Spencer 1891-1959
Christ Carrying the Cross 1920
Oil on canvas
support: 1530 x 1429 mm frame: 1777 x 1670 x 68 mm
The Tate, London

Sir Stanley Spencer (1891 − 1959)
Port Glasgow Cemetery 1947
Oil on canvas
50.8 x 76.2 cm
The British Council

The lecture is available as a video, podcast and written transcript. There is also a powerpoint presentation with all the paintings discussed.

Here is an extract from the lecture by Lord Herries:

"For Stanley Spencer this feeling was above all that of love about which he once said

Love is the essential power in the creation of art and love is not a talent. Love reveals and more accurately describes the nature and meaning of things than any mere lecture on technique can do. And it establishes once and for all time the final and perfect identity of every created thing.

This love not only establishes the identity of every created thing but raises that thing into a harmonious relationship with all other things and people.

If we believe with Thomas Aquinas that grace does not destroy but fulfil nature then in Stanley Spencer’s paintings we see grace at work on our disfigured world, transforming human relationships into a holy communion of the divine and the human, the divine expressed in and through the human, the spiritual in and through the physical, the holy in and through the mundane, the beautiful in and through what sometimes strikes us in his pictures as the ungainly or ugly.

For all was embraced in his vision and raised into a heaven of here and now."

See also:

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Blessed Virgin Mary: A Meditation on The Visitation

Master of the Spes Nostra (Active in Delft 1490 - 1510)
Four Augustinian Canon Regulars Meditating Beside an Open Grave c. 1495 - 1510
Oil on panel
88 x 104.5 cm
The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Immediately after the Annunciation, St Luke narrates that Mary went to see her cousin Elizabeth ("The Visitation") who was soon to be the mother of St John the Baptist

This picture is, it has to be said, a rather strange depiction of The Visitation
In the foreground, four Canon Regulars are kneeling beside an open grave in which lies a rotting corpse. On the left stands St Jerome. On the right, St Augustine.

The inscriptions in the foreground are blunt and to the point.

On the lid of the tomb are the words: "Requiescant in pace" ("May they rest in peace")

Beside the grave in gilded Gothic lettering are the words:

"Si quis eris qui transieris hoc repice plora
Sum quod eris es ipse fui pro me precor ora"

"Whomsoever passes by here, let him gaze and mourn
I am what you will be, what you are I once was, I beg you to pray for me."

The painting was a Memorial for four Rectors at the Monastery at Marienpoel, near Leiden. It hung over their graves in the chapel. The monastery was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, St Jerome and St Augustine.

Their names were possibly Johannes Crispiani (+1496), Gijsbert N. (+1496), Sebastiaan Fransz (+1507) and Gerard Dirlesz (+1504)

Pray for them.

Behind the horrific and very disturbing image in the foreground, in the centre of the painting are images of Consolation and Hope. They centre on the Virgin Mary and the Incarnation.

The central image is of the Visitation. Mary is sitting beside the grave in a walled garden ("hortus conclusus"). A pregnant St Elizabeth places her hand on Mary`s belly indicating that she is pregnant.

On the arrival of Mary to the house of St Elizabeth it will be recalled that John the Baptist whilst still in his mother`s womb leapt for joy. He is thus cleansed from Original Sin and is filled with Grace.

The Visitation is the first occasion that Mary exercises her role as Mediatrix between God and May. We also remember the great prayer of Mary uttered at this time: the Magnificat.

Luke 1: 34 - 57 describes the scene and what happens:

"34 But Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I have no relations with a man?"
35 And the angel said to her in reply, "The holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.
36 And behold, Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren;
37 for nothing will be impossible for God."

38 Mary said, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word." Then the angel departed from her.
39 During those days Mary set out and traveled to the hill country in haste to a town of Judah,
40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.

41 When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the holy Spirit,
42 cried out in a loud voice and said, "Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
43 And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
44 For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy.
45 Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled."

46 And Mary said: "My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
47 my spirit rejoices in God my savior.
48 For he has looked upon his handmaid's lowliness; behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.
49 The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is from age to age to those who fear him.
51 He has shown might with his arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart.
52 He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly.
53 The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty.
54 He has helped Israel his servant, remembering his mercy,
55 according to his promise to our fathers, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."

56 Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.
57 When the time arrived for Elizabeth to have her child she gave birth to a son."

Behind the central image of The Visitation are images of the early life of Mary and of Christ: the Annunciation; Mary playing with Jesus in the garden; and even Jesus riding a hobbyhorse (a common image in medieval art)

In the Hortus conclusus are Angels and birds. Note the peacocks. Peacocks are the ancient Christian symbol of Eternal Life. Further, the multitude of eyes on the peacock`s tail symbolise the all seeing eyes of God.

A Utrecht University website (Memorietafels) has much valuable information about the Monastery of Marienpoel and this picture in particular. Well worth visiting.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Fra Angelico: The Theology of The Annunciation

Blessed Fra Angelico 1395/1400 - 1455
The Annunciation
Tempera on wood
194 cm x 194 cm
Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid

Blessed Fra Angelico painted The Annunciation many times. Many consider that his painting of The Annunciation on the wall of the northern corridor on the upper floor in the Convento di San Marco in Florence to be his finest rendition of the theme.

Some might also point out his Cortona Altarpiece again consisting of The Annunciation and six small predella pictures as a great refinement on The Prado altarpiece and a much more subtle work.

But in many ways the early Annunciation by Fra Angelico in the Prado painted a few years after he joined the Convent of San Domenico in Fiesole. He painted it for his Convent.

It is a picture which is a vusual sermon on the historical event called The Annunciation whose feast day is on 25 March.

Annunciations abound in medieval art. You can easily get "Annunciation" overload. One can easily overlook the real meaning of The Annunciation. The explanations given of the Annunciation in many books, guides and even Wikipedia is woefully inadequate. For instance Wikipedia states:

"The Annunciation, also referred to as the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is the Christian celebration of the announcement by the archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary that she would become the mother of Jesus Christ the Son of God."

What this painting by Fra Angelico does is fully and explicit state that the Annunciation marks the actual incarnation of Jesus Christ - the moment that Jesus was conceived and that the Son of God became the son of the Virgin. It is the celebration of God's action in entering the human world as Jesus in order to save humanity and the free and willing acceptance by Mary of God's action of the task of being the Mother of God

In Redemptorix Matris, Blessed Pope John Paul II summed it up thus:

"The Annunciation ... is the revelation of the mystery of the Incarnation at the very beginning of its fulfillment on earth. God's salvific giving of himself and his life, in some way to all creation but directly to man, reaches one of its high points in the mystery of the Incarnation. This is indeed a high point among all the gifts of grace conferred in the history of man and of the universe: Mary is "full of grace," because it is precisely in her that the Incarnation of the Word, the hypostatic union of the Son of God with human nature, is accomplished and fulfilled."

It is a mystery within a mystery. It was an extraodinary event not least as St Augustine said:

"He chose the mother he had created; he created the mother he had chosen." (Sermo 69, 3, 4)

The Catechism paragraphs 484 et seq >is almost a key or summary to all that is depicted by Fra Angelico:

"484 The Annunciation to Mary inaugurates "the fullness of time", the time of the fulfillment of God's promises and preparations. Mary was invited to conceive him in whom the "whole fullness of deity" would dwell "bodily". The divine response to her question, "How can this be, since I know not man?", was given by the power of the Spirit: "The Holy Spirit will come upon you."

485 The mission of the Holy Spirit is always conjoined and ordered to that of the Son. The Holy Spirit, "the Lord, the giver of Life", is sent to sanctify the womb of the Virgin Mary and divinely fecundate it, causing her to conceive the eternal Son of the Father in a humanity drawn from her own.

486 The Father's only Son, conceived as man in the womb of the Virgin Mary, is "Christ", that is to say, anointed by the Holy Spirit, from the beginning of his human existence, though the manifestation of this fact takes place only progressively: to the shepherds, to the magi, to John the Baptist, to the disciples. Thus the whole life of Jesus Christ will make manifest "how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power."

487 What the Catholic faith believes about Mary is based on what it believes about Christ, and what it teaches about Mary illumines in turn its faith in Christ.

Mary's predestination

488 "God sent forth his Son", but to prepare a body for him, he wanted the free co-operation of a creature. For this, from all eternity God chose for the mother of his Son a daughter of Israel, a young Jewish woman of Nazareth in Galilee, "a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary":

The Father of mercies willed that the Incarnation should be preceded by assent on the part of the predestined mother, so that just as a woman had a share in the coming of death, so also should a woman contribute to the coming of life.

489 Throughout the Old Covenant the mission of many holy women prepared for that of Mary. At the very beginning there was Eve; despite her disobedience, she receives the promise of a posterity that will be victorious over the evil one, as well as the promise that she will be the mother of all the living. By virtue of this promise, Sarah conceives a son in spite of her old age. Against all human expectation God chooses those who were considered powerless and weak to show forth his faithfulness to his promises: Hannah, the mother of Samuel; Deborah; Ruth; Judith and Esther; and many other women. Mary "stands out among the poor and humble of the Lord, who confidently hope for and receive salvation from him. After a long period of waiting the times are fulfilled in her, the exalted Daughter of Sion, and the new plan of salvation is established."

The Immaculate Conception

490 To become the mother of the Saviour, Mary "was enriched by God with gifts appropriate to such a role." The angel Gabriel at the moment of the annunciation salutes her as "full of grace". In fact, in order for Mary to be able to give the free assent of her faith to the announcement of her vocation, it was necessary that she be wholly borne by God's grace.

491 Through the centuries the Church has become ever more aware that Mary, "full of grace" through God, was redeemed from the moment of her conception. That is what the dogma of the Immaculate Conception confesses, as Pope Pius IX proclaimed in 1854:
"Let it be done to me according to your word. . ."

494 At the announcement that she would give birth to "the Son of the Most High" without knowing man, by the power of the Holy Spirit, Mary responded with the obedience of faith, certain that "with God nothing will be impossible": "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be [done] to me according to your word."

Thus, giving her consent to God's word, Mary becomes the mother of Jesus. Espousing the divine will for salvation wholeheartedly, without a single sin to restrain her, she gave herself entirely to the person and to the work of her Son; she did so in order to serve the mystery of redemption with him and dependent on him, by God's grace:

As St. Irenaeus says, "Being obedient she became the cause of salvation for herself and for the whole human race." Hence not a few of the early Fathers gladly assert. . .: "The knot of Eve's disobedience was untied by Mary's obedience: what the virgin Eve bound through her disbelief, Mary loosened by her faith." Comparing her with Eve, they call Mary "the Mother of the living" and frequently claim: "Death through Eve, life through Mary."

Mary's divine motherhood

495 Called in the Gospels "the mother of Jesus", Mary is acclaimed by Elizabeth, at the prompting of the Spirit and even before the birth of her son, as "the mother of my Lord". In fact, the One whom she conceived as man by the Holy Spirit, who truly became her Son according to the flesh, was none other than the Father's eternal Son, the second person of the Holy Trinity. Hence the Church confesses that Mary is truly "Mother of God" (Theotokos). ..

497 The Gospel accounts understand the virginal conception of Jesus as a divine work that surpasses all human understanding and possibility: "That which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit", said the angel to Joseph about Mary his fiancee. The Church sees here the fulfillment of the divine promise given through the prophet Isaiah: "Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son."

498 People are sometimes troubled by the silence of St. Mark's Gospel and the New Testament Epistles about Jesus' virginal conception. Some might wonder if we were merely dealing with legends or theological constructs not claiming to be history.

To this we must respond: Faith in the virginal conception of Jesus met with the lively opposition, mockery or incomprehension of non-believers, Jews and pagans alike; so it could hardly have been motivated by pagan mythology or by some adaptation to the ideas of the age. The meaning of this event is accessible only to faith, which understands in it the "connection of these mysteries with one another" in the totality of Christ's mysteries, from his Incarnation to his Passover.

St. Ignatius of Antioch already bears witness to this connection:

"Mary's virginity and giving birth, and even the Lord's death escaped the notice of the prince of this world: these three mysteries worthy of proclamation were accomplished in God's silence." ...

504 Jesus is conceived by the Holy Spirit in the Virgin Mary's womb because he is the New Adam, who inaugurates the new creation: "The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven." From his conception, Christ's humanity is filled with the Holy Spirit, for God "gives him the Spirit without measure." From "his fullness" as the head of redeemed humanity "we have all received, grace upon grace."

505 By his virginal conception, Jesus, the New Adam, ushers in the new birth of children adopted in the Holy Spirit through faith. "How can this be?" Participation in the divine life arises "not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God". The acceptance of this life is virginal because it is entirely the Spirit's gift to man. The spousal character of the human vocation in relation to God is fulfilled perfectly in Mary's virginal motherhood."

In the picture which ressembles a triptych caused by the imposition of the columns.

It seems to depict the instant immediately after Mary has given her assent to being the human instrument of the Incarnation. God the Father on the top left of the picture sends the Holy Spirit (as depicted by the dove in the ray of light) to effect the Incarnation.

It is the same Spirit who hovered over the waters at the dawn of Creation (Genesis 1:2). This is another and new creative act on the part of God.

One is also reminded of the passageof the imaginary conversation between God the Father and God the Son in The Letter to the Hebrews (Heb 10: 5 - 7):

"You who wanted no sacrifice or oblation prepared a body for me, You took no pleasure in holocausts or sacrifices for sin. Then I said ... `God, here I am ! I am coming to obey your will`"

It is a picture about the mystery of the Trinity. On the top left we see the source of a great light which is the source of light for the whole picture. We see the hands of God the Father and the ray of light by which the Holy Spirit descends.

Note also the image of God the Father at the top of the column between the Angel and Mary. In later versions of the Annunciation, Fra Angelico would replace this figure by one of the prophet Isaiah as a sign of a fulfilment of his prophecy:

"The Lord himself will give you a sign. It is this: the virgin is with child and will soon give birth to a child whom she will call Emmanuel." (Is. 7: 14)

Some early works depicting the Annunciation used the ray of light to depict a small baby or homunculus descendng towards Mary as showing Christ entering Mary. This was strongly disapproved of by the Church. St Antoninus, Archbishop of Florence, a Dominican of the same stripe as Fra Angelico strongly disapproved of this kind of depiction. It is contrary to Scripture.

We see Mary seated on what seems to be a throne. She is the receptacle or vessel or throne for the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. She is beautiful yet filled with humility and obedient to God`s will. Her flesh and blood will become the Saviour`s. His flesh and blood transformed, transfigured and resurrected will become the Christian`s salvation.

The Spirit is the initiator of Christ`s human existence but her consent and her assistance are prerequisites for his human life and our salvation.

Mary has a book on her lap. It is Scripture. The Word is about to be made flesh.

She sits outside her house in what appears to be a loggia. The ceiling of the loggia is the vault of heaven filled with stars.

The Loggia would have reminded Florentines of a particular area of Florence: the Piazza della Santissima Annunziata where there were the The Basilica della Santissima Annunziata (Basilica of the Most Holy Annunciation)and the Hospital of the Innocents. ("Ospedale degli Innocenti "

The Basilica contained a famous and renowned painting of the Annunciation.

The legend was that it had been begun by one of the monks but abandoned in despair because he did not feel he could create a beautiful enough image. It was supposedly completed by an angel while he slept. Since about the 1250s, the painting became the standard or model for paintings of The Annunciation in Florentine painting. But Fra Angelico`s work for his Convent broke this mould absolutely and he set the new standard or model.

Beyond the Loggia we see but only imperfectly and partly the inside of Mary`s house: sparsely furnished and empty of other persons. Is that a window or a picture which we see ? Unlike the painting in Santissima Annunziata, there are no regal furnishings or carpets.

The middle portion of the "triptych" depicts the Angel Gabriel, the messenger of God. You will also note the swallow which is placed in the centre of the picture. Traditionally the swallow was the symbol of a messenger. It sits under and on the left hand side of the grisaille of God the Father. The swallow surveys the scene.

The Angel and Mary are looking intently at each other. Both are inclining toward each other. Both Mary and the Angel have their arms and hands in the same pose: crossed across their chests. Both have looks of humility. Mary and Gabriel have the same pink "dress". Both figures are gilded. One does get the feeling that Gabriel is looking on Mary as an inferior would towards a superior.

On the left we see the "hortus conclusus" - the Garden of Mary. In it we see Adam and Eve expelled from the Garden of Eden. Their return to the Garden and The Tree of Life is denied to them by another angel, a cherubim with a flaming sword. (Genesis 3:23-24) The parallel of Mary`s garden with Paradise is unmistakable.

Mary is of course the new Eve. Jesus, her Son, is the new Adam.

The Garden of Mary must be one of the most beautiful gardens ever painted. It is filled with trees, plants and flowers of infinte variety and colour. Flowers and plants in medieval times were valued for their curative powers as well as their beauty. It goes without saying that symbolism abounds.

The Palms recall the future martyrdom of Christ. The red roses recall the blood of the Passion

The date 25th March is significant. In medieval times, 25th March as well as being regarded as the actual day on which The Annunciation occurred was also regarded as the date on which occurred the Creation of Adam and the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden. It was also regarded as the actual date of The Crucifixion.

Beneath the painting and on the frame are the initial words of The Hail Mary:

Ave Maria Gratia Plena Dominus Tecum Benedicta Tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui

Beneath the inscription are five small predella pictures painted on the same panel depicting the story of the Virgin.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Saint Toribio de Mogrovejo

Statue of Saint Toribio de Mogrovejo
17th century
Chapel of Saint Toribio
Basílica Catedral de Lima, Peru

In Europe we do not hear too much of Saint Toribio Alfonso Mogrovejo, Archbishop of Lima (1538 - 23 March 1606).

In 1983, Blessed Pope John Paul II declared him the Patron Saint of the Episcopate in South America.

Born in Spain he was sent to Lima as its Archbishop where he appears to have been a very tornado of action

In his time he baptised and confirmed about 500,000 people, among them St. Rose of Lima, St. Francis Solano, and Saint Martin of Porres He set up the first seminary for priests in the Western hemisphere

Fra Angelico: The Transfiguration in Cell 6

Blessed Fra Angelico, Guido di Pietro (c. 1395 – February 18, 1455)
The Transfiguration In Cell 6 of the Convent of San Marco
1.93m x 1.64m
Museo di San Marco, Florence

This work is a work for contemplation.

It is simple and restrained. It narrates but does not overtly and readily explain the significant event depicted.

It contains a great deal of detail so that who ever resided in Cell 6 would never tire of seeing the work. It is a work going far beyond the events of the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, the incident narrated in Matthew 17: 1 - 9

Christ stands on a rock. We are reminded that upon the rock he would build his church.

He is transfigured and transformed, dressed in glowing white. His face and eyes are bright and numinous. We are reminded of his Resurrection.

His arms are outstretched as they were in the Crucifixion. As in the Crucifixion, Mary and John are present at the foot of the Cross.

Moses and Elias are shown as heads, beneath the arms of Christ. We are reminded of the Old and New Covenants and how the New Covenant supersedes the Old.

At the base of the rock are three crouching Apostles. Fear, awe, amazement, seem to dominate their reations to what is unfolding before them.

Mary and Saint Dominic are present standing on either side. They are praying. Mary and St Dominic were of course not present at The Transfiguration. Fra Angelico was not aiming at historic verisimilitude when he illustrated Holy Scripture. He painted images with a threshold for visible recognition but also wanted to use it to indicate the number of meanings contained in a passage of Scripture.

He was illustrating Doctrine, prophecy and an Image for Contemplation

But we do not hear the voice mentioned in Matthew 17: 1 - 9:

‘This is my Son, the Beloved; he enjoys my favour. Listen to him.’

But we see the effect of the words of the Voice on the Apostles: fear. Peter appears the most fearful.

We are invited to recall that on hearing the voice, the disciples were overcome with fear and Christ said to them:

"Stand up. Do not be afraid."

Fra Angelico`s painting is more than a depiction of the bare historical event known as The Transfiguration contained in Matthew 17: 1 - 9. He puts the event in its Scriptural context of Matthew 16: 13 to Matthew 17: 22.

Within this context we see the references to Elijah and the prophets, the building of Christ`s Church on the Rock, Peter`s role in the Church, the prophecy that some of the Apostles would see the Son of Man in glory before their deaths, the prophecy by Christ of his death and his Resurrection and the incomprehension of the Apostles as to who Christ was and what was his message

Here is Matthew 16: 13 to Matthew 17: 22:

"Chapter 16: 13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. 18 And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he warned his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ.

21 From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.

22 Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”

23 Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”

24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. 26 What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul? 27 For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done. 28 I tell you the truth, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

Chapter 17 1 After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. 3 Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.

4 Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”

5 While he was still speaking, a bright cloud enveloped them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”

6 When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. 7 But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” 8 When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.

9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”

10 The disciples asked him, “Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?”

11 Jesus replied, “To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. 12 But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.” 13 Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist.

14 When they came to the crowd, a man approached Jesus and knelt before him.

15 “Lord, have mercy on my son,” he said. “He has seizures and is suffering greatly. He often falls into the fire or into the water. 16 I brought him to your disciples, but they could not heal him.”

17 “O unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me.” 18 Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of the boy, and he was healed from that moment.

19 Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”

20 He replied, “Because you have so little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

22 When they came together in Galilee, he said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. 23 They will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to life.” And the disciples were filled with grief."