Friday, March 24, 2017

Vatican Uncovered

By Brother Stavros

Over a decade ago I spent several days in Rome. I did not come to like the city, but one quirky experience remains vivid in my memory. I wanted to visit the Ethiopian College, the only one established within the Vatican walls. To attempt this required that I approach a Swiss Guard and ask if it were possible, a rather formidable hurdle. They are big guys with a wicked weapon in hand, and the Michelangelo uniform commands respect and wonder.

I was told to approach within a yard from his boots and state my business. Then he instructed me what gate to enter to reach the bureau where my request would be considered. It was a different experience from just being in a crowd in the basilica or on the piazza. This brought me within the walls of this micro city-state, a hundred square acres and fewer than a thousand inhabitants.

A HBO miniseries, The Young Pope, and a novel, The Fifth Gospel, both depend on the intrigue, history, hopes, and machinations played out in the creative imaginations of Paolo Sorrentino and Ian Caldwell. Bizarre, jarring, surreal, and irreverently comic, compassionate, challenging and utterly iconoclastic, Sorrentino’s mix won’t be for everyone.  The young New Yorker Lenny Belardo becomes Pius XIII and is prophetically more like President Trump than Pope Francis. “Tolerance doesn't live here anymore; it’s been evicted” is one of His Holiness’ first “tweets.”

Jude Law as Pius XIII a.k.a. Lenny Belardo

A gathering of Patriarchs of the Orthodox Church

The real pope is content to ride in a second-hand Volvo, while Pius brings back the sedia gestatoria (a throne carried on the shoulders of papal ushers). In another telling exchange, his Secretary of State, Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlandothe perfect foil) rebukes him: “You may be as handsome as Jesus, but you’re not actually Jesus.” Jude Law, brilliantly cast, coldly replies, “I might be more handsome.”

Weird leitmotifs: chain-smoking prelates, nuns hanging out laundry, a kangaroo interloper in the papal gardens, pepper every episode. Contemporary figures provide well-sculpted cameos, i.e., the Italian Prime minister, the Patriarch of Moscow (they did not get his klobuk right). Psychological crevasses from childhood abandonment and a very high-profile crisis of belief provide depth and vulnerability to his character with insecurity and narcissism flooding in to occupy the vacuum they create.

It’s a long series,10 episodes, which garnered the highest viewer rating for pay TV in Italy. The Young Pope is not your BBC in style. This is distinctively Italian, with homage to Fellini and the brooding introspection a la Scorsese and world-class acting.
With religious bigotry and sectarian fanatics at large in our world, this series gives us pause to ponder which of our own ideals about Church comport with reality and what constitutes evasion and denial.
Castel Gandolfo, southeast of Rome,17th-century 135-acre papal palace ceded by Pope Francis as a museum

Then there is the NY Times best-seller, The Fifth Gospel by Ian Caldwell, also set on the Vatican campus, plus some action at Castel Gandolfo.  Its jacket blurb bills it as an “intellectual thriller, a feast of biblical history and scholarship and moving family drama.” It is all that and more, in one of the few works in secular culture to grasp some understanding of and sympathy for Orthodox-Roman Catholic shared history and millennial estrangement, with a good degree of sensitivity to the facts as Eastern Christians have perceived them since the time of the Crusades. Caldwell’s use of a narrator who is a Greek Rite Catholic priest  with a priest father, and himself with an inquisitive son and estranged wife, will baffle Roman Catholics and make the reality of Eastern Church clerical life more than just a footnote.

A fatal shooting drives the plot. It occurs at Castel Gandolfo, the pope’s handsome mountain villa by a lake, with subplots involving cardinals in competition for power as John Paul II’s disease progresses to end stage. They are as vividly portrayed as in The Young Pope, where transition to a new and utterly unpredictable administration has its own unique Machievellian twists.
The fulcrums of all this intrigue are a newly discovered Syriac Diatesseron (2nd-Century Gospel harmony) and the well-known  (but recently de-authenticated) relic of Christ’s Passion, the Shroud of Turin.

Mandylion and icon of King Abgar of Edessa holding it.

The meticulous research by Ian Caldwell lends a certain historicity, absent say in other best-sellers like The Da Vinci Code, but it remains a work of fiction. I was puzzled by his liberty in conflating the shroud and the Mandylion, or face towel bearing the image of the Lord’s face sent to King Abgar of Edessa in Syria according to 4th-century historian Eusebius of Caesarea. It is known in the Orthodox world as the Image “not-made-by-hand.” A feast for this icon on August 16 commemorates its removal from Edessa to Constantinople. Likely it was plundered or destroyed during the 4th Crusade; such speculation underpins part of the plot. The early Middle Ages saw the profusion and even invention of many Passion relics: the Holy Spear, the Crown of Thorns. But the shroud is another artifact or relic entirely.

Again, in Byzantine Churches, at about the same period, a shroud-like image of Chris laid out in death came to be the chief focus of the high drama of the offices of Good Friday and Holy Saturday. So in a way every church boasted a “Shroud of Turin.” The image is sacred not for the cloth itself but for its very subject. Its spread as an object of veneration probably began with an appliqué icon on the large veil covering the chalice and diskos carried in procession over the heads of the clergy in the Divine Liturgy. The shroud Ἐπιτάφιος, or Плащаница, still is carried today (see photo) in a similar fashion.
Russian Orthodox Good Friday service

Good Friday at New Skete

The sympathy of the author for the restoration of communion between the Eastern Orthodox Churches and the Roman Church is touching, but the fictional embodiment of a break-through is realistically improbable. However, the author’s decade-long project effort may in some way advance the cause of reconciliation that has fallen prey to a contemporary mix of angst and apathy infused with the realpolitik of Russian ambition and the isolationism of some of the smaller Orthodox national Churches.

In Caldwell’s book it is a sanctified aspiration, whereas Sorrentino skirts the subject with little more than a walk-on, more dismissive perhaps than the actual meeting of Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow in Cuba last year.

Almost fifty years ago, Morris West’s novel The Shoes of the Fisherman was made into an American film starring Anthony Quinn as a Ukrainian Archbishop who becomes Patriarch Kirill I at a crucial flashpoint in the Cold War. Its quixotic plot is revisited or re-imagined by these current dramas.  I think they have something to say, and I commend taking them in for the enjoyment they afford and the insight they foster at a time when we can certainly benefit from anything that draws us more together.