Consistories, Canonizations, and Michelangelo
By Tim Rohr, April 26, 2005
Oops! I recently sent out an email to my Catholic friends describing my attendance at the 1977 consistory of cardinals at St. Peter’s. Turns out I had my years and my visits mixed up. The year was actually 1976. 1977 was the year I attended a canonization (St. John Neumann – first American male saint. Obviously the first American saint was a woman. Who was it? A little pop quiz for you!) Well, Consistories…Canonizations…whatever! That’s a lot of stuff for a 19-year old (that’s how old I was then) young skull full of mush to keep straight and even harder for an almost 50-year old (that’s how old I am now!) to remember.
Well regardless of my getting my years mixed up, I was indeed in the Eternal City for two fantastic occasions. First, a little background as to how I came to be in Rome. I grew up in a suburb of Los Angeles and had become involved in the music ministry of my parish after high school. I’d like to tell you that my involvement in this ministry (we didn’t call it a ministry then) was because of some calling or desire to serve, but it was much more basic than that. I liked to play guitar and liked the girls in the group who liked me to play guitar, even more. (Come on you youth group guys, admit it!)
My pastor thought he saw a vocation in me so he invited this uncultured prospect to accompany him on a trip to Rome. The occasion was the elevation of an American bishop to the office of the “red hat” (cardinal). That bishop was Archbishop Cardinal-to-be Baum of Washington D.C. If his name sounds familiar it’s because you’ve been hearing it mentioned in the news these last weeks. He and the former Cardinal Ratzinger were noted by the media as the only two cardinals voting in this conclave that had voted in the last.
Now, back to 1976. The reason my pastor was attending this event in Rome (called a Consistory of Cardinals) was because he was the guest of then Archbishop of Los Angeles, Cardinal Timothy Manning. My pastor and Cardinal Manning had been seminary classmates and that little fact of history proved to be a great boon to a poor young guitar strumming folk group (that’s what we called them) leader. And that is how I came to be standing that May day next to the massive bronze pillars of Bernini’s magnificent baldaccino inside the grandest church this side of Heaven while the soon to be cardinals processed up the aisle amid the glorious strains of the Sistine choir and the press of thousands.
As much as I’d like to tell you about all the goings on I was privy to inside the Vatican enclave as a member of the cardinal’s privileged party, about the papal audience with His Holiness, Paul VI, the private Vatican tour of that hallowed place, the introduction to minor members of the curia who are television names today, and of course the singing Cardinal’s wonderfully raucous “Arrivederci Roma” party at the end of it all (he was Irish – I shan’t say more as he has since past), a party to end all parties in a catacomb turned restaurant beneath the street. Yes, I would love to relate to you all that happened, but I am rather inspired to tell you of something much more quiet…and profound.
You’ve seen the pictures of St. Peter’s Basilica on TV, the colossal façade, the grand embrace of the Bernini colonnade, the great dome of Michelangelo that reaches up to heaven in an eruption of massive stone to a height that exceeds a football field in length and embraces below the great altar of the most glorious church in all of Christendom, under which lie the bones of the great Apostle himself. The great dome shelters not him alone but also the sacred remains of many successors to his Petrine office, including now the spent body of our most beloved John Paul II, which has at last attained its well-deserved rest in the sacral dirt of that Holy Grotto.
I swallowed hard as I approached the massive bronze doors of San Pietro. The crush of centuries seemed to bear down upon me in proportion to the growing size of the imposing, soaring façade. Crowning the great entrance to the church were the thunderous figures of Christ and the twelve apostles, marble presences that loomed ever more terrible and wonderful in the increasing backlit glare of the afternoon Roman sun.
St. Peter, hanging on his upside down crucifix, stared at me from his centuries-old bronze cast as I approached the great doors. I was relieved to get past his damning glare and enter the coolness of the vast church.
To this day it’s beyond me how anyone who is not a Catholic does not become one immediately upon entering that glorious Palace of Peter. One cannot help but be spiritually staggered by the sheer dimensional immensity of what boldly defies any attempt to imagine an edifice of mere human construct.
And yet it is! What sort of faith builds something like this? “My Lord and My God”, words usually reserved for the transubstantiate moment, issued from my lips in a confessionary sort of way, as if to purge my soul of any trace of sin lest the very vault of the central nave condemn me.
And what of the lukewarm Catholic who walks past the hard stare of the inverted crucified saint into the cool shadows of this colossus of Christianity? Does not his cool religious apathy implode and his proud demeanor bend at the very awareness of where he in fact now stands? “KNEEL!” shout the stones!
Pardon my poetry, but English is a poor language to express the glories of such a moment. Perhaps that why they still speak Latin there. However, I have not yet related that which surpasses even this and my reason for writing.
Immediately to the right as one enters this inexpressible monument to the Prince of the Apostles is a small white statue, smaller than I had thought from the pictures I had previously seen. At once, everything else in the glorious basilica disappeared and I was drawn to what seemed too real to be a statue, a product of mere stone, a work of art. And then, there was her face, her face, her face.
Anyone who has gazed at the Pieta of Michelangelo need read no further for I’m sure you have fallen under the same spell. Yes, there lies the dead body of our crucified Lord in the most exquisite treatment of stone ever engraved by hammer and chisel, human hand and holy imagination. But the face of the Madonna…I fell in love, truly, truly. I shan’t attempt to explain, but only say that a motionless half-hour passed as I was caught up in what I can only describe as a contemplative paralysis. I could not break my gaze.
I was “awakened” by a soothing coolness on my cheeks. A sudden breeze came through the great open doors and brushed across the tears on my face that I had been unknowingly crying. In my 19-year-old male pride I felt a rush of embarrassment and looked hurriedly around to see if anyone had noticed my unrestrained emotional display.
It took me a moment to realize…everyone else was standing just as transfixed and teary eyed as I had just been: living, breathing statues, themselves, gazing at what seemed to be the living Madonna at the moment the mangled body of the Son of God, and her little boy, was laid across her grieving lap.
I wandered around the rest of St. Peter’s for hours, examining the awesome architecture, contemplating the incorrupt bodies of dead popes and the corrupt bodies of other ones laid out in glass cases beneath various altars in the basilica, marveling at the incredible size of the unimaginably massive pillars that support that other wonder of Michelangelo, the great cupola that makes St. Peter’s St. Peter’s!
I set out to write about consistories and canonizations and the concomitant brush with fame that it afforded me in light of the election of His Holiness, Benedict XVI. But the cool marble of the Virgin’s face that haunted me throughout the rest of my stay in Rome and upon my return the following year during which I spent many hours in front of her, haunts me still. The beauty of her marble face, shaped under the loving hand of the greatest artist mankind will ever know, nay, shaped indeed by the hand of Him whom she bore through the passion and sinews of a young Michelangelo. It’s a face that makes one anxious for Heaven where we hope to behold it beneath the twelve-starred crown for all eternity.