Totus Tuus: Marian Suffering and Pope St. John Paul II

Today for the first time in the liturgical calendar, the Church celebrates the feast of Pope St. John Paul II.  For many of us as we were growing up, JPII – as we affectionately call him – was the only pope we had ever known, thanks to his long pontificate from 1978 until 2005.  There is so much that one could reflect on about the man today, but I want to focus on just one aspect of his life, thanks to a work of art I stumbled upon yesterday.

The image of JPII reproduced below is part of a huge canvas about 40 feet long and 30 feet wide.  It depicts the Coronation of the Virgin Mary following her arrival in Heaven, and was painted by contemporary Spanish artist Raúl Berzosa Fernández (born 1979).  The work covers the ceiling of the Oratory of Santa Maria Reina (Mary, Queen of Heaven) of the Hermandad de las Penas (Brotherhood of the Sorrows) in the Andalusian city of Málaga.  The painting took 6 years to completeand was just finished and dedicated a month ago.

The Brotherhood is one of the religious associations which participate in the famous Holy Week processions in Spain.  Each of these groups typically has their own church or chapel where they preserve the elaborate floats and statues used in these processions, and where members gather throughout the year for prayer, services, and to encourage the local community in their faith.  This particular group cares for two historic images used during Holy Week: one a highly-detailed sculpture of Christ on the Cross, and the other of the sorrowful Virgin Mary, weeping over the pains being suffered by her Divine Son.

Not only is Sr. Berzosa Fernández’ work magnificent, it demonstrates that the study of classical art is not yet dead, thank goodness.  Yet it also gives us an image of the late Pontiff in a wider theological context, not simply as a portrait.  As one of the figures in a piece celebrating the Blessed Mother, in the chapel of a group dedicated to meditating on the suffering which she and Her Son endured, the presence of St. John Paul II in this painting is more than simply a pious inclusion. It exemplifies the Pope’s deep understanding as a result of his own, personal suffering of how Mary’s example of suffering along with Her Son can lead us to better follow Him.

St. John Paul II’s devotion to Our Lady, particularly at her shrine of Czestochowa in Poland, and at Fátima in Portugal following the attempt on his life, is well known, of course.  His motto on his Papal coat of arms was the same which he had as Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow, “Totus Tuus” – “All Yours” – referring to the opening consecration to the Virgin Mary of St. Louis de Montfort. The coat of arms also featured an initial “M” beneath the cross, recalling the presence of the Blessed Virgin beneath the cross at the Crucifixion, witnessing the suffering of her Son and sharing in His sorrows.  And sorrow was something JPII understood all too well, under the Nazis, later under the Communists, and still later in surviving an assassination attempt and suffering the ravages of Parkinson’s disease.

Yet for JPII, while sorrow and suffering was a reality not to be shied away from, he recognized that these things were ways to bring us closer to Christ, as indeed the Mother of Christ herself understood by remaining close to her Son.  In his 1987 encyclical “Redemptoris Mater”, a complex theological document which has been studied and commented on by many far more educated than I, St. John Paul II reflected on the relationship of Mary to Christ and His Church.  I won’t even attempt to unpack it in a blog post.  Instead, I wanted to highlight one of my favorite passages in the text, which is relevant for our consideration here.

Toward the end of the encyclical, when the late pope points out Mary’s role as an example and as an intercessor in helping us to struggle against evil and do good, to carry on even though suffering, and to pick ourselves up and rise after we have fallen, he reflects on the times in which we live, when we can be so easily deluded into thinking everything is fine and dandy in the world:

Mankind has made wonderful discoveries and achieved extraordinary results in the fields of science and technology. It has made great advances along the path of progress and civilization, and in recent times one could say that it has succeeded in speeding up the pace of history. But the fundamental transformation, the one which can be called “original,” constantly accompanies man’s journey, and through all the events of history accompanies each and every individual. It is the transformation from “falling” to “rising,” from death to life. It is also a constant challenge to people’s consciences, a challenge to man’s whole historical awareness: the challenge to follow the path of “not falling” in ways that are ever old and ever new, and of “rising again” if a fall has occurred.

Just as the painting which brought about today’s post was something that took many years to complete, so too, our own lives are a constant work in progress, not something which is ever going to be perfected in this life.  Christ taught us this, His Mother understood it, and St. John Paul II certainly tried to live it and pass that reminder along to us.  As we remember him today, let us also remember that picking up our cross and soldiering on, however difficult it may be, is what all Christians are called to do.

Detail of "The Coronation of the Virgin" by Raúl Berzosa Fernández (2008-2014) Oratory of Santa Maria Reina, Malaga

Detail of “The Coronation of the Virgin” by Raúl Berzosa Fernández (2008-2014)
Oratory of Santa Maria Reina, Málaga

“In Those Days, Caesar Augustus…”

You’re probably very familiar with St. Luke’s account of the Birth of Jesus in the Bible.  If you’re Catholic, you hear those words read every year at Midnight Mass, and imagine St. Joseph and a heavily pregnant Virgin Mary, arriving in Bethlehem to enroll in a census, and finding no room at the inn.  However chances are, you’re unaware that the home of the man whom St. Luke credited with playing a crucial part in the timing and location of that birth still stands.

This week Italian authorities announced that after 18 years of work and over $3 million in investment, restoration of the complex on the Palatine Hill in Rome known as the “Domus Augusti” or “House of Augustus” has been completed.  It was the primary residence of Augustus and his family for decades, beginning around 28 B.C., and therefore in a real sense the center of the Western world at the time of his reign.  The Domus Augusti will now be open to the public on a very limited, tour-only basis, and said tours will include sections of the villa which were not previously open to visitors.

For Christians in particular, there is something poignant about this residence.  Certainly, there are historical problems with the timing of St. Luke’s account of a census in 1st century Judea, and the known history of the region in the Augustan Age. Not being a Biblical scholar, I will not attempt to address those issues here.  Nevertheless, one cannot lose sight of the fact that decisions which affected the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus’ Birth, and therefore Jesus Himself, were made on this spot.

While the furnishings are long gone of course, it is still possible to get a sense of what living in the villa was like.  Many of the walls of the home are decorated with bright, colorful frescoes of architectural vistas and swags of flowers.  What is particularly striking about the Domus Augusti however, is that it is not particularly grand, and certainly not what one would imagine the home of an emperor to look like.  So why would the most powerful man in Rome live in a house that did not reflect his status?

The answer lies in the fact that Augustus was a shrewd politician.  He saw what had happened to his great-uncle Julius Caesar, the man who had adopted the young Octavian (as Augustus then was) as his heir before his assassination.  He also knew that the way to have the people and the politicians stay in line was to keep them happy, in part by not seeming to live like a despot.

Thus, this residence is not the egomaniacal assemblage of later emperors such as Nero, but rather the well-appointed home of a man of means, albeit not one given to indulging in flights of fancy or frippery.  The restrained character of the house was remarked on not only in Augustus’ time, but by later admirers. In his marvelous book “The Twelve Caesars” of around 121 A.D., the Roman historian Suetonius  notes that the Domus Augusti was pretty much just as we perceive it today: “a modest dwelling, remarkable neither for size or elegance, having but a short colonnade with columns of local stone, and rooms without any marble decorations or handsome pavements.”  It seems a strikingly livable home, rather than an imposingly palatial piece of self-aggrandizement.

Of course, for anyone who loves history, grandeur is beside the point when visiting a structure like this.  The thought of the conversations that took place in these rooms, as the Roman Empire spread across the known world, is tantalizing.  To be able to wander down corridors where the real-life characters in Robert Graves’ superb novel, “I, Claudius” once met, to plot and plan with or against Augustus, is to hear the echoes of another time grow just that much stronger.

That being said, what truly gives me pause is the fact that this villa in Rome, and a more humble home in Bethlehem, stood at the exact same time. It is not hard to imagine that one evening, as Augustus stayed up late writing at his desk, or wandered through his garden with a case of insomnia, he was thinking upon many things, but no doubt confident of his own importance and legacy.  Meanwhile, completely unbeknownst to the Emperor, the most important person in human history was being born, 1400 miles away: a man whose importance and legacy would far outshine that of the man who lived in this comfortable Roman house.  That connection, for me, is the real wonder of this structure.

A security guard in one of the rooms of the Domus Augusti

A security guard in one of the rooms of the Domus Augusti, on the Palatine Hill in Rome

Looking Great After You’re Dead

Today is Ascension Thursday, when the Church commemorates Christ’s return to Heaven 40 days after His Resurrection, and awaits His return for the Last Judgment at the end of time.  So this is a good opportunity for us to think a bit about what we’re going to look like, when that day comes.  Are we going to have all our real or imagined physical flaws corrected?

For those unfamiliar with the belief in the resurrection of all the dead, this is not a zombie apocalypse theory.  It’s actually a core Christian belief, one which was dividing the Jewish community of Jesus’ day, between Pharisees who professed it and Sadducees who dismissed it.  The idea is, all the dead are raised and given perfected bodies of some sort, and everyone undergoes the Last Judgment, after which some go to Heaven, and some to Hell.

A few spiritual thinkers suggest that when the day arrives and the dead come back, we’re going to end up looking about what we were like around our “Jesus year”, i.e. 33 years old, the approximate age Christ was when He rose from the dead.  I can see how for a lot of people that’s not a bad place to be, particularly if you’re freed from any illnesses or conditions that might have caused you pain at that age.  At 33 you can still be as active as you would like, but you are less reckless or careless about it than you were at 23.

However there’s also the issue of perfectionism when it comes to a resurrected body, which I wonder how God is going to take care of.  Do we get to have that face or body we’ve always wanted? Is God going to treat us like a piece of claymation, making us look any way we’d like, so that we can be “happy” about our appearance? What will make us happy about the way we look, if we’re being given eternal life and eternal bodies to go with it?

Truthfully, we don’t know for sure what we’ll look like, other than some hints we might glean from the Gospels about Christ’s appearance to the disciples after His Resurrection.  For example, we know that He could enjoy material things if He chose, for when He appears to the Apostles in the Upper Room he eats some fish they give Him, to prove He’s not a ghost.  Later still, Jesus even cooks the Apostles a hearty breakfast on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.  (Perhaps this means God will allow us to have bacon in eternity, but we shall have to wait and see.)

For the Christian, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with imagining, every now and then, what it’s going to be like if we make it to Heaven.  It’s only natural that we will wonder about what we’ll look like, or what we’ll be able to do once we get there.  Yet at the same time, the focus and the goal must always remain on doing what we need to do to get ourselves right on the inside, worrying less about the outside, in order to reach that eternal destination.  God’s not going to care how many beauty pageants you won or how many pounds you could bench, if you never bothered to follow the Commandments He left you to live by.

In the end I suspect that, if and when we get there, how we look will be little more than an afterthought.  We’ll be so unconcerned with our BMI, our wardrobe, our hair, and so on, that all of these concerns about perfecting our appearance will seem to have been little more than a colossal waste of time and resources.  Oh in the meantime I’m still going to comb my hair and pick out snazzy argyle socks, of course, but if I make it upstairs at the end of this life, I for one am really, really looking forward to never ironing again.

"The Resurrection of the Dead" by Luca Signorelli (1502) Duomo, Orvieto, Italy

“The Resurrection of the Dead” by Luca Signorelli (1502)
Duomo, Orvieto, Italy