Lidia Cooks, Pope Francis Eats: The Papacy And Food

You may have missed the news – as did I – that while he was in New York, Pope Francis’ meals were prepared by celebrity chef Lidia Bastianich, famous to TV watchers from her many series on PBS over the past two decades. Lidia is a refugee immigrant to America who was born in Pola, a seaport which was once part of Italy; the city was given to Yugoslavia after the war, and is now a part of Croatia. She is what we non-Italians would imagine our Italian “nonna” (grandmother) to be, if we had one: a robust, cheerful, colorful lady, with a gusto for preparing you mountains of good food. If you have never watched one of her programs, I dare you not to grow hungry as you watch how she prepares and then REALLY enjoys tasting that plate of gnocchi or ossobuco that she’s just thrown together, in her beautiful kitchen full of copper pots and majolica platters.

“What an extraordinary honor this is,” she observed, about being asked to cook for Pope Francis. “For me, cooking for the Pope is special because, not only am I Catholic, but I came to this country in 1958 as a refugee from communist Yugoslavia and was cared for by Catholic Relief Services. They did so much to give me a start in America, so I am very proud to give back through what is most dear to me on this Earth: food and my family.”

As it happens, this is not the first time that Lidia has cooked for a pontiff. When Pope Benedict was in New York several years ago, she was asked to cook for him, as well. While Pope Francis has certain dietary restrictions based on his doctor’s advice, Pope Benedict’s own mother was a hotel chef, and so the pressure was on. After the final dinner she prepared for him, Pope Benedict praised the goulash Lidia had made that evening, saying that it was so close to that of his childhood, that “these are my mother’s flavors.” Naturally Lidia got a little teary-eyed at the compliment.

There is an interesting and bizarre history of Papal chefs down the centuries, and as one might expect some of it is quite unseemly to read. The Church hasn’t survived for 2,000 years because of uniformly good Papal behavior, but oftentimes in spite of it. If you’ve ever looked at a list of all the popes, you will see a noticeable gap of several centuries where there were hardly any saintly popes at all.

However one of my favorite tales comes from the reign of a very holy pope, Pope St. Pius V (1504-1572). The third pope to come from the Dominican Order, Pius V was an ascetic, in deliberate contrast to the excesses of many of the Renaissance popes. He fasted and prayed so much that he would forget to eat, and when he did eat it was often nothing more than a bowl of broth and some bread.

Apparently on one occasion, someone suggested to Pope Pius that his daily soup should be fortified with more ingredients. There were concerns that he was doing too much, and that he ought to be eating more to keep up his strength. In response, the Pontiff threatened to excommunicate anyone who altered his meals from exactly how he wanted them prepared.

Now while I may not want that’s the sort of thing I can raise a glass to, and I suspect Lidia would, too.


Chef Lidia Bastianich

Is Gaudí Getting Closer to Sainthood?

Regular readers know of my admiration for the great Catalan architect, Antoni Gaudí i Cornet (1852-1926), most famous for his Basilica of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.  The hugely original and innovative Gaudí was a deeply devout man, and spent the last decades of his life working exclusively on this structure which, when it is completed around 2026, will be the tallest church in the world.  With a new Vatican-approved graduate studies program being named after him, and Gaudí’s cause for beatification now in the review stage in Rome, one wonders whether this is a sign that the Vatican is moving in the direction of his canonization.

Located in Barcelona, the Antoni Gaudí School offers graduate studies in Church history, Christian art, and now archaeological studies, in conjunction with programs approved by the Vatican.  The architect himself loved archaeology, not only as part of his research and design process, but also as a reason to go out into the countryside at the weekends with fellow enthusiasts.  Groups of these thinkers and creative individuals would explore ancient ruins and crumbling castles to get a better sense of their own history, as well as to understand design concepts and building methods.

Pope Benedict XVI admired the Catalan architect a great deal.  He not only traveled to Barcelona to dedicate the church and raise it to the level of a Minor Basilica, but he also used a photograph of the sculpture of the Holy Family on the Nativity Facade of the building for his official Christmas cards that year.  An exhibition celebrating Gaudí’s work was mounted at the Vatican at the same time. And recently, Pope Francis accepted a gift of a portrait bust of Gaudí from the group promoting his cause for beatification, a work based on an original carved shortly after the architect’s death.

The current expectation is that the Congregation for the Causes of Saints will complete their investigation sometime in the spring of 2015, and will make their recommendations to the Holy Father at that time. Despite some earlier rumors that beatification was going to be announced for certain, so far there has been no official word from the Congregation on that point. It would seem to me more likely that he would first be made a “Venerable”, if the cause is moving forward, but Catalan sources insist that Rome will be skipping straight to beatification.  To my knowledge, Pope Francis has never spoken about Gaudí publicly in the way that Pope Benedict has, so we can’t assume anything one way or the other with respect to his urging the work of the Congregation forward.

That being said, the fact that the Vatican seems to be encouraging naming things after “God’s Architect”, as he is often called, seems to me to be a good sign.

Work underway on the central towers of the Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

Work underway on the central towers of the Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

Pope Francis: Politics, Policy, and the Press

It is usually not a promising sign, when attending an event to discuss the Pope and public policy, to find that the average age of those in attendance is about 62.  One could almost hear the faint clatter of tambourines being stuffed into PBS tote bags as the attendees filed into Gaston Hall at Georgetown University, my alma mater.  One could also have spent hours playing that classic Post-Vatican II spotting game, “heterodox nun, or feminist liberation theologian?” Still, unlike when President Obama last spoke there, Georgetown decided not to cover up the cross and “IHS” monogram on the proscenium, and that is to their credit.

Last evening’s gathering, “The Pope, Politics and Policy” to discuss what has become known as “The Pope Francis Effect”, was sponsored by the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.  Moderated by the Initiative’s director, John Carr, the panel discussion featured John Allen of the Boston Globe, Ross Douthat of the New York Times, and Kerry Robinson of the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management.  I was unsure before the evening began as to why Ms. Robinson was put on the panel, given that a third journalist or an academic would have made more sense in the context of the discussion.  After the event ended, I remained unsure as to why she had been put on the panel, since she contributed nothing of any interest to the discussion.  So we shall have to leave that to the ages.

Although billed as a discussion of the new Pope’s effect on public policy and politics, the most interesting comments of the evening were Mr. Allen’s, with respect to understanding the differences and similarities between the present and preceding popes.  On top of which, he had wonderful stories to share, like the time Pope Francis showed up early at a parish in suburban Rome, and told the parish priest he wanted to hear confessions before mass if there were any takers.  The pastor then dashed into the church and grabbed 8 people, telling them: “You’re going to confession. Now.”

Perhaps the most salient point made by Mr. Allen was his observation on why Pope Francis is receiving a different media reception than did his predecessor.  Whereas for the media Pope Francis was basically a blank slate, Pope Benedict XVI was thought to be a known quantity.  Joseph Ratzinger was “Der Panzer-Cardinal”, “God’s Rottweiler”, and so on, and the coverage he received from the mainstream media was tailored to that narrative.  For example, even though as is now well-known, Pope Francis paid his own hotel bill and thanked all the staff after his election, no one talked about how Pope Benedict went back to his apartment, alone, after he was elected, packed his own bag, and went around thanking the neighbors for their service.

In another example, Mr. Allen pointed to a visit Pope Benedict made to Brazil back in 2007, which he himself also attended.  As the reader is probably well-aware, Pope Francis incurred the ire of certain conservatives as a result of some of his statements on the evils of putting profits ahead of people.  Yet back in 2008, the supposedly ultra-right-wing Pope Benedict gave a speech in Brazil railing against unregulated capitalism in no uncertain terms, a speech Mr. Allen described as making Pope Francis look like “milquetoast” by comparison, which was largely ignored.

During one of his responses to the questions posed during the evening, Mr. Douthat addressed an issue which I myself raised on the Catholic Weekend show this past Saturday: at what point will the media turn on Pope Francis?  It is likely, as Mr. Douthat pointed out, that at some point the narrative will change, and the media will decide that Pope Francis has somehow failed to live up to their expectations.  There will no doubt be great wailing and gnashing of teeth at The Grey Lady, and elsewhere, once the honeymoon is over, yet this is an almost inevitable result, due to the nature of present-day media coverage of world leaders, celebrities, and so on.

One cannot continue to sell copies of one’s magazine telling the same story over and over again.  The press in general prefers to see a star fall from grace rather than remain on an even keel, because then they are able to sell copy on the way up, as well as copy on the way down.  Thus, the only reason Pope Francis is on the cover of Rolling Stone this month, in an article which even Father Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, had to decry as being “superficial” and of “surprising crudeness”, is because the Pope has been on every other magazine cover, and Rolling Stone needs to sell copies.  A year, perhaps two years from now, Mr. Douthat wondered, what sort of cover stories will we see from these same publications?

By way of conclusion, it was clear that the general tone of the evening was agreement on a single point: the widespread interest in this pope is a good thing, and not just for making people reconsider what they may previously had thought about Catholicism.  As Mr. Allen noted, some of the cardinals might, privately, if pressed, express a bit of surprise that Pope Francis is not quite as conservative as they had thought him to be, at least on liturgical matters.  However, his election has changed things for the better for many of them, when it comes to doing their duties at home.

Now, when the cardinals visit parishes or attend functions, people approach them not in anger over the sexual abuse or banking scandals, but to tell them how they are fascinated by the new pope.  It allows the cardinals some breathing space, and this, hopefully, will give them the time they need to think about what direction the Church is headed in, rather than being chained forever to answering for the mistakes of the past.  In the end, perhaps that respite, that time for prayer and reflection, and whatever results from it, will turn out to be the real “Pope Francis Effect”.