The Courtier (In Barcelona) In The Federalist: St. Stephen In Art And In Martyrdom

Although I am currently on vacation in Barcelona, my latest for The Federalist is now online for your perusal. In today’s post, which I hope is appropriate for today, this being the Feast of St. Stephen, I look at three depictions of his life in art at the National Museum of Art Of Catalonia here in Barcelona. I trace how Romanesque art changed to Gothic art during the Middle Ages, and suggest some lessons we can learn from these works, in terms of the interconnected nature of the Christian world both then and now, particularly when it comes to the suffering and death of Christian martyrs – among whom St. Stephen was the first, but by no means the last.

Thank you to everyone at The Federalist for sharing my thoughts with their audience, and to you for your kindness in subscribing to this blog. A very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you and yours! 

Life Celebrating Life: Could You Adopt This Custom?

This weekend the European Football Championships began, with Poland and Ukraine co-hosting the matches in several cities in their respective countries. One of those cities is Donetsk, in Ukraine, which I had never heard of before seeing a report about it on the BBC earlier this week, in the lead-up to the competition getting underway. In the course of watching the news report, I was struck by a particularly charming custom of the city, which I think we ought to consider, wherever we are.

Donestsk is a relatively new city for this part of the world, having been founded in 1869 when a Welsh businessman built up the steel and coal industries here, as a British concession from the Russian Tsar during the Industrial Revolution. Its current population is around 1 million people, and one of the things the city is most proud of is that in the public gardens around town, it is estimated that they have planted one rose for each citizen. It has earned Donetsk the nickname, “City of A Million Roses”. This is a relatively new custom which took off in the mid-1980’s under Perestroika, to soften some of the harsher lines of the Soviet-area architecture that dominates much of the city. Fortunately, having been laid out by the British, the town has a rational plan but is not lacking in parks and green space, as is the case in so many Soviet industrial cities.

I do not know for certain whether there is an official city ordinance to assure that there is one rose planted for each citizen: my knowledge of Ukrainian is non-existent, and with so many spam attacks coming out of Ukraine, performing too many internet searches of sites based in that country is both impractical and dangerous. However, the fact that this is an understood custom in Donestsk to honor its citizenry in this way is something that struck me as being a particularly good idea. On a practical level it a wonderful investment, aesthetically, for the beautification of the city, which no doubt requires significant municipal funds for maintenance and upkeep. Yet this is presumably counter-balanced by the fact that such floral displays must draw in tourist revenue throughout the spring and summer when the roses are in bloom, and people stroll through the city parks and gardens to admire the estimated 180 different cultivars of roses on display.

On a symbolic level, what I find  deeply appealing about this practice is its life-affirming nature. Rather than looking at its growing population as a burden, the people of Donetsk look at their fellow citizens as being a gift of life, and something to celebrate with a living, growing, beautiful thing. They have even created permanent sculptures of roses placed around the city, so that in the winter months when the real roses are dormant, the people will be reminded of the unique beauty of their local custom.

This got me thinking about whether, in some capacity, we might be able to encourage a similar custom in our own families and communities. Obviously there are budgetary constraints to consider: roses can be finicky plants, with some varietals requiring a great deal of care. It may not be a practical expenditure in many instances to try to have a rose garden with the upkeep that requires, and space may be very limited.

Recently at my parish of St. Stephen Martyr here in the Nation’s Capital for example, a generous, anonymous benefactor donated a beautiful stone statue of Our Lady, along with a plinth and landscaping, for the somewhat long and narrow strip of garden which the parish has on one side of the church. The church itself, along with the rectory and parish hall, take up almost all of the land on the city lot, which means that this is really the only significant bit of green space we have. It would not be practical for us, in such a comparatively tiny garden, to be able to plant hundreds of flowers for the hundreds of registered parishioners in the parish.

Yet for some groups and communities, planting a rose or some other plant for each member is not impractical. A large suburban parish with plenty of room for landscaping, for example, could do so. The same idea could be adapted to apply to all sorts of groups: schools, businesses, civic organizations, municipalities, etc.  And the communities of our families, or even those who live in community for religious reasons, like monks and nuns, or for social-financial reasons, like flatmates or housemates, could do the same.

If you are a family of five, for example, could you plant a rosebush for each member of the family in your yard? Or if not roses, what about another type of perennial that requires less work? If you do not have a yard, could you grow five perennial, potted flowering plants that die back in winter, such as Solomon’s Seal, on a window sill or balcony? There are many ways you could take the idea and make it your own, with something meaningful to you.

Gardens such as those in Donetsk may be out of reach for many, where there are budgetary and space constraints. However there are many ways to symbolically honor the people with whom you live, work, and serve, by using living things as the Ukrainian people do. It is a way of life re-affirming life, recognizing God’s gift of creation, displaying to visitors and passersby that you care about the people in your life, and that you are grateful to be able to tend to those relationships and keep them flourishing.

Park planted with roses in downtown Donetsk

Words and the Man

I have been thinking a great deal about words this past weekend, gentle reader, for it seems as though I am overwhelmed by them at the moment. Not only do I have a lot of writing to do at my work before Thanksgiving, and indeed over the next several weeks before I go on holiday for Christmas, but in addition to my daily blogging I am also composing an article of rather substantial length for another site. Then there is the fact that my inbox over the past several weeks has become a complete shambles of unanswered mail. And on top of that as a Catholic, I am aware of the significant change in words that is about to occur within the central liturgical celebration of my faith, in that I will have to learn and become accustomed to a whole new translation of the mass. It seems of late as though words are not escaping me, but rather that I am completely surrounded by them.

In follow-up to my post on Friday, we had a beautiful day of it for the celebration at my parish of St. Stephen Martyr yesterday of both the 50th anniversary of our present church building, and for the dedication of our new vestibule and new doors depicting scenes from the life of St. Stephen. Although I was sorry that Cardinal Wuerl could not make it, having been called to Rome for some last-minute meetings, we were fortunate to have Auxiliary Bishop Barry Knestout presiding. Bishop Knestout has a background in architecture, and oversaw the contest among the architecture students at Catholic University to design the Papal Mass furniture for when Pope Benedict XVI visited Washington a couple of years ago. It was unusual to have a homily in the context of which the preacher explained some of the differences between Romanesque, High Gothic, Baroque, and Modernist architecture, pointing out the good points of each and how each might bring us to reflect on our relationship with God in different ways.

It struck me as we went through the liturgy that, since I am not usually able to attend daily mass, this would be the last time I would attend a mass using the English-language translation of the Order of Mass that I have known my whole life. For those of my readers who are not Catholics, beginning this coming Sunday Catholics in the U.S. will be using a new translation of the mass from the official Latin into English, replacing a translation that had been put in place decades ago but which was not quite as faithful to the original Latin text. Over the past few months we have been introduced, slowly, to the coming changes, but the full implementation of them will begin with the First Sunday of Advent this weekend.

As a cradle Catholic born in the 1970’s, who attended a pretty solid, middle-of-the-road parish growing up, I was completely unfamiliar with the mass in Latin until I was about 17 years old, when I attended a Latin-language mass for the first time. It is something which ought to be made more widely available in our parishes, as the Pope has asked bishops to do, but having said that I am quite comfortable attending most Sundays in my own language. If we did have a wider availability of mass in Latin in this Archdiocese, for example, I expect that I would want to have it for some of the important feast days and holy days, rather than every Sunday; but that is just my opinion or preference, of course.

When I am in Barcelona, as I will be in a few weeks’ time, I have a small booklet containing the Order of Mass with the Castilian (Spanish) text on one side, and the Catalan text on the other. It is always striking to compare the two, for there are more words of clearly Arabic origin in the Castilian text, thanks to the conquest of Spain by the Moors in 711 A.D., and Catalonia being kept free from Muslim occupation by Charlemagne and subsequent Frankish kings after a fairly short interval of Moorish control. In addition, even when both languages have a word of clearly Latin origin, they are of different vintage.

For example if we look at the text of the Consecration in English, quoting Christ at the Last Supper, the text currently reads, “Take this all of you and eat it, for this is my body, which shall be given up for you.” If we look at the same text in Catalan, it reads:

“Preneu i mengeu‑ne tots, que això és el meu cos, entregat per vosaltres.”

Whereas in Castilian, the same text reads:

“Tomad y comed todos de él, porque esto es mi cuerpo, que será entregado por vosotros.”

Note that the root verbs “manger” (Catalan) and “comer” (Castilian) are of Latin origin, both meaning “to eat”, but whereas the Catalan word obviously comes from the same Latin root as that which gave rise to the French verb “manger”, which is of course the same as in Catalan, and the Italian verb “mangiare”, which is quite similar, the Castilian word is from a different branching of Latin dialect.

In a way, this is all just interesting side material, of course.  Yet the understanding of what is actually being said at the mass is of deep importance, I believe, to the individual soul. How we see our relationship with God, and our duty to our fellow man, stems in large part from the words that we hear when we are in His Presence, and which we take away with us as we go about our business.  It is true that in my day-to-day life, when at the office, blogging, or engaging in new media, sometimes it becomes very tiring to concentrate on words all of the time, and yet other words come back to remind me to do the best that I can.

With the implementation of the new translation of the mass, I will have no choice BUT to concentrate on what is being said, for so much of it will be new, or a subtle variation on what I have always known for the past three decades.  I am looking forward to paying attention to these particular words, with the hope that I will be internalizing their significance in the process. For the words that I write or speak, whether on these virtual pages or elsewhere, are ultimately of no import unless the words of the mass, the central celebration around which my life turns, touch my heart and my mind, and stir me to take action.

Detail of Christ on main entrance facade,
St. Stephen Martyr, Washington, D.C.