Roman Carnival

I am not generally one for participating in Facebook discussions, the majority of which I find banal in the extreme (unless, that is, they are calling for the removal of various Middle Eastern and North African dictatorships, in which case they clearly constitute one of the most important social and political phenomena in the contemporary world). I was however intrigued by a recent exchange between two friends from the Crescendo network. The first comment came from a wonderful Czech violinist who had played in the première of my Hermosura de Dios at the Zemplen Festival in Hungary. On tour in Spain as a member of the Prague Philharmonia, one of Europe’s foremost chamber orchestras, he remarked on how struck he was on each visit to the Iberian peninsula by the atmosphere impregnated with the spiritual legacy of centuries of mysticism. His impressions were enthusiastically endorsed by a Dutch musicologist who is an avid fan of Andalucia, adding that this Spanish ‘mystic heaviness’ was something he missed during his travels in Italy.

Vatican City seen from Castel Sant'Angelo, Rome

I found myself thinking about this exchange this week as I spent a few days of family holidays in Rome with our children. Having clambered around the stunning ruins of the Foro Romano and Ostia Antica (and making sure that there were just enough injections of Italian ice-cream to keep everyone onboard for the cultural side of the visit), we made the obligatory trip to St Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican museums on our final day. Personally I have never found mysticism in short supply in Italy, but that is perhaps because I have had the privilege of giving organ recitals in some of the country’s most remarkable and inspiring sites, such as the San Vitale Basilica in Ravenna and above all the sanctuary of La Verna, where St Francis of Assissi received the stigmata. I found it well-nigh impossible, however, not to feel highly ambivalent about the monumental but decidedly non-mystical architecture and art of the Vatican, for all the magnificence of the Sixtine Chapel and Raphael Stanzas. For starters, it is hard to forget that the construction of St Peter’s played a key rôle in the fragmentation of Christianity. The present Basilica was completed in the sixteenth century with money obtained by the sale of indulgences, a practice which directly provoked the young Martin Luther to nail his 95 theses to the castle church door in Wittenberg, setting in motion the momentous and tragic train of events associated with the break-up of the Western Church. Theses 50 and 51 pinpoint Luther’s justifiable objections to the manner in which the Basilica’s completion was financed:

Christians should be taught that, if the pope knew the exactions of the indulgence-preachers [here Luther is referring to the Dominican indulgence salesman Johann Tetzel], he would rather the church of St. Peter were reduced to ashes than be built with the skin, flesh, and bones of the sheep.

Christians should be taught that the pope would be willing, as he ought if necessity should arise, to sell the church of St. Peter, and give, too, his own money to many of those from whom the pardon-merchants conjure money.

It is not at all my purpose here to enter into the theological spats of the Reformation between Protestants and Catholics; indeed, it is surely one of the most encouraging signs of recent decades that the Catholic, Lutheran and Methodist churches have at last been able to endorse a ‘joint declaration on justification‘ that goes a long way to healing the misunderstandings of the sixteenth century. What both interests and disturbs me is rather the central question of the relationship of the Church to money and temporal authority, and the way in which ‘high art’ has been co-opted into a narrative of ecclesiastical power. In the case of St Peter’s that murky story did not begin with the re-building of the church in the 1500s, but with its initial construction under Constantine in the fourth century, a time when Christianity moved swiftly from being a persecuted faith to becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire in 380 under the emperors Gratian, Valentinian II and Theodosius I.

The historical narrative of the ‘Constantinian fall’ of the Church has of course been widely promoted in recent decades – a sorry tale of how Christianity became captive to an imperial, millenialist theology seeing Rome not as the Antichrist of the Apocalypse but as God’s providential instrument for the realization of his Kingdom. Prominent adherents of such a line include writers such as John Howard Yoder, Jürgen Moltmann [1] and Jacques Ellul, ( who in La subversion du christianisme (1984) spoke of Christianity’s historic capitulation to ‘le carnaval politique’, hence the title of this post), or more recently James Carroll (Constantine’s Sword) and Harvey Cox (The Future of Faith). This thesis concerning the catastrophe of ‘Constantinianism’ has admittedly come under fire in some quarters as simplistic. Standing before the huge facade of St Peter’s I nonetheless found it difficult not to acknowledge that there is more than a grain of truth in the view that Christianity sacrificed something essential to the identity of its mission when it effectively embraced the methods of the Roman Empire, and that its future credibility depends to a large extent on the renunciation of that heritage. As I walked inside the Basilica, I found this conviction being reinforced, as I was struck by the fact that the building’s most precious and moving artwork, Michelangelo’s Pietà – surely one of the most sublime expressions of the core of the Christian message -, is actually tucked away in a corner of the edifice and is far smaller than the huge, domineering sculptures of various Popes nearer the altar.

photo: Stanislav Traykov

On the other hand, all this does not necessarily mean that St Peter’s should be ‘reduced to ashes’ as Luther’s thesis suggests (even if it is interesting to speculate how Christian history might have turned out had that occurred in the 1500s). The history of the Basilica is after all not only a depressing story of human hubris; it was in its walls that the Second Vatican Council made its historic and revolutionary declarations in 1959-1965, and it was from its steps (in the open air, significantly, rather than from inside) that John Paul II made his famous and world-changing declaration of 1978 : ‘Be not afraid! Open wide the doors to Christ! (‘Non abbiate paura! Aprite, anzi, spalancate le porte a Cristo!). Indeed, it might be said that it is St Peter’s Square rather than the Basilica which symbolizes the hopeful future of contemporary Catholicism and the post-Vatican II understanding of the Church as the People of God. However, if what we are looking for are traces of ancient Christian spirituality, it is to other places in Rome that we need to go.

In what follows an unlikely starring rôle is played by the memory card of my cell phone, of all things, on which three items are stocked – a piece of music, a photograph and an audio lecture. The first is Arvo Pärt’s work for choir and orchestra Cecilia, vergine romana, which I had the privilege of discussing with the composer during his 75th birthday celebrations at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival last September, and which was recently performed at the Vatican for Pope Benedict XVI.  In this moving work in memory of the patron saint of music (which I loaded onto my phone before travelling to Italy), Pärt sets a text recounting the death of Cecilia in the second century CE under the Roman prefect Almachio , who arrested her for burying the bodies of Christian martyrs and then ordered her execution when she refused to offer sacrifices to the Roman gods. In the DVD 24 Preludes for a Fugue directed by Dorian Supin, Pärt can be seen contemplating Stefano Maderno’s life-size sculpture of the saint in the church of Santa Cecilia in the Trastevere quarter of Rome (supposedly modelled on her body found intact in 1599 when her relics were disinterred).

Stefano Maderno (1575-1636), Martyrdom of Saint Cecilia. Photo: Remi Jouan.

As I have said elsewhere, it seems logical that Pärt should have chosen this text in response to a commission from the Accademia Santa Cecilia for the year 2000, given his experience as an Estonian Christian in the USSR. His frequently-quoted remark that  ‘it would not have been difficult for the Apostles to have lived in the Soviet Union’ indicates the evident commonality between Christians under persecution throughout the centuries. Cecilia, vergine romana serves as a reminder to those disillusioned by the Church’s compromises with the secular state throughout the ages that Rome also offers a counter-narrative to that of the admirers of Constantine; as writers across the theological spectrum (from John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg to N.T. Wright) are increasingly stressing, our perspective changes once we recall that the worship of the early Christians was an act of political as well as religious resistance.

Unfortunately I didn’t manage to see more of Trastevere than the somewhat dismal railway station, but we did visit another, much more famous site of Christian witness – the Flavian Amphitheatre, better-known as the Colosseum. Visiting this monstrous arena, built largely by Jewish slaves captured by Rome during the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE and which subsequently functioned for 450 years,  is both an awe-inspiring and chilling experience, a grim testimony to the way in which technological prowess and moral progress definitely do not go hand in hand in human history. The Good Friday Via Crucis evening liturgy which begins in the Colosseum provides a powerful annual remembrance of the martyrs of the early Church at the hands of Rome in a way which connects past and present, as Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong put it in his meditation for the 2008 Way of the Cross:

‘Clearly the central figure in this Via Dolorosa is Our Lord Jesus Christ, as he is presented to us by the Gospels and the Church’s tradition. Yet behind him there are many people from the past and the present, including ourselves. In our prayer this evening let us be mindful of the presence of so many brothers and sisters from times past. They, probably more than ourselves, experienced in their bodies the Passion of Jesus. In their flesh, Jesus was newly arrested, maligned, tortured, derided, dragged and crushed under the weight of the Cross, and nailed to that wood like a criminal.

Obviously, we are not alone at the Colosseum this evening. Present in the Holy Father’s heart and in our own hearts are all the “living martyrs” of the twenty-first century. “Te martyum candidatus laudat exercitus“‘.[2]

Which brings my cell phone into play for the second time. The day after visiting the Colosseum I was extremely surprised when I woke up and found that this picture of a memorial cross in the arena, which I had taken the previous day, had become the default screensaver on my mobile. I’m still not quite sure how it got there; it can hardly have happened accidentally considering that a sequence of five keys would need to have been pressed without my knowing it. The rather worrying thought did cross my mind that someone in a mobile phone company (presumably with a Christian apologetical agenda) had somehow hacked into my photo gallery and selected this for me as material for a morning devotional, but this seems too conspiratorial to contemplate. Alternatively, maybe Someone is trying to tell me something … In any case, seeing the image of the cross in the Colosseum pop up like this made me pause for reflection. The previous evening I had been listening to cell phone item n.3: a stimulating panel discussion from the series The Advent of Evolutionary Christianity in which the scientist Joan Roughgarden and theologians John Haught, Karl Giberson and Ilia Delio had been responding to questions on the interface between science and religion. At one point Sr. Ilia Delio, a Franciscan Friar, had been discussing the work of the philosopher and pioneer of ‘environmental ethics’ Holmes Rolston III, who we will have the pleasure of hosting at the American Church in Paris in April as a guest lecturer on the subject of his latest book Three Big Bangs: Matter-Energy, Life, Mind (and with whom I will have the great privilege of interacting as a panelist). As Sr. Ilia mentioned, one of the key concepts in Rolston’s thought is the idea that nature is in some way ‘cruciform’, a ‘passion play’ in which suffering love is at the heart of a reality full of pathos:

‘ The story we have from Darwinian natural history echoes classical religious themes of death and regeneration. In the midst of its struggles, life has been ever “conserved,” as biologists find; life has been perpetually “redeemed,” as theologians find. Both in the divine Logos once incarnate in Palestine and in the life incarnate on Earth for millennia before that: “Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1: 5)’.[3]

Holmes Rolston III

Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Colorado State University, Rolston (a Presbyterian minister as well as a scientifically-trained philosopher) acknowledges that such a view is an intuition rather than a logical deduction, yet he finds it impossible not to conclude that what is revealed on Golgotha is in fact the deepest principle of the world which has been operating since the beginning of the universe – God suffering with and in a sense through creation in the very processes of life ‘out of which new life was redemptively to come’:

‘In some way that we mixedly believe and dimly understand, the biology of the world, not less than the physics of the universe, is a necessary and sufficient habitat for the production of caring sentience and, at length, of suffering love in its freedom. Life is a paradox of suffering and glory, and this “secret of life” remains hidden in God, unresolved by biochemistry or evolutionary theory.'[4]

It struck me that the image on my mobile phone was curiously consonant with precisely this thought, and that the Cross in the Colosseum is a witness to this suffering love of Christ in deep existential union with the Body of his followers, silently and courageously persisting in the face of a worldly power which love will ultimately deconstruct. The Cross may seem tiny compared to the vast amphitheatre of cruelty in which it finds itself, just as Michelangelo’s Pietà is dwarfed by the building in which it is housed, but appearances can be deceptive. The message of both Cross and Pietà is that compassionate, self-giving love is no abstract concept, but embodied in the life of God’s creatures whose condition and story God shares through the Incarnation. Rolston’s point is that if this is supremely true in the earthly existence of Jesus, this does not imply that God has been absent from the created realm for the remainder of universal history, since the human nature embraced in the Incarnation is the product of that history. From the standpoint of the Cross seen as a disclosure of the heart of reality it becomes apparent that the suffering of creation is something that God has on some level always shared. As Rolston concludes, ‘the way of nature is the way of the cross; via naturae est via crucis.’  That is a mystical insight which can be gained from contemplating the ancient stones of Rome as much as the pavements of Spain, the rocks of Colorado, the underground Church in Estonia or the backstreets of Hong Kong.

Holmes Rolston III will be giving three Lenten Lectures at the American Church in Paris at 7.30 p.m. on April 5, 6 and 7. Further information on Professor Rolston and an extensive selection of his writings can be found at


[1] In his Grawemeyer Award-winning The Coming of God, Moltmann exemplifies this shift by quoting the court theologian Eusebius, who appealed to the census under Caesar Augustus as providing the link between Christ and Rome in the Divine economy of salvation. According to Eusebius, it was under Augustus, ‘Lord of the nationalities’, that secular unity appeared as ‘the pluralistic rule by many was dissolved and peace embraced the whole’. This peace should be seen as the fulfilment of Messianic prophecy as much as the appearance of Jesus, Eusebius contends; it is the beating of sword into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks, ‘for among the Romans every rule by many was at once abolished, since Augustus assumed sole rule at the very point in time when our Redeemer appeared’ (quoted in Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God: Christian Eschatology (trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996)), 160-161).

[2] ‘Cardinal Zen’s Meditations for Via Crucis‘, published on-line at

[3] Holmes Rolston III, Science & Religion: a Critical Survey (2006 edition) (Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press, 2006), xli.

[4] Ibid., 146.

[5] Ibid.

  1. Christians should be taught that, if the pope knew the exactions of the indulgence-preachers, he would rather the church of St. Peter were reduced to ashes than be built with the skin, flesh, and bones of the sheep.
  2. Christians should be taught that the pope would be willing, as he ought if necessity should arise, to sell the church of St. Peter, and give, too, his own money to many of those from whom the pardon-merchants conjure money.

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