Pope and Patriarch Reflect on Icons
Benedict XVI and Bartholomew I both drew upon the shared tradition of images in the two Churches during the Mass. Could it be that we will see the Churches of the East and West united in our lifetimes?
And what a sight greeted the faithful at the Mass for the feast of St. Peter and St. Paul last Sunday in St. Peter’s Basilica: Christ’s Vicar on earth, Benedict XVI, seated side-by-side with the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople upon the high altar over the tomb of St. Peter.
This was the second time in two days the two men appeared together. The evening before they had presided over vespers at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside-the-Walls to inaugurate the Year of St. Paul for the Churches of both East and West.
The city has been abuzz with the meaning of these fraternal appearances. Could it be that we will see the Churches of the East and West united in our lifetimes? Experts are already hard at work analyzing the significant gestures and issues, but I found myself fascinated by the images that these two extraordinary religious figures dwelt upon during the Mass.
As the twins Romulus and Remus founded the Rome that would grow into an empire, so did Sts. Peter and Paul, as Benedict XVI said in his homily. “Through their martyrdom, they became brothers; together, they are the founders of the new Christian Rome.”
As Benedict XVI and Bartholomew I stood on the tomb of St. Peter, it seemed almost as though Paul had returned to Rome, and that the elusive encounter we search for in the Gospels between the two apostles in the Eternal City was happening before our eyes.
Over their heads soared Michelangelo’s dome, with the words of Christ to Peter shimmering in the sunlight: “You are Peter and on this rock I will build by Church” (Matthew 16:18).
From one of the piers supporting the massive dome, the statue of St. Andrew by Francis Duquesnoy faced the two men. Brother to Peter and the first to be called, St. Andrew died in Greece after having spent his last years spreading the Gospel through the Eastern Empire.
One could imagine his joy as he saw the spiritual leader of millions from the lands where he suffered and died reunited with the successor of his brother. Following the Liturgy of the Word, Bartholomew I took a seat near the tribune of St. Andrew.
Benedict XVI and Bartholomew I both drew upon the shared tradition of images in the two Churches during the Mass.
Bartholomew I’s homily gave us a glimpse of Eastern art. Speaking of the icons that are part of the celebrations for this feast day, he described an image of Sts. Peter and Paul exchanging a fraternal embrace.
The patriarch commented that the icon reflects the traditional story recounting the martyrdom of the two saints. When sentenced to their deaths, he reflected, Sts. Peter and Paul exchanged the kiss of peace one last time as St. Paul said: “'Peace be with you, foundation of the Church and pastor of the sheep and lambs of our Lord.'
"Peter then said to Paul: 'Go in peace, preacher of good morals, mediator, leader and solace of righteous people.'”
The patriarch then addressed Benedict XVI saying, “It is indeed this kiss that we have come to exchange with you, Your Holiness, emphasizing the ardent desire and love in Christ, things which are closely related to each other.”
Benedict XVI’s homily also meditated on the same image of the fraternal kiss between the two great Roman apostles, a reflection of harmony in the visual tradition of the Church.
The Roman Pontiff also spoke of the Church of Gentiles and its birth at the foot of Christ’s cross. “The centurion of the Roman execution squad recognizes the Son of God in Christ,” said Benedict XVI, referring to the soldier Longinus who exclaimed, "Truly this man was the Son of God" (Mark 15:39).
A few feet away, Bernini’s colossal statue of St. Longinus stood before them, arms akimbo, hair, drapery and musculature rippling as the awe of realization washes over him. His kinetic excitement, his feeling of profound witness of a crucial moment sparkled in the basilica that day.
Across from the Roman centurion, the gigantic statue of St. Helen, the mother of the man who brought the Church to Constantinople, stood in its niche by the altar, reaching out to invite everyone to join Longinus at the foot of the cross and to see and be amazed.
Behind their heads in the apse of the basilica, mosaic letters spelled out Christ’s charge to St. Peter, “Feed my sheep and lambs” (John 21:17) in both Latin and Greek. For many there, it seemed as though Sts. Peter and Paul were joining forces once again to tend to an increasingly threatened flock in this postmodern world.
Addressing the archbishops who were to receive their palliums, Pope Benedict used an image taken from the dawn of Christianity, the Good Shepherd. “When we put the pallium on our shoulders, this gesture reminds us of the Shepherd who puts the lost sheep upon his shoulders -- the lost sheep who by himself can no longer find the way home -- and takes him back to the sheepfold.”
This symbol, whether painted hastily on a catacomb wall or engraved on a stone sarcophagus, has accompanied Christians since the earliest years of developing a visual narrative of the story of salvation.
But from the lips of Benedict XVI, the image seemed as fresh and apt as it must have been to the first community of persecuted Christians.
Faith, history and art, brought together on the tomb of St. Peter, allowed the gathered faithful to bask in the long visual tradition of the Church while looking forward with hope to the future.
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