Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Pope Francis and Caravaggio

Caravaggio has always been one of my favorite painters. Back in the late 1980's I was privileged to be in Rome for a few days. It was a rainy, miserable January day. Three of us were led on a private tour by an art historian. Our objective simply was to visit Caravaggio paintings. We walked the streets with our umbrellas shielding us from the driving rain and wind. The tour guide would lead us into ancient and cold churches. He would then approach a niche or a side altar. There were no lights on in these cold buildings. Then he would put some lira coins into a small box, which would then illuminate the Caravaggio before us. This was one of the most magical days of my life.

I will never forget our visit to San Luigi dei Francesi and its Contarelli chapel. There are three Caravaggio canvases hanging in this chapel:

The Inspiration of Saint Matthew

The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew

The Calling of Saint Matthew

Pope Francis, in his interview last week, spoke about his own love of Caravaggio's paintings, particularly The Calling of Saint Matthew.

I always stayed in [the neighborhood of] Via della Scrofa. From there I often visited the Church of St. Louis of France, and I went there to contemplate the painting of ‘The Calling of St. Matthew,’ by Caravaggio.
“That finger of Jesus, pointing at Matthew. That’s me. I feel like him. Like Matthew.” Here the pope becomes determined, as if he had finally found the image he was looking for: “It is the gesture of Matthew that strikes me: he holds on to his money as if to say, ‘No, not me! No, this money is mine.’ Here, this is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze. And this is what I said when they asked me if I would accept my election as pontiff.” Then the pope whispers in Latin: “I am a sinner, but I trust in the infinite mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ, and I accept in a spirit of penance.”
These words of Francis cut right to my heart, especially "he holds on to his money as if to say, 'No, not me! No, this money is mine.'"
It's not the money thing that cuts to my heart; it's just the tendency I have to hold on to stuff that really doesn't bring me or anyone else any life or goodness. What pastoral and comforting words Francis continues to speak in this short section. "I am a sinner, but I trust in the infinite mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ." For me, reading this was a moment of true evangelization. The Lord was looking right at me through Francis and challenging me to let go of the things that do not bring life to the world nor to me. But at the same time, Francis assures me that Christ's mercy and patience are infinite; mercy and patience for me, too.
As I was looking at these paintings again, something comical came to mind. On that day in Rome nearly thirty years ago, the historian guide was doing some of his own theological interpetation. Scroll up and look at the first painting again. Notice the angel, who extends his left index finger. I will never forget the guide saying, "Look at the fact that the angel extends the ONE finger, as if to say to Saint Matthew, 'When writing your gospel, tell the world that the Church is ONE, holy, Catholic, and apostolic." He spoke English with a thick Italian accent and when he reached that final phrase, he lowered his voice and in an emphatic whisper, said "ONE, holy, Catholic, and apostolic." The sibilance echoed in that cold church for several seconds.
Grateful today for a sense of humor and for the marvels God is working through Pope Francis and through the gift of art.
Gotta sing. Gotta pray.

1 comment:

Glenn Byer said...

Whenever i would look at the call of Matthew I wondered, had the call just happened, was it happening at that moment, or did Matthew see the finger about to be pointed at him - reflecting on each of the three led me down different paths.