KABOOM! The Literary Finale of Pope Benedict XVI was not his abdication.
By now, anyone who reads this has heard of the surprise and seemingly sudden abdication of the Seat of Peter by Pope Benedict XVI this past Monday. I’ve intentionally waited a few days for it all to sink in before interpreting what happened. If there is one thing I’ve admired about Pope Benedict is his capacity to speak fully in the literal sense and in that secondary, albeit equally important, symbolic or literary sense. It took at least a few days for all the noise to quiet down so that enough information about the facts could be available to see if in fact Pope Benedict had a literary message for his finale. Turns out he did — a shocker at that!
Like a great composer, such as Tchaikovsky, I would have been disappointed had it not been there. The 1812 Overture has so many details buried within it that it seems as if I can enjoy it brand new over and over. The same can be said of Dostoevsky, it took years for me to figure out why Raskolnikov stepped over the threshold. There was the literal sense – he in fact walked into a room. The literary sense had much more meaning. Today, the Internet is full of essays about what that literary symbolism meant, so much that cliches abound. The expectation is clear however, that I knew to expect something literary from Pope Benedict. Like his term dehellenization coined at the Regensberg Lecture, I knew Pope Benedict would have woven meaning into this very significant event. In fact, I’m convinced there is more, but today we have a big piece of the finale message of Pope Benedict.
Like all literary things, however, culture and context converge that we may focus on aspects of literary symbols, but there is never enough to be said. Literary symbols, after all, are composite pictures — if one picture is worth a thousand words, then the literary symbols, as composites, would manifest millions of words. To set context and capture at least one sense of Pope Benedict’s finale, we must set the stage.
Far from the seemingly ordinary business of making saints, Pope Benedict called a consistory of the cardinals to canonize three cases of saints. Three that he selected from the pile of thousands of cases finished and ready for canonization. My sources, that I believe to be reliable, tell me that there are roughly 2000 cases of cause investigations that have been completed are are awaiting advancement to adjudication by the cardinal college as to whether these may be canonized. From that pile, it is the charge of the Holy Father to select and advance each case to the cardinals. Thus, it was Pope Benedict’s prerogative to weave his finale using the stories and lives of these cases to make a literary statement, should he choose to do so. Much like the 1812 Overture, one of these three cases is a surprise! It is like the cannons. It is that striking and far more dramatic than any mere statement he could have made with words.
This case is even more striking than the lightning bolt that hit St. Peter’s as the Pope spoke Latin in precise terms indicating, as a musical score, fine. It’s this music on the line before the fine that we need to hear – it was the canonization of Blessed Antonio Primaldo and his 799 companions, the Martyrs of Otranto. As I continue to read this account, I am not only flabbergasted at the story itself, but I find myself coming back and back to extract more and more bits of literary message from Pope Benedict.
Let me just say, that I believe Pope Benedict may have said more in this one act than all of his obvious writings may have said. It’s just that rich and meaty.
I will borrow from someone else’s synopsis of the cause. The blog Ex Umbria et Imaginibus reported the cause on Feb 4. I am borrowing whole cloth here, and note my appreciation for the succinct synopsis there:
Blessed Antonio was a tailor, a man advanced in years we are told, when the city was invaded by Muslims in 1480. The men of the city were promised their lives if they converted to Islam, but encouraged by Blessed Antonio, they remained firm. After the fall of the city following a brutal siege, they barricaded themselves into the cathedral and prepared for martyrdom. The siege and this further inconvenience for the Muslims actually helped save Italy as news of the invasion had time to get out and armies could prepare for battle as the Turks tried to ferret out the men. In the end, the cathedral was breached, and the men taken to the Hill of Minerva where they were all beheaded. According to one account a Catholic priest helped the Turks and tried to persuade the men to abandon their Christian faith.
A contemporary document reports what happened, singling Blessed Antonio out for his heroism. Here is an extract:
And turning to the Christians, Primaldo spoke these words: ‘My brothers, until today we have fought in defence of our homeland, to save our lives, and for our earthly governors; now it is time for us to fight to save our souls for our Lord. And since he died on the cross for us, it is fitting that we should die for him, remaining firm and constant in the faith, and with this earthly death we will earn eternal life and the glory of martyrdom.’ At these words, all began to shout with one voice and with great fervour that they wanted to die a thousand times, by any sort of death, rather than renounce Jesus Christ.
Antonio, for his obstinacy was the first to die, but accounts say his headless body refused to fall to the ground and remained standing until the last person had been martyred despite attempts by Muslim soldiers to pull it to the ground. As another account relates:
All of them repeated their profession of the faith and the generous response they had given at first, so the tyrant commanded that the decapitation should proceed, and, before the others, the head of the elderly Primaldo should be cut off. Primaldo was hateful to him, because he never stopped acting as an apostle toward his fellows. And before placing his head upon the stone, he told his companions that he saw heaven opened and the comforting angels; that they should be strong in the faith and look to heaven, already open to receive them. He bowed his head and it was cut off, but his corpse stood back up on its feet, and despite the efforts of the butchers, it remained erect and unmoving, until all were decapitated. The marvelous and astonishing event would have been a lesson of salvation for those infidels, if they had not been rebels against the light that enlightens every man who lives in the world. Only one of the butchers, named Berlabei, believed courageously in the miracle and, declaring himself a Christian in a loud voice, was condemned to be impaled.
This, this, my brothers in Christ, is what Pope Benedict made as his finale! Can you hear the cannons of the overture? They sound weak next to Pope Benedict’s finale, don’t they? There is so much information there!
I believe a multivolume treatise can unpack this story and there be much left to say. For instance, that Antonio was a tailor makes me think of Pope Pius X, whose family name Sarto means tailor. Or, the concept that the pope as Vicar for Jesus Christ, is the head of the visible Church, the rest of us Her body. What do you make of the account that although Antonio had been decapitated, the body stood erect and the murderers could not take it down?
Looking past the literal elements of the invaders, and taking instead note of the location — on the hill of Minerva. Minerva was the Roman pagan goddess of wisdom (analogue of Greek Athena). As the daughter of Jupiter, she was worshipped throughout the Roman Empire. Her pagan feast day was five days after the Ides of March. Among everything else that can be said, was it the case that Pope Benedict saw the gnostic goddess of wisdom’s worship as the place at which the head is decapitated?
Even in the names of Antonio’s companions–one of them, the Archbishop, is named Agricoli (lit. “Farmers”). Is he perhaps symbolic of the average guy being pushed out by the dehellenized sophisticates of our day? The sophisticated, slick, and attractively packaged types who seem no longer able to apprehend objective reality. Those who, by their fashion to mammon and worship of perception, overlook the farmer’s wisdom and would kill them off?
Do you see what I mean? There’s so much here that we could talk for years and have more to discuss. Thank you Pope Benedict!
I want however, to leave this idea on the most solid message I see in it. Pope Benedict seems to be telling us that the Heavens are opened and we must stand firm in our faith!
Without even the benefit of a few days to digest the literary BOOM, it appears that Cardinal Arinze had heard the same message, but this video clip of his statement speaks for itself. Note well that Cardinal Arinze heard the cannons, too, although he said it as thunder. KABOOM!
Viva il papa! For now, that’s only one of the three cases he selected. The other two are nuns, and we’ll look at them soon enough. Enjoy the cannons!
This article, KABOOM! The Literary Finale of Pope Benedict XVI was not his abdication. is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
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