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VATICAN LETTER Jul-1-2005 (770 words) Backgrounder. xxxi

Artwork in new catechism selected for one reason: to transmit faith

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Benedict XVI believes classical works of Christian art can educate people in the faith and lead them to deeper prayer just as the images did hundreds of years ago.

When he released the "Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church" at the Vatican June 28, he said the 14 works of art in the book were not meant to be decorative.

"The choice was made to illustrate the doctrinal content of the compendium," said the pope, who was in charge of producing the book in his previous post as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

"Art always 'speaks,' at least implicitly, of the divine, of the infinite beauty of God, which is reflected in the icon par excellence: Christ the Lord, the image of the invisible God," the pope said.

Sacred images function as a proclamation of the Gospel, "demonstrating the supreme harmony between the good and the beautiful," he said.

While the works in the compendium are all European, Byzantine or Coptic, Pope Benedict said the same 14 images will be included in every language version so the text can be identified as Catholic no matter where it is published.

The use of the same images around the world is a testimony that "one faith is professed by each of the faithful in a multiplicity of church and cultural contexts," he said.

Of the works reproduced in the compendium, Jesuit Father Marko Rupnik's mosaic of Mary embracing Jesus on the cross is the only one that is less than 400 years old. The image is from his work in the Vatican's Redemptoris Mater Chapel, inaugurated in 1999.

Other images include: El Greco's "St. John Contemplates the Immaculate Conception" and "The Agony in the Garden"; Gentile da Fabriano's "Adoration of the Magi"; Beato Angelico's "Sermon on the Mount"; and Jan van Eyck's "Angels Singing."

Msgr. Timothy Verdon, a New Jersey native who is director of the Office of Evangelization Through Art in the Archdiocese of Florence, Italy, said it may take time for some people to get beyond just glancing at the images and move toward "reading" them, then praying with them.

Most images today "do not have much content and are ephemeral -- we expect them to change every five seconds," he told Catholic News Service.

But when calling people to prayer -- whether before the Blessed Sacrament or before a sacred image -- "the church asks people to step out of the functional rhythms of their daily life and be in harmony with the rhythms of eternity," Msgr. Verdon said.

Quiet and calm are needed, he said, and enough discipline to acknowledge distractions, then refocus.

Sacred art in the Catholic Church was not meant to be "merely decorative or even catechetical; it is meant to teach people how to gaze upon God," he said. "The church must prepare people for eternity."

In heaven, he said, people will not sit around reading the Scriptures; they will be contemplating God.

"God, when he sent his Word into the world, sent him as an image," as a person who could be seen, Msgr. Verdon said. "Seeing is not only part of the deal; it is the main part of the deal."

The compendium includes the Latin versions of traditional Catholic prayers, which Pope Benedict asked Catholics to memorize to strengthen their sense of the universality of the church.

Msgr. Verdon said people should be able to have a similar experience through sacred art, even if it was not born out of their native culture.

"Just as once it was possible for Catholics to feel their catholicity by singing the same 'Pater Noster' (Our Father), certain images -- like the Madonna or the crucifix -- unite Catholics," he said.

The culture of Catholics around the world is not made up simply of language, music, gestures and images flowing from their own ethnic group, he said, but includes religious cultural expressions originally brought by European missionaries and adopted with the new faith.

Recognizing the content and beauty of classical images is not a denial of the need to find particular expressions of the holy in every culture, he said.

While explaining the importance of common images, Pope Benedict also encouraged artists to discover the "inexhaustible fascination of the mystery of redemption, giving new impulses to the lively process of its inculturation in time."

The new compendium itself speaks of the importance of sacred images: "They proclaim the same Gospel message that the sacred Scriptures transmit through words and help reawaken and nourish the faith of believers."


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