August 14, 2011

Il Duomo in Milan

This Church was a sheer and unexpected grace today -- it has its own bright Gothic splendor which shines in the middle of the city.  The inside is magnificent.  I thought, because Milan was industrial, that the Church might be neglected or else in some difficult part of town.  Instead, it rises up in the very heart of the city.  Our tour guide explained to us that if we really wanted to know the heart of Milan we needed to see the heart of Il Duomo - a Church dedicated to the Nativity of Mary and the Assumption.  In fact, arrayed in gold, Mary sits on top of the Cathedral, drawing all the architecture with her with a throng of saints into the heavens.
Going to the Heart of Il Duomo in Milan

There is so much to reflect on - but one thought that keeps coming back is how this Church rises up in the heart of the city.  Chesterton observes that ancient people, especially those of the Mediterranean basin, would build their cities around a sacred place.  Furthermore, the cities of Mediterranean cultures tended to be walled - as if to keep not only human enemies but also the perilous forces of nature at bay.   The interior of the city was protected so that people could live - and the most important part of life was worship.

The Virgin Mother drawing up Il Duomo to Heaven
For the Romans in particular, the greatest of all human virtues was piety - loyalty to the gods of the family hearth.  Chesterton believed it was their family values that distinguished, that motivated their struggle against Carthage - even after the Roman peoples were utterly vanquished.  Deep in the Roman heart was a desire to protect a way of life, to protect the sacred places entrusted to its care, to protect the family heritage for which the Roman was responsible.

Verifying these observations, the Book of Maccabees testifies that there was an original friendship between Roman and Israel.  Both peoples were engaged in the fierce struggles to protect these values against opposing cultural and political forces.  The Carthaginians worshiped Molech by infant sacrifice - the same practice that we find in the Ba'alism condemned by the prophets.   (It is hard not to categorize as similar the current promotion of clinical abortions - only our god is commercialism, a god who demands complete and constant votive offerings to a new priesthood we call the salesman.)  The ancient Romans and Jews knew that it was worthy to fight against such a dehumanizing religion, that if they failed to stand up to the forces which promoted it - all that they considered most important in life would be lost.  Their God-centered, family culture was worth their very lives to preserve.

Although Rome defeated Carthage - it began to lose its struggle for these values.  Christian apologists tell us that fear and despair were eating at the very heart of Rome before the Gospel was proclaimed.  Christ died so that a new kind of God-centered, family culture might thrive.  Such a culture of life and civilization of love is meant to serve as a sign in this life for what awaits us in eternity.   Pope Benedict observes that it was not purely accidental that after the Greeks, the Romans should be among the first to receive the Gospel of Christ.  Instead, he contends, this was an important part of divine providence - the Gospel was not something proclaimed to individuals in isolation.  It was meant to imbue culture and raise it up so that its most noble aspirations might be realized.
Where Ambrose baptized Augustine

It is on this point that our visit took on special meaning.  Buried in the Crypt of Il Duomo, a Cathedral that sits over the vestiges of the baptistery in which St. Ambrose baptized St. Augustine, is one of the great reformers of the 16th Century - St. Charles Borromeo.  In a future post I want to share a conversation I had with Cardinal Stafford about him, a conversation which helped me understand why it was so important to found St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.  But to conclude this post, it is enough to recall that St. Charles undertook the reform of the Church at a time of crisis.  The Renaissance which seemed at first to promise the achievement of a genuinely Christian culture had gone awry.  What ought to have been a theo-centric anthopological enterprise had developed into an un-Christian anthropocentric endeavor - the rebirth of culture became "man centered" rather than "God centered."  This naive exuberance in humanity's achievements contributed to profound divisions in the Church which have never been healed.

Waiting for our bus
How did St .Charles deal with this excess and help the Church and the wider society find its balance again?  He spearheaded any number of new endeavors many of which he turned into success stories because of his hard work. But behind all this was three things which roots genuine culture in human maturity: asceticism, contemplative study and most of all a return to the discipline of prayer were at the heart of all his efforts.  In addition to all our efforts to advance our society in terms of technology and art, just like Christians of the 16th Century we also need to engage the struggle against sin, the struggle to find the truth and the struggle to pray if we are to preserve what is most essentially human - humanity in relation to God - in our culture.  So today I remembered your intentions behind the leader of the 16th Century Catholic Reform whose example remain an inspiration for our efforts today.