Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Bronson: Sic transit's glorious papal exhibit

Click here to e-mail Peter Bronson
The Pope's millennium disco cape is as flashy as a polished halo. It's sparkling gold lame, with cardinal-red lightning bolts on glitter-blue Picasso triangles. And it fits the rest of the Vatican exhibit at the Cincinnati Museum Center like Elvis on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

The rest of the popes' fashion show is more sedate: embroidered robes, velvet thrones and enough silver and gold to fill all the teeth in Rome.

I saw a ruby ring that must be worth at least two Gabor sisters and a Liz Taylor.

There's the golden hammer of death they used until 1903 to make absolutely, positively sure a pope was all the way dead before sending up any white smoke signals.

And that's just a bead on the rosary of artworks and artifacts displayed in "St. Peter & The Vatican'' until April 18. But if you go, don't be surprised if you wonder why so many treasures glorify popes, not God. Don't be surprised if you wonder if all that wealth makes St. Peter spin in his grave until the Vatican vibrates like a magic-fingers bed.

"Oh, yeah," I thought. "No wonder Martin Luther was ticked off.'' But you don't have to be a Protestant to protest. Some of Cincinnati's leading Catholics know what I'm talking about.

"It's a history of the church, warts and all,'' said Dan Andriacco, communications director for the Cincinnati Archdiocese. "The conspicuous consumption of past popes may be an embarrassment to the church today.''

Author Michael Rose, whose latest book is Priest,' said, "There were some bad popes who lived decadent lifestyles. ... When we see such money spent on worldly things surrounding the shepherds of Christ, all that opulence seems misguided.''

Father Thomas Bokenkotter, pastor of Walnut Hills Assumption and author of The Concise History of the Catholic Church,' said his lay friends were puzzled by the Graceland grandeur.

But Bokenkotter, Rose and Andriacco agreed: To see the exhibit clearly, visitors should step back - about seven centuries.

Peeking into the lives of the popes through our secular 21st century glasses, we see only the shallow surface, they said. "The explanation is in the long view of history,'' Bokenkotter said.

"Basically, the church became the foundation, the cornerstone of Western civilization. The Roman Empire collapsed, and the only institution with the resources to rebuild it was the church.''

Until the rise of nation states in 1290, the church was the state. The church provided order, dignity, spectacle, faith and government, all in a pope who ruled the temporal and spiritual kingdoms.

"What is the exhibit but symbols of that worldly power,'' Bokenkotter said. "More and more, the modern church is divesting itself of those symbols of power.''

Rose said, "When we put it in historical context, it all makes sense.''

Andriacco pointed out one quiet relic that may be overlooked among the dazzling gold: a simple chalice and paten, communion tools made from discarded tin cans by priests who were prisoners in the Auschwitz Nazi death camp. "In some ways, it's a more noble part of the church's history than the gold and silver,'' he said.

I was fascinated by the Mandylion of Edessa. Church history says it came from a healing towel used by Jesus, that still bears the imprint of his face. I looked at the haunting eyes and wondered what Christ would think of it all.

Maybe He would think that Elvis robe is pretty cool.


E-mail pbronson@enquirer.com or call 768-8301.

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