Pope Francis on Art and Creativity
I am struck by the reference the pope just made to Puccini’s “Turandot” while speaking of the mystery of hope. I would like to understand better his artistic and literary references. I remind him that in 2006 he said that great artists know how to present the tragic and painful realities of life with beauty. So I ask who are the artists and writers he prefers, and if they have something in common.
“I have really loved a diverse array of authors. I love very much Dostoevsky and Hölderlin. I remember Hölderlin for that poem written for the birthday of his grandmother that is very beautiful and was spiritually very enriching for me. The poem ends with the verse, ‘May the man hold fast to what the child has promised.’ I was also impressed because I loved my grandmother Rosa, and in that poem Hölderlin compares his grandmother to the Virgin Mary, who gave birth to Jesus, the friend of the earth who did not consider anybody a foreigner.
“I have read The Betrothed, by Alessandro Manzoni, three times, and I have it now on my table because I want to read it again. Manzoni gave me so much. When I was a child, my grandmother taught me by heart the beginning of The Betrothed: ‘That branch of Lake Como that turns off to the south between two unbroken chains of mountains….’ I also liked Gerard Manley Hopkins very much.
“Among the great painters, I admire Caravaggio; his paintings speak to me. But also Chagall, with his ‘White Crucifixion.’ Among musicians I love Mozart, of course. The ‘Et incarnatus est’ from his Mass in C minor is matchless; it lifts you to God! I love Mozart performed by Clara Haskil. Mozart fulfills me. But I cannot think about his music; I have to listen to it. I like listening to Beethoven, but in a Promethean way, and the most Promethean interpreter for me is Furtwängler. And then Bach’s Passions. The piece by Bach that I love so much is the ‘Erbarme Dich,’ the tears of Peter in the ‘St. Matthew Passion.’ Sublime. Then, at a different level, not intimate in the same way, I love Wagner. I like to listen to him, but not all the time. The performance of Wagner’s ‘Ring’ by Furtwängler at La Scala in Milan in 1950 is for me the best. But also the ‘Parsifal’ by Knappertsbusch in 1962.
“We should also talk about the cinema. ‘La Strada,’ by Fellini, is the movie that perhaps I loved the most. I identify with this movie, in which there is an implicit reference to St. Francis. I also believe that I watched all of the Italian movies with Anna Magnani and Aldo Fabrizi when I was between 10 and 12 years old. Another film that I loved is ‘Rome, Open City.’ I owe my film culture especially to my parents who used to take us to the movies quite often.
“Anyway, in general I love tragic artists, especially classical ones. There is a nice definition that Cervantes puts on the lips of the bachelor Carrasco to praise the story of Don Quixote: ‘Children have it in their hands, young people read it, adults understand it, the elderly praise it.’ For me this can be a good definition of the classics.”
I realize that I have become utterly engrossed in these artistic references of his. I desire to enter into his life by passing through the door of his artistic choices. I imagine it would be a long journey, but certainly a journey worth taking. It would also include cinema, from Italian neo-realism to ‘Babette’s Feast.’ Other authors and other works now come to my mind, authors and works that he has mentioned in other occasions, also minor, or less famous, or even local ones: from the epic poem ‘Martín Fierro’ by José Hernandez to the poetry of Nino Costa, to The Great Exodusby Luigi Orsenigo. I also think of Joseph Malègue and José Marìa Pemàn. Clearly I think of famous writers like Dante and Borges, but also of the Argentine writer Leopoldo Marechal, the author of the novels Adàn Buenosayres, The Banquet of Severo Arcángeloand Megafón o la guerra.
I think especially about Borges, a writer with whom Father Bergoglio had direct contact in his earlier years. Back then he was a 28-year-old teacher of literature at the Colegio de la Immaculada Concepciòn in Santa Fé, Argentina. Father Bergoglio taught students during their last two years of secondary school and encouraged his pupils to take up creative writing. When I was younger I too had an experience just like his. Then, I taught at the Istituto Massimo of Rome, where I also founded the creative cultural project known as “BombaCarta.” I tell him the story. Finally I ask the pope to tell me about his own experience with teaching.
“It was a bit risky,” he answers. “I had to make sure that my students read El Cid. But the boys did not like it. They wanted to read Garcia Lorca. Then I decided that they would study El Cid at home and that in class I would teach the authors the boys liked the most. Of course, young people wanted to read more ‘racy’ literary works, like the contemporary La Casada Infiel or classics like La Celestina, by Fernando de Rojas. But by reading these things they acquired a taste in literature, poetry, and we went on to other authors. And that was for me a great experience. I completed the program, but in an unstructured way—that is, not ordered according to what we expected in the beginning, but in an order that came naturally by reading these authors. And this mode befitted me: I did not like to have a rigid schedule, but rather I liked to know where we had to go with the readings, with a rough sense of where we were headed. Then I also started to get them to write. In the end I decided to send Borges two stories written by my boys. I knew his secretary, who had been my piano teacher. And Borges liked those stories very much. And then he set out to write the introduction to a collection of these writings.”
“Then, Holy Father, creativity is important for the life of a person?” I ask. He laughs and replies: “For a Jesuit it is extremely important! A Jesuit must be creative.”
Frontiers and Laboratories
Creativity, therefore, it is important for a Jesuit. Pope Francis, during a visit with the Jesuit priests and other staff members of La Civiltà Cattolica, had articulated a triad of important characteristics relevant to the cultural initiatives of the Jesuits. I turn my thoughts to that day, June 14, 2013. I recall that back then, in a conversation just before the meeting with the entire group, the pope had already informed me about this triad: dialogue, discernment, frontier. And he insisted particularly on the last point, quoting Pope Paul VI. In a well-known speech, Paul VI had spoken directly about the Jesuits: “Wherever in the church—even in the most difficult and extreme fields, in the crossroads of ideologies, in the social trenches—there has been and is now conversation between the deepest desires of human beings and the perennial message of the Gospel, Jesuits have been and are there.”
I ask Pope Francis for a further explanation: “You asked us to be careful not to fall into ‘the temptation to tame the frontiers’: one must go out to the frontiers, not bring the frontiers home in order to paint them a bit artificially and tame them.” What were you referring to? What exactly did you wish to tell us? This interview, as you know, was organized by a group of magazines directed by the Society of Jesus: what invitation do you wish to extend to them? What should their priorities be?
“The three key words that I commended to La Civiltà Cattolica can be extended to all the journals of the Society, perhaps with different emphases according to their natures and their objectives. When I insist on the frontier, I am referring in a particular way to the need for those who work in the world of culture to be inserted into the context in which they operate and on which they reflect. There is always the lurking danger of living in a laboratory. Ours is not a ‘lab faith,’ but a ‘journey faith,’ a historical faith. God has revealed himself as history, not as a compendium of abstract truths. I am afraid of laboratories because in the laboratory you take the problems and then you bring them home to tame them, to paint them artificially, out of their context. You cannot bring home the frontier, but you have to live on the border and be audacious.”
I ask for examples from his personal experience.
“When it comes to social issues, it is one thing to have a meeting to study the problem of drugs in a slum neighborhood and quite another thing to go there, live there and understand the problem from the inside and study it. There is a brilliant letter by Father Arrupe to the Centers for Social Research and Action on poverty, in which he says clearly that one cannot speak of poverty if one does not experience poverty, with a direct connection to the places in which there is poverty. The word insertion is dangerous because some religious have taken it as a fad, and disasters have occurred because of a lack of discernment. But it is truly important.”
“The frontiers are many. Let us think of the religious sisters living in hospitals. They live on the frontier. I am alive because of one of them. When I went through my lung disease at the hospital, the doctor gave me penicillin and streptomycin in certain doses. The sister who was on duty tripled my doses because she was daringly astute; she knew what to do because she was with ill people all day. The doctor, who really was a good one, lived in his laboratory; the sister lived on the frontier and was in dialogue with it every day. Domesticating the frontier means just talking from a remote location, locking yourself up in a laboratory. Laboratories are useful, but reflection for us must always start from experience.”
I ask the pope if and how this is also true in the case of another important cultural frontier, the anthropological challenge. The understanding of human existence to which the church has traditionally referred, as well as the language in which the church has expressed it, remain solid points of reference and are the result of centuries-long experience and wisdom. However, the human beings to whom the church is speaking no longer seem to understand these notions, nor do they consider them sufficient. I begin to advance the idea that we now interpret ourselves in a different way than in the past, using different categories. This is also due to the great changes in society, as well as a broader conception of what it means to be human.
At this point the pope stands up and takes the breviary from his desk. It is in Latin, and is worn down by continued use. He opens it to the Office of the Readings of the Feria Sexta, that is Friday, of the 27th week. He reads a passage to me taken from the Commonitórium Primumof St. Vincent of Lerins: “ita étiam christiánae religiónis dogma sequátur has decet proféctuum leges, ut annis scílect consolidétur, dilatétur témpore, sublimétur aetáte” (“Thus even the dogma of the Christian religion must proceed from these laws. It progresses, solidifying with years, growing over time, deepening with age.”)
The pope comments: “St. Vincent of Lerins makes a comparison between the biological development of man and the transmission from one era to another of the deposit of faith, which grows and is strengthened with time. Here, human self-understanding changes with time and so also human consciousness deepens. Let us think of when slavery was accepted or the death penalty was allowed without any problem. So we grow in the understanding of the truth. Exegetes and theologians help the church to mature in her own judgment. Even the other sciences and their development help the church in its growth in understanding. There are ecclesiastical rules and precepts that were once effective, but now they have lost value or meaning.The view of the church’s teaching as a monolith to defend without nuance or different understandings is wrong.
“After all, in every age of history, humans try to understand and express themselves better. So human beings in time change the way they perceive themselves. It’s one thing for a man who expresses himself by carving the ‘Winged Victory of Samothrace,’ yet another for Caravaggio, Chagall and yet another still for Dalí. Even the forms for expressing truth can be multiform, and this is indeed necessary for the transmission of the Gospel in its timeless meaning.
“Humans are in search of themselves, and, of course, in this search they can also make mistakes. The church has experienced times of brilliance, like that of Thomas Aquinas. But the church has lived also times of decline in its ability to think. For example, we must not confuse the genius of Thomas Aquinas with the age of decadent Thomist commentaries. Unfortunately, I studied philosophy from textbooks that came from decadent or largely bankrupt Thomism. In thinking of the human being, therefore, the church should strive for genius and not for decadence.
“When does a formulation of thought cease to be valid? When it loses sight of the human or even when it is afraid of the human or deluded about itself. The deceived thought can be depicted as Ulysses encountering the song of the Siren, or as Tannhäuser in an orgy surrounded by satyrs and bacchantes, or as Parsifal, in the second act of Wagner’s opera, in the palace of Klingsor. The thinking of the church must recover genius and better understand how human beings understand themselves today, in order to develop and deepen the church’s teaching.”
Pope reinstates revolutionary priest from Nicaragua’s Sandinistas. Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann was banned from ministries in 1985 as part of crackdown on ‘Marxist thought’ in Catholic church. Pope Francis faces the wrath of rightwing conservatives by reinstating a priest who joined the revolutionary, leftwing government of Nicaragua’s Sandinistas and once served as president of the UN general assembly. Pope John Paul II suspended Father Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann from his ministry in 1985, as part of a broader crackdown on adherents of liberation theology – a school of thought he criticised for importing Marxist values into the church. The edict meant D’Escoto was, among other things, forbidden to say Mass. A brief statement from the Maryknoll religious order, to which the 81-year-old priest belongs, announced that Francis had lifted the suspension on 1 August. “I am happy to be able to celebrate mass again,” D’Escoto was reported as saying from the Nicaraguan capital of Managua. “I am really pleased.” A few months ago, he wrote to the pope asking to “be able to celebrate the Holy Eucharist before dying”. Bishop Enrico dal Covolo, rector of the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome, told the Italian daily La Stampa that Francis’s response did not represent the adoption of a political stance and should be understood in the context of his emphasis on the importance of mercy. But the rightwing US website Truth Revolt said: “The decision will likely anger most conservative Catholics”. Indeed: a comment posted to another conservative site, Free Republic, branded it “a terrible decision and a slap in the face to all true and faithful Catholics”. After the Sandinistas overthrew the pro-American regime of Anastasio Somoza in 1979, D’Escoto agreed to become foreign minister in Daniel Ortega’s new government, a post he held until 1990. From 2008 – 2009, D’Escoto served as president of the UN general assembly. In the 1980s, the Sandinistas accused the CIA of trying to assassinate him with a bottle of poisoned Benedictine liqueur . D’Escoto once referred to President Reagan as “the butcher of my people” and only last year told Barack Obama in a letter that America was “hooked on wars of aggression” and “possessed by the demons of greed and domination”. Advertisement Francis’s relationship with the liberation theologists is complex. As head of the Jesuit order in Argentina in the 1970s, he supported John Paul’s policies and has even been accused of complicity in the kidnapping of two left-leaning priests during the country’s “dirty war”, an accusation his aides have always denied. But he has dedicated his pontificate to the cause of the poor and used it denounce free-market capitalism as an “economy of exclusion and inequality”. It is also likely that Francis’s papacy will see the beatification of archbishop Óscar Romero of El Salvador, who was assassinated in 1980 and was widely admired by liberation theologists. No less complex have been the relations between the Sandinistas and the Catholic church. Ortega was voted from office in 1990 but returned as president in 2006 after backing a total ban on abortion, also supported by Nicaragua’s deeply conservative Catholic hierarchy. His victory was achieved despite a long-running scandal over claims by his adopted stepdaughter – denied by Ortega – that he sexually abused her while he was leader of the Sandinista government.