Every so often my friend Trip McKinney in Hawaii sends me homilies or letters or other missives written by Fr. George W. Rutler, pastor of St. Michael’s Church in New York City, and a prolific author. Trip usually sends a small group of people beautiful weekly reflections on the upcoming Gospel, along with carefully selected art work that further explains or amplifies the Gospel message and, on occasion, Fr. Rutler’s words..
I was especially struck by Fr. Rutler’s message for today, November 6, as it focuses on both the restoration of an important, beautiful and historic crucifix in St. Peter’s Basilica and our election, and you will see how he links the two. In his email, Trip also included a link to the CNS story on the restoration and unveiling of this work of art and I offer that as well for your reflection.
If you do not know the Blessed Sacrament Chapel in St. Peter’s Basilica, this is a must on your next visit. It is not on the “tourist” agenda for the basilica as it is a place reserved for quiet prayer in front of the Blessed Sacrament that is exposed all day long, starting immediately after the 8:30 daily Mass. Heavy drapes are drawn across the doors to the chapel and only people intending to pray are allowed inside. Basilica staff sees to it that this carefully adhered to.
I might add here a piece of advice I give to visitors to Rome, advice that you can read in my book, “A Holy Year in Rome.” St. Peter’s opens in the morning at 7 am and is reserved for the next two hours for Masses in any and all of its chapels. If you want to see St. Peter’s Basilica before it is filled with throngs of tourists, go to the 8:30 Mass in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel and when you come out, you will see only the faithful who attended Mass, some priests as they exit the sacristy and altar servers as they end their morning and return to the Pius X School in the Vatican. The basilica is quiet and almost empty and very special – at least for a short while before the doors are opened to visitors at 9 am.
“COME UNTO ME, ALL YOU THAT LABOR AND ARE HEAVY LADEN, AND I WILL GIVE YOU REST”
Today a long-forgotten crucifix will be placed once again in the Basilica of Saint Peter in Rome. It will hang in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel near Bernini’s great tabernacle. Bernini himself would have admired the work of the anonymous artist, for its mediaeval style anticipated the spirit of the more exuberant baroque.
The crucifix was carved seven hundred years ago and was the object of devotion in the original Constantinian basilica built in the fourth century. The torso and legs are seven feet long and are in one piece made from the trunk of a walnut tree. It was placed in the new basilica in 1626 and survived many vicissitudes, including the Sack of Rome when the invaders used the old basilica as a horse stable and mockingly vested the corpus in one of their uniforms.
Gradually, it was forgotten after it was removed to make room for Michelangelo’s Pietà and ended up in a remote and virtually unreachable chapel. High technology has restored it, as it suffered discoloration and termite damage. The sort of stereo microscopes used in microsurgery identified the many layers of paint and varnish before they were meticulously removed.
The outstretched arms are six-and-a-half-feet wide. Even if the Lord had not been nailed to the cross, his arms would be open to all who approach him, as they were when he ascended into glory. “Come unto me, all you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
Our nation is weary, and the ennui is especially taxing and belabored by a long election campaign. Events have forced us to examine the condition of our culture, and how much we have ignored Christ’s call to come to him. The degradation of our institutions, reflected tellingly even in the way people dress and speak, is palpable and has taken its toll on our schools and governments and even our churches. This is a time, rarely matched in our national annals, for choosing between conversion and tragedy. To choose the tragic path is to mock our Lord, and our demoralized culture is already well on its way to masquerading Christ Crucified in comic vestments.
Two hundred and twenty-five years ago, to this very week, Bishop John Carroll penned a prayer for the new nation. As the first bishop in the United States, cousin of a signer of the Declaration of Independence and an esteemed friend of many Founding Fathers, he stood on a terrain high enough to survey the looming dangers and salutary prospects of the day, as he prayed for a government “encouraging due respect for virtue and religion; by a faithful execution of the laws in justice and mercy; and by restraining vice and immorality.” Our perspective is the same today, only with more souls both at risk and offered benevolent promise.
Here is the CNS story with photos on this restored crucifix: