Honoring Two Josephs; Stars of the World Cup

Vatican's New Fountain Exalts Benedict XVI's Baptism Saint

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, JULY 15, 2010 (Zenit.org).- Nothing is more refreshing on a hot July day than a cool, sparkling fountain. In a city where people love to be outdoors, Rome’s myriad fountains offer gathering places to enjoy the pleasant sight and sound of running water. Fountains, H. R. Morton wrote in his “Fountains of Rome,” “are a clear sign of good will from the incalculable forces of nature.”

On the scorching morning of July 5, Pope Benedict inaugurated the 100th fountain of Vatican City State, placed outside the Governatorato building (Vatican City Hall), to flank the famous shrub and flower arrangement that reproduces the coat of arms of the reigning Pope. Nestled into the side of Vatican Hill, the fountain pours water from the Bracciano aqueduct from one grey granite basin to another and is framed by a granite exedra decorated with six bronze panels recounting the life of St. Joseph.

This gift was masterminded by Cardinal Giovanni Lajolo, who dedicated the fountain to St. Joseph in honor of the baptismal name of Pope Benedict. Michael and Dorothy Hintze and Robert Castrignano, patrons of the arts of the Vatican Museums, funded the delightful project and it was completed in about a year.

The bronze panels were chosen by Cardinal Lojolo, the Hintze family and Castrignano from four entries submitted by four different artists, reminiscent of the famous 1401 competition for the bronze panels of the Florentine baptistery. The winning project was presented by Northern Italian sculptor Franco Murer, who cast and designed the six panels of St. Joseph.

I had the opportunity to ask Maestro Murer a few questions about the project.

The famous Florentine panel competition pitted Ghiberti against Brunelleschi, with Ghiberti as the winner. I wondered, as heir to this great event, which artist he felt closer to. “In personality, neither one,” Murer replied. “I love the modeling of Ghiberti, much as I admire Donatello, but I can’t help but be fascinated by the wooden crucifix of Brunelleschi.”

In making his panels Murer had the opportunity to reflect on these artists as he used the same technique as they did 600 years ago. Discussing the challenges of the work, he mused, “I modeled the panels in clay, trying to create not only forms, but an equilibrium in volumes, always thinking about how the final result would look in bronze. The most delicate phase was the preparation of the wax model where every detail scraped into the wax would remain in the finished bronze.”

Explaining the complicated “lost wax technique,” Murer added: “The wax model was covered in clay and heated in an oven for 10 days, then placed in a pit where the bronze was poured through tubes to replace the wax that had melted away.” After removing the clay mold and cutting the tubes, the last stage involved polishing the work.

I asked the sculptor whether there was a panel that held special importance for him and he replied that Joseph’s Dream had inspired all the others. “Even in the first drawing, I already understood how I should calibrate the space to give movement and air to the relief.” He found a way to “give expressive force as well as serenity to Joseph, by accentuating the drapery as if it were suspended between heaven and earth.” Murer modeled the angel, “as more elongated to imply a timeless spirituality and with a verticality to free up the space and render it more harmonious.”

The panels put much emphasis on gesture: Joseph clasps Mary to himself in the marriage panel and the angel grasps Joseph’s shoulder in the dream scene. Murer commented that “the gestures in the scenes transmit a message -- they communicate joy, fear, anxiety. The hands are the principal language of these emotions.”

After reading the Gospels and a year of meditating on St. Joseph, Murer imagines the man who raised Jesus as both “strong and humble,” in short “an extraordinary man.” In his “quiet yet constant care of the Virgin and Child, he in many ways resembles Pope Benedict XVI.”

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Lost roots

Sadly, the sports world has offered few formative moments as of late. Despite the heroism of Lance Armstrong’s battle with cancer and Tim Tebow's pro-life witness during last year’s Super Bowl ad, it seems that sports stars produce more scandals than virtuous witness.

Even the global excitement of the World Cup soccer matches are smeared with scandal: Sports hooligans are always a menace, but even less savory was the debate to legalize prostitution for the 2010 South African World Cup to better “host” the estimated 350,000 visitors for the event, just as Germany “imported” prostitutes for the 2006 match-up. Violence and exploitation ... is this all athletics has to offer?

It certainly isn’t what the founder of the World Cup had in mind. When Frenchman Jules Rimet first got the idea of an international soccer competition he dreamed of recreating the spirit of medieval "chivalry." Through soccer, or football as we say in Europe, Rimet thought the world would learn to appreciate the Christian virtues of hard work, obedience to rules, comradeship and fair play.

Born to a poor French grocer in 1876, Jules Rimet was not an athlete but a lawyer who did well through hard work and perseverance. In an age of much unrest and growing nationalism -- Italy had just been forcibly unified, the French had declared the Third Republic and Germany had coalesced into a nation -- Rimet thought that sport could calm the international tensions and unite the divided social classes.

At the age of 24, Rimet opened “Red Star,” a sporting club in the outskirts of Paris. Membership was open to all classes and featured a new sport imported from England, soccer. The game considered by the French to be fit only for thugs took a while to catch on, but by 1904 the Federation International de Football Association (now known as FIFA) was already trying to plan a worldwide international competition. World War I delayed those dreams, but in 1921 Rimet became the head of FIFA and in 1928, the first World Cup was held in Uruguay. Uruguay won the cup defeating Argentina, but only four European nations participated: France, Belgium, Romania and Yugoslavia.

The World Cup trophy was called “the Jules Rimet Cup” from 1930 to 1970. The original object, an 8.4-pound gold statuette of “Nike,” the Greek goddess of victory, was carried personally to Uruguay by Rimet. Hidden during World War II, stolen and then re-found (by a dog named Pickles!), this symbol of victory lost its illustrious title in 1974 to become the FIFA World Cup.

Rimet had a record 33-year run as president, retiring in 1954 after having swelled the number of the participating countries from 12 to 85 and effectively creating a global institution that would promote good will among nations.

Oddly enough, while Rimet was embarking on his sports apostolate, 125 miles away in Lisieux, France, St. Thérèse was writing to her sister describing herself as the Christ Child’s “little ball,” “a plaything ... to do with as he wills.” The relics of Thérèse followed the World Cup match to Johannesburg, arriving on June 26 for a three-month tour. Between Jules Rimet and St. Thérèse, perhaps the real goal of this World Cup will be a few more souls in the net.

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Greater prize

One World Cup player has already been handpicked for bigger leagues. Wesley Sneijder, midfielder on the Dutch finalist team, and one of the highest scorers of the World Cup, became a Catholic in 2009.

Love, football and Italy brought the young player to the faith. When he started dating Dutch actress Yolanthe Cabau last year, Sneijder got interested in her religion. “She’s totally Catholic,” Sneijder commented in an interview. “I decided to read more about it and spoke about it with her a lot too.” When he was traded to the Milan Inter team from Real Madrid, he became friends with Javier Zanetti, the team captain and a practicing Catholic. Sneijder attended a Mass with his teammates and felt called to the Catholic Church. After studying the Catechism with Inter’s chaplain, he was baptized this year in Milan.

Sneijder says he prays the rosary every day with his fiancée, often on the phone when they are apart. “The faith gives me strength,” says Sneijder. “Before each game I always seek out a place to pray.”

Now that the World Cup has ended, Sneijder and Cabau will be married in a church in Tuscany, and although he didn’t win the World Cup, it seems that Sneijder has found a greater prize.

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Playing for peace

Rimet’s dream of peace through sports may not be overly visible in the modern World Cup -- who doesn’t remember French player Zinedine Zidane’s headbutting Italian Marco Materazzi in the 2006 final? But this year seems to have been a little different.

The Peace Cup, instigated by Caritas and the Damietta Peace Initiative and sponsored by the South African bishops' conference, started on June 5. The eight-week series of soccer games is taking place in the township of Atteridgeville, Tshwane/Pretoria, to try to overcome the xenophobia that plagues parts of Africa, a concern voiced by the African bishops' conference and reported in last week’s ZENIT.

To that end, 26 teams from countries all over the world have been playing soccer in a less formal and competitive setting, while working to establish cooperation and friendship among the many teams and particularly among the many peoples of South Africa.

Damietta is a Franciscan initiative and the charism of St. Francis marks the games. The teams start as individual nations but as they move through semi-finals and finals, the teams will be formed by people of different nationalities and faiths playing together. Those who come from Europe or other more developed nations also witness first-hand the poverty and difficult circumstances of their brothers and sisters in this part of the globe. The Peace Cup is trying to open the eyes, minds and hearts of people, through fun and games.

Writing on the Web site, “Church on the Ball,” Capuchin Father Kees Thönissen stated his hopes for the event: “It is our prayer that the ties of unity and understanding built up in the teams of this Peace Cup will spread as a leaven into South Africa’s burgeoning multi-ethnic society.”

At the very least, they will get the ball rolling toward peace.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org