On Romanus the Melodist

"If faith Is Alive, Christian Culture Will Never Be

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VATICAN CITY, MAY 21, 2008 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI gave today at the general audience in St. Peter's Square.



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Dear Brothers and Sisters:

In the series of catecheses on the Fathers of the Church, I would like to speak today of one who isn't well known: Romanus the Melodist, born around the year 490 in Emesa (today Homs) in Syria. Theologian, poet, composer, he belongs to the group of theologians that have transformed theology into poetry. We think of his countryman, St. Ephraim of Syria, who lived 200 years before he did. We can also think of theologians of the West, such as Ambrose, whose hymns form part of our liturgy and touch our hearts to this day; or in a theologian, a thinker of great vigor, such as St. Thomas, gave us the hymns of the feast of Corpus Christi, which we celebrate tomorrow; we think in St. John of the Cross and in many others. Faith is love, and so it creates poetry and music. Faith is joy, and so it creates beauty.

Romanus the Melodist is one of these, poet, theologian and composer. He learned the foundations of Greek and Syrian culture in his native city, and then moved to Beritus (now Beirut), to complete his classical education and knowledge of rhetoric. After being ordained permanent deacon -- around 515 -- he was a preacher in this city for three years. He then moved to Constantinople, until the end of the reign of Anastasius I -- around 518 -- and from there he settled in at the monastery of the Church of the Theotokos, Mother of God.

A key moment of his life took place there: the Synaxar tells us that Mary appeared to him in his dreams and gave him the gift of poetic charism. Mary, in fact, asked him to swallow a scroll. Upon waking the next day, it was Christmas, Romanus began to recite from the pulpit: "Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent" (Hymn On the Nativity, I. Proemium). He became in this way a preacher-cantor until his death (around 555).

Romanus is known in history as one of the most representative authors of liturgical hymns. At the time the homily was for the faithful practically the only opportunity of catechesis. Thus Romanus was not only an eminent witness of the religious sentiment of his day, but also of a lively and original method of catechesis. Through his compositions we can see the creativity of this form of catechesis, of the creativity of the theological thought, of the aesthetic and the sacred hymnography of the era.

The place where Romanus preached was a shrine on the outskirts of Constantinople: he would ascend the pulpit, located in the center of the Church, and he would speak to the community using a rather elaborate setting -- he used images on the walls or icons on the pulpit to illustrate his homilies, and even used dialogue. He recited chanted metrical hymns, called kontakia. The word "kontakion" --"small rod" -- seems to make reference to the small rod around which he rolled the scroll of the liturgical manuscript, or another such scroll. There are 89 kontakia attributed today to Romanus, but tradition attributes a thousand to him.

In Romanus, each kontakion is composed of stanzas, at the most 18-24, with the same number of syllables structured according to the model of the first stanza (irmo); the rhythmic accents of the verses of all the stanzas are modeled according to the "irmo." Each stanza ends with a refrain (efimnio), in general identical, to create poetic unity.

Furthermore, the beginning of each stanza indicates the name of the author (acrostico), frequently preceded with the adjective "humble." A prayer referring to the celebrated or evoked events ends the hymn.

Upon ending the biblical reading, Romanus sung the Proemium, generally in the form of a prayer or supplication. He thus announced the theme of the homily, explaining the refrain that was repeated all together at the end of each stanza, which he recited aloud in cadence.

A significant example is the kontakion for Holy Friday: It is a dialogue between Mary and her son that takes place on the way of the cross.

Mary says: "Where are you going, son? Why have you completed the path of you life so rapidly? / I would never have thought, my son, that I would see you like this. / And I could never have imagined that that the fury of the wicked could go so far, / laying their hands on you against all sense of justice."

Jesus responds: "Why are you crying, mother? [...] I shouldn't go? I shouldn't die? / How will I save Adam?"

Mary's son consoles his mother, but also reminds her of his role in salvation history: "Lay down, then, mother, lay down your pain: / It is not fitting for you to cry out, for you were called 'full of grace.'" (Mary at the Foot of the Cross, 1-2; 4-5).

In the hymn on the sacrifice of Abraham, Sarah reserves for herself the decision on the life of Isaac. Abraham says: "When Sarah hears, my Lord, your words, / upon knowing your will, she will tell me: / If the one who has given wants to take back, why has he given? / [...] You, watchful one, leave me my son, / and when he who called you wants him, he should say so to me" (The Sacrifice of Abraham, 7).

Romanus did not use the solemn Byzantine Greek of the imperial court, but the simple Greek that was close to the language of the people. I would like to cite here an example of his lively and very personal way of speaking about the Lord Jesus: he calls him the "spring that does not burn and the light against the shadows," and says: "I desire to have you in my hands like a lamp; / in fact, he who carries the light among man is illuminated without being burned. / Illuminate me, then, you who are the light that never burns out" (The Presentation, or Feast of Encounter, 8).

The strength of conviction in his preaching was based on the great coherence between his words and his life. One prayer says: "Make clean my tongue, my savior, open my mouth / and, after having filled it, penetrate my heart so that I may act / that I be coherent with my words" (Mission of the Apostles, 2).

Let us now examine some of his main themes. A fundamental theme of his preaching is the unity of the action of God in history, the unity between creation and the history of salvation, unity between the Old and New Testaments.

Another important theme is pneumatology, the doctrine on the Holy Spirit. During the celebration of Pentecost he underlines the continuity that exists between Christ, who ascended to heaven, and the apostles, that is to say, the Church, and he exalts missionary action in the world: "With divine virtue they have conquered all men; / they have taken up the cross of Christ like a pen, / they have used words like fishing nets and with them they have fished all over the world, / they have used the word of God as a sharp hook, / and they have used as bait / the meat of the Sovereign One of the universe" (Pentecost 2:18).

Another central theme is, of course, Christology. He does not involve himself in the difficult theological concepts, highly debated at that time, which tore at the unity among theologians and Christians in the Church. He preached a simple Christology, but fundamental, the Christology of the great councils. But above all he spoke of popular piety, in fact the concepts of the councils came from popular piety and the knowledge of the Christian heart, and in this way Romanus underlined that Christ is true man and true God, and being true man-God, is only one person, the synthesis of creation and Creator, in whose human words we hear the voice of the Word of God himself. "He was man," he said, "Christ, but he was also God, / now, he wasn't divided in two: He is one, son of a Father who is only one" (The Passion, 19).

Regarding what he said about Mariology, in thanksgiving to the Virgin for the give of poetic charism, Romanus remembers her at the end of almost all of his hymns, and he dedicated to her some of his most beautiful kontakia: Christmas, Annunciation, Divine Motherhood, New Eve.

Lastly, his moral teachings are related to the last judgment (The Ten Virgins, [II]). He takes us to this moment of truth of our lives, the appearance before the just Judge, and for this he exhorts us to conversion in penitence and fasting. The Christian should practice charity and almsgiving.

He accentuated the primacy of charity over continence in two hymns -- The Wedding at Cana and The Ten Virgins. Charity is the greatest of the virtues: "Ten virgins possessed intact the virtue of virginity, / But for five of them the practice prove futile. / The others shown with their lamps of love for humanity, / And for this the bridegroom invited them in." (The Ten Virgins, 1).

Palpitating humanity, arduous faith and profound humility pervade the songs of Romanus the Melodist. This great poet and composer reminds us of the entire treasure of Christian culture, born of faith, born of the heart that has found Christ, the Son of God. From this contact of the heart with the truth that is love, culture is born, the entire great Christian culture.

And if the faith continues to live, this cultural inheritance will not die, but rather it will continue to live and be current. Icons continue to speak to the hearts of believers to this day, they are not things of the past. The cathedrals are not medieval monuments, rather houses of life, where we feel "at home": where we find God and each other. Neither is great music -- the Gregorian chant, Bach or Mozart -- something of the past, rather it lives in the vitality of the liturgy and our faith.

If faith is alive, Christian culture will never be "outdated," but rather will remain alive and current. And if faith is alive, we can respond to the imperative that is always repeated in the psalms: "Sing an new song unto the Lord."

Creativity, innovation, new song, new culture, and presence of the entire cultural inheritance are not mutually exclusive, but one reality: the presence of the beauty of God and of the joy of being his sons and daughters.

[Translation by Karna Swanson]

[The Holy Father then greeted the people in several languages. In English, he said:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

In today’s catechesis we turn to the Christian poetry of Romanus the Melodist. Born in Syria at the end of the fifth century, Romanus received a classical education, was ordained a deacon, and settled in Constantinople. His preaching took the form of chanted metrical hymns known as "kontakia", consisting of an introduction and a series of stanzas punctuated by a refrain. Some eighty-nine of these have come down to us, and they testify to the rich theological, liturgical and devotional content of the hymnography of that time. Composed in simple language accessible to his hearers, these kontakia are notable for their dramatic dialogues and their use of sustained metaphors. Romanus was a catechist concerned to communicate the unity of God’s saving plan revealed in Christ. His hymns, steeped in Scripture, develop the teaching of the early Councils on the divinity of the Son, the mystery of the Incarnation, the person and role of the Holy Spirit, and the dignity of the Virgin Mary. Romanus shows us the power of symbolic communication which, in the liturgy, joins earth to heaven and uses imagery, poetry and song to lift our minds to God’s truth.

I offer a warm greeting to the delegation from the Allied Joint Force Command Naples, together with the members of their families. Dear friends, may your cooperation in the service of peace contribute to a future of hope for coming generations. I also welcome the seminarians from the Diocese of Richmond and the many student groups present. I thank the choirs for their praise of God in song. Upon all the English-speaking pilgrims, especially those from England, Denmark, Nigeria, Australia and the United States, I cordially invoke God’s blessings of joy and peace.

© Copyright 2008 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana