Stars of Sanctity; Tale of Two Meetings

A Week of Contrasts

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, OCT. 19, 2006 (Zenit.org).- Talk about angels and demons … this week has treated us to a fascinating study in the sacred and profane life of the Eternal City.

The first odd coupling this week was the juxtaposition of Rome's first international film festival the same week as the canonization ceremony of Bishop Rafael Guízar Valencia, Mother Théodore Guérin, Father Filippo Smaldone and Sister Rosa Venerini.

Police escorts shuffled Sean Connery to lunch here and Leonardo DiCaprio to dinner there, while 10,000 Mexican pilgrims scurried excitedly from church to church in thanksgiving. All of this caused more traffic, crowding and general chaos than usual, but the resulting melee did allow for a bit of reflection.

As newspaper headlines assaulted Romans with the burning dilemma of who had more sex appeal -- the Nordic Nicole Kidman or the Mediterranean Monica Bellucci -- another kind of beauty was being showcased at St. Peter's.

From a certain point of view, there exist certain similarities between the saints and the stars. Like Mother Théodore, Nicole Kidman left her native country to find success in the United States. Like Kidman, Mother Théodore had to deal with an unhappy and unfruitful relationship with a man possessed of unsound religious views. Kidman was, of course, married to Scientologist Tom Cruise, and Mother Théodore had endless difficulties with the bipolar bishop of Vincennes.

But while many may argue that Kidman has found the fountain of youth with her teen-age good looks at the age of 40, Mother Théodore has found eternal life in heaven and left a greater legacy today in her schools and Christian witness than any filmography will ever match.

Sister Rosa Venerini and Monica Bellucci both came from central Italy near Rome. Sister Rosa was a role model to women as she founded schools and, not content with giving the girls a good education, she gave them (in Benedict XVI's words) "a complete formation," with firm references in the doctrinal teaching of the Church. Bellucci was, well, a model.

Bellucci would seem a likely candidate to play St. Rosa in a film of her life -- after all, Mel Gibson cast her as Mary Magdalene in "The Passion of the Christ." But perhaps Bellucci didn't research her character, as she seems to have forgotten the part about "sin no more."

The actress-model has made her own attempt at educating young women -- most recently during last year's debate about the Italian referendum to Law 40 which governs artificial procreation and embryo testing. Bellucci's public statements at the time included the Radical Party catch phrase of the year, "What do politicians and priests know about my ovaries?" In Bellucci's case, those who have seen her films probably know more than they would like.

The canonizations this past Sunday demonstrated how women can and do teach by example. The holy lives of the new saints dedicated to ensuring education and formation to all women, rich or poor, stands in dramatic contrast to the glamorous lives of these actresses who often seem to aspire to perpetual girlhood.

The better question for the newspapers would be -- who are the real stars here?

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For Life, for Death

A more sobering form of this urban schizophrenia manifested itself elsewhere in Rome this week. As lawyers, doctors, theologians and scientists gathered in the shadow of St. Peter's dome to discuss the dignity of motherhood and the practice of obstetrics, a little further up the road, the International Federation of Professional Abortion and Contraception Associates was meeting.

The pro-life group met under the auspices of MaterCare, self-described as an association of health professionals dedicated to improving the lives and health of mothers and their unborn children throughout the world, through new initiatives of service, training and research, in accordance with the teaching contained in Pope John Paul II's 1995 encyclical "Evangelium Vitae."

Extraordinary people gathered there, including brilliant scientists and committed men and women who have made remarkable sacrifices to promote the culture of life. Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragán, president of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Workers, Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, and Bishop Elio Sgreccia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, were but a few of the Vatican officials who came to speak and lend their support.

The International Federation of Professional Abortion and Contraception Associates was meeting to hear and discuss addresses such as "How to Introduce Medical Abortion in a Country," "Abortion as a Human Right: Recent International Human Rights Body Decisions" and "How to Overcome the Resistance against Medical Abortion."

They met on the Via Aurelia, which was the ancient route for pilgrims coming to Rome seeking new life. It would have been more appropriate for them to meet by the Colosseum, a more fitting icon of the practices they promote.

Ironically, although the words "freedom" and "rights" run abundant in the mission statement of the organization, the group did everything in their power to suppress the freedom and rights of the Italian pro-life organizations.

Human Life International and the Catholic political movement Militia Christi tried to organize a demonstration in the vicinity, but were obliged by the Rome police to hold their demonstration a half-mile away. When an accredited ZENIT reporter tried to gain access to the conference, the organizers refused to acknowledge ZENIT as an official news service.

Monsignor Ignacio Barreiro Carámbula, head of the Roman office of Human Life International, and several other leaders brought to the attention of Church authorities this prohibition from the Italian police as a violation of the right to religious freedom. In the meantime, the participants at the conference continued unquestioned and unchallenged.

The apex of absurdity came on the morning of Oct. 13, when the abortion group opened its conference with keynote speaker Emma Bonino, the Italian minister for international trade and European affairs, while at the exact same time her boss, Prime Minister Romano Prodi, who appointed Bonino to her position, was visiting Benedict XVI. It seems like the sort of farce of which the pagan Romans of antiquity were so fond.

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Buried Hopes

The perfect backdrop for all these vignettes was presented to the public in the middle of last week. The Vatican Museums opened one of the most exciting archaeological finds in the past 50 years: an intact pagan necropolis, or burial ground, inside the walls of Vatican City.

Found during the excavations for the new Vatican parking lot, the site yielded 250 graves of Romans rich and poor, educated and illiterate, old and young.

Visiting the burial site of the Via Triumphalis is an amazing experience, as one walks on metal scaffolding looking down onto those graves. Some were expensively appointed with spectacular mosaics while others were no more than humble holes, nestled up against more elaborate tombs for shelter.

These diverse people had one thing in common. With no Christian hope for the afterlife, they sought immortality by etching their names in stone slabs, commissioning expensive adornments, or simply running a tube from the hole in the ground to the surface to be remembered by.

This graveyard was abandoned in the fourth century, when Christianity was legalized and the grave of St. Peter, one of the most humble burial sites of all time, was being transformed by Emperor Constantine into the first basilica to honor the prince of the apostles.

From that point on, no one wanted to be buried in the Via Triumphalis graveyard, which was out of sight from the basilica. People instead sought to bury their dead in the now-crowded space around Peter's tomb as it was being covered by the basilica. Next to Peter, the Christian found hope against the inevitability of death.

Looking down at the vivid memento mori of the necropolis, one sees the naked reality of a culture of death: a few old bones, some discarded ashes and a few shiny tombs forgotten on a hillside. A few steps away, in St. Peter's Square, Pope Benedict reminded the world of the saints, who live and die in Christ, and whose "names will be remembered forever."

Just one more reminder that not all that glitters is gold.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University's Italian campus. She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org.