Kiely's mainly Catholic Page/Pope's Poem!
On March 6,
the Vatican presented the text of the only poem Pope John Paul II
has published during his pontificate. Strikingly, the text
contains a long section on Iraq... and on the next papal conclave
VATICAN CITY, March 11, 2003 -- It has gone little noticed that the recently published poem of John Paul II, "Roman Triptych," contains three full pages on Iraq. Given the present world focus on Iraq and the potential for war in that ancient country, we found the Pope's poem exceptionally urgent, and decided to share immediately some of our reflections here.
"Roman Triptych: Meditations" by Pope John Paul II was presented on March 6 in Rome to the world's press by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican's chief doctrinal officer. The choice of Ratzinger to present the text was already evidence of the seriousness with which it was being treated by the Holy See. This was not an indication that the text is on the authoritative level of an official papal encyclical or decree, but it was, it seems to us, an indication that it was considered of considerable ecclesial importance.
The scene was dramatic: an Italian actor, in a darkened Vatican press room, read parts of the 13-page work to an audience of journalists and Curia cardinals. Ratzinger then commented on the poem.
Background to this Poem
The Pope wrote the 33-page poem in Polish at the end of his trip to his homeland last August. It was completed at Christmas, Vatican spokesman Joaqumn Navarro-Valls said. (Those five months were the five months when the United States made it very clear, through troop and ship movements, that an attack on Iraq was imminent.) Navarro-Valls revealed that during a brief stay of the pontiff in the Alps five years ago, a guest asked the Pope if he still wrote poetry. John Paul II replied that it was a closed experience of his life." But, the Pope's spokesman added: "That chapter that seemed closed has opened again today.
"Roman Triptych: Meditations" has three parts. The first, The Stream, is a mystical contemplation of nature, highlighting its beauty and mans search for God. The second, On the Book of Genesis at the Threshold of the Sistine Chapel, is a reflection on man, the image of God,from Creation to the Last Judgment. (In this part, John Paul recalls the conclave of August 1978 in which Pope JohnPaul I was chosen, and the one in October, when he himself was elected, and here the Pope refers to his own death and the conclave which will follow to elect his successor.)
The third, A Hill in the Land of Moriah, evokes Ur of the Chaldeans, Abrahams homeland, and the conversationbetween the patriarch and his son Isaac, whom he was about to sacrifice on Mount Moriah as proof of his loyalty to God. Why does the Pope write poetry? Navarro-Valls mused. It is difficult to answer. Every poet would have difficulty to express why he writes. Perhaps in a more profound reading of these texts, it will be possible to find the answer.
We will here attempt this "more profound reading."
Focus: Abraham, Father of Three Faiths
In the section entitled "Ur in the land of the Chaldeans," the Pope devotes a significant portion of his poetic meditation to the ancient land of Iraq and its most famous forefather, Abraham.
It is a section rich in theological symbolism but we think it may also be read as a commentary on the current political situation in Iraq, and in Jerusalem as well.
We see it as a cry to mankind not to forget the importance of these ancient places, and perhaps also a cry to God not to forget man.
This section begins:
There was a time when people would not stop wandering.
Surrounded by herds they went where abundance called them,
where the earth, like a fertile mother, could feed the flocks,
where people pitched their tents and began to dwell.
Why do we seek today this place in the land of the Chaldeans,
from which Abram, son of Terach, departed with other nomads like himself?
Perhaps he asked: why leave this place?
Why should I have to leave Ur of the Chaldeans?
Is this what he thought? Did he feel the sadness of the break?
Did he look back?
None of this we know. All we know is that he heard the Voice
Which told him: Go!
Abram decided to follow the Voice.
Ur was the capital of ancient Mesopotamia -- modern-day Iraq.
In Genesis 24:10, Mesopotamia is called the "land between two rivers," that is, between the Tigris and the Euphrates. Its shape was a triangle with the base on the border between Iraq and Turkey and with Baghdad at its apex.
Ur is located northwest of the Iraqi city of Basrah on the Arabian Gulf, and many of its ruins are still standing. It is known as Tall al Muqayyar in Iraq. Artefacts from excavations of the temple at Ur begun in 1919 are found in the British
Museum, London and and the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania.
In the Bible, Ur is known as Ur of the Chaldeans after the people who settled in the area around 5,000 BC and were the forebears of the Sumerian and Semite civilizations. It was the land of Abraham, forefather of the Jewish, Islamic and
The Chaldean Church is a daughter of the Church of the East, formally established by St. Thaddeus (37-65 AD). Today, a part of this Church is united with Rome, known as Chaldean Catholics (one of whom is Tariq Aziz, Saddam Hussein's
The Chaldean Church in Iraq today numbers some 300,000. World-wide they come close to a million, with concentrated communities in San Francisco and Detroit, USA. Their language is still Aramaic, the language of Jesus, from which both
the Hebrew and Arabic alphabets are derived.
The Pope has published volumes of poems throughout his life, but never has he commented on this ancient cradle of civilization so important for the three great monotheistic religions. That he does so at this time (the poem was written
between August and December 2002) of great threat for this region seems only able to be interpreted as a cry against the destruction of such an important land. He writes:
Today then we go back to these places,
because God passed by here when he came to Abraham,
to Abraham who believed God came.
Beyond any political discussions, Iraq is important, the Pope reminds his audience, because God came here.
Then John Paul II goes further -- he connects the ancient land of Iraq to Jerusalem.
The Hill of Moriah is an expanse of land lying between Mt. Zion in the the West and the Mount of Olives in the East in modern-day Israel. It is the site of the "binding of Isaac," when Abraham prepared to sacrifice his only Son to Yahweh.
The Pope reflects on this moment, when Isaac (father of both Esau and Jacob, ancestors of the Arab and Hebrew peoples) was about to be sacrificed, but was not:
He will stop your hand, when it is ready to strike that sacrificial blow...
He will not permit your hand to fall,
when in your heart it has already fallen.
Yes-your hand will stop in the air.
He Himself will stay it.
And from now on, the Hill of Moriah will wait --
For on this hill the mystery must be fulfilled.
Is it too much to suggest that this passage, in addition to a reflection on an ancient blow that did not fall, is a prayer -- a supplication that God will again stop the hand that is ready to strike?
The last two lines of this stanza suggest not only the waiting period from Abraham to Jesus, but a waiting that continues in our time for the mystery to be fulfilled.
In the above stanza and the one that follows, the Pope reminds his reader of the significance of "these places" namely, Ur Iraq) and Jerusalem (Israel).
The places that today are so troubled by war -- where man can be seen at his worst and where the destruction of man threatens -- are the very places where God fulfills his promises.
Thus it seems at once a supplication to man not to forget God and to God not to forget man.
If today we go to these places
>From which, long ago, Abraham set out,
where he heard the Voice, where the promise was fulfilled,
it is in order to stand at the threshold --
and reach the beginning of the Covenant.
For God revealed to Abraham
What is, for a father, the sacrifice of his own son -- death offered up.
O, Abraham -- God so loved the world
That he gave his only Son, that all who believe in Him should have eternal life.
How are we to interpret these words?
Today we go to "these places," says the Pope, "to stand at the threshold."
Threshold is a word John Paul II likes very much. His interview with Italian journalist Vittorio Messori in 1993 was called "Crossing the Threshold of Hope"; a title the Pope suggested.
The threshold is the place where man awaits his encounter with God.
It is beginning and end; the end of one life, the beginning of another with God.
>From "these places" we meditate on this encounter with God, since it is from "these places" that God encountered man,ultimately becoming man.
The Pope ends his Roman Tryptich with these words:
-- Stop here --
I carry your name in me,
this name is the sign of the Covenant
which the Primordial Word made with you
even before the world was created.
Remember this place when you go away from here,
this place will await its day.
The first line, "-- Stop here --" is startling, and enigmatic.
It can be read on many levels: perhaps the most obvious meaning is God speaking to Abraham ("Stop here -- to carry out the sacrifice... stop -- do not carry out the sacrifice...")
Yet perhaps it could be seen as addressed to the reader: "Stop here..." that is, "stop reading and for a moment pause and reflect..."
Could it not also be addressed to world leaders: "Stop here..." -- stop and do not continue to advance upon these sacred lands?
Now, John Paul II ends his whole "Roman Triptych" with lines of homage to "this place."
It is the place from which, long ago, Abraham set out -- Ur (Iraq). He (or God?) speaks directly to the reader --
"Remember this place when you go away from here, this place will await its day."
Interestingly, the Pope does not choose to end his meditation -- which begins with a meditation on the Word, and continues a meditation on the vibrant images of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel -- with a meditation on Abraham or even on God, but with a meditation on "this place."
The emphasis which John Paul II puts on Ur (Iraq) and Jerusalem (Israel) seems unmistakeable.
At the presentation of the Pope's poem in Rome on March 6, Cardinal
Joseph Ratzinger and Prof. Giovanni Reale offered commentaries on the
work. Both concentrated on the philosophical and theological aspects of the Pope's meditation, which are no doubt its primary reading.
Cardinal Ratzinger interpreted this third section of the Tryptich as a
dialogue, "between Father and Son, between Abraham and Isaac... that
represents at the same time the answer to our incompleted human dialogue."
Professor Giovanni Reale says that the third part is an example of the
"visionary poet" that is Pope John Paul II. "The events of Abraham are
presented as a symbol of that which will be the passion of Christ," he says.
Indeed, the Pope is a "visionary poet." And for this reason we think it legitimate to propose that his vision does not stop at the passion of Christ but continues, in this meditation, to look forward toward the future of humanity and to engage
itself, on a practical as well as on a spiritual level, in "our incompleted human dialogue."
John Paul's Death and his Successor
Another mysterious aspect of this poem is that John Paul in one place seems to be giving specific instructions to the cardinals as to what they must keep in mind when voting in the next conclave.
In essence, he seems to be telling the cardinals now, while alive, that they must allow the Holy Spirit to guide them when it comes time for them to vote, and not a human or political calculation.
The Pope begins by painting a dramatic picture for us of the upcoming election.
The cardinals will gather in the Sistine Chapel before the great frescoes of Michelangelo which depict the beginning and end of the world, he writes.
Michelangelos vision must then speak to them, the Pope writes. They will find themselves between the beginning and the end, between the Day of Creation and the Day of Judgment. It is necessary that during the Conclave Michelangelo teach them.
Then he adds, with seeming urgency: Do not forget: Omnia nuda et aperta sunt ante oculos Ejus (All things are naked and open before His eyes)... He will teach you.
Here is an excerpt from Cardinal Ratzingers March 6 presentation of the poem:
The contemplation of the Universal Judgement, in the epilogue of the second part of the Triptych, is perhaps that which most moves the reader. From the interior eyes of the Pope newly emerges the memory of the Conclave of August and
Since I, too, was present, I know very well how we were exposed to those images during the hours of great decision,how they questioned us; how they impressed upon our souls the greatness of our responsibility. The Pope speaks to the
cardinals of the future Conclave after my death and says that the vision of Michelangelo will speak to them. The word Con-clave (with a key) brings to his mind the thought of keys, of the inheritance of the keys left to Peter.
To put these keys in the right hands: this is the immense responsibility of those days. One remembers the words of Jesus, the warning he gave to the doctors of the law: You have taken away the key of knowledge! (Lk 11:52). To not take away the key, but to use it so that one can enter by the door: this is what Michelangelo exhorts.
"But let us return to the true center of the second part, the glance at the origins. What does man see there?
"In Michelangelos work, the Creator appears in the form of a human being: the image and likeness of man to God is reversed in order to deduce the humanity of God, that which makes it possible to represent the Creator. Yet the gaze that
Christ has opened to us goes beyond this and shows in a reverse way, starting from the Creator, from the origins, who man is in reality.
"The Creator -- the origin -- is not, as he could appear in Michelangelos painting, simply, the Ancient Almighty One.
He is instead, Communion of Persons... the mutual self-giving.
If in the beginning we saw God beginning with man, now we learn to see man, beginning with God; mutual self-giving to this man is destined; if he is able to find the way to achieve it, he mirrors the essence of God and thus reveals the
link between the beginning and the end.
The Poem on the Coming Conclave
Here are selections from this part of the poem:
II. MEDITATIONS ON THE BOOK OF GENESIS
AT THE THRESHOLD OF THE SISTINE CHAPEL
1. The First Beholder
In him we live and move and have our being,
says Paul at the Areopagus in Athens
Who is He?...
He, who was creating, saw saw that it was good,
his seeing different from ours.
He -- the first Beholder --
saw, finding in everything some trace of his Being, his own fullness.
He saw: Omnia nuda et aperta sunt ante oculos Eius --
true, good and beautiful --
I stand at the entrance to the Sistine --
Perhaps all this could be said more simply
in the language of the Book of Genesis.
But the Book awaits the image. And rightly so. It was waiting
for its Michelangelo.
It is here, at the feet of this marvelous Sistine profusion of color
that the cardinals gather -- a community responsible for the legacy of the keys of
They come right here.
And once more Michelangelo wraps them in his vision.
In Him we live and move and have our being.
The Sistine painting will then speak with the Word of the Lord:
Tu est Petrus -- as Simon, the son of Jonah, heard.
To you I will give the keys of the Kingdom.
Those to whom the care of the legacy of the keys has been entrusted
gather here, allowing themselves to be enfolded by the Sistines colors,
by the vision left to us by Michelangelo --
so it was in August, and then in October,
of the memorable year of the two Conclaves,
and so it will be again, when the need arises after my death.
Michelangelos vision must then speak to them.
Conclave: a joint concern for the legacy of the keys of the Kingdom.
They will find themselves between the Beginning and the End,
between the Day of Creation and the Day of Judgment.
It is given to man once to die and after that the judgment!
A final transparency and light.
The clarity of the events --
the clarity of consciences --
It is necessary that during the Conclave, Michelangelo teach them --
Do not forget: Omnia nuda et aperta sunt ante oculos Eius.
You who are in all, show the way!
He will teach you...