The Pope and the Genius

In his new poem, “Roman Triptych,” Pope John Paul II makes extensive references to the Sistine Chapel, which has a special hold on his mind, heart, and soul.

Karol Wojtyla is a man of the drama; in the Sistine Chapel, he lived through the most dramatic moment of his dramatic life, his 1978 election as Successor of Peter. In 1994, a decade after having taken the daring and controversial decision to have Michelangelo’s Sistine frescoes cleaned, the Pope referred to the restored Sistine Chapel as the “sanctuary of the theology of the body” — a theology that will likely be John Paul’s most enduring contribution to the heritage of human thought. Now, in “Roman Triptych,” the Pope calls the Sistine Chapel a “presacrament” in which “the invisible becomes visible.” Most suggestively, and with reference to the cardinals who will elect a pope “after my death,” John Paul writes that Michelangelo’s vision of the creation and the last judgment “must speak to them” and “teach them” the meaning of what the princes of the Church do during a conclave.

All of which raises many interesting questions for Catholics. Here’s one it raises for everyone: was Michelangelo Buonarroti the greatest genius in history?

It’s an impossible question to answer, of course. How would one measure Michelangelo’s genius and accomplishment against that of Plato or Aristotle, Augustine or Thomas Aquinas, Leonardo da Vinci or William Shakespeare, Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein, Bach, Beethoven, or Mozart? Still, Michelangelo’s claim is a strong one.

He was, in the first place, a man of marble — the greatest sculptor in history, as witness the Pietà (now in St. Peter’s), the David (in his native Florence), and the Moses (in the Church of St. Peter in Chains in Rome). Unable to draw a circle accurately, I am amazed by all the plastic arts. But while I can imagine painting — in the sense that I can imagine learning the trick of making the two-dimensional seem three-dimensional through the techniques of perspective — I simply cannot imagine how anyone can look at a block of Carrara marble, “see” the descent from the cross, the young David, or the elderly Moses in it, and then lift that figure out of stone with chisels and hammer. Yet that is what Michelangelo did, giving humanity three unforgettable, even archetypical, images: the tenderness of the Pietà, the heroic biblical humanism of the David, and the awesome power of the Moses, in which we sense what happens to a man who talks with God “face to face” (Exodus 33.11).

The world’s greatest sculptor was also one of the world’s most accomplished painters, and arguably the greatest master of fresco ever. Michelangelo hated being forced to paint the Sistine ceiling and the Last Judgment. But having accepted papal commissions to do so, he poured onto wet plaster a stunning vision of the beginning and end of humanity’s story on earth — and that story’s origins and destiny in the time beyond time. Renaissance artists said that no man who lacked courage should ever attempt fresco: steady nerves and speedy hands were indispensable, as the painting had to be done in a few hours before the freshly-applied plaster dried. To do this lying on a scaffolding on one’s back, often in freezing cold, and to produce in the process some of the most extraordinary art ever created — that is the epic accomplishment of Michelangelo’s Sistine ceiling.

Then there was Michelangelo the architect. Asked to assume responsibility for overseeing the construction of the “new” St. Peter’s in 1546, when he was seventy-one, Michelangelo rescued Bramante’s original Greek-cross design from the unhappy revisions proposed by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger and completed it with the most magnificent dome in the world.

Sculptor, painter, and architect, Michelangelo was also an accomplished engineer, a skilled planner of fortifications, and a decent poet. He had a difficult personality; he was constantly involved in artistic, political, and financial controversies; he was unlucky in love. The world remembers him as a great Renaissance genius. The Church should also should remember him as a man of intense, even volatile, faith: the man who created the “presacrament” of one of the privileged spaces in the Christian world.

COMING UP: On Fathers and Christian Masculinity

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The Year of St. Joseph points us to Jesus’ adoptive father, Joseph, as the essential model for fathers. Joseph not only manifests genuine masculinity, he also images God’s own fatherhood, as Pope Francis makes clear in his apostolic letter, Patris Corde: “In his relationship to Jesus, Joseph was the earthly shadow of the heavenly Father: he watched over him and protected him, never leaving him to go his own way.” Jesus, though the Son of God, obeyed Joseph, learned from him, and worked with him, acknowledging Joseph as a true expression of God’s own fatherhood.  

God does not just use fatherhood as an image of himself, because he himself is Father, even within his own triune life. Earthly fatherhood comes forth from him and should manifest his life and love. St. Paul speaks of honoring the “Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:15). God wants everyone to be able to see his own fatherly love and called certain men to share in his own paternal gift of bringing forth life and caring for others. Every father is called to be liked Joseph, “an earthly shadow of the heavenly Father” for his own family. 

Our culture, however, often denigrates masculinity, sometimes viewing even its proper expressions as toxic. We too often see maleness in its fallenness — dominating and selfish — rather than showing self-sacrificial service. In fact, later in Ephesians, Paul speaks of the true vocation of the husband and father: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). He also speaks of the role of fatherhood: “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). Paul shows us the goal of fatherhood — sacrificing himself for the flourishing of the family by putting the good of his wife and children before his own desires.   

No matter what the contrary voices of our culture say, we need strong men and fathers. God created man and woman in complementarity, and they need each other to thrive, helping the other in relation to their own strengths and weaknesses. Children need the strong presence of a father to discipline and teach, as Paul reminds us. Study after study has shown that fathers have the largest impact on the faith of their children. Christian Smith explains in his sociological study, Young Catholic America, that “the faith of Catholic fathers is powerfully determinative of the future faith of their children (125). The same can be said for general wellbeing and success. When fathers are absent or refuse to exercise their role, a moral and spiritual vacuum appears. A strong majority of felons, for instance, grew up without fathers in the home.  

St. Joseph helps us to understand the strength of Christian fatherhood. First, like any good husband, Joseph listened — not just to his wife but also to God. Woken up frequently by angels, he demonstrated obedience and trust, quickly leaving everything behind to follow God’s instructions and to protect his family. We also know Joseph for his work as a carpenter and builder, content to live simply and to work hard. Importantly, he also taught Jesus how to work, showing that fathers model and teach by drawing their children into their life and work. And we can also learn from Joseph’s humility, serving the Incarnate God and his Mother without even a single recorded word in the Gospels.  

This humility points us to the essence of Christian fatherhood. Although living with two perfect people, Joseph was still called to lead. He quietly and humbly did what was needed for his family and taught his own maker how to share in his work. Fathers do not lead in order to be in charge or to get their own way. They lead because God asks them to care for and protect their families. Fathers and mothers share in the great and beautiful partnership of family life, although fathers cannot simply sit back and let mom take the lead in the spiritual life, as they are often tempted to do. Like Joseph, fathers should act firmly and lovingly to put God and the family before self, obeying God and leading the family in the right direction. They are called to model faith, work, and sacrifice to their children. 

On Father’s Day we can affirm that masculinity and fatherhood are not just good — they are essential to understanding God and his plan for human flourishing. If our culture turns around, it will be because, in large part, Christian men stand up and fight. As Christians, we cannot give in to the culture’s attempt to denigrate masculinity and fatherhood or to pit men and women against each other. We can use this celebration to affirm the essential role that our fathers play, leading their families like St. Joseph.