A GIFT TO THE PEOPLE OF GOD
On Sunday, 14 November 1999, His Holiness Pope John Paul II dedicated the Redemptoris Mater Chapel in the Apostolic Palace at the conclusion of a restoration project which was begun in late 1996.
In November 1996 the whole Church had joined in celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s ordination to the priesthood. Many of us have read the recollections and the spiritual testament which the Holy Father left us on that occasion in his book Gift and Mystery. On the Fiftieth Anniversary of My Priestly Ordination. Many will also recall the moving Mass in Saint Peter’s Basilica which John Paul II concelebrated with hundreds of other priests who, like him, were ordained in 1946.
The whole world showed its affection for the Successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome, in a variety of ways. In addition to Heads of States and government leaders, men and women from all walks of life sent messages of respect and affection which witness to the great esteem in which this Pontiff is held. Included in these tributes was that of the Cardinals, who, of all those responsible for the life of the Church, are the closest advisers and collaborators of the Holy Father in the Church, both in Rome itself and throughout the world.
On that occasion the College of Cardinals wished to offer a tangible sign of their closeness to the Pope and their affection for his person. Some of the Cardinals had taken part in his election, while others had been appointed by him; all wished to make a significant gift as a sign of their esteem and devotion for the Successor of Peter.
The gift was presented by Cardinals in the form of a sum of money which the Pope was to allocate as he might choose for some particular work.
On 10 November 1996, at the conclusion of the Jubilee celebrations and in the presence of many Cardinals, the Holy Father addressed the whole College in these words: “I thank you from my heart for the sum offered me through the Cardinal Dean as your gift on this occasion. I believe that you will be pleased to know that I have decided to use it for a work which will remain in the Vatican. My plan is to apply it to the renovation and decoration of the Redemptoris Mater Chapel in the Apostolic Palace”.
It was the Pope’s idea that the Redemptoris Mater Chapel should have special meaning and be decorated in a way which would embody the encounter between East and West. As he put it: “The Chapel will be a sign of the unity between all the Churches which you represent and the See of Peter. It will also have a particular ecumenical value and be an important presence of the Eastern tradition in the Vatican”.
A few years later, the Holy Father’s desire was realized in the renovated and redecorated Chapel which is now offered for the contemplation of all. The brilliance of its mosaics, under the watchful gaze of the Pantokrator who dominates the centre of the ceiling, seems to echo an ancient expression which the Eastern Liturgy also applies to the beauty of places of worship: “Here, heaven has come down to earth!”.
The Chapel, formerly known as the “Matilde Chapel”, was renamed the “Redemptoris Mater Chapel” during the Marian Year of 1987-88, a year marked by a notable presence in Rome of the Christian East and the celebration of many important liturgies in the different rites of the Eastern Catholic Churches. At the request of the Holy Father, those celebrations were commemorated in a richly illustrated book produced by the Office for the Liturgical Celebrations of the Supreme Pontiff: Liturgie dell'Oriente cristiano a Roma nell'Anno Mariano 1987-1988. These liturgical celebrations also helped to realize the Pope’s desire to develop a vision of the Church which, in her theology, liturgy and spirituality, breathes with both lungs, that of the East and that of the West.
On the eve of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, the Redemptoris Mater Chapel, now completely refurbished, has become an artistic and liturgical monument representative of our own day, in the heart of the Vatican Palace. It thus takes its place alongside the magnificent Sistine Chapel, which has also been completely restored in recent years. Indeed, the restoration of the fifteen-century frescoes in the Sistine Chapel completed the third major restoration undertaken in the history of that Chapel, the most famous in the Apostolic Palace.
Apart from their contemporaneous restoration and restructuring, there is a more profound and significant link between these two Chapels.
The Sistine Chapel is a unique expression of the great humanistic spirit of the Italian Renaissance. In his vigorous figures Michelangelo embodied the exaltation of the human person and of human potential which dominated that period. The massive, powerful bodies which the artist painted on the ceiling and in the Last Judgement came forth from God, whom Michelangelo represents in all his might and beauty, and they are reflections of God’s creative power.
But the iconography of the Sistine Chapel also points to the grandeur of man, which goes beyond the mere fact of having been created by God in his own image and likeness.
Together with creation, the Chapel highlights the Incarnation of the Son of God, who so exalted human nature as to join it in some way to the nature of God himself: “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son of the Father” (Jn 1:14). “Christ is the visible sign of the invisible God. Through him, the Father penetrates the whole of creation and the invisible God makes himself present among us and speaks to us” (Homily in the Sistine Chapel, 8 April 1994, No. 4).
This theme is emphasized and expanded in the mosaics of the Redemptoris Mater Chapel. Through the incarnation of Christ, mankind enters into the very life of God, in the Most Holy Trinity. The Chapel clearly expresses a trinitarian anthropology. The history of salvation, in its twin movement of God’s descent and mankind’s ascent, reveals the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit, who makes the work of redemption ever present and known to men and women in every age.
This “visual” theology, which was reflected in the medieval Biblia pauperum, is strikingly taken up in the Chapel’s theological programme, which begins with the love of God the Father and culminates in the heavenly liturgy and the eternal anamnesis of those who have become “sons in the Son”.
The renovated Chapel was dedicated to the Mother of God on the eve of the Great Jubilee of the Incarnation, which celebrates, together with Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary, “Alma Redemptoris Mater”. Mary, Mother of the Lord and Seat of Wisdom, is resplendently enthroned on the centre wall, as a reflection of the Trinitarian economy, surrounded by the saints of East and West, men and women of every time and every nation.
In the person of the Pope who desired their renovation, these two Chapels are now, in a real way, complementary; they possess a theological and spiritual continuity. Both are a gift to the People of God, and both will continue to be masterpieces of piety, a source of beauty and a prophecy of unity for future generations.
In the Redemptoris Mater Chapel we find fundamental themes of the pastoral teaching of John Paul II, particularly his concern for ecumenism. In a brilliant display of colours, characters and symbols, the mosaics which now adorn the Chapel celebrate the history of salvation, taking the mystery of the Trinity as their central theme, one reflected above all in the images of the incarnate Son of God and his Mother. This history finds visible expression in stories and personages from the Old Testament and in the mysteries of the life of Christ and the Church’s saints in every age, including the martyrs of the twentieth century, with a quiet but significant reference to those witnesses to the faith who belonged to other Christian Churches and ecclesial communities.
Everything appears as a reflection of the Most Holy Trinity, which embraces and directs all reality towards its culmination and recapitulation, the Lord’s second and definitive coming, and the hope of new heavens and a new earth. The figures are executed according to the rules of classical Eastern Christian iconography, but with a decisive touch of modernity which adds originality and vigour to the work.
Consequently, the Chapel is even visually a place of dialogue between East and West. The mosaics adorning it can be seen as a commentary on an observation made by the Holy Father in his Apostolic Letter Orientale Lumen: “The words of the West need the words of the East so that God’s word may ever more clearly reveal its unfathomable riches” (No. 28).
To give concrete embodiment to all this, the task of planning and executing the Chapel's mosaics was providentially entrusted to the Centro Ezio Aletti of the Pontifical Oriental Institute and to the tireless labours of Father Marko Ivan Rupnik and his assistants, under the careful and authoritative supervision of Father Tomáš Špidlík. The aim of the Centro Aletti is to promote an encounter between the Christian East and the Christian West, not merely in theory but also through the active collaboration of a group of men and women who meditate and work together.
The Chapel is also, implicitly, an invitation to take up a new dialogue between
art, culture and faith, themes often echoed in the Pope's thinking and an
essential part of his call to the Church to “invent” new paths for
In his Letter to Artists (4 April 1999), the Holy Father stated that “every genuine art form in its own way is a path to the inmost reality of man and of the world” (No. 6). Again: “I wish to remind each of you that, beyond functional considerations, the close alliance that has always existed between the Gospel and art means that you are invited to use your creative intuition to enter into the heart of the mystery of the Incarnate God and at the same time into the mystery of man” (No. 14).
The Redemptoris Mater Chapel thus stands out as a powerful example of one possible path for new evangelization, a genuine “locus theologicus” in which the mystery of God and his self-revelation in Christ can be contemplated not only in its theological truth, which embraces all things, but also in a theological aesthetics by which we come to understand that the category of beauty applies first and foremost to God and to the goodness and beauty of all his works, centring on the saving incarnation of his Son in the womb of the All-Holy Mother of God, icon of the Church and of a humanity redeemed.
The Redemptoris Mater Chapel is meant for the celebration of the liturgy, and in particular for certain liturgies celebrated by the Holy Father. This was the reason both for its new mosaic decoration and for the restructuring of the entire space with the aim of creating a beautiful and devotional environment for the Successor of Peter to exercise his liturgical ministry: the altar for the sacrificial banquet of the Eucharist, the pulpit for the proclamation of the Word of God, the presidential chair for the prayers and the exercise of the Pope’s magisterial teaching.
By analogy, we can apply to the Redemptoris Mater Chapel the words found beneath the throne of the “entimasia” in the mosaics of the triumphal arch in the Basilica of Saint Mary Major, an outstanding monument to the mystery of the Incarnation and to Mary’s divine Motherhood as proclaimed at the Council of Ephesus: “Xystvs Episcopvs plebi Dei”. With that inscription the Bishop of Rome, Pope Sixtus III, presented to the People of God the renovated Basilica on the Esquiline Hill dedicated to the Mother of God.
It can be said that Pope John Paul II has sagely transformed the gift he received from the College of Cardinals for the fiftieth anniversary of his priestly ordination into a gift to God, for his glory, and to the whole People of God. The Redemptoris Mater Chapel will stand in the future as a memorial to a long and significant Pontificate which shed light, wisdom and humanity upon the last decades of the second millennium and the dawn of the third, with decisive reference to Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of mankind, and to the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Redeemer.
† Piero Marini