(detail from the mosaic tiled ceiling in the Church of Santa Prassede, Rome, Italy of Pope Paschal 1)
(a small detail of the mosaic tiled ceiling of St Cecilia’s Church Trastevere, Rome– of Saints Valerian and Cecilia–a church founded by Pope Paschal I)
February 11th, in the Catholic Church, is noted as the feast day of Our Lady of Lourdes. Undoubtedly we’ve all heard of Lourdes, that small town in extreme southern France with the mystical healing waters and the grotto dedicated to the Virgin and of her apparitions to the young peasant girl Bernadette. . . even those of us non Catholics and the most jaded among us are familiar with Lourdes. . .but who, I wonder, has heard of Pope, or should I note saint, Paschal I? — even those die hard hagiographers, those who study the lives of the saints, no doubt gloss over this lesser known saint who sits among the giants of the church.
Yet it must be noted that February 11th is also the feast day Pope Paschal 1
Why in the world would a little known pope from the 9th century, who reigned as pope for approximately 8 short years, be of any consequence to us today?
Pope Paschal I is but a blip on the historical map of an ancient church whose history spans 2 thousand years. Some of the popes have certainly been anything but virtuous—more along the lines of scoundrels and scalawags which leaves many modern day observers, especially those of us who are not members of the Catholic Church, wondering why in the world these people (Catholics) would ever venerate, let alone consider to be of any significance, many of these unscrupulous, lecherous, self indulgent men.
Now I cannot comment upon the virtuous life of or lack thereof for Pope Paschal I.
Little is known.
He was born in Rome and served as Pope form 817- 824. His pontificacy is laced with a bit of intrigue and questions of complicity to executions, all of which lead church members, at the time of his death, to not allow the burial of his body to take place in St Peters.
Certainly sounds a bit scandalous.
It is however of one particular incident, of rather some significant importance, which has lead me to dig a bit deeper into the history of this man whose feast day the Church celebrates today. It is upon closer study that one learns that Pope Paschal I was head of the Latin Church (the western branch of Christianity) during a period known as the Byzantine Iconoclasm—or simply the time of The Iconoclast.
A dark time in history when many fanatical members of the Eastern branch of Christianity, including Emperor Leo III, decided that any and all images (Icons, statues, paintings, mosaics. . .) of God, Christ, and other Holy and sacred individuals were considered sinful, idolatry, and must be destroyed— along with many of the artists, owners as well as those who venerated such images. A dark time of vast persecution of a people who had loved the sacred images and had used them as part of their very deep personal services. Photographs, as it were, of a Savior for a people who wanted, and continue to want, to put a face with that of the Mysterious. Do we not still yearn for such images today?
It is in these dark times of such fanatical ignorance, which has been laced throughout much of the history of mankind, that I believe is one of man’s greatest faults. As an art educator and humble historian, the destruction of various Cultures and their artifacts, which simply boils down to the pure essence of the identity of a people is, in my humble opinion, catastrophic.
This ancient sort of destructive “out of sight out of mind” feeding frenzy has actually played out throughout much of history with a few of the more notable and infamous being that of the Italian Dominican monk Savonarola and his Bonfire of the Vanities, to more recent times with the book burnings of the Nazi’s during the early 1940’s, to the more recent destruction of the giant ancient carvings in Afghanistan, those known as the Buddhas of Bamiyan, by the Taliban in 2001. A warped mindset that if the powerful can simply destroy the “things” and or creations of a certain people, then the people will also cease to exist. History teaches us that perseverance is more than things..
Pope Paschal I was a sympathizer to those members of the Eastern Orthodox church who not only created the sacred art images but to those who continued to want to display such in churches and in homes. He afforded those who fled the persecution in Greece and Turkey a safe haven. He actually encouraged the creation of mosaics and other sacred art by these individuals in many of the churches in Rome. This during a time of great divide between the two Churches.
This little known Pope overlooked the differences of the two bickering arms of a single faith in order to offer hospitality to those victims of persecution. It is because of the very amnesty offered by and of the preservation afford to such treasured pieces of the Christian faith by such individuals as Pope Paschal I and those long forgotten monks who smuggled many of the sacred images to remote monasteries such as St Catherine’s’ in the southern Sinai Peninsula, that those of us today may glance upon images that date to the very inception of our faith.
So on this Tuesday, February 11, may we be reminded of the lesser known names in the annuals of a history, who, such as Pope Paschal I, have helped to preserve important pieces to the puzzle of our past. To those who have demonstrated moments of brave compassion by offering safety to those suffering the persecution of faith.
Hospitality, compassion, benevolence—words to take to heart on this chilly February morning.
Hospitality means we take people into the space that is our lives and our minds and our hearts and our work and our efforts. Hospitality is the way we come out of ourselves. It is the first step towards dismantling the barriers of the world. Hospitality is the way we turn a prejudiced world around, one heart at a time.
Sister Joan D. Chittister, O.S.B