ROME, AUG. 17, 2006 (Zenit.org).-
Blame it on the August heat, but I've been in high dudgeon all week.
On Aug. 6, 2006, Rome was sacked. This time it wasn't by Visigoths
running rampant though the streets, or by mercenary soldiers
murdering and plundering. But the same blasphemous spirit that drove
the Landsknechte to stable their horses in the Sistine Chapel
permeated the city once more. This time, however, many Romans joined
The occasion was pop singer Madonna Louise Ciccone's only Italian
concert. Like many barbarians of old, she showed no respect for
religious traditions. In fact, she exploited the history of
sacrifice and mocked the most sacred imagery of Christianity to
provide hype for her show. During her number "Live to Tell," she
staged a "crucifixion" of herself wearing a crown of thorns on a
mirrored cross. As background video, she mixed footage of Benedict
XVI together with Mussolini and Hitler.
From her earliest appearances, Madonna has used Christian imagery to
shock the public and boost sales. Wearing a rosary around her neck
and flaunting the name of the Blessed Virgin, Madonna was clearly
out to get attention. Rebellion against her Catholic upbringing, and
most obviously her Father -- in every sense -- worked to put her on
the map. She has used Christian themes in almost every album, at
times to her own detriment, as when her "Like a Prayer" video lost
her a lucrative contract with Pepsi for its blasphemous content.
Pathetically, Madonna at 47 remains stuck in the rebellious
teen-ager phase. After 25 years of outrageous behavior, she still
can't move beyond taking shots at the tradition that she could not
have existed without.
saddest part of the story, though, concerns the majority of
Christians among the 70,000 who crowded into the concert venue that
night. It is strange that no hint of disappointment, resentment or
moral disapproval was voiced during or after the show. If the
faithful take Christ's crucifixion as just an image to be distorted
or manipulated at will, perhaps the vivid and brutal rendering of
Christ's death offered by Mel Gibson was even more necessary than
Ironically, while Gibson is being castigated in the press for his
drunken anti-Semitic statements, Madonna, stone-cold sober, was
hailed for her "art" as she mocked the most important image of
Christianity, and compared the leader of the Roman Catholic Church
to Hitler and Mussolini. If she went to Jerusalem and staged a
number where she sang inside a mirrored gas chamber, one wonders
whether she would still be praised for putting on a good show.
Rome houses the memories of many women and men who were tortured and
killed for their belief in Christ's redemptive sacrifice. Piazza
Navona, where St. Agnes (not "like," but really, a virgin) was
stripped and humiliated before being beheaded, or Santa Cecilia,
where the material-girl-turned-martyr gave away all her clothes and
jewels, are but two of scores of places where Christians can find
role models that offered a freedom more authentic than Madonna's
tired mantra of sexual promiscuity.
In this city, we tread in the footsteps of apostles, saints and
martyrs who taught us to "express yourself" as believers in Christ
even unto persecution and death. And yet, on Aug. 6, modern Rome
allowed their memory to be mocked without even a word from her
Several clerics spoke out against the
show, asking Madonna to at least abstain from the crucifixion
number. Father Manfredo Leone of the city's Santa Maria Liberatrice
Church warned Romans that it was "disrespectful."
"A blasphemous challenge to the faith," was the comment by Cardinal
Ersilio Tonini, speaking with the approval of Benedict XVI.
But what about the lay people? Strangely silent throughout. Pop
culture is part of the secular world, a world that lay people in
particular are called to evangelize. If lay people really want more
"responsibility" in the Church, a good start would be learning to
take responsibility for how their own actions affect the culture.
Buying the tickets, the CD and the videos isn't neutral or harmless;
it tells the world that Catholics don't take their own religion
Yet Rome's Christians seemed only too happy to separate their faith
from their entertainment on Aug. 6. One celebrity attendee of the
show was Francesco Totti, the Roman soccer star still basking in the
glory of the Italian World Cup victory. Totti has made much of his
Catholic faith, with public vows at the shrine of Divino Amore. Yet
after witnessing Madonna's onstage antics, he didn't say a word. No
objection, no regret. If the idol of every Italian child won't speak
up for his faith, who will?
* * *
Madonna's Italian tour met quite a different reception from lay
people in Milan. While Cardinal Tonini and Father Leone were
fighting a lonely battle in Rome to uphold the sacredness of
religious imagery, clerics in Milan were selling sacred space to the
highest bidder. Even as Madonna was mocking the crucified Christ and
Pope Benedict, the Cathedral of Milan allowed a giant poster ad for
a clothes company featuring Madonna to be placed on the scaffolding
covering the facade.
This time it was
the lay people who rose to the occasion. Residents, neighboring
townspeople and even tourists recoiled at seeing Madonna's face
under the golden statue of the Blessed Virgin crowning the Cathedral
The golden Madonna of Milan has watched
over the city through plagues and invasions for centuries. The
archpriest of the cathedral, Monsignor Luigi Manganini, however,
told Italy's Ansa news agency: "It's just an ad, certainly not a
canonization. When it was accepted, the poster seemed all correct
and appropriate for its place, and it still is.''
One wonders what
the illustrious and saintly archbishops of Milan past would make of
this. Somehow I doubt that St. Ambrose, who stood up to the emperor
Theodosius, excommunicating the most powerful man in the world until
he did public penance, or St. Charles Borromeo, spearhead of Church
reform, who walked among the plague-ridden victims of the city,
would have stood by in silence.
Archbishop Federico Borromeo of Milan,
immortalized in Alessandro Manzoni's novel "The Betrothed," among
his many reforming efforts wrote the treatise "On Sacred Art." In
those pages, he deplored the collapse of the distinction "between
the sacred and the profane," and took to task artists who have more
respect for the "rules of art than the piety and sanctity of places,
times and things."
Perhaps someone ought to circulate a copy.
* * *
Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne
University's Italian campus. She can be reached at [email protected].
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