Monday, July 2, 2012

Capuchin Encounters: Palermo & Rome

Hmmm. Early on in my Franciscan life, when I’d come across a feast day commemorating a revered member of the Capuchin Franciscan order, I’d ask myself, “Why do the Caps get all the saints, while we, (the OFM/Observants), get all the umm… non-saints? Have I, perhaps, joined up with the wrong crew?” Now, nearly twenty years later, I still marvel at the pantheon of Capuchin holy men—including such contemporary figures as St. Pio (Padre Pio) of Pietrelcina, Father Mariano of Turin, and our own Venerable Solanus Casey of Detroit, Michigan. But I have long since ceased to ask myself if I have joined the wrong Order. I am quite content among my fellow non-saints, thank you very much.

I hadn’t really set out to meet the Caps this summer (I am already acquainted with our great confreres in the western American province), but, in retrospect, my experience was every bit as unavoidable as it was unplanned. In Palermo (Sicily), I was invited to join a bus tour of the city which included a visit to the Capuchin “crypt,” as the brochure stated so succinctly. I thought: Great. Maybe I will say ‘hello’ to our brother/cousins, with whom, along with the Conventual friars as well as the members of the TOR (Third Order Regular) we share our name and identity (charism) as vowed Franciscan men. Well, it didn’t exactly work out the way I had expected.

I’d never been to Palermo before and was immediately dazzled by the city’s passion, charm, and visual candor. Other ancient cities show their cultural and architectural roots in a more orderly, layered fashion, often tidied up by the rationalizing efforts starting in the nineteenth century. But Palermo appears to have grown sideways through its history: huckabuck, cheek by jowl, posed and juxtaposed. Greeks pushed up against Romans against invading Normans besides Spanish overlords. A few Turks and Arabs squeezed in somewhere for good measure.

The Capuchin complex (church, piazza, convent, cemetery, and ossuary, then, all seemed to fit right into place amid Palermo’s fascinating urban jumble. Wait a minute, though…. Ossuary? It wasn’t until our bus approached the grounds and squeezed in among all the other jillion or so tourist vehicles that I began to re-remember. Ossuary. Capuchins. Caves. Bones. Ah yes, the Bones.

Before I knew it, our group was filing through the famous Capuchin catacombs which have served have not ceased to attract daily throngs of the curious since their founding in the 17th century. Originally intended as a burial vault for the friars, the space eventually evolved into a funerary showcase. The discovery of exhumed corpses in a state of remarkable preservation led to the deliberate practice and even fashion of mummifying and then displaying fully clothed cadavers poised along the catacomb walls. Separate ossuary chapels are festooned with carefully arranged skeletal remains. By 1920, the practice of displaying the efforts of corporeal desiccation had, mercifully, died out. But the remains… remain.

In my ignorance and naivete, I thought that the Palermo site was a unique expression of mortuary eccentricity. Until I happened upon Il Convento dei Cappuccini—The Convent of the Capuchins near the Piazza Barberini (Trevi Fountain area) in Rome, that is. Here, three of the eight rooms open for public display, featured decorative elements composed of human skeletal remains from the corpses of nearly 4,000 friars. Legend has it that this particular effort was a project of exiled French friars housed in the crypt in the wake of the Revolution and Terror (1793-4). Whatever.

At this point, I need to step in and change gears in the narrative. My natural inclination would be to continue describing and commenting somewhat sardonically upon the questionable merits of Capuchin funerary displays in Palermo and Rome. But I don’t want to go there. In fact, I can’t.

What happened to me is that when I visited the Capuchin Museum in Rome (the opening day of the renovated exhibition space, I learned), I took my time walking through the five other galleries before entering the crypt. The impressions, and insights of that experience led me to consider the Capuchins’ bloodless crypts in an entirely new way.

“Daddy, when are we going to the Bone Room?” “Not yet. Let’s look at these things first,” the American tourister parent replied. Father and son walked on ahead, but I inadvertently followed the advice not intended for my ears.
The newly refurbished Museum of the Friars Minor Capuchin of the Roman Province (its formal title) is organized into six separate galleries, each of which explains a different aspect of Capuchin life: the Friary, the Order, Capuchin Holiness, Culture and Spirituality, Saint Francis in Meditation, the Capuchins in the 20th Century, and The Crypt. Each section introduces the viewer through displays of texts and often impressive artifacts of Franciscan life from the unique perspective of the Capuchin friars.

The Museum’s purpose is best expressed in the masterful painting attributed to Caravaggio of St. Francis in Meditation (1603). In his trademark use of chiaroscuro technique, the artist leads the eye from the handheld skull to the saint’s torn, bedraggled habit, to his intense and intent gaze, to the barren cross at his knees. Image becomes icon as the artist draws the viewer into the interior life of the Saint.

As I stood before the painting, I began to think of some of the things I had jotted down from other sections of the Museum—quotations from two of the Capuchin saints represented:

• O Sweet Jesus, above all my Love,
Write in my heart how much You loved me.
Jesus, You created me.
Jesus, Jesus, Jesus
Take my heart
And never give it back. – St. Felix of Cantalice

Death is a school to teach those so insane as to cling to the world…. Holy Virgin, be my light and guide above all at the moment of my death. God’s power creates us; wisdom governs us; mercy saves us.—St. Crispin of Viterbo (1668-1750)

At the entrance to the galleries, a life-sized holographic image of a contemporary friar “speaks” to the startled visitor: “In silence, listen for the voice of Jesus calling to you in your heart,” he urges. With all of this still fresh in my mind, I entered the crypt. What in another context would appear ghoulishly frivolous proofed instead, for me at least, to be a challenge to face dying and even Death itself in a frank and unsentimental way. But also in an expressly and expressively Christian sense: “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” St Paul urges in I Corinthians. “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. “

I left the Capuchin Museum moved and even a bit chastened. Instead of passing through an embarrassing display of Catholic kitsch, I had been led into a very serious guided meditation. After all, this Capuchin insight, I thought, is not that far removed from the Mexicans’ appreciation of the Day of the Dead/ Dia de los muertos, with its marigold-festooned altares and the confectionary smiles of its sugared skulls. Indeed, Death, where is your sting?

Hmmm. Maybe all this all has something to do with our Capuchin confreres—sainted and saint-ing alike—after all.

PS: Only one real, live friar spotted—an elderly Capuchin in his white missionary habit, seated at the entrance of the Palermo church. Nobody at Rome’s Museum when I visited— just lay guides and guards in their signature white Polo shirts. Where have all the friars gone?//

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