A message from Father Nick 71

A Church of saints and sinners

We can always learn from the lives of the saints, but “sinners” are part of our story too. Indeed, in the Church saints and sinners have a curious symbiosis. As Oscar Wilde mischievously put it on leaving prison, “The Catholic Church is for saints and sinners alone. For respectable people the Anglican Church will do.” “Catholicism,” he pronounced, “is the only religion to die in.”

Wilde famously did die in the Catholic Church, on 30th November 1900, received by the Passionist priest, Father Cuthbert Dunne, who conditionally baptised, absolved and anointed him in Paris where he had been living. His requiem mass was celebrated in the church of St Germain-des-Prés. Wilde’s friends, knowing his quirkiness, were never sure that he would take the final step, and one of them, David Hunter Blair, kept a diamond in trust until he had been received into the fold. It was given as a votive offering to Sansovino’s Madonna in St Augustine’s church in Rome (Augustine too, of course, was famous as a “sinner” who became a saint).

Some individuals, however, had a less theatrical – and less happy – relationship with the Church. Giordano Bruno, a Dominican friar, was a maverick philosopher, mathematician and astronomer. His ideas were held to be unorthodox and he became a Calvinist. After spending time in Paris, Oxford and the universities of Germany teaching that the universe is infinite, he returned to Venice and Padua.

However, he was extradited to Rome and on 27th January, 1593, imprisoned by the Holy Office. He remained a prisoner for seven years, trying to prove that his teaching did not conflict with Catholic belief. All to no avail. He was sentenced to death on 8th February, 1600 (when John Kemble would have been a baby) and burned in the Campo dei Fiori.

Situated in the old Communist heart of Rome, the Campo dei Fiori is still a busy market square, crowded with restaurants and places of refreshment. But above it there towers a statue of Bruno, enormous, dark and brooding. It is one of the most sombre sights in the Eternal City.

And it was in this warren of streets, around the time of Giordano Bruno’s trial, that our third prodigal son roamed with his sword, quick to take offence and even quicker to offend others – we have often mentioned the artist Michelangelo Merisi, better known as Caravaggio.

This is where he severely beat a waiter in a row over the way his artichokes should be prepared. This is where he fought love rivals. And this is where he killed one of those rivals in a duel. Sentenced to permanent exile from his beloved Rome on pain of death, he spent the rest of his life as a fugitive, fleeing to Naples, Malta and Sicily, and being badly wounded himself in a mysterious attack.

In Sicily, an early biography recounts, Caravaggio, whose spirit “was more disturbed than the sea of Messina with its raging contents that sometimes rise and sometimes fall,” entered the church of the Madonna del Pilero. Here he was offered some holy water to wash away venial sin. “I don’t need it,” he replied, “since all my sins are mortal.”

Like the other two men, he was a prodigiously gifted person whose life fell short of his gifts. We can understand such falling short from our own lives – and we can still pray for them all.

Caravaggio’s self-depiction as the beheaded Goliath