On the Church’s Historic and Artistic Heritage

by Archbishop Francesco Marchisano, appearing in Volume 1

The Pontifical Commission was instituted by John Paul II back in 1988, so that an entire Decastery of the Curia could look after the area of the cultural heritage of the Church, which includes, by our definition, Church monuments and sites; artistic collections and Church or diocesan museums; historical collections and Church archives; and Church libraries. Previously, these same headquarters housed an office for the Sacred Art in Italy. Now the new Pontifical Commissions task is to serve the Catholic Church in all nations of the world. In lay terms, you could equate the Pontifical Commission to a government Ministry for the Cultural Heritage (or the equivalent in the United States of the National Endowment for the Arts with the difference that they have money to give, and we don’t).

Its mandate is to supervise, aid, encourage, and stimulate initiatives in the conservation and promotion of the Church’s Cultural Heritage within each Particular Church (a term we use for the Catholic Church in every nation).

It therefore operates on two main levels: on a national level through the Episcopal Conference set up in each country where the Catholic Church is present; and on the diocesan level through the individual Bishops and those individuals appointed by him to work in this area. Often both the Episcopal Conference and the individual dioceses have established a specific Commission or Committee in order to facilitate the management and planning of projects which makes the coordination of activities, and contacts, even easier.

Before I give you a run-down of some of the major projects conducted by our Commission over these past years, you might ask yourself why has the Church focused on the cultural heritage throughout her history as part of her pastoral mission?

Theologically speaking, the reason lies in the essential Mystery of the Incarnation. Our Lord has wanted to make himself visible to us, to incarnate Himself within the confines of humanity, to become part of its history, to be perceived by our senses as a material reality thus to leave us His memory and His image (as most probably in the case of the Holy Shroud).

Speaking in pastoral terms, historic and artistic heritage means for the Church much more than a simple gathering of precious objects with property rights. For the Church it represents a necessary and vital instrument for exercising Her evangelizing and pastoral mission, since Christ’s presence through the church has reached just about all comers of the earth, so the primary role of the Church remains basically a missionary one. The artworks located in a place of worship are envisioned from their conception with a particular function which goes beyond the mere purposes of embellishment, but is inherent to the religious cult itself. We are dealing, in the case of Sacred Art, with a particular process of what we may call osmosis between artistic expression and the religious feeling imbedded in the sacred space of worship. In the light of this tradition, Sacred Art flourished with three major aims:
-first, to play an active role in the rite of worship;
-second, to provide a didactic means to pass on the Gospel message and Christian doctrine;
-third, to witness to the exercise of charity and charitable works, as the considerable artistic tradition associated with religious confraternities, hospices, and hospitals has testified through the ages.
These works then, constitute the historic memory of the birth and development of a local community of faith, but often they also become precious visual testimonies of the growth and development of the local society in general.

For a lack of time I cannot recall all the extraordinary efforts made by the Church hierarchy as well as the community of faithful in both the areas of preservation and restoration of cultural heritage, as well as the promotion of all forms of human creativity produced in the society of every age. But besides the well-known tradition of the Church commissions in this respect, you might be slightly less familiar with some of the initiatives carried out by numerous Church authorities in the area of restoration and re-ordering of Church monuments and sites, already beginning as early as the second century A.D. Let me just mention a few which are rather interesting;
-Pope Zefirin who by the end of the 2nd century had appointed a deacon for the care and protection of the Christian burial grounds;
-Pope Calisto the First who became known for his administrative and management capacities regarding these same monuments;
-Pope Damaso I who by the 4th century had launched a major restoration campaign which included didactic program, as dedicatory inscriptions were placed in order to identify the martyrs buried in the existing basilicas and cemeteries;
-the initiative of issuing Apostolic Constitutions back in 400 A.D. regarding the construction of churches;
-much later the efforts of Pope Martin V (in the Quattrocento) to include in the Apostolic Constitution an entire section on the reconstruction of major monuments and buildings;
-during the same period, the extra-ordinary deeds of Pope Sixtus IV who became known as the Urbis Restaurator, which also included decrees which foresaw severe sanctions for anyone who touched or altered the interior decoration or the stone structure of Churches and sacred buildings;
-the splendid intuitive and wise decisions of Pope Julius I1 (in the Cinquecento) who recommended not only a policy of conservation but also sponsored a campaign for the restoration and repair of buildings, which would take into consideration the original foundations of the old structures.

This extraordinarily rich legacy of experiences and efforts made by our forefathers in the faith, must be kept alive through a deeper awareness of our responsibility to keep our commitment towards an active use of the cultural heritage as a valid and primary vehicle of our pastoral activity. And I must say that this in fact has been a real striving concern in our Post-War era. One just needs to remember the stimulating reminders made by Pope Paul VI on so many occasions, especially in his famous address delivered in the Sistine Chapel, and the comment that our current Pontiff has told me personally on several occasions; “If I was able to do some good to those far away from the Church when I was Archbishop of Cracow, it was because I always began with the cultural heritage, which has a language everyone knows and everyone accepts and using this language I was able to start a dialogue which would not have been possible otherwise.”

The work of our Pontifical Commission, abiding to our mandate and in tune with the essential approach set by Second Vatican Council, has focused on strengthening coordination and participation of all the Particular Churches the Catholic Church in every nation through a series of activities. The latter have been concentrated so far on three major areas: information, awareness-raising, and training.

As I look upon each of you before me here today, I cannot but hope that your professional activity will foresee an important contribution to the preservation and promotion of the Church s cultural heritage, through sound and model projects which can speak to the community of faithful of the intrinsic values of the cultural heritage of the Church in the past while offering an innovative artistic language which can be understood and can captulize that noble beauty and harmony fit for architecture which soars to give praise to Our Creator. Can I just make a final remark in this regard which I hope will be thought-provoking someday somehow in your own work. I refer to the Gospel passage the rejected stone has become the corner stone…

I want to express once more my best wishes for the success of your professional careers which should also become a visual means to bring about a better world of peace, brotherhood, mutual respect and understanding.