Happy Easter to all our clients and friends! Our Lord has risen, resurrexit sicut dixit, alleluia!
When you think about Easter in Rome, it’s highly unlikely that the scandalous 19th-century Irish poet Oscar Wilde comes to mind. But this talented and tragic soul visited Rome on an Easter Sunday during the reign of Leo XIII, who was Pope for most of Wilde’s short life. And as with other poems on religious subjects, Wilde’s Easter Day shows a depth of theological thought that one wouldn’t expect from a flamboyant, egotistical artist who’d been convicted of sexual perversion! The poem begins by describing the appearance of Pope Leo in St. Peter’s Square, and moves on from there:
The silver trumpets rang across the Dome;
The people knelt upon the ground with awe:
And borne upon the necks of men I saw
Like some great God, the Holy Lord of Rome.
Priest-like, he wore a robe more white than foam,
And, king-like, swathed himself in royal red,
Three crowns of gold rose high upon his head:
In splendour and in light the Pope passed home.
My heart stole back across wide wastes of years
To One Who wandered by a lonely sea,
And sought in vain for any place of rest:
“Foxes have holes, and every bird its nest.
I, only I, must wander wearily,
And bruise my feet, and drink wine salt with tears.”
Oscar Wilde wasn’t simply taking a cheap-shot at the Catholic Church; after all, he was ultimately received into the Church and died a Catholic at age 46. He was not alone in noting the contrast between the opulence of the Catholic hierarchy (particularly here in Rome), and the presumedly simpler lifestyle of the first Pope, St. Peter–not to mention the simplicity and humility of Christ Himself.
That’s why in the 20th century, Popes gradually ceased to use these lavish accoutrements, more suitable for royalty than for the Vicar of the Crucified One. In 1964, Paul VI formally took off his tiara, laid it on the altar, and declared that such a crown would never be worn again. The short-lived Pope John Paul I (August 26-September 28, 1978) was the last Pope to be carried on the sedia gestatoria, a chair fitted with poles and hoisted aloft by a fleet of strong men, who in this way carried the Pontiff in formal processions. Nowadays, the Pope walks down the aisle on his own two feet.
The next extravagance to get nixed was the practice of kissing the Pope’s foot when being received in an audience: St. John Paul II refused to permit this from the very start of his papacy. And Benedict XVI was the first Pope to change the papal heraldry, in 2005 replacing the image of the tiara–which was no longer being worn anyway–with the bishop’s mitre. His official coat of arms looked like this.
The move toward increasing simplicity has continued with Pope Francis, who refuses to use the once-standard Mercedes as his papal limo, opting to move around the city in a VW instead. Slowly but steadily, the Catholic Church has been heading in the same direction for decades now: toward a greater likeness with the Carpenter from Nazareth, Who issued forth from His tomb early on Easter Sunday not to the fanfare of trumpets, borne on a chair and wearing a triple crown–but on foot, bearing the marks of the nails in His hands and feet.
Oscar Wilde, the repentant-sinner-turned-Catholic, would be proud.