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Pope Francis Speaks Warmly of Caravaggio, Richard Wagner, and the Films of Fellini

A photo of Pope Francis I, in white robes, among an outdoor crowd

Lost in the hubbub around this week’s truly remarkable interview with Pope Francis I was a jaw-dropping passage on the arts. 

The Pope’s comments about contraception, abortion and gays got most of the headlines. But when asked about the writers and artists he prefers, and if they shared something in common, Francis said:

“I have read The Betrothed, by Alessandro Manzoni, three times, and I have it now on my table because I want to read it again. Manzoni gave me so much. When I was a child, my grandmother taught me by heart the beginning of The Betrothed: ‘That branch of Lake Como that turns off to the south between two unbroken chains of mountains….’ I also liked Gerard Manley Hopkins very much.
“Among the great painters, I admire Caravaggio; his paintings speak to me. But also Chagall, with his ‘White Crucifixion.’ Among musicians I love Mozart, of course. The ‘Et incarnatus est’ from his Mass in C minor is matchless; it lifts you to God! I love Mozart performed by Clara Haskil. Mozart fulfills me. But I cannot think about his music; I have to listen to it. I like listening to Beethoven, but in a Promethean way, and the most Promethean interpreter for me is Furtwängler. And then Bach’s Passions. The piece by Bach that I love so much is the ‘Erbarme Dich,’ the tears of Peter in the ‘St. Matthew Passion.’ Sublime. Then, at a different level, not intimate in the same way, I love Wagner. I like to listen to him, but not all the time. The performance of Wagner’s ‘Ring’ by Furtwängler at La Scala in Milan in 1950 is for me the best. But also the ‘Parsifal’ by Knappertsbusch in 1962.
“We should also talk about the cinema. ‘La Strada,’ by Fellini, is the movie that perhaps I loved the most. I identify with this movie, in which there is an implicit reference to St. Francis. I also believe that I watched all of the Italian movies with Anna Magnani and Aldo Fabrizi when I was between 10 and 12 years old. Another film that I loved is ‘Rome, Open City.’ I owe my film culture especially to my parents who used to take us to the movies quite often.
“Anyway, in general I love tragic artists, especially classical ones. There is a nice definition that Cervantes puts on the lips of the bachelor Carrasco to praise the story of Don Quixote: ‘Children have it in their hands, young people read it, adults understand it, the elderly praise it.’ For me this can be a good definition of the classics.”
My first thought is: This guy should be on Jeopardy!  He is the Catholic Ken Jennings.  
My next thought is: how can you not like this man? Here is someone with a great heart and a great passion for music and literature and art. He is far, far beyond my own appreciation and understanding for music and film and even books. Who says “I like listening to Beethoven, but in a Promethean way”?
I will leave aside his comments about Furtwängler and the 1950 production at La Scala for another day. It’s just too much. Don’t tell me such a statement is a “safe choice.” I am filled with admiration for this man’s knowledge and passion about art.
If more leaders of all stripes — religious, political, artistic — could speak of great art with such knowlege and fervor, it would be a happier world. If the American leaders who this very same week voted so shamefully to cut food stamps could speak with this man’s passion and compassion… but no, if they could hold that in their hearts, they would never be able to vote in such a heartless way.
One connects the Pope’s passion for art to another passage in his interview:
“And then a thing that is really important for me: community. I was always looking for a community. I did not see myself as a priest on my own. I need a community. And you can tell this by the fact that I am here in Santa Marta. At the time of the conclave I lived in Room 207. (The rooms were assigned by drawing lots.) This room where we are now was a guest room. I chose to live here, in Room 201, because when I took possession of the papal apartment, inside myself I distinctly heard a ‘no.’ The papal apartment in the Apostolic Palace is not luxurious. It is old, tastefully decorated and large, but not luxurious. But in the end it is like an inverted funnel. It is big and spacious, but the entrance is really tight. People can come only in dribs and drabs, and I cannot live without people. I need to live my life with others.”
Marvelous. This is a man who swims in the sea of humanity, in all its forms, from washing and kissing the feet of prisoners to admiring the glories of Caravaggio and Chagall. 
What a fascinating and admirable Pope he has been. And it’s only been six months! May he continue to speak with such frank and heartfelt honesty for years to come.
And may we all have the chance to watch a Fellini movie with him someday.


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