Tag Archives: Italy

The Crucifix as a Passive Symbol

While doing some research recently, I came across reference to the crucifix as a “passive symbol” by the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights in its 2011 decision in the Lautsi v. Italy case.

The context was the Grand Chamber’s pronouncement that the Italian law requiring the display of crucifixes in classrooms did not infringe on the rights of parents to ensure that the education of their children is in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions. According to the Grand Chamber, the display of the crucifix, unlike compulsory religious instruction or religious oath- taking, did not require action, prayer, or reverence from those who view it. Hence, according to the Grand Chamber, “it cannot be deemed to have an influence on pupils comparable to didactic speech or participation in religious activities.”

(The Grand Chamber gave other reasons for its decision. For a more thorough discussion of the Lautsi case, please see “The Case of Lautsi v. Italy: a Synthesis” by Gregor Puppinck in Issue 3 of the 2012 volume of The BYU Law Review, available online.)

Whether the Grand Chamber realized it or not, the phrase “passive symbol” in relation to the crucifix is rich and deep in meaning. In more ways than one, the crucifix is indeed a passive symbol – although it is passive, like all other symbols it communicates meaning.

The crucifix tells the story of a God Who, out of love for humanity, freely became Man and allowed Himself to suffer the worst cruelty that humanity can think of. On the Cross, Christ rendered Himself powerless. He Who is God deliberately refused to display His omnipotence to a hostile crowd who was daring Him to show that He is Christ by coming down from the cross and saving Himself. Christ passively, albeit freely, suffered and died.

The crucifix shows Christ madly in love with us, yet too helpless to coerce us to respond to His love. He could only hope that the sight of Him nailed to the cross would move us to love Him in return.

This is His way of winning us over, because He wants us to love Him freely and without coercion.  Indeed, we can and do reject His love. With or without realizing it, perhaps the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights was on to something more when it ruled that the mere display of the crucifix “cannot be deemed to have an influence on pupils comparable to didactic speech or participation in religious activities.”

Ironically, perhaps it is precisely the self-effacing love that the crucifix symbolizes that makes some people uncomfortable at the sight of it. For we can be incapable of responding to such love which begs to be repaid with love.

The crucifix depicts the apparent defeat of God and at the same time is powerful proof of His love for us. The sight of a crucifix and the meaning it conveys can be disturbing, consoling, or inspiring.  Christ may be passive on the crucifix, but the sight of Him there does not leave people indifferent.

Because of these, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights correctly referred to the crucifix as a “passive symbol”. The image of a God Who allowed Himself to be treated the way He was treated communicates a lot of meaning.

An Old Saint on a New Acquaintance

Some of us Catholics count our “Catholic credentials” by our knowledge of obscure catholic words; some of us by how many bishops we can name; but most of us use our knowledge of the saints as the absolute litmus test. For me, memories of All Saints Day parties surface each November, and the endless quest to stump our saintly parish priest. My failure to stump him each year, was usually highlighted by another peer actually succeeding, and putting the pressure on all of us to raise the bar the following November. This fun practice taught us much about the saints, from little known martyrs, to the new and very recent.

This past October, I had the opportunity to meet an old saint for the first time – Saint Joseph Cottolengo, or, “Giuseppe Cottolengo. When visiting his hometown of Turin Italy, and following in the footsteps of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, we encountered St. Joseph Cottolengo. From the sprawling hospital complex, and the number of religious sisters, it was apparent this saint’s work continues on in full force today. But who is he? How is it possible that I missed him all of these years?

From Catholic Online, a little bit about him:

“Saint Giuseppe Benedetto Cottolengo or Saint Joseph Benedict Cottolengo (3 May 1786 – 30 April 1842) was the founder of the Little House of Divine Providence and is a saint of the Roman Catholic Church.

He was born in Bra, then in the Kingdom of Sardinia, and became a canon in Turin. Don Cottolengo founded the “Little House of the Divine Providence” in Valdocco, wherein he housed all kinds of poor people. He also founded monasteries, convents, communities of priests, communities of brothers, and organized groups of lay volunteers. His colossal of charity stands today at the heart of Turin city as sign of what it means to love and serve others in evangelical way.

Today Cottolengo Fathers, Sisters, and Brothers still work together in activities primarily geared at communicating God’s love for the poorest. They are spread out all over the world: Ecuador, India, Italy,Kenya, Switzerland, Tanzania and United States.

Don Cottolengo died in Chieri, Piedmont on 30 April 1842. He was canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1934, and his feast day is celebrated on 30 April.”

I had completely missed the fact that Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI mentions this saint in his encyclical letter Deus Caritas Est. He notes that, “Giuseppe B. Cottolengo, John Bosco, Teresa of Calcutta to name but a few—stand out as lasting models of social charity for all people of good will. The saints are the true bearers of light within history, for they are men and women of faith, hope and love.”

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI also spoke glowingly of Saint Cottolengo when his visited the Little House of Divine Providence in May of 2010. He says he, “Always kept his serene trust in the face of events; attentive to perceiving the signs of God’s fatherhood, he recognized his presence and his mercy in every situation and, in the poor, the most lovable image of his greatness. He was guided by a deep conviction: “The poor are Jesus” he used to say, “they are not just an image of him.”

The Sisters of Cottolengo at prayer. Photo by Rachel Zamarron
The Sisters of Cottolengo at prayer. Photo by Rachel Zamarron

Charity and Mercy live on today in the work of St. Joseph Cottolengo.  Today, the place is still a buzz of activity and prayer. It was struck, by how many people are still touched by the humble work and prayer of this servant of God so many years later. What a beautiful witness to hold up to imitate during this year of Mercy. May Saint Joseph Cottolengo pray for us, and touch our hearts to be merciful today as Our Lord Jesus is merciful.