Monday, 22 May 2017

'Woman in Gold' and the Nazi regime

'Woman in Gold' by Gustav Klimt

Watched the ‘Woman in Gold’ recently, an evocative true account of a Jewish woman looking to reclaim the famous Klimt portrait of her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer. This painting, one of many treasures stolen by Nazis in 1930s Austria, later took pride of place at the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere in Vienna, where trustees were determined it should stay.

As the story unfolded, with flashbacks to the awful pre-war events, my blood boiled at the petty sadism and insatiable greed of Hitler’s regime, at seeing human beings stripped of their possessions along with their dignity.  For heavens' sake - what were ORDINARY people doing?! 

How easy it is to rage against barbaric Nazi practices from the relative comfort of one’s armchair 80 years later! Until a not-so-comfortable thought hit me. What if I’D lived in Germany or Austria during those critical times?  Would I have supported Hitler? Would I have been intimidated by his storm troopers, or believed the lying propaganda? Would I have turned a blind eye to the concentration camps and vicious persecution of minorities?

Sadly, many did; ordinary people who, but for the National Socialist Party, would have remained decent, peace-loving citizens. Christians with long-held loyalty to the Catholic Church. On July 20, 1933, a concordat between the Vatican and Nazi Germany was signed by Cardinal Pacelli (later Pope Pius XII). His co-signee was former chancellor and Papal Knight Franz von Papen who mustered support for Hitler from industrial barons.

For this act of patriotism, Hitler made von Papen vice-chancellor and used him to rally support from Germany’s Catholics. By the end of 1933 (proclaimed a Holy Year by Pope Pius XI) Vatican support was a major factor in Hitler’s push for world domination and swastikas hung from every cathedral.

A few brave priests and nuns denounced Nazi atrocities and were quickly silenced. Yet the Catholic Church as a whole gave active or tacit support to the regime, as did their followers.

Could such a situation happen again? This is a question that may never be answered but needs to be asked.

Fortunately, most of us have an innate sense of justice which fires us up against tyranny, oppression and cruelty of all kinds. But we must never forget how easily whole populations can be swayed. Given human fears and weaknesses, each and every one of us should look to ourselves, examine our hearts, and root out any prejudice or misplaced loyalty.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

What are Saints?

The canonisation of Mother Teresa and, more recently, the children of Fatima, seems as good a time as any to explore ‘sainthood’ – a privilege imbued by the Catholic Church on men and women of outstanding virtue.

According to the Tridentine profession of faith, these paragons, who now (it is believed) live with Jesus in heaven, are to be invoked as intercessors with God, while their relics and images are venerated.  One case in point is the big toe of St Peter’s statue in Rome’s Basilica. Next to the papal ring, it is arguably Christendom’s most ‘kissable’ item, with millions bowing down to press their lips against it as they make their petitions! This toe-curling practice has not only added a shine to Peter’s foot but has doubtless spread many a tummy-bug to hapless worshipers!

Saints proliferate. There’s a saint for every occasion and activity you can think of. One of my favourites used to be St Genesius, patron saint of actors, lawyers, clowns, comedians, converts, dancers, musicians, printers, stenographers and victims of torture! A former thespian, he used the stage in ancient Rome to mock Christianity - until experiencing a sudden conversion mid-performance! I dare say many luvvies (who, with the possible exception of Ricky Gervais, are notoriously superstitious!) have ‘invoked’ Genesius’ help before that nerve-racking first night. Victims of torture indeed!

So why do we have saints? The answer lies with the Emperor Constantine, who supposedly converted to Christianity in the 4th century. With previous Roman Emperors having tried and failed to contain this vibrant new religion, Constantine used a subtler approach: He simply fused fusing Jesus’ pure teachings with Rome’s polluting pagan beliefs and practices.

Believing Jesus to be the only mediator between God and humans (1 Tim 2:5, Matt. 6:9; John 14:6, 14), genuine Christians never prayed through other  intercessors, nor does scripture allow prayer to be addressed to anyone except God Almighty to whom Jesus directed his own prayers, telling his followers to do the same.

Which left Constantine with a dilemma. If Christians worshiped and prayed to only one God - who nobody could see - what would happen to the thousands of pagan gods? Were they to be made redundant? Would silversmiths and image makers lose their livelihoods? 

The solution was to re-invent Rome’s existing deities with Christians and market them as ‘Saints’. Foremost to undergo this marketing ploy was Apollo who, with his handsome features, gold halo and sun-god attributes, made a very acceptable Christ!  Jesus’ earthly mother Mary became a substitute for Juno, mother of the gods and wife of Jupiter. And there have been countless other deities now posing as saints under different names.