by Paul Elie
from Georgetown University

A Story Diplomatically Told

As U.S. ambassador to the Holy See – the Vatican – during George W. Bush’s presidency, Francis Rooney lived in the embassy’s gorgeous villa near the top of the Janiculum Hill overlooking Trastevere.

Ambassador Rooney (a graduate of Georgetown’s undergraduate college and law school) was on the Hilltop Tuesday afternoon to talk about The Global Vatican, his recent book about the experience.  In the book he tells a story I’ve heard anecdotally for years: the story of how President Bush’s planned visit to the Community of Sant’Egidio – where president and peacemakers together would mark their work against the spread of AIDS in Africa – was rerouted at the last minute:

We suggested that the president visit the Community of Sant’Egidio, a Catholic lay organization active in humanitarian aid and peace building. Embassy Vatican had been working with Sant’Egidio for years, beginning in the late 1980’s, when the embassy, along with the departments of State and Defense, participated with the group in peace talks to end war in Mozambique. Continuing to expand the relationship, we had recently connected Sant’Egidio with Georgetown University to colloborate on some projects of mutual interest.

… About two weeks before the president was due to arrive in Rome, I received a call from a prominent cleric in Rome, insisting that we reconsider the president’s visit to Sant’Egidio and stating that the Vatican opposed it. The core of the objection, I was told, was that the president’s meeting at Sant’Egidio’s offices in Trastevere would create a false impression of parity between Sant’Egidio and the Vatican, raising Sant’Egidio to the stature of a “state institution” like the Vatican or the government of Italy. At the very least, the Holy See preferred that the visit should occur at a more neutral setting than Sant’Egidio’s property.

In the end, the Vatican got more or less what it desired, not because anyone gave in but because outside events dictated the outcome. The Italian government could not guarantee the safety of the president in the narrow alleys and cobblestone courtyards of the Trastevere neighborhood around Sant’Egidio … Rumors suggested that the Vatican’s nuncio to Italy urged the Italian government to find a way to make the visit impossible, but regardless of how it came about, the meeting site was moved at the last minute to Embassy Rome.  It was probably for the best.

Calling Father Zerai


Shortly after this site launched, I posted several pieces about the refugee crisis in Lampedusa, off Italy’s southern coast, including some photographs taken by a humanitarian friend who saw the aftermath of mass death firsthand.  Then, like most people in the media, I let the story go.

Not Mattathias Schwartz.  Among writers, Schwartz is known as an immersion journalist to beat all – and as the author of an unusually complex and sensible early piece about Occupy Wall Street.

Schwartz went to Lampedusa.  He went to Switzerland, base of operations for Abba Musse Zerai, a saintly Catholic priest from Eritrea who is the only advocate for many thousands of refugees and their families.  He followed the priest to Rome.  And then he shaped a long article for The New Yorker around the power of the priest’s mobile phone, whose number is passed from boat to boat, family to family, survivor to survivor:

In early 2011, as Qaddafi’s hold on Libya began to weaken, Italy joined NATO in backing the revolutionaries, and Qaddafi retaliated by opening his borders.

Starting that March, Zerai’s phone rang more or less continuously for seven straight months. “It was impossible to have one second free,” he remembers. Boats set off across the Mediterranean in unprecedented numbers, carrying Egyptians, Tunisians, and any dark-skinned stranger suspected of being among Qaddafi’s foreign mercenaries. One terrified called told Zerai that rebels in the city of Misrata were hunting immigrants for sport. Days before the revolution, Zerai arranged for the evacuation of a hundred and ten Eritreans by air to Italy.

Zerai was living at the Ethiopian College, in the Vatican, where he was writing a thesis connecting human rights to Church doctrine. He had one room for sleeping and writing. Like his quarters in Fribourg, it had a comfortable austerity – bed, desk, window, kitchenette. His mobile phone had two SIM cards, and he usually left it on through the night.

On the morning of March 27, as NATO jets bombed Qaddafi’s forces, Zerai awoke and saw that he had slept through a call from a satellite phone. He called the number back. A man named Ghirma greeted him in Tigrinya. He told Zerai that he was on a thirty-foot inflatable Zodiac with seventy-one other people. There was almost no food or water. The motor was too small for the load, and low on fuel. Through his phone, Zerai could hear the waves sloshing.

The full article is here, and it’s a measure of the vividness and thoroughness of Schwartz’s reportage that the episode I just quoted – which might have been the opening of a different writer’s piece – is right in the middle of the article.

John Jeremiah Sullivan: Doin’ the Things That He Wants To


Real writing — actually artful writing — about the arts follows the art where it goes, rather than ushering it through the customs house of our categories.

That’s what William Deresiewicz did a few seasons back in his wildstyle New Republic piece about Roberto Bolaño:

The audacity of Bolaño’s fiction, its disregard for convention and even probability, puts me in mind of a remark a friend once made after a jazz concert. I said I thought the keyboard player had really been taking chances, and he said, “No, he wasn’t taking chances, he was doing whatever the fuck he wanted.” In every sentence he wrote, every image he conceived, every compositional choice he made, Bolano did whatever the fuck he wanted. In his art as in his life, he left a record of headlong daring that will become a rallying point for young writers for years to come. His myriad-minded fiction adumbrates no theory and swears allegiance to no school, embodying instead an unending search for new aesthetic and moral questions. At a time when the novel, at least in this country, has retreated into caution, he demonstrates again what is possible in fiction—which is to say, anything.

That jazz scene came to mind as I went through John Jeremiah Sullivan’s latest – an essay about a pair of astonishingly little-known blues singers that ran on the cover of the Times Magazine last Sunday.  Because more than any other writer putting out work in magazines just now, Sullivan seems to be doing whatever the f—- he wants.  He has found a way to keep clear of the racket of pitches and talking points and takeaways and metrics so as to write pieces — they aren’t essays; they are magazine pieces, and that’s part of the beauty of them — that need to be written because he needs to write them.  

Here he is on his blues-collecting brethen; note the words dropped here and there, in flagrant defiance of the copy-editors:

Early jazz was a thing in certain hip circles, but only a few true freaks were into the country blues. There was twitchy, rail-thin Jim McKune, a postal worker from Long Island City, Queens, who famously maintained precisely 300 of the choicest records under his bed at the Y.M.C.A. Had to keep the volume low to avoid complaints. He referred to his listening sessions as séances. Summoning weird old voices from the South, the ethereal falsetto of Crying Sam Collins. Or the whine of Isaiah Nettles, the Mississippi Moaner. Did McKune listen to Geeshie and Elvie? It’s unknowable. His records were already gone when he died — murdered in 1971, in a hotel room. Another early explorer? The writer Paul Bowles. The Paul Bowles, believe it or not, who started collecting blues records as an ether-huffing undergraduate in Charlottesville, Va., in the late 1920s, “at secondhand furniture stores in the black quarter.” Out West there was Harry Smith, who went on to create the “Anthology of American Folk Music” for Folkways Records, the first “box set,” of which it can be compactly if inadequately said: No “Anthology,” no Woodstock.

When he is on, Sullivan writes the ways the blues singers sang, or must have sung, before the scholars with microphones and recording machines showed up.  At a time when magazine writing, at least in this country, has retreated into caution, he demonstrates again what is possible in such writing – which is to say, just about anything.  

Two Americans, One Empty Tomb


In two strong recent books American writers make the pilgrimage to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Here (from Darling) is Richard Rodriguez:

“I wait in line to enter the sepulchre, a freestanding chapel in the rotunda of the basilica. A mountain was chipped away from the burial cave, leaving only the cave. Later the cave was destroyed. What remains is the interior of the cave, which is nothing. The line advances slowly until, after two thousand years, it is my turn. I must lower my shoulders and bend my head; I must almost crawl to pass under the low opening.

“I am inside the idea of the tomb of Christ.”

Here (from Jesus: A Pilgrimage) is James Martin, SJ:

“The man in front of me kept checking his smartphone. Probably ignoring some code of pilgrim’s etiquette, I peeked over his shoulder to see what could be so important and half-expected him to be typing, “Can’t talk. In church where Jesus died. Call you in 5.” Instead, he was playing a video game …

“The appointed time came. As at the entrance to the Church of the Nativity, you must crouch to enter. Bending slightly, I walked in with a man and a woman. Before me was a pinkish gray stone, about waist high. On ledges around the stone, which also served as an altar, dozens of tapers burned brightly. Already I knew that besides reverencing this holy site, I would bypass asking the saints to pray for me to Jesus and go directly to Jesus himself. My mother was thinking of moving into a retirement community, and I prayed for that process to go well. “Make this happen, Lord,” I said. It was one of those times in prayer that I felt that I had really expressed myself, that I had been as clear as I could about this single intention.”

Easter is there.  Easter is here.

The engraving, from 1728, is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.   

The House of García Márquez

The magus of magic realism, the suspender of natural laws, liked certain things just so.  In the nineties, he had apartments in Mexico City, Cuernavaca, Barcelona, Paris, Havana, Cartagena, and Barranquilla, on the Caribbean coast: 

Each of them is furnished in the same way—with white carpets, large glass coffee tables, modern art, a carefully chosen sound system, and an identical Macintosh computer. Garcia Marquez is obsessive about such things. They make it possible for him to work wherever he is.

Not knowing García Márquez’s work as well as I’d like, I would say that he is a crucial figure in the narrative of the disenchantment of the world in our time — because his fiction so complicates the narrative.  How?  It seems to me (and maybe the emerging field of data-driven literary criticism could confirm or deny it) that the presence of magic in literary fiction has risen in direct proportion to the decline of magic in everyday life – with Márquez’s fiction being the vividest example. 

Thanks Be to Long-form Journalism


Don Hewitt, the creator and longtime producer of 60 Minutes, attributed the success of the program to its time slot: airing early on Sunday evening, he explained, it serves as a secular church, an invitation to sustained thoughtfulness in the time between the weekend and the work week.

Long-form journalism works in something like the same way, and it happens that two magazine articles of mine, each long in the making, are up and out in time for the holiday weekend.

"The Pope in the Attic," about Pope Benedict in the time of Pope Francis, is up on the Atlantic's website and in the May issue.  Through reporting in Rome I reached the conclusion (as unwelcome in some quarters as it is obvious) that the differences between Francis and Benedict in temperament, theological emphasis, and pontifical style are so pronounced that there is real tension between one pope's approach and the other's, and to insist otherwise (especially in light of news of conflict in the papal household that broke after the article went to press) is to suggest that the papacy is of little consequence – to say that the consistent positions taken by Benedict over a third of a century and the surprising positions taken by Francis in recent months really don’t matter that much after all.

"A Fundamental Fight," about Salman Rushdie and the controversy over The Satanic Verses a quarter century later, is in the May issue of Vanity Fair — with extraordinary photographs by Annie Liebovitz — and up at the magazine’s site (though full access is reserved for subscribers, or web subscribers).  The way I tell it, the Ayatollah Khomeini’s condemnation of the novel was a relatively early episode in what has become a serial drama involving Islam and the West, terror and free expression —  and a fresh look at the novel and the circumstances of its publication makes clear that Rushdie envisioned the world we now live in earlier and better than anybody else did.

It’s a privilege to share these pieces; it was a privilege to write them.

Our Kind of Spirituals, No. 31: J.S. Bach, “O Sacred Head Now Wounded”

Johann Sebastian Bach heard his own St. Matthew Passion straight through only a few times – when the liturgical calendar called for it and he could get the right orchestra and double chorus together.

Some of his admirers in the age of recordings have heard it dozens of times, in renditions by as many choirs and orchestras.

I own something like ten different recordings – from the one Serge Koussevitsky made at Harvard in the 1930’s to the one stripped bare (but fruitfully) by Nicholas McCreesh a few years ago – and I find that each year I informally adopt one as a personal standard.

This year it’s the rendition in English by David Willcocks and the Bach Choir – because it is in English.  Why?  My mind is elsewhere.  I am hoping the English will call me back.    

The English is clear, all right — but for a native English speaker it’s like a stained-glass window without the stain.  

Love + Violence = Passion

The run of readings from Matthew’s Gospel – and an English-language rendition of the St. Matthew Passion on the stereo – put Caravaggio’s Calling of St. Matthew in mind; and an invitation to write a guest post for the new Cornerstone blog of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown led me to think about Caravaggio, and religious freedom, and the Passion narrative, in ways that seem to me to suit the day and the hour.

In an essay about Caravaggio published a year ago I focused on the stress he gave to the antipodes of love and violence rather than orthodoxy and heterodoxy.  It is this emphasis that makes Caravaggio an anti-iconographic painter, one who paints scenes that are happening once and for all, as if for the first time.

For his use of living models, his attention to light and its effects, his scrutiny of the body, he is called a naturalist.  For his attention to ordinary people — poor, humble, everyday people — he is called a “pauveriste,” an artist working in a tradition that developed in the spirit of St. Philip Neri.  But his approach is more complicated than those terms suggest.  His subjects are crucial episodes in the Christian adventure.  He paints them in a way faithful to scripture, to human action, to the claims and burdens of the flesh. His attention to biblical scenes and episodes from the early church makes them feel early, as if they precede the tradition of Christian iconography that developed in the Middle Ages.  Somehow he got back behind the long, grand tradition of Christian art and made it new. 

That is what you feel when you look at the paintings.  Never before have you seen a biblical scene shown this way.  No one before Caravaggio saw it this way.  The paintings, breakthroughs four hundred years ago, look like breakthroughs today.  The ancient faith is made new and arresting again; the whole epistemologically strained religion is grasped as if for the first time.

At the same time, the paintings exhaust the incidents they depict.  His biblical scenes are all but over as he paints them.  Lazarus is being raised.  Christ is being taken.  Catherine sits calm and sexy before the wheel of her impaling.  Matthew, Peter, and Paul are being killed in action.  Lucy, dead already, is being laid in earth.  An epochal action is ending.  The hour is getting late.  

The Calling of St. Matthew at the church of San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome is a work of love.  Strictly speaking, it is about obedience: the teacher points a finger in the darkness and we are to understand that the tax collector will obey.   But what passes between Jesus and Matthew is love.  Jesus makes his appeal from the shadows — the margins — rather than from the center of the painting.    His hand is extended but relaxed, not in anger or accusation.   The clear-eyed regard shown to Jesus by the boy to Matthew’s left — who is so handsome, so stylishly dressed and plumed, and so brilliantly lit as to be the center of the painting — shows that there is nothing to fear here.   The light of the whole, the diagonal sweep from the right-hand corner across the window in the center, suggests the steadiness of the love in Jesus’s request and command.  The accepting gaze of the eventual evangelist, the eternal “Who, me?” — eyebrows raised, eyes soft and wet as if tears are forming — makes clear that he knows his life is changing.  So do we: but we feel his old life ending more than his new life beginning.  

The painting is as sufficient unto itself as any painting ever was. But in Caravaggio’s body of work it is completed by the painting hung opposite: the Martyrdom of St. Matthew, a painting of violence.

Love and violence: these antipodes of Caravaggio’s work are those of the Passion narratives, too.  Christ’s love is met with violence; the violence of his captors and tormenters is met with love.  But let’s not forget: it didn’t have to go that way. The love that runs through the story – from the calling of St. Matthew to the crucifixion of the figure who called him – was freely given and freely accepted in response.  It happened once and for all, and it keeps happening that way.  There is nothing guaranteed or inevitable about it.

This freedom Caravaggio understood as well as any artist ever has, and it is the root of the extraordinary freedom of his paintings.  

Selfie Lit: “The Tin Drum”


Now that selfie is in the dictionary, and has its own brief history (courtesy of New York magazine art writer Jerry Saltz), it’s high time we started following the string of selfies in literature.  Suggestions welcome at  

This is from The Tin Drum (a first edition I found for cheap the other day).  Oskar is speaking:

… after nearly every show we went to a photo studio not far from the Graf-Adolf-Platz and had passport pictures taken. We were well known and our entrance was greeted with a smile; however, we were paying customers and were treated politely as such. As soon as the booth was free, we were pushed into it by a young lady – all I remember about her is that she was nice. She deftly set our heads at the right angle, first mine, then Klepp’s, and told us to fix our eyes on a certain point, and a moment later a flash of light and a bell synchronized with it announced that six successive likenesses had been transferred to the plate.

Still stiff around the corners of the mouth, we were pressed into comfortable wicker chairs by the young lady, who nicely, but no more than nicely, and nicely dressed too, asked us to be patient for five minutes. We were glad to wait. For now we had something to wait for – our passport pictures – and we were curious to see how they would turn out. In exactly seven minutes the still nice but otherwise nondescript young lady handed us two little paper envelopes and we paid.

The triumph in Klepp’s slightly protuberant eyes! As soon as we had our envelopes, we had ipso facto an excuse for repairing to the nearest beer saloon, for no one likes to look at his own passport pictures on the open, dusty street, standing amid all the noise and bustle and blocking the traffic …

No one likes to look at pictures of themselves while standing on the street? In this respect, clearly, the desires of youth have changed.

Is it a proto-selfie when a nice young lady is paid to operate the camera?  I’d say yes, in this instance – because Oskar and Klepp have their pictures taken for no reason other than to look at themselves right away.

The photograph was taken in a retro photo booth in Minneapolis.

Handel’s “Messiah”: Anti-Jewish?

Spy Wednesday, and ace Baroque music scholar Michael Marissen has a problem with Handel’s Messiah:

Here’s the agonizing problem as I see and hear it: the magnificent joy of Handel’s music is not merely at odds with a dreadful anti-Judaic message in Messiah; it is at the very same time a scandalous affirmation of that message. The ecstatic grace, the life-affirming levitation of the listening heart and mind, are all working in concert with a triumphal squashing of Jews.

Marissen (whose searching encounter with anti-Semitism in Bach’s St. John Passion is recounted in my book Reinventing Bach) made the case against the Messiah provisionally in the Times a few years back and was tagged a “Handel-hater.” Now he has set it out with great care and sensitivity in a short book (complete with annotated libretto) and a long column on HuffPost.

We can’t dismiss the libretto as incidental (not music; not Handel) because

Messiah has assumed a central place in the choral repertory largely, in fact, because of the words.

And we can’t dismiss the Hallelujah chorus as Christmastime glitter and tinsel because

the work was meant not for the Christmas season but for Lent … designed in a way that apparently rejoices, in significant part, over the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple in the year 70 CE, a horrific event that until recently most Christians construed as divine retribution on Judaism for its failure to accept Jesus as God’s promised messiah.

Not clear enough?  Marissen goes on:

That is to say, the Hallelujah chorus apparently exults, in significant part, over what would be taken as the essential deathblow to Judaism, with Christianity understood as the sole legitimate heir of God’s promises to ancient Israel.

His aim isn’t to chase the work out of the canon; it’s to invite us to consider just what those of us who will be in a church for Easter are doing there, the way we ought to

ponder exactly what it means when, in keeping with centuries-long tradition (whatever the cause or origin of this tradition), they stand during concert performances of the Hallelujah chorus.

The photograph shows Julius Bloom, Yehudi Menuhin, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Mstislav Rostropovich, Leonard Bernstein, and Isaac Stern singing the Hallelujah chorus at a concert for the 85th anniversary of Carnegie Hall in New York, May 18, 1976.