At the general audience today in the Vatican’s Paul VI Hall, Pope Benedict XVI emphasized the beauty of Christian culture, which, because it is rooted in Christ, has left a heritage that remains alive today.
Continuing his series of reflections on the Fathers of the Church, the pope turned his attention to the poetry of a little known figure, Romanus the Melodist.
Born in Syria at the end of the fifth century, Romanus received a classical education, was ordained a deacon, and settled in Constantinople. He was called the “Christian Pindar" (a Greek poet) for his lofty compositions in verse.
His preaching took the form of chanted metered hymns known as "kontakia", consisting of an introduction and a series of stanzas punctuated by a refrain. Some eighty-nine of these have come down to us, and they testify to the rich theological, liturgical and devotional content of the hymnography of that time. Composed in simple language accessible to his hearers, these kontakia are notable for their dramatic dialogues and their use of sustained metaphors, the Holy Father explained.
This great poet, the Pope said in a departure from his prepared remarks, reminds us of "the entire treasury of Christian culture born of the faith, born from a heart that has met Christ, the Son of God":
"If faith is still alive, even this cultural heritage does not become a dead thing but remains alive and present. Icons speak even today to the believing heart, not just things of the past. The cathedrals are not medieval monuments, but houses of life where we are 'at home', we meet God, and we meet with one another. And the great music, Gregorian chant or Bach and Mozart, are not things of the past in the Church but live in the vitality of the liturgy of our faith. If faith is alive, the Christian culture does not become the past, but remains alive and present."
If our faith is alive, he added: "Even today we can respond to the command that is repeated over and over again in the Psalms:" Sing to the Lord a new song ":
"Creativity, innovation, new song, new culture and the presence of the entire cultural heritage in the vitality of faith, are not exclusive (of one another) but are a single reality, are the presence of God's beauty, the joy of being a child of God."
Reflecting on the figure of Romanus, the Pope explained that the key episode of his life was the apparition in a dream of the Mother of God and the charismatic gift of poetry. Romanus, he said, was "an eminent witness of the religious sentiment of his time." At Constantinople, he said, Romano preached in a suburban sanctuary. Here, the deacon spoke to the community using wall depictions or icons arranged on the pulpit, or even using dialogue.
His, he added, were "homilies sung in meter" called "kontákia."
Tradition attributes to him 1000 but we have only 89. Romanus adopted a Greek close to the koiné of the New Testament, and more accessible to his listeners. A significant example of a "kontakion" of Romans is the dramatic dialogue between Mary and the Son, which takes place on the way of the Cross:
"Where are you going, son? Why so rapidly have you completed the course of your life? / Never would have believed, O child, that I would see you in this state,/ never would I have imagined so much of fury would come from the wicked / that you would be placed now in the hands against all justice." Jesus replied: "Why weep, my mother ... Must I not suffer? Must I not die? How then could I save Adam? "
The Son of Mary consoled then the Mother, "but calls her back o her role in the history of salvation." The pope remarked that Romanus the Melodist, an able communicator, declared his homilies empty, himself separated from their consistent impact.
Pope Benedict emphasized the "palpable humanity, the ardor of faith and deep humility" that pervade the songs of Romanus the Melodist, whose hymns contain themes that are Christological and Marian.
Romanus shows us the power of symbolic communication, which, in the liturgy, joins earth to heaven and uses imagery, poetry and song to lift our minds to God's truth, Benedict XVI said.