Animal images on St. Peter’s Basilica charm and alarm

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Video courtesy of vatican via YouTube

(RNS) An extraordinary illuminated projection of images of the natural world onto St. Peter’s Basilica on Tuesday evening (Dec. 8) drew thousands of awed spectators to the Vatican and delighted untold numbers more watching online and via widespread media coverage of the three-hour show.

But not everyone was happy with the spectacle, not by a long shot, as social media and conservative Catholic sites erupted with indignation.

“This has gone beyond ridiculous,” fumed a conservative blogger, the Rev. John Zuhlsdorf, who called it “irreverent” to use a sacred space for a secular purpose. “Why not rent out the Sistine chapel too, while they’re at it?”

“The Vatican profaned,” Antonio Socci wrote at the traditionalist blog Rorate Caeli. “The symbolic significance of the event is a Church immersed in darkness, but illuminated by the world, by the new climatist-religion-ideology.”

“Sickening” and “embarrassing” were among the reactions on a Twitter thread started by Raymond Arroyo, a popular host on the conservative Catholic cable network EWTN. “Someone should be fired for this. Actually, several people should be,” wrote another.

The event was in fact inspired by Pope Francis’ June encyclical, “Laudato Si’,” on the moral duty to protect the environment and was intended to push negotiators currently meeting at climate talks in Paris to take concrete steps on reducing global warming — a goal Francis has also pushed for very publicly.


READ: Act now, for God’s sake, faith voices urge Paris climate conference


Such causes have hardly endeared the pope to conservatives inside and outside the church, and Tuesday night’s showcase seemed to be the confirmation of all their fears.

The criticisms tended to cluster around a few main issues: Chief among them was the long-running conservative argument that global warming is a myth, or that humanity can’t do anything to stop it even if it’s happening, and that trying to limit carbon emissions, for example, will hurt the economy and therefore the very people the pontiff says he is trying to defend.

Others argued that the Catholic Church shouldn’t be lobbying on global warming policies, which they see as a secular agenda and not a religious concern. “This is the kind of thing ideological politicians do, like President Obama’s rainbow projection onto the White House after the Supreme Court approved gay marriage,” Robert Royal, head of the Washington-based Faith and Reason Institute, told LifeSiteNews.

Some objected that the display did not make an anti-abortion statement by including images of fetuses, while others were outraged that the light show was sponsored by groups such as the World Bank, which they say promote abortion and contraception.

And there was the fact that the event took place on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a major celebration of the Virgin Mary and one that coincided with Francis’ inauguration of a Holy Year of Mercy. “A Neo-Pagan obscenity for the Feast of the Immaculate!” as Socci wrote.


READ: Pope Francis opens doors to ‘Year of Mercy’ in a time of fear


There was also anger that the program included images of a woman in a burka as well as pictures of Buddhists and representatives of animist religions and it did not use obvious references to explicitly religious and Christian themes. Most of the pictures, by renowned photographers, were of animals — a virtual Noah’s Ark of jaguars and jellyfish, parrots and pandas, lions and lemurs moving across the centuries-old façade and cupola.

But fans of the event argued that, for one thing, the images were projected onto the most famous Catholic Church in the world, and with the explicit approval of the pope.

They also noted that the title of the event was “Fiat Lux,” or “Let there be light,” the words God spoke in Genesis at the creation of the world. The link between faith and creation, they said, could hardly be clearer — and Francis has said care of the Earth is a concern of all humanity and the church should be working with everyone toward that goal.

Others pointed out that the Vatican has been illuminated before and many historic churches around the world have been used for projection displays; Catholic art and architecture — and spirituality, in fact — have often been based on these sorts of vivid displays.

Yet the criticisms were not entirely confined to conservative commentators, or based solely on worries about sacrilege and climate change policies.

“I’m not opposed to the message, but I thought it was tacky,” the Rev. Jarrod Waugh, a Holy Cross priest in South Bend, Ind., wrote in a lively comment thread at Pray Tell, a blog focused on issues of liturgy and prayer.

In one response, the blog’s moderator, the Rev. Anthony Ruff, a Benedictine, said he didn’t feel the show was tacky. But he said he was convinced it was “not a sacrilege or profanation.”

“If images of animals and natural creation are defacing a sacred space … well then the defacement would be all the greater if humans enter sacred spaces since humans are capable of sin and evil in a way that animals and inanimate objects are not,” Ruff wrote. “Some folks need to reflect on their theology of Creation and of Incarnation.”

(David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS)

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  • Tom Hayes

    Have these nay-sayers even taken a trip to Catholic Europe? Was there anything in the presentation that hasn’t been done (or at least something very similar) hundreds of times in murals, mosaics, sculptures within and outside sacred buildings? Do they know about the astronaut on the cathedral of Salamanca? Who can count the gargoyles and column capitals? Religious art has always been rooted in the joys, fears, experiences and excitement of the people. These poor folks need to get a grip.
    Tacky? De gustibus! But absolutely in the Catholic tradition.

  • Jim McCrea

    As soon as I saw the initial list of names doing all of the kvetching, I knew what to expect from the rest of the story.

    Anything the Vatican can do to annoy this bunch of grinches is doing something right!

  • G Key

    Re “The event was in fact inspired by Pope Francis’ June encyclical, ‘Laudato Si’,’ on the moral duty to protect the environment”:

    Has anyone else noticed a pattern in the quotes of those who disagree with the Pope’s event?

    “beyond ridiculous”, “irreverent”, “Why not rent out the Sistine chapel too”, “The Vatican profaned”, “sickening”, “embarrassing”, “Someone should be fired for this. Actually, several people”, “A Neo-Pagan obscenity for the Feast of the Immaculate!”, “tacky”

    All those judgments from priests and others who disagree — and not one of them packaged as plain old disagreement.

    Every self-exalted one of them attacks the Pope as if each “ruling” were factual, actual, an objective perspective, and one to which their subordinate, the Pope, must be held accountable; nothing so mundane as another viewpoint, no mere difference of opinion presented and owned as such by the opiner, no alternative position that is as debatable as the Pope’s…

  • G Key

    Just like Congress.

  • Amos

    I waiting to hear from our fundamentalist brethren that the Christmas Tree should be chopped down from St. Peter’s square because of its pagan origins.

  • Objecting to having a secular political program projected onto St. Peter’s is hardly the same as objecting to God’s Creation. For example, Fr. Zuhlsdorf is known for his series of posts about the “Christological goldfinch” in Christian art through the ages, for years of running a birdfeeder live feed when he lived at a place where that was possible, and for his many posts about the beauty and interest of astronomical events and space weather.

    But seeing as how we’re not growing oranges in Kent and wine is not a major English crop, “global warming” hasn’t reached the balmy levels that brought prosperity to ancient Rome and the High Middle Ages. We’re in a cool period (and not an Ice Age, either, so don’t run to the other side of the boat in a panic). So the Pope means well, no doubt, but he’s in fact presenting a sort of phrenology politics which is silly and irreligious. Our God is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, not the political Career, the Catchphrase, and the…

  • Finally, when Pope Francis becomes really interested in integrating religions and the environment, I’m sure that he will reinstitute the Rogation Days and the Ember Days, during which one prayed, fasted, and did liturgical processions for the good of the Earth, the crops, and weather, and when one prayed to be spared from natural disasters.

    Since he prefers to write papers, invey against A/C, and run movies, I conclude that either he’s not really worried enough to do anything that requires actual effort by the world’s Catholics, or that he’s afraid that we will freak out if asked to fast a few more days but will be okay with a few platitudes.

  • Dr. Cajetan Coelho

    Animals play an important role in serving our Planet.

  • P. S. John

    The objections to the call of protection of the planet earth by Pope Francis come from a kind of world-view that is no longer sustainable both theologically and scientifically. Let us repent of the sin of complete separation of the secular and the sacred neglecting the importance of creation and re-creation of the entire Universe through Jesus Christ. This re-creation started with the Incarnation of the Word of God as Jesus of Nazareth. Let the Church continue this mission in order to build up the Kingdom of God!
    John P. S.