Adorning the sanctuary at the cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul in Providence are three depictions of Christ’s last days and two portrayals from the later life of the Church. Central to the sanctuary is a portrayal of the Last Supper, Christ and the apostles gathered around the Passover table celebrating their last meal before the Savior’s death. To the left is an illustration of the Garden of Gethsemane; Christ is in agony while his disciples doze. An angel offers a bitter chalice to the tormented Messiah. On the right, the viewer sees Mary Magdalene and Salome gazing with astonishment at the empty tomb. Jesus’ garments are casually draped over the sarcophagus. Thus, observant worshippers to our diocesan cathedral are piously reminded of the central events of salvation history.
The Last Supper on Holy Thursday, the Agony in the Garden in the wee hours of Good Friday, and the Resurrection of Christ just before dawn on Easter Sunday are rightly the central point of the Church’s liturgical year and happily the featured items of our cathedral’s décor. These tableaux reveal the core of the individual Christian life as well. Holy Thursday’s table fellowship around the Eucharistic Christ is imperative. Good Friday’s suffering for one’s sins and for the redemption of others is indispensable. Easter Sunday’s resurgence into a heightened existence is indescribable. These images are well worth the consideration of every visitor to our diocese’s principal church.
But salvation history did not end on Easter Sunday. The fruits of Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection are lived out every day quietly in the lives of the faithful and vividly in the lives of the saints who populate the Church’s liturgical year. Just to the right of these triple portrayals is a depiction of St. Francis of Assisi. The saint in his humble brown garment is framed by the Tuscan countryside abundant with the birds and animals that spoke of God’s Providence so eloquently to the thirteenth century holy man.
Pope Pius XI spoke of St. Francis as “the most Christlike of all the saints,” awarding this tribute on the 750th anniversary of his birth. Francis was most Christlike because he placed total confidence in the Fatherhood of God, as Jesus indeed did especially during his last three days. Suffering and death were certainly not Jesus’ plan. Recall his sad words, “Remove this cup from me (Mk 14:38).” Yet Jesus knew that God’s inscrutable plan was ultimately and unquestioningly the best plan so he would accept it. God would prove to be a Father in spite of Good Friday’s abundant evidence to the contrary. And Jesus’ unwavering trust was vindicated: Easter morning is history’s glorious tribute to God’s mysterious Fatherhood and enigmatic Providence. St. Francis, through his absolute commitment to practical poverty, displayed this same ultimate confidence in God’s Fatherhood. In a sense, Francis called God’s bluff. If God is truly a Father, then let him care for me, Francis mused. He would possess nothing: no home, no attire, not even food. He would live hand to mouth, letting God provide. And Francis’ radical faith worked! God did provide; his brotherhood thrived; the Gospel message is lived and exemplified to this day. Christlike indeed!
On the opposite side of the sanctuary is a painting of St. Francis’ contemporary, St. Dominic Guzman, founder of the Order of Preachers, who locally maintain Providence College. In the summer of 1215, St. Francis and a small group of friars were in Rome seeking approval for his Rule. When St. Dominic encountered St. Francis at that time he immediately greeted him with the words, “You are my companion.” And indeed the two friars were truly complementary. Administration and education were not among St. Francis’ prized goals St. Anthony of Padua had to beg to study. St. Dominic on the other hand clearly understood the need for sound education and effective preaching, especially in that era when Albigensianism ravaged southern France.
Influenced by Manicheism, these purists held that the universe was a battleground between good, which was spirit, and evil, which was matter. St. Dominic envisioned a band of highly trained evangelists in a modified monastic tradition devoted to preaching and teaching throughout the Christian world. Domenic expected the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ to transform 13th century society just as Francis appreciated those holy events to transform the medieval soul. The one was practical; the other idealistic. Both men have been effective. The core of salvation history is thus artistically revealed for visitors to the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul, well worth a moment’s pause.
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