Church

Vatican Light Show: What Did We Just See?

Would the Colosseum have worked as well? On the other hand ...

Capping off a day marking the Immaculate Conception of Mary and the start of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, the Vatican presented a light-show, “Fiat Lux: Illuminating Our Common Home,” projected upon the facade of Saint Peter’s Basilica. (The entire show can be viewed here. Aleteia provides a highlights video here)

Objections were raised as to the propriety of using a consecrated building as a screen for what was, essentially, a slide show; online it was not difficult to find grousing about the Vatican’s cooperation with secular, sometimes not-wholly friendly interests.

Even those of a more philosophical bent (myself included) who were inclined to think, You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs, and Jesus himself dialogued with Pilate, and converting institutional hearts and minds to the Gospel requires a measure of engagement grimaced at the Disneyesque nature of the project but were content to “wait and see.”

Their verdict? A bit of a harrumph: “Not one religious symbol,” wrote a friend in attendance.

That’s arguable. The projection began with images of white doves, a traditional symbol for the Holy Spirit. The first image was a peacock, a Christ-symbol.

That said, no, there were no overt religious symbols included in the presentation.

Was it offensive? Not really. After the gorgeous images of the Discovery Channel Series Planet Earth, though, some might find it unnecessary. It’s fair to question why the presentation needed Saint Peter’s for a backdrop; if mere secular sensibilities about creation were the point, wouldn’t the Colosseum have been a historically suitable screen for such a display?

On the other hand, if the intention was to express that creation is sacred because it is formed and sustained on the breath of heaven — if it was meant to get people thinking that all created creatures are endowed with a measure of holiness because the Creator is All-Holy — what better place to make the point than upon these holy walls, with the heavens showing just above its dome, the bones of Christian martyrs buried just below, and standing icons of the great cloud of witnesses all around?

Could its Christian message have been more explicit? Yes. Knowledgeable Catholics might well have been edified; seeing the images they might have recalled St. Therese Couderc, relating her vision, wherein

I saw as in letters of gold this word “goodness” … written on all creatures, animate and inanimate, rational or not, all bore this name of goodness. … I understood then that all that these creatures have of good and all the services and helps that we receive from each of them are a blessing that we owe to the goodness of our God, who has communicated to them something of his infinite goodness, so that we may meet it in everything and everywhere.

Others might seen have images of whales and dolphins and ocean waves projected on a holy wall and remembered verses of praise: “You sea monsters and all water creatures, bless the Lord; praise and exalt him above all forever.”

For secularists viewing the show, the message might seem less obvious, and as Dr. Randall B. Smith argues here, the environmental pronouncements of this pontificate are not always fully heard or understood. The discomfort with which Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ was received by some religious people, while rejoiced over by some secularlists, proves it.

The most objectionable part of “Fiat Lux”? Images of humans were fleeting, and most of them conveyed a sense of suffering or sin. There was a jarring absence of human goodness; no shots (that I saw) of humans being Christ for others, assisting others, bringing joy to others or being good stewards of the land. That seemed shortsighted and ungenerous. Of course there are humans who help others, who tend the land with care, who willingly become the hands and feet of Christ. If the presentation was meant to work in conjunction with Laudato Si’, it failed on this point.

True, within the marvelous wholeness born of the intention of the One who is All-Good, All-Holy, it is always humankind that troubles and disturbs what is perfect. Still, humankind is most beloved of the Creator, who condescended to incarnate amid humanity, in order to save it from a redundantly enthusiastic pursuit of its own demise.

“Fiat Lux” reminds us that the earth is perfectly ordered; its backdrop of Saint Peter’s reminds us that we too must be perfect if we are to live in harmony within it: “Be perfect as my Father is perfect.” For the Year of Mercy, it is a message that mercy must be part of all we do, if we are to receive mercy. In relation to Laudato Si’, it is an admonishment away from sin, hatred, human conceit, pride and greed and all of our self-indulgent wrath, toward what is holy, pure and good. For the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, it is a reminder that grace builds on nature, and holiness builds on grace.

A friend of mine told me that her non-Catholic friends loved it, and were asking her questions about the feast day, and the Year of Mercy, and what it all means to us. Who knows what sort of fruit this will bear. This writer, present for the live presentation liked it very much.

Elizabeth Scalia is editor-in-chief of the English edition of Aleteia.