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Vatican Stamps–Those Tiny Evangelizers

WEB Vatican Stamp Vince DiNoto

Vince DiNoto

William Van Ornum - published on 08/30/14

Each month the Vatican's Philatelist Office issues remarkable stamps.

Every month the UFN, the Ufficio Filatelico e Numismatico Governatorato (Vatican Philatelic Office) issues stamps, postcards, or other materials. The range of topics depicted on the stamps is surprising: classic artwork of Church mysteries, chronicles of world and Church events, views into art and music, and even something whimsical, like a parrot waiting to munch on a grasshopper (1989).  

Some of my fairly recent favorites, relevant to what’s been in the news lately: the Cathedral of St. Sophia, Kiev (1988); a gigantic stamp celebrating the 40th anniversary of Caritas Internationalis, a worldwide charity (1990); the 100th anniversary of the encyclical Rerum Novarum on the rights of workers (1991); the Discovery and Evangelization of America—a continuing task? (1992); and the Evangelization of China (1994)—another ongoing venture. And so many more.

These magnificent little windows also serve the purpose of evangelization. They travel to “the ends of the earth,” as far as any missionaries have ever gone. They infiltrate into groups of people hostile to the Church. Since they are pictorial and beautiful, they can often convey a truth of salvation without words, and contain universal messages and truths common to the entire world.

Since 1929, these stamps have been published and collected by people around the world. At least 1,400 of them have been printed. It would be great if every one of these stamps circulated through the mail systems of every country. Imagine how many  people would see each. But perhaps dedicated collectors do an even better job of spreading the Word.

Each month  a series of Vatican stamps similarly inspires education, reflection and inspiration.

In August 2014, six stamps were released. While each may be appreciated for its intrinsic value and surface meaning, the Vatican Philatelic Office is renowned for communicating through metaphors, hints, commendations and criticisms, and even subliminal suggestions. Here are some reflections on the six most recent Vatican stamps, as described in a recent brochure by the Vatican Philatelic Office.

First, the “25th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall.” Although Americans might expect a photo of an American president telling a Russian leader to “tear down this wall,” the artist took a different approach. The stamp depicts a photo of those historic days, taken by photographer Michael-Reiner Ernst, of an older man chipping away with a small chisel at a small area of the wall. Graffiti in German is scrawled across it. Beginning in 1990, ordinary Berliners began removing 45,000 pieces of the wall. Perhaps the stamp calls to mind the cumulative power of individuals who are committed to truth and freedom, and the role of strength and sacrifice in bolstering our convictions.

Second, the “150th Anniversary of the Birth of Richard Georg Strauss”  pays tribute to the gifted musician who was also a social reformer, perhaps even in the tradition of Pope Leo. The Vatican brochure states:

"The German composer is known not only as a great artist, but also for the recognition he received for his work through what today is called copyright, where the composer receives part of the profits for every performance of his music. This helped to show that even a musician can make a living from his work, something which was not a given in the past.”

The third stamp commemorates the “350th Anniversary of the Synod of Ayutthaya” in 1658 when the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith chose three French missionaries to guide evangelization efforts in Asia. The priests often had to go in disguise to avoid persecution. For those interested in international collegiality, this particular stamp is a joint issue with the postal administration of Thailand. Evangelization has a long history, and it continues.

Fourth, the “400th Anniversary of the Death of Saint Camillus de Lellis.” Camillus founded the Order of the Clerks Regular, Ministers to the Sick. At his Angelus address on July 14, 2013, Pope Francis remarked, “The Samaritan does precisely this: he really imitates the mercy of God, mercy for those in need. … A man who lived to the full this Gospel of the Good Samaritan is St. Camillus de Lellis, patron saint of the sick and of health care workers.”

In addition to the customary vows, Camillians have a fourth vow—offering perpetual corporeal and spiritual assistance to the sick even with danger to one’s own life. When one thinks of Ebola and other fatal communicable diseases, this Order’s relevance may be singular. They also accept lay workers.

Fifth, another Patriarch of Venice is remembered with kindness in the “Centenary of the Death of Saint Pius X.” A dynamic priest, he showed great enthusiasm for pastoral duties and quickly was promoted to bishop. St. Pius X wrote an encyclical that challenged doctrines of the modernists. On August 2, 1914—the day Germany invaded Luxembourg, when the skirmish at Jonchery began, inaugurating the dreaded Western Front—the then-sickly Pope uttered his nearly last words. He died 2 weeks later but his plea for peace will move others for centuries to come:

“We therefore exhort that all approach the throne of grace and of mercy, as many Catholics as there are throughout the world, and in the first place men from the clergy; whose duty, moreover, it will be, at the command of bishops, to carry out public supplications in every single parish, that the merciful God, exhausted as it were by the prayers of the pious, may take away the destructive flames of war—the sooner the better—and that, beneficent, He may grant to those who preside over civil affairs to think thoughts of peace and not of affliction.”

The sixth stamp celebrates the “Beatification of Pope Paul VI.” The stamp shows this rather recent Pope offering the papal blessing. Although some people have criticized him for supposedly vacillating and others disagree with his decision on birth control (in Humanae Vitae, 1968), too few recall that he may have had the most difficult task of any recent Pope—keeping the Church together in a decade of explosive divisiveness. For this, he has our gratitude.

William Van Ornum is professor of psychology at Marist College and director of research and development/grants at American Mental Health Foundation in New York City. He studied theology and scripture at DePaul University.

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