Pope Francis’ first Epiphany Mass: “oltre il fascino delle Sirene”

I know that we just recently addressed the Epiphany; that post was about Benedict XVI and his last public Epiphany Mass.  This entry is about Pope Francis’ first Epiphany as Bishop of Rome.  I recognize its untimeliness now that Ordinary Time is upon us, but the occasion for commentary is too good to ignore.  In fact, this homily may be the Pope’s best thus far in his pontificate.  Unfortunately, as we will see, many Anglophone Catholics are none the wiser for it.

Francis appeared to have set aside his usual Jesuit preaching technique; that is, a short explanation of 3 simple points or themes taken from the day’s reading.  The entire homily was still typically brief (a little over 900 words in Italian), but the text displayed a remarkable unity of thought and flow, a richness of interpretation, and wonderfully crafted turns of phrase.  The incipit of the sermon, lumen requirunt lumine, was taken from the ancient Latin hymn A solis ortus cardine, written by the Christian poet Sedulius in the fifth century, and the Pope began by remarking on the light of the star which seeks the Light of the Nations. Light searches for light–lumen requirunt lumine.

In other words, the homily bears all the stylistic traits of a certain Bavarian pontiff–not a bad model to imitate!

“Light”, as expected, is a central motif in this Mass.  Jerusalem is called the “city of light”, and in the First Reading, the prophet Isaiah (ch. 61) exhorts the her: “Arise, shine out, Jerusalem, for your light has come; the glory of the Lord rises upon you, though night still covers the earth and darkness the peoples”.  The Sistine Chapel Choir will repeat the exhortation during the offertory by singing Palestrina’s Surge, illuminare Jerusalem, while the Pope, using the Italian translation, quotes the prophet, saying, “Rise, O Jerusalem, and clothe yourself in light!”–alzati, e rivestiti di luce!

Jerusalem, the holy city, is indeed clothed in light.  Like many other cities, her torches and lamps burn through the night to dispel the uncertainty of darkness while the world sleeps, in anticipation of daybreak.  She is called to be ever vigilant, to watch in earnest for the arrival of her true King.  “But,” as the Pope remarks, “Jerusalem can fail to respond to this call of the Lord. The Gospel tells us that the Magi, when they arrived in Jerusalem, lost sight of the star for a time. They no longer saw it.”

Upon hearing these words, I could not help but think of Benedict’s homily for the 2012 Easter Vigil: “Today we can illuminate our cities so brightly that the stars of the sky are no longer visible. Is this not an image of the problems caused by our version of enlightenment?”  Thus our modern crisis of faith and secularism, by which we lose sight of the Lord, are not so different from the situation of ancient Jerusalem, whose lamps and torches washed out the light of God’s star; only the poor shepherds on the outskirts, nelle periferie as Francis would say, learn of the Good News.  Francis goes on to say that the light of the star “was particularly absent from the palace of Herod: his dwelling was gloomy, filled with darkness, suspicion, fear, envy…”.  The “enlightened” court of Herod could not see what these wise men from the east could see, for Herod and his men focused only on their own power and remained blinded by sin to the truth of Scripture.  The Magi, on the other hand, sought only the truth; in Benedict’s words, erano ricercatori di Dio. The homily goes on, saying that the Magi

were able to overcome that dangerous moment of darkness before Herod, because they believed the Scriptures, the words of the prophets which indicated that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. And so they fled the darkness and dreariness of the night of the world. They resumed their journey towards Bethlehem and there they once more saw the star, and the Gospel tells us that they experienced ‘a great joy’–the very star which could not be seen in that dark, worldly palace.

Then the Holy Father spoke of another virtue, “la santa furbizia,” or “holy cleverness”. (I prefer to translate furbizia as “cleverness”; the English transcript of the homily on the Vatican website uses “cunning”, which for me has too sinister a connotation for this context.)  This santa furbizia, according to Francis is a

spiritual shrewdness which enables us to recognize danger and avoid it. The Magi used this light of “cleverness” when, on the way back, they decided not to pass by the gloomy palace of Herod, but to take another route. These wise men from the East teach us how not to fall into the snares of darkness and how to defend ourselves from the shadows which seek to envelop our life.

We now take a brief excursus, which I promise will make sense in the end.  Allow me to comment on the habitually awful and unacceptable English translations which come out of the Vatican.  Rush Limbaugh’s recent outburst against our so-called “Marxist” pope, with much of the American Right (even many Catholics) following blindly lock-step behind him, can be traced to the poor (yet official!) English translation of the post-Synodal exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, which does not preserve even the simplest meanings from the Spanish and Italian original drafts (the originals should be Latin, IMHO, but that’s a different issue).

Beyond the translation of furbizia as “cunning” instead of “cleverness” (a decision that comes down to personal taste, even though my taste is totally right), the idiot who wrote the English version of the sermon left one of its most eloquent motifs practically untranslated, a motif whose mere mention refers to one of the foundational literary works of the West and whose cultural and poetic significance still abides in the modern consciousness.  The sheer ignorance and uncultured stupidity of the translator surely merits for him/her a spot next to Judas Iscariot in the Ninth Circle of Hell, for this is nothing short of a betrayal of the Pope, of Anglophones, of all educated people, omnium hominum bonae voluntatis, of Western civilization, of Holy Mother Church, and of the Almighty Triune God himself (who should reasonably expect Vatican translators to be at least mildly competent).


What crime should merit such acrid condemnation?  If you suffer from hypertension, stop reading now; otherwise, read at your own risk.  What follows is a line from the actual Italian text as delivered viva voce by the Pope, followed by the English translation published on the Vatican website.  After mentioning St. Paul’s comment that the devil can disguise himself as an angel of light, Francis says:

E qui è necessaria la santa “furbizia”, per custodire la fede, custodirla dai canti delle Sirene, che ti dicono: ‘Guarda, oggi dobbiamo fare questo, quello…’

And this is where a holy ‘cunning’ is necessary in order to protect the faith, guarding it from those alarmist voices that exclaim: ‘Listen, today we must do this, or that…’

Madness.  PURE MADNESS.  The Pope forcefully warned us that we should “guard the faith, guard it from the songs of the Sirens“, while Vatican translator– let’s call him “Simplicius”– refers not to the feared and famous femmes fatales of Homeric legend, but to mere alarmist voices.

For those who may hold company with Simplicius or his associates, we supply further explanation: the episode of the Sirens constitutes one of many trials encountered by the Greek hero Odysseus (or Ulysses), that “man of twists and turns driven time and again off course” on his way home to Ithaca “once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy” (cf. The Odyssey, Fagles translation).  Often depicted as attractive women, these lovely, talented, and irresistibly alluring Sirens seduce passing men by their appearance and by their songs (the canti delle Sirene to which the Pope refers).  Their victims, overtaken by desire, lose sight of any meaningful purpose their lives once had, and blindingly go unto the fascinating predators.  It is unclear what exactly the Sirens do to their prey upon capturing them; whether these men are executed, eaten, raped, or enslaved is ultimately of secondary importance to the fact that they are now effectively dead, irretrievably lost to the power of want and greed.

Odysseus, a man gifted in both wisdom and in martial skill, is curious about the song of the Sirens and wants to know it for himself, without of course falling victim to its allure.  He hatches a shrewd plan, demonstrating his own cleverness– his own furbizia: the ship will sail past the Sirens, and Odysseus orders his men to tie him to the mast of his ship, not to unleash him until the Sirens are out of sight.  His men plug their ears with beeswax to block the fatal music as they resolutely row the ship toward Ithaca.

As they approach the Sirens, the sailors, impervious to the song’s effects, keep rowing.  But Odysseus, ears opened and aroused by the Sirens, violently struggles to free himself, demanding with maddened vociferation and hot-headed gestures that his crew release him to the alluring women.  But the more Odysseus tries to escape, the tighter his loyal men fasten him to the ship.  Only when the Sirens recede into the horizon does Odysseus regain his sanity, and his men untie him from the mast.

See ye now what evils hath been wrought by such linguistic misdeeds!  All that wonderful and imaginative background context is lost to the Anglophone reader, all because Simplicius wrote of some indeterminate “alarmist voices” and “voices that raise alarm” instead of the Sirens which the Pope actually mentioned.  As any good preacher, Francis specifically chooses his homiletic words for a specifically intended effect on the reader or listener, even if he tends to improvise off the cuff.

Francis purposefully names the Sirens as a highly apt metaphor for the temptation to sin.  Against this temptation– against the Sirens– we are called to guard the faith, custodire la fede.  Francis knows that succumbing to temptation means in some measure a loss of faith; and how often is sin fascinating, attractive, and desirable!  The “glamour of evil” which we repudiate at Baptism is powerful indeed, and all too often do people lose the faith and follow the song of the Sirens, until they die to their own temptations, vices, and sins. Ma la fede è una grazia, è un dono. A noi tocca custodirla con questa santa “furbizia”, con la preghiera, con l’amore, con la carità— “But the faith,” says Francis, “is a grace and a gift.  It pertains to us to guard it with this holy ‘cleverness’, with prayer, love, and charity”.  The faith is indeed a precious gift to be preserved, for without it, one cannot hope for a share in the redemption.

The Pope who admonished his priests on Holy Thursday to “go to the outskirts” and to be “shepherds with the odor of the sheep” makes a similar appeal to us all on the Epiphany.  Like the Magi who set out on a long, arduous journey with an uncertain fate, we must courageously set out into the dark on our own pilgrimage, to surpass our fears and sins on the way to Christ.  Bisogna andare oltre, oltre il buio, oltre il fascino delle Sirene, oltre la mondanità, oltre tante modernità che oggi ci sono, andare verso Betlemme… “We must go beyond,” says Francis, “beyond the darkness, beyond the allure of the Sirens, beyond worldliness, beyond the many modernities of today, to go towards Bethlehem”.

The furbizia of the Magi was to avoid Herod on the way back home after finding Jesus.  In Pope St. Gregory the Great’s exegesis, this means that after we have come to know Christ, we are forbidden to return by the way we came, to the life of sin and unbelief, for our lives are now transformed. Odysseus’ “cleverness” in face of the Sirens was to trust in the loyalty of his men and to bind himself to the mast, so that despite his own weakness and vigorous protests, he will remain safely on the true course which leads back to Penelope.

We too are in pilgrimage on a ship; from the earliest centuries, Noah’s Ark was seen as an archetype of the Church.  The main part of church buildings which holds the congregation is called the “nave”, from the Latin word for “ship”, navis.  Today, we often call the Church “the Barque of Peter”.  Like the Ark, this ship is often tossed and turned by the waters of sin and death; but if we guard the faith, we will weather the storm and the Sirens will fade away.  If we are clever, let us bind ourselves to the Barque of Peter and zealously adhere to her discipline.  And although we are “driven time and again off course” like Odysseus on the angry sea, we remain confident in the Lord’s promise that hell shall never prevail against the Church, for the wind in her sails is the breath of the Holy Spirit.  If we stay on this ship, we will surely leave behind the glamour of sin and modernity, and we shall behold Jerusalem as the Magi saw her, clothed in light, illuminating the way to Bethlehem, where (as Francis says),

in the simplicity of a dwelling on the outskirts (nelle periferie), beside a mother and father full of love and of faith, there shines the Sun from on high, the King of the universe.  By the example of the Magi, with our little lights, may we seek the Light and guard the faith.  Amen.

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