Peace B w/ U
Pope Benedict XVI has gone high-tech. On July 15, the opening of World Youth Day celebrations in Sydney, Australia, Benedict sent the first of his daily text messages to an undisclosed number of pilgrims registered for the world’s largest youth gathering. The message read: “Young friend, God and his people expect much from u because u have within you the Fathers supreme gift: the Spirit of Jesus.” Signed, “BXVI.” Benedict’s messages focused on the role of the Holy Spirit in the lives of young Christians. On the fourth day, using abbreviations common among the millennial generation, Benedict wrote, “The spirit impels us 4ward 2wards others; the fire of his love makes us missionaries of God’s charity. See u tomorrow nite - BXVI.” The text messages serve as a creative venue to communicate Gospel hope, and Benedict should be commended for employing this tool.
Amid the excitement of receiving a “text” from the pope, however, pilgrims should not neglect Benedict’s full WYD message. Benedict wisely tempered his openness to gadgetry with warnings about the “the cult of material possessions” and the perils of “acquiring as many possessions and luxuries as we can.” Undisciplined desire for the latest technological practices (texting, for instance) can be a symptom of consumerism. What results in the “spiritual desert” of a materially rich society, according to Benedict, is “an interior emptiness, an unnamed fear, a quiet sense of despair.” In our technological age, the quantity of communication has increased, but the quality—that personal encounter with Christ in the other person—has deteriorated. Through his words and example, BXVI is teaching us that technology, which can be used for good, should not be used uncritically and without reflection.
Finally, a Favorite Son
This August, 132 years after Thomas Eakins painted it, a masterpiece of American realist art will be on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, its new home. Newspapers reported the efforts of various museums to buy “The Gross Clinic,” considered by many to be one of the greatest canvasses in American art. But reports of the $68 million deal fail to describe the human drama behind the sale: a city’s change of heart toward one of its own.
Eakins, a former medical student, had painstakingly created the work for the city’s Centennial Exhibition, the first World’s Fair held in the United States. It showed an outstanding Philadelphian making a medical breakthrough. Eakins depicted Dr. Gross, the most distinguished surgeon of his day, in the operating theater demonstrating a surgical technique to his students. But showing an actual operation shocked the exhibition judges, who had never seen anything like it. The surgeon’s bloody fingers and the bared thigh of the patient repelled them. Most critics agreed that it was indecent. Eakins nearly burst into tears when he saw where the judges had hung his painting—not in the art galleries, but in a corner of an outlying building rigged up like a battlefield hospital unit.
By purchasing this particular work, the Philadelphia art establishment has shown pride in an artist its predecessors had spurned throughout his lifetime, not only for his work, but for his insistence on teaching students to paint the human body from live nude models and for unproved allegations of personal misconduct. The story, familiar in art history, demonstrates that the public can gradually come to value an artist’s work that in the artist’s own day was scorned. After the centennial embarrassment, Eakins gave “The Gross Clinic” to the Jefferson Medical School, where Dr. Gross taught, which kept the painting for a century until two museums outside Pennsylvania offered to buy it. Then the Philadelphia Museum sprang into action.
Europeans! They’re everywhere. Residents of nearly any American city from Atlanta, Ga., to Zwingle, Iowa, will concur that the new tourist to be found in the United States these days is from the Old World. Our summer streets are still crowded with visitors taking in the sights and awkwardly posing for contrived photos, but this year people are skinnier, they all seem to be wearing neon, and they are renting bikes. What on earth is going on?
The dollar has collapsed. The euro is king. Don’t think so? Walk out into the area of your town or city most likely to be visited by the all-American tourists who usually travel this time of year, and open your ears. German, French, Spanish and Slavic tongues are everywhere, but only every now and then does one hear a variant of that protean language called American English that we are used to hearing during tourist season. Why? Is gas too expensive? Has history reversed itself? Is the sky falling?
Hard to tell. But according to the word on the street these days, the United States is a cheap country to travel in and a cheap place to shop. And the people buying everything—everything—in our shops this summer are from a continent that 10 years ago looked as if it were headed for economic irrelevancy. We welcome our European visitors, but remain surprised.