Josepmaria Tarragona is one of the world's leading experts on the architect of the Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudi, and one of the founders of the association which is promoting Gaudi's sainthood. I sat down with him over coffee this morning after visiting the Basilica with Tarragona and an Italian film team, and asked him: how would Gaudi have felt about yesterday's consecration of the Sagrada Familia by Pope Benedict?
Tarragona. He would have been delighted. Gaudi gave his life for God and for the Church building the Sagrada Familia not in order to create an architectural revolution or to build a popular tourist attraction, both which of course it is, but for worship. He was in love with God, and wanted to offer the object of his love a functioning place of worship, and that was his objective. Yesterday that’s what it became. His vision was that the solemn liturgies of the SF would be the most faithful reflection of, and most complete aesthetic participation in, the celestial liturgy that is possible on this earth. It is the most elegant church in Christendom, because it is designed for that maximum reflection and participation.
What the moments yesterday which brought that home?
There were many extraordinary moments. One was when the cantors and the clergy and the thousands in the congregation sung together in praise of God, echoing and amplifying through the vaults above and out over the city through the towers – I was deeply moved by that. It was not a show attended by 6,000 people, but a participation of all the people, with the clergy, around the Supreme Pontiff, praising God in the forest described in Revelation, which Gaudi has created in the Sagrada Familia. The closest possible approximation to the celestial liutrgy was what we celebrated yesterday. The other moments were in the rite consecration itself: the oil of chrism, the incense, the fire and the light.
I was amazed by how much oil of chrism was smothered on the altar.
Gaudi would have loved that. He had a strong sense of the generosity of God – which is why he wanted to create the biggest and most magnificent church ever built. The Pope’s gesture was coherent with that – a big jug of oil, an enormous dish of incense.
And the Pope’s homily? I was struck by what he said about Gaudi putting outside his church what is normally inside, and vice-versa.
You saw Pope Benedict the theologian yesterday – an Augustinian theologian – as well as a pastor of the Church who understands what humanity needs and is looking for. Many theologians have drunk from St Teresa of Avila; Pope Benedict is the first theologian to have drunk from Gaudi. I’m often asked: where did Gaudi get this from -- did he study theology, had he been a seminarian? No, he never studied theology -- nor did St Teresa. As the Pope said, he was nourished by three books: the Great Book of Nature, the Book of Scriptures, and the book of liturgy. For Gaudi each was a revelation: the first, as it was for St Francis of Assisi, was a revelation of God, because God speaks firstly through his creatures, through what he has created; Scripture is the revelation of the nature of God, and in liturgy he discovers how the infinite can be expressed in the finite. So what Pope Benedict said was extraordinarily accurate.
In one sense, Gaudi’s vision was close to Pope Benedict’s agenda in Spain -- to bring together what modern Spain has sought to separate: faith and reason, beauty and holiness, freedom and truth, God and man.
Pope Benedict talked of the anticlericalism of the 1930s, which is what nourishes the laicismo of today’s Spain, especially in Zapatero’s government ...
But many people have criticised that reference, because the pope only refers to one side of the story. The other side is the Church losing the workers in the nineteenth century and becoming identified with the propertied class, and reactionary politics.
But he was right to show that the origin of today’s secularism lies in the anticlericalism of the 1930s – although really it’s much earlier, in the first decade of the century in Barcelona. The first major anticlerical assault, the Semana Trágica of 1909, resulted in the torching of a third of the city’s churches – that happened in Gaudi’s lifetime, just when he was building the Sagrada Familia. Of course that was a more physically violent anticlericalism, and we live in a more democratic and pluralist age, but ideologically the trenches are the same, and in many ways are deeper today – look at how the Pope has been received by the secularist press. Gaudi was in the middle of those struggles, and the Sagrada Familia was built because of them – as an expiation for the sins of the Revolution in the first decades of the twentieth century.
But Gaudi’s response to that anticlericalism was very different from the Catholic upper class of his day.
Yes, he built schools and sought to help his workers, to deal with the causes of their discontent. Which is why the Sagrada Familia was spared.
Do you think that the future attempt to have an encounter between Catholicism and secularism in Spain, which is what the Pope called for, Gaudi could be an important figure?
He built the Sagrada Familia for everyone, and his love for Catalonia, and for the working class, is an important signpost. The Catalan Renaixenca, which lasts until the 1920s, has two roots – one Catholic, and the other anticlerical. But of all the European cultural movements of the time, the Catalan one is the most Catholic.
How important has this visit been for Catholic Catalan nationalism?
The flowering of Catholic catalanismo was frustrated by Franco and his followers, who spoke of the enemies of Spain as the enemies of God. The Church played a monstrous role, for which it paid a very heavy price, in backing Franco. The result has been the deChristianisation of the subsequent generations. The fact that only half of Catalans have their children baptised is in large part because of the hatred of the Church because of its identification with the Franco dictatorship.
But now, for Catalan Catholics to show that it’s possible to be democratic, Catholic and pro-Catalonia, the Pope’s visit was important.
The fact that the Pope used so much Catalan in the liturgy shows a whole new awareness in the Vatican, and has gone a long way to healing the disgust that people here felt when Pope John Paul II came here in 1982, when he prayed the Angelus at the Sagrada Familia and began his speech with the phrase: Barceloneses, españoles todos. The speech of course had been prepared for him by the bishops. But it was how Franco always began his speeches, and it was extraordinarily offensive. Imagine: the Pope, in the symbol of catalanidad, began his speech in the same way. How could Catholics say that the Church was not pro-Franco? So the fact that the Pope this time could address people in Catalan in the Sagrada Familia – it means a lot to people.
So the Pope may not have healed the breach between secularists and Catholics, but he’s done a lot to heal the wounds of history in the Church.
Exactly. Gaudi would be happy.