March 20, 2009


Stewards of hope: An image for our time

Writing on “the spiritual basis and ecclesial identity of theology” in his book The Nature and Mission of Theology, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) describes a powerful image found in the Romanesque cathedral of Troia in southern Italy.

The image, a sculpture found on the pulpit, dates back to 1158 and depicts an amazing scene: A huge lion has captured a lamb and is in the process of devouring it with its powerful claws and teeth. The lamb’s body is already torn open. Its bones are visible, and it’s obvious that bits of flesh have already been gobbled away. Only the infinitely mournful gaze of the little animal assures the onlooker that the lamb, though almost torn to pieces, is still alive.

A third animal, a small white dog, is attacking the lion although it is clearly no match for it. The little dog will not succeed in its efforts to defeat the much larger animal, but its attack will oblige the beast to release the lamb. The dog sacrifices itself to protect the lamb from the brutal violence of the predatory lion.

“Whereas the significance of the lamb is in some sense clear,” the Holy Father writes, “the question remains to be answered: Who is the lion? Who is the small white dog?”

No official explanation exists. The artist left no interpretation of his work, and there are no references to this sculpture in art history.

As a result, Pope Benedict suggests an interpretation based on his understanding of the time in which the work was created and its location on the cathedral’s pulpit.

The lamb is Christ’s Church. The lion is heresy (false teaching), which is tearing apart the Church, and the small dog is the truth (sacred doctrine) which courageously attempts to save the Church from the deadly grip of untruth.

The pope concludes his reflection on this sacred work of art by suggesting that this image, which asks a question that can never be answered decisively, can be seen “as an examination of conscience for pastors and for theologians, since both can be ravening predators or protectors of the flock.”

With due respect to the Holy Father, and to the original artist, I would like to suggest another interpretation which in no way contradicts this view, but perhaps brings it into sharper focus for our times. Suppose we look at the three animals this way:

  • The lamb represents the most vulnerable members of our human family—the unborn and those who are unable to care for themselves.
  • The lion represents the false teaching of those who view human life as disposable (using euphemisms such as “reproductive choice” or “mercy killing”).
  • The small white dog stands for people of good will who oppose the destructive forces of evil that are tearing apart those who are most innocent and unable to defend themselves.

From a human perspective, the actions of the small white dog are pure foolishness. The weaker animal cannot hope to defeat the much stronger one.

And yet, Pope Benedict reminds us that, in this sacred image, the dog is a guardian or steward of hope. “It is the sheep dog, which stands for the shepherd himself: The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (Jn 10:11).

We are called to be stewards of hope. Like the little white dog, we dare not hesitate in attacking the larger and more powerful forces that are out there—tearing apart the innocent and the weak.

And lest we forget, the image on the pulpit in the cathedral of Troia reminds us most graphically that our sacrifices can truly make a difference no matter how foolish and inconsequential they may appear to be.

Let’s not hesitate to take on the brutal violence of our day—in whatever forms it appears. As guardians of hope, we are called to defend the weak against the powerful forces of evil.

May God give us the courage and the strength to be faithful stewards of his holy hope.

—Daniel Conway

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