Pope Benedict XVI- General Audiences
On Romanus the Melodist
"If Faith is Alive, Christian Culture Will Never Be 'Outdated'"
H.H. Benedict XVI
May 21, 2008
Dear Brothers and Sisters:
In the series of catecheses on the Fathers of the Church, I would like
to speak today of one who isn't well known: Romanus the Melodist, born
around the year 490 in Emesa (today Homs) in Syria. Theologian, poet,
composer, he belongs to the group of theologians that have transformed
theology into poetry. We think of his countryman, St. Ephraim of Syria,
who lived 200 years before he did. We can also think of theologians of
the West, such as Ambrose, whose hymns form part of our liturgy and
touch our hearts to this day; or in a theologian, a thinker of great
vigor, such as St. Thomas, gave us the hymns of the feast of Corpus
Christi, which we celebrate tomorrow; we think in St. John of the Cross
and in many others. Faith is love, and so it creates poetry and music.
Faith is joy, and so it creates beauty.
Romanus the Melodist is one of these, poet, theologian and composer. He
learned the foundations of Greek and Syrian culture in his native city,
and then moved to Beritus (now Beirut), to complete his classical
education and knowledge of rhetoric. After being ordained permanent
deacon -- around 515 -- he was a preacher in this city for three years.
He then moved to Constantinople, until the end of the reign of
Anastasius I -- around 518 -- and from there he settled in at the
monastery of the Church of the Theotokos, Mother of God.
A key moment of his life took place there: the Synaxar tells us that
Mary appeared to him in his dreams and gave him the gift of poetic
charism. Mary, in fact, asked him to swallow a scroll. Upon waking the
next day, it was Christmas, Romanus began to recite from the pulpit:
"Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent" (Hymn On the
Nativity, I. Proemium). He became in this way a preacher-cantor until
his death (around 555).
Romanus is known in history as one of the most representative authors of
liturgical hymns. At the time the homily was for the faithful
practically the only opportunity of catechesis. Thus Romanus was not
only an eminent witness of the religious sentiment of his day, but also
of a lively and original method of catechesis. Through his compositions
we can see the creativity of this form of catechesis, of the creativity
of the theological thought, of the aesthetic and the sacred hymnography
of the era.
The place where Romanus preached was a shrine on the outskirts of
Constantinople: he would ascend the pulpit, located in the center of the
Church, and he would speak to the community using a rather elaborate
setting -- he used images on the walls or icons on the pulpit to
illustrate his homilies, and even used dialogue. He recited chanted
metrical hymns, called kontakia. The word "kontakion" --"small rod" --
seems to make reference to the small rod around which he rolled the
scroll of the liturgical manuscript, or another such scroll. There are
89 kontakia attributed today to Romanus, but tradition attributes a
thousand to him.
In Romanus, each kontakion is composed of stanzas, at the most 18-24,
with the same number of syllables structured according to the model of
the first stanza (irmo); the rhythmic accents of the verses of all the
stanzas are modeled according to the "irmo." Each stanza ends with a
refrain (efimnio), in general identical, to create poetic unity.
Furthermore, the beginning of each stanza indicates the name of the
author (acrostico), frequently preceded with the adjective "humble." A
prayer referring to the celebrated or evoked events ends the hymn.
Upon ending the biblical reading, Romanus sung the Proemium, generally
in the form of a prayer or supplication. He thus announced the theme of
the homily, explaining the refrain that was repeated all together at the
end of each stanza, which he recited aloud in cadence.
A significant example is the kontakion for Holy Friday: It is a dialogue
between Mary and her son that takes place on the way of the cross.
Mary says: "Where are you going, son? Why have you completed the path of
you life so rapidly? / I would never have thought, my son, that I would
see you like this. / And I could never have imagined that that the fury
of the wicked could go so far, / laying their hands on you against all
sense of justice."
Jesus responds: "Why are you crying, mother? [...] I shouldn't go? I
shouldn't die? / How will I save Adam?"
Mary's son consoles his mother, but also reminds her of his role in
salvation history: "Lay down, then, mother, lay down your pain: / It is
not fitting for you to cry out, for you were called 'full of grace.'"
(Mary at the Foot of the Cross, 1-2; 4-5).
In the hymn on the sacrifice of Abraham, Sarah reserves for herself the
decision on the life of Isaac. Abraham says: "When Sarah hears, my Lord,
your words, / upon knowing your will, she will tell me: / If the one who
has given wants to take back, why has he given? / [...] You, watchful
one, leave me my son, / and when he who called you wants him, he should
say so to me" (The Sacrifice of Abraham, 7).
Romanus did not use the solemn Byzantine Greek of the imperial court,
but the simple Greek that was close to the language of the people. I
would like to cite here an example of his lively and very personal way
of speaking about the Lord Jesus: he calls him the "spring that does not
burn and the light against the shadows," and says: "I desire to have you
in my hands like a lamp; / in fact, he who carries the light among man
is illuminated without being burned. / Illuminate me, then, you who are
the light that never burns out" (The Presentation, or Feast of
The strength of conviction in his preaching was based on the great
coherence between his words and his life. One prayer says: "Make clean
my tongue, my savior, open my mouth / and, after having filled it,
penetrate my heart so that I may act / that I be coherent with my words"
(Mission of the Apostles, 2).
Let us now examine some of his main themes. A fundamental theme of his
preaching is the unity of the action of God in history, the unity
between creation and the history of salvation, unity between the Old and
Another important theme is pneumatology, the doctrine on the Holy
Spirit. During the celebration of Pentecost he underlines the continuity
that exists between Christ, who ascended to heaven, and the apostles,
that is to say, the Church, and he exalts missionary action in the
world: "With divine virtue they have conquered all men; / they have
taken up the cross of Christ like a pen, / they have used words like
fishing nets and with them they have fished all over the world, / they
have used the word of God as a sharp hook, / and they have used as bait
/ the meat of the Sovereign One of the universe" (Pentecost 2:18).
Another central theme is, of course, Christology. He does not involve
himself in the difficult theological concepts, highly debated at that
time, which tore at the unity among theologians and Christians in the
Church. He preached a simple Christology, but fundamental, the
Christology of the great councils. But above all he spoke of popular
piety, in fact the concepts of the councils came from popular piety and
the knowledge of the Christian heart, and in this way Romanus underlined
that Christ is true man and true God, and being true man-God, is only
one person, the synthesis of creation and Creator, in whose human words
we hear the voice of the Word of God himself. "He was man," he said,
"Christ, but he was also God, / now, he wasn't divided in two: He is
one, son of a Father who is only one" (The Passion, 19).
Regarding what he said about Mariology, in thanksgiving to the Virgin
for the give of poetic charism, Romanus remembers her at the end of
almost all of his hymns, and he dedicated to her some of his most
beautiful kontakia: Christmas, Annunciation, Divine Motherhood, New Eve.
Lastly, his moral teachings are related to the last judgment (The Ten
Virgins, [II]). He takes us to this moment of truth of our lives, the
appearance before the just Judge, and for this he exhorts us to
conversion in penitence and fasting. The Christian should practice
charity and almsgiving.
He accentuated the primacy of charity over continence in two hymns --
The Wedding at Cana and The Ten Virgins. Charity is the greatest of the
virtues: "Ten virgins possessed intact the virtue of virginity, / But
for five of them the practice prove futile. / The others shown with
their lamps of love for humanity, / And for this the bridegroom invited
them in." (The Ten Virgins, 1).
Palpitating humanity, arduous faith and profound humility pervade the
songs of Romanus the Melodist. This great poet and composer reminds us
of the entire treasure of Christian culture, born of faith, born of the
heart that has found Christ, the Son of God. From this contact of the
heart with the truth that is love, culture is born, the entire great
And if the faith continues to live, this cultural inheritance will not
die, but rather it will continue to live and be current. Icons continue
to speak to the hearts of believers to this day, they are not things of
the past. The cathedrals are not medieval monuments, rather houses of
life, where we feel "at home": where we find God and each other. Neither
is great music -- the Gregorian chant, Bach or Mozart -- something of
the past, rather it lives in the vitality of the liturgy and our faith.
If faith is alive, Christian culture will never be "outdated," but
rather will remain alive and current. And if faith is alive, we can
respond to the imperative that is always repeated in the psalms: "Sing
an new song unto the Lord."
Creativity, innovation, new song, new culture, and presence of the
entire cultural inheritance are not mutually exclusive, but one reality:
the presence of the beauty of God and of the joy of being his sons and
[Translation by Karna Swanson]
[The Holy Father then greeted the people in several languages. In
English, he said:]
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In todayís catechesis we turn to the Christian poetry of Romanus the
Melodist. Born in Syria at the end of the fifth century, Romanus
received a classical education, was ordained a deacon, and settled in
Constantinople. His preaching took the form of chanted metrical hymns
known as "kontakia", consisting of an introduction and a series of
stanzas punctuated by a refrain. Some eighty-nine of these have come
down to us, and they testify to the rich theological, liturgical and
devotional content of the hymnography of that time. Composed in simple
language accessible to his hearers, these kontakia are notable for their
dramatic dialogues and their use of sustained metaphors. Romanus was a
catechist concerned to communicate the unity of Godís saving plan
revealed in Christ. His hymns, steeped in Scripture, develop the
teaching of the early Councils on the divinity of the Son, the mystery
of the Incarnation, the person and role of the Holy Spirit, and the
dignity of the Virgin Mary. Romanus shows us the power of symbolic
communication which, in the liturgy, joins earth to heaven and uses
imagery, poetry and song to lift our minds to Godís truth.
I offer a warm greeting to the delegation from the Allied Joint Force
Command Naples, together with the members of their families. Dear
friends, may your cooperation in the service of peace contribute to a
future of hope for coming generations. I also welcome the seminarians
from the Diocese of Richmond and the many student groups present. I
thank the choirs for their praise of God in song. Upon all the
English-speaking pilgrims, especially those from England, Denmark,
Nigeria, Australia and the United States, I cordially invoke Godís
blessings of joy and peace.
© Copyright 2008 -- Libreria Editrice Vaticana
at the One they Pierced!
This page is the work of
the Servants of the Pierced Hearts of Jesus and Mary