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Theological Notebook: Odder Articles: A Theme of Cardinal Portraiture; Muskrat for Lent in Michigan

Here's a few articles that I thought interesting and a bit more "off the beaten path." In the first, I thought the artist's idea of a theme of exploring the cardinals in portraiture an interesting one, particularly given the rather predictable reactions he relates. In the second, I just thought it one of those fascinatingly diverse and human aspects of how Catholicism get lived, historically. I mean, muskrat?!!

New York artist sets up easel in Rome to paint humanity of cardinals
By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

ROME (CNS) -- When New York artist Alex Melamid watched the funeral of Pope John Paul II on TV in 2005, he was struck by the way the cardinals all looked the same -- as iconic dignitaries in red vestments.

This year, Melamid has set up his easel in Rome. He is hoping to get below the surface image of cardinals and other church figures by painting their portraits.

"Cardinals should be seen as individuals. I think they have something to communicate, and that's what I want to capture in my art," Melamid said.

On an afternoon in late February, Melamid was working in his studio on a portrait of Portuguese Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins. The cardinal sat on a wooden chair, wearing scarlet robes and a gold and ivory pectoral cross.

But the painter was not much interested in the cross, at least not yet. He was working in quick strokes to catch the expression, daubing more red on a cheek and putting a gleam in the cardinal's eye.

Cardinal Saraiva chatted amiably, occasionally sampling a cookie or a strawberry from a nearby tray.

"I can sit two or three hours without getting tired. I'm a patient man," he said. The cardinal, whose apartment walls are lined with paintings, consented to pose when he heard Melamid was trying to use art to open a window onto the upper levels of the church.

"I agree with his idea that we need more communication," said Cardinal Saraiva, who heads the Vatican's Congregation for Saints' Causes.

Melamid was working on his second canvas of the cardinal. The first, although a stunningly realistic likeness, was a bit too stiff for the artist's taste.

"It was too much cardinal. Now I'm humanizing him," Melamid said.

Melamid hopes to eventually paint 10 or 15 church figures during his stay in Rome. It's a whole new subject area for him.

"I'd never met a cardinal in my life. When I told friends I wanted to do these portraits, they said, 'Cardinals! My God, no!'" he said.

That reaction only helped convince Melamid that many people inside and outside the art community view members of the church hierarchy with an equal amount of fascination and prejudice, but without really seeing them as human beings.

"I want to show these religious people to the world, without words or explanation, and without any agenda," he said.

"They shouldn't be afraid of us, and we shouldn't be afraid of them," he said.

A native of Russia, Melamid emigrated to Israel and then the United States in 1978, where he and a colleague developed a form of conceptual art that took provocative aim at Soviet realism.

More recently, he gained attention when he taught elephants how to paint, in a nonprofit venture that funds a save-the-elephant program in Thailand.

New York artist Alex Melamid stands in front of his
painting of Portuguese Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins,
prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for Saints' Causes.
(CNS/Alessia Giuliani, CPP)

Muskrat love: A Lenten Friday delight for some Michiganders
By Kristin Lukowski
Catholic News Service

RIVERVIEW, Mich. (CNS) -- There's an alternative to fish for some Michigan Catholics abstaining from meat on Fridays in Lent -- muskrat.

The custom of eating muskrat on Ash Wednesday and Fridays in Lent apparently goes back to the early 1800s, the time of Father Gabriel Richard, an early missionary in Michigan whose flock included French-Canadian trappers. Legend has it that because trappers and their families were going hungry not eating flesh during Lent, he allowed them to eat muskrat, with the reasoning that the mammal lives in the water.

The story varies on just where in Michigan the dispensation extends. Among areas mentioned are along the Raisin River, along the Rouge River, both of which flow into Lake Erie south of Detroit, Monroe County in the southeast corner of Michigan, or all of southeast Michigan.

The Detroit archdiocesan communications department said there is a standing dispensation for Catholics downriver -- in Detroit's southern suburbs and below -- to eat muskrat on Fridays, although no documentation of the original dispensation could be found.

A 2002 archdiocesan document on Lenten observances, in addition to outlining the general laws of fast and abstinence, says, "There is a long-standing permission -- dating back to our missionary origins in the 1700s -- to permit the consumption of muskrat on days of abstinence, including Fridays of Lent."

The prospect of eating muskrat, a foot-long rodent, might be less than appetizing to some, but to many people downriver it's part of Lenten life.

St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Newport holds a muskrat dinner every year to raise funds for the parish's youth sports teams. The early February dinner includes sides of creamed corn and mashed potatoes. It features prizes donated by local merchants and serves up to several hundred dinners.

Bill "Pip" Chinavare was president of the sports club for 29 years and still heads up the muskrat fundraiser. His wife, Candy, said not many women participate in the annual dinner.

"This is a men's thing," she said. "They pack the men in."

"The majority of women can't get past the 'rat' thing," she said.

Father Russ Kohler, pastor at Most Holy Trinity Parish in Detroit and a downriver native, is a regular at the St. Charles Borromeo muskrat dinners. He said the trick to making the muskrat edible is in the marinade, a secret recipe based on a French liqueur.

He said he never ate muskrat before he attended the dinner while filling in at St. Charles as a priest. He's tried to make the dinner every year since then.

"I didn't fall in love with the product until I could drink beer," he joked.

He said muskrat has the consistency of chicken, but with a "unique" taste.

Johnny Kolakowski, owner of Riverview's Kola's Food Factory, has been eating muskrat since he was a kid. When he opened up his restaurant years ago, he put muskrat on the menu.

He can sell several dozen muskrat dinners on a Friday, but they were more popular back in the 1980s, when he would sell 150 a night. The tradition's less popular with the younger crowd, but it's not uncommon for young men to come in -- with their cameras -- and order a muskrat dinner.

Kolakowski, 59, a member of St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish in Wyandotte, said muskrat tastes the same as duck. Both animals live in the water and have the same diet -- the only difference is one walks and one flies, he said.

His muskrats come from a trapper in Canada and they're served with sides of sauerkraut and mashed potatoes and gravy. The best part of a muskrat is the hind legs, he said.

The late Bishop Kenneth Povish of Lansing wrote in a 1987 column in The Michigan Catholic, Detroit archdiocesan newspaper, that "no (formal) dispensation was ever given to allow Catholics to eat muskrat on Fridays."

He referred to what he called the "Great Interdiocesan Doctrinal Debate" of 1956, during which he determined that although muskrat is a warm-blooded mammal and technically flesh, the custom had been so long held along Michigan's rivers and marshes that it was "immemorial custom," thus allowed under church law.

For the record, Bishop Povish didn't much care for muskrat as a meal. He wrote that "anyone who could eat muskrat was doing penance worthy of the greatest of the saints."
Tags: art, catholicism, cultural, ecclesiology, historical, mysticism/spirituality, theological notebook

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