Friday, March 14, 2014
Pope Francis a year on: A friend reveals a very special gift
VATICAN: In anyone else it could be taken for ingratitude but, in line with his mantra of “a poor church, for the poor”, Pope Francis has made a point of selling on, in aid of the needy, the gifts that have rained down on him since he was elected to the papacy exactly a year ago on Thursday.
Such self-denial extended even to the Harley-Davidson presented to him by the manufacturers last June, subsequently auctioned for �250,000. But Papa Francisco is likely to make an exception for the latest piece of top-of-the-range, precision craftwork heading his way.
The Argentine silversmith, Juan Carlos Pallarols, whose clients include Bill Clinton, Antonio Banderas and Sharon Stone, is making Pope Francis a ceremonial chalice, the cup held aloft by the priest during the mass at the moment of consecration. It is, first and foremost, a very personal gift, hand-crafted like all Pallarols’ creations, from one old friend to another.
The two men go back a long way. Near contemporaries – Pallarols is 71 to the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s 77 - they used to sit side-by-side at the same barber in the historic San Telmo district of Buenos Aires where Pallarols still lives and works. Pope Francis is one of the family. He married his sons.
“He doesn’t change,” the silversmith reflects, perched on a stool at a bench in his treasure trove of a studio, an ancient foundry fire alight behind him. “When he was archbishop here, dignitaries would come to visit him and give him gifts. If they were made of gold or silver, Bergoglio would quietly bring them to me afterwards to melt them down. He told me to sell the metal and pass the money to the priests working in the shanty towns. He insisted that I hand over the money. He didn’t want anyone knowing it had really come from him.”
However, the chalice now being finished in a workspace that is filled with the tools that seven generations of the Pallarols family have used in their craft (its unchanging air prompted another recent visitor to liken it to walking into Gutenburg’s original 15th-century printing works) also has a wider significance that should guarantee it doesn’t end up being recycled.
Its maker has enlisted the support – shown by them tapping the unfinished cup with his lightweight hammer – of an estimated five million people around the globe.
“I wanted this chalice to be a celebration of all that Papa Francisco is bringing to the world, of his humility and his humanity,” he explains, “but also for it to be a sign of peace, of people around the world joining together.”
Over the past 12 months, therefore, wherever he has travelled – and the renown of his creations is such that he holds regular exhibitions in New York, Paris and Tokyo, and is currently working on a commission to create figures for the exterior of Gaudi’s unique Sagrada Familia Basilica in Barcelona – Pallarols has carried with him the work-in-progress chalice.
And in each destination, he has invited all those present symbolically to tap the precious metal as a gesture of encouragement for the Pope in his work of reforming the Catholic Church. But five million seems an awfully big number, I puzzle, even for a globetrotter like Pallarols.
His eyes twinkle as if to say “more or less”. He is an artist, not a bean-counter, but there is no doubting the seriousness with which he has gone about his task. “On the plane to Paris last September,” he recalls, “I saw an opportunity to get out the chalice and ask passengers and crew to tap it.”
This is the showman side to an otherwise softly spoken, silver-haired craftsman. His tall, thin home, for example, contains not only his studio but also a small, cluttered and flamboyant museum to the entirety of the family output. Later he leads me on a guided tour, complete with anecdotes about a copy of the silver rose he made for Earl Spencer to mark the death of his sister, Diana, Princess of Wales, and the death mask his father had fashioned for “Evita” Peron, wife of the Argentinian President Juan Peron, after she died of cancer in 1952 at the age of 33.
Now he is reaching over the workbench to one of the handsomely-bound presentation books, signed by many of those who have tapped the chalice, and also to be given to the Pope. One entry in particular catches my eye. “On the [Feast] Day of the Virgin of Lujan, patron of Argentina, our country,” it reads in Spanish, “and in the name of all Argentines who love their country, affectionately.” Underneath in capital letters, is spelt out Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, the Argentine president.
“I have persuaded her to do it, for me,” Pallarols confides. During Cardinal Bergoglio’s time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he was so critical from the pulpit of the economic and social record of Mrs Fernandez de Kirchner, and her predecessor, her late husband Nestor Kirchner, that the couple refused to attend a mass said by him.
Reconciling the president and the pope, though, may no longer be such a high mountain to climb. It is hard, after all, to shun the famous Argentine on the planet. But Pallarols has also taken on with his chalice arguably an even tougher challenge.
Before finally setting off to Rome to present it to Pope Francis, he is hoping to make one last stop-off at what he refers to as the Malvinas, to us the Falklands. He wants to give the 3,000 or so islanders their chance to tap for peace. “I have been invited,” he assures me, “but the details are difficult”.
If he does manage to get there en route to the Vatican, it will have a curious symbolism all of its own. The Pallarols family have been silversmiths to the papacy all the way back to Leo XIII in the 19th century. And so it was Pallarols’ father who made the chalice that Pope John Paul II held up in June 1982 during the “Mass of Peace” on his hastily-arranged visit to Buenos Aires, part of his failed efforts to avoid war with Britain over the island.
With great ceremony, Pallarols hands me the small hammer and invites me to add my tap on the chalice to all the others. It is still in two sections, the upper bowl and the large base, each on their moulds and waiting to be joined by a delicate stem. The sound of metal on metal gives out its own pleasing note of music.
But I’m worried. Given Pope Francis’ very public dislike of ostentation – he has ditched the elaborate robes, fancy apartment and stretch limos favoured by his predecessor – might he find a silver chalice a bit too fancy for his tastes?
“This is a much simpler chalice than the one I made for Benedict XVI,” Pallarols reassures me. “His was made from silver and gold. This one, though, will be plain, and only silver. And it has been touched by five million admirers. It would be hard for him to say no to that.”