Many Italians were angered Nov. 3 when the European Court of Human Rights ruled that crucifixes should not be hung on the walls of Italy’s public schools.

But the ruling was just the latest in an incremental process of radical secularism in Europe that is increasingly eroding the Continent’s Christian identity. More urgently than ever, it seems, Europe needs to be reminded of its Christian roots and heritage, as Pope Benedict XVI and John Paul II have consistently argued.

All of which makes an exhibition in Rome particularly timely.

“Power and Grace — the Holy Patrons of Europe,” featuring 120 priceless works of art, takes the visitor on a journey through the history of the ups and downs of the church-state relationship in Europe. It will end Jan. 31, 2010.

Located at the prestigious Palazzo Venezia Museum in central Rome, the exhibit opened Oct. 7 to great acclaim and was attended by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican secretary of state, and the Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi.

“Power and Grace” displays mostly original masterpieces by Van Eyck, Memling, Mantegna, Titian, Veronese, Van Dyck, Murillo and Tiepolo. There is Hans Memling’s famous portrait of St. Benedict of Nursia, Caravaggio’s St. John the Baptist, Van Eyck’s St. Francis of Assisi receiving the stigmata, and El Greco’s St. Louis IX of France.

Also included are reproductions of Holbein’s St. Thomas More and the 12th-century crown of St. Stephen of Hungary.

“It is an extraordinary exhibition,” said Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture. “It interweaves holiness and Europe with its Christian matrix, often dismissed or ignored in our day, but fundamentally intended to nourish history and culture.”

The exhibit begins by explaining how Europe’s saints played a central role in building Western civilization — not solely as martyrs, missionaries and monks, but also as holy rulers, women and teachers. It educates visitors on how martyrs, losing their lives in the clash between power and grace, resulted in “a paradox,” contributing to the “consolidation of the first communities of faithful.”

In another section, an accompanying text underlines how, in different periods of European history, “power becomes a threat for the libertas ecclesiae because it either combats or corrupts it.”

Particular attention is also paid to France and how the country became “emblematic of the interweaving of royal and religious power in the Middle Ages.” And in a section on faith and charity, the exhibition notes how the virtues confer on the saints “a special power of benevolence and mediation between God and human beings.”

The magnificent artwork helps the visitor to understand how ordinary holy men and women helped form Europe through living extraordinary lives, as well as recording the more dramatic clashes between church and state, such as the murder of St. Thomas à Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, depicted in a painting by the Austrian Renaissance painter Michael Pacher.

Another wing dwells on the crucial importance of monasticism in European history. Without it, the exhibition explains, “the transmission of a classical, cultural heritage to Europe would have been seriously compromised.”

A section is devoted to Europe’s six patron saints — three men and three women: Benedict of Nursia, Cyril and Methodius, Bridget of Sweden, Catherine of Siena and Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.

Included at the end is a text which poses an important question: How best can Western civilization interact positively for the benefit of humanity? The reader is directed to Matthew 22:16-22, which, it says, suggests the first step towards “building the appropriate relationship between secular and religious communities.”

But it also adds: “The purpose of Christians is not to lay down the foundation for a theory of separation of state and church but to state simply and radically that only God is to be worshipped, never the caesar of the day. This exhibit leads to the conclusion that the balance between power and grace depends on the principle of religious freedom, which is the criterion for properly understanding the principle of the secularization of the state. This involves recognizing the dignity of human beings in whose consciences are born, freely according to reason, their responses to God, which no power can reduce or prevent. The desacralization of power is the only way to avoid the danger of the corruption of power itself, while the Church avoids the temptation of power.”

The exhibition was the brainchild of Father Alessio Geretti, a priest from the small village of Illegio in the Italian Alps, and members of a local cultural committee called Comitato Florian.

Father Geretti pointed out that despite European history being filled with clashes between church and state, “that didn’t manage to conceal a history which remains primarily a positive and fruitful encounter between Christianity and culture, between Church and society.”

He added that what the exhibition tries to convey is an evolution in “models of holiness,” showing that in every era Europeans have been able to refer to contemporary models of sanctity.

“In a sense it is as if God reacted to the complex situation in each stage of history with certain types of men and with certain kinds of saints,” he said.

“In the Europe of pluralism and democracy,” he added, “holiness is the most convincing form that a religion can take. The lives of the saints persuade without constraining. I truly believe that in this age — which, as Paul VI said, does not so much need teachers as witnesses — the saints are still the face of a Church that has the ability to speak to the heart of the people and to bring the dominant culture into crisis, unmasking all of its inhumanity.”

Interestingly, the committee’s intention was originally to have a much smaller exhibit in northern Italy, but the idea attracted the favor of both the Vatican and the Italian government, which led to it being staged in Rome — a small but symbolic example of how church and state can work together for the benefit of all.

Edward Pentin writes from Rome.