Back to the Olive Tree: Toward a Mediterranean theology

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Jean-Pierre Sonnet, SJ

 Jean-Pierre Sonnet, SJ / Church Thought / 10 August 2021


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In his June 21, 2019, address in Naples, Pope Francis encouraged the elaboration of a Mediterranean theology. This theology, he specified, will bring into play “new narratives”: “There is a need for renewed and shared narratives that, starting from listening to the roots and the present, speak to the hearts of people, narratives in which it is possible to recognize oneself in a constructive, peaceful and hope-generating way.”

This essay will sketch an outline of such a narrative, starting with a “composition of place.” That place is the spot Pope Francis was speaking from, where, through a frame of the thick branches of large trees, he could glimpse the Gulf of Naples, while to his right was a row of monumental holm oaks, the oak native to the Mediterranean basin with its evergreen foliage.

This essay will also consider the Mediterranean through its trees and, in particular, through one of them, the olive, which has a distinctive role in the landscape, social life and religious heritage of the Mediterranean.[1] It will be a matter of accepting the evidence that trees make cultures and religions better. They give them a surplus of sweetness. The olive tree, which is grown along all coasts and inland in this basin, does so in a unique way. The Roman agronomist of the first century Columella wrote that it is “the first of all trees.” It is also first in the way it sweetens human and religious experience.[2]

We do not intend to provide encyclopedic information about the olive tree, botanical or otherwise; rather, we propose to strive to think, beginning from the tree, learning “its way of being in the world and composing with space and time.”[3] Unlike Plato, who in the Phaedrus stated that he had nothing to learn from trees,[4] these pages will go to the olive as to a school, or , as to a wise man.

Addressing the pine trees, the poet Francois Ponge called out: “Arise, pine trees, arise in the word. You are not known, give your formula,”[5] will be addressed here to the olive tree. It too has a formula, a way, a character that it is important to scrutinize, to bring to our attention. It will help us to compose ourselves in space and time, in society and before God.

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