San Silvestro in Capite, Santa Maria in Aracoeli, Il Gesu, Roma

Today, Wednesday, the sun came out!

Last night we visited our niece in Trastevere (I finally learned to pronounce the accent on the second not the third syllable which is progress of a sort) who is here for her UC Berkeley semester in Rome.  We dined at Sabatini, a wonderful place on the colorful Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere.  Good wine, great food, and charming atmosphere, and I even enjoyed the serenading.  The owners posed with us for a picture before leaving.

This morning we donned our dark glasses and, with two copies ofPilgrimage tucked in my bag, headed down the hill to the Spanish Steps, on to the Anglo-American Bookshop on Via del Vite where a pleasant young man accepted my little book and the announcements of future releases.  We moved on down the hill to San Sylvestro in Capite, the English Church in Rome.

We had visited this church several times in the past, fascinated with their very important relic, the head of John the Baptist.  I wondered why it wasn’t under the high altar, but venerated in a small shrine off the north narthex.  The church is delicate and Baroque, and I paused in the first pew to say a prayer.

We found the Priest-in-Charge in an office off the narthex.  The charming Father John Fitzpatrick was most gracious about my novel.  He gave me a book on San Sylvestro in exchange and said a new reliquary was on its way for their famous relic.  I made a mental vow to attend Sunday Mass there the next time we visit Rome.

We continued down the Corso to Santa Maria in Aracoeli (altar of heaven).  I knew Franciscans cared for the church and hoped for more gifts for my Franciscan friend at home.  We climbed the 124 stairs of the Capitoline complex to reach the church (our workout for the day), a 13th-century basilica built over earlier churches that rose over a Roman temple.

The church has a layered and ancient history, even for Rome. It is said that Emperor Augustus asked the Tiburtine Sybil whether there would ever be one greater than he.  She replied that a God from heaven was soon to come to earth.  Augustus then received a vision of the Madonna and Child in which the Virgin stood on an altar and said, “Haec est ara dei coeli,” and Augustus built an altar on this hill, where a temple to Juno Moneta stood.

We entered the light and airy nave and looked up the long passage to the altar, the columns processing up the aisles, the many artworks, the frescoes lining the clerestory windows high above.  The miraculous Madonna di Aracoeli, painted on beech in the 10th century is venerated over the High Altar, a thoughtful image.  In the north transept Saint Helen’s remains lie in an urn over the 13th-century fesestrella altar.

We looked in on the Chapel of the Holy Child off the north transept.  A Franciscan in Jerusalem carved a statue of the Christ Child, using olive wood from the Garden of Gethsemane.  The original image dates to the end of the 15th century, but it was stolen in 1997, and the image we see today is a replica.  It is said that an angel finished the original painting of the sculpture when the friar ran out of paint, and other miracles of healing were attributed to the image as it made its way to Rome.  Today mothers visit the chapel to receive a blessing before giving birth and children sing here on Christmas Eve.  The Holy Child, the Bambino, is displayed on the Capitoline Hill on the Feast of the Epiphany.

Franciscans have cared for the basilica since the 13th century.  We found their gift shop off the north transept and added to our mementos a few small icons, a book on the church, and two taper candles.

(Open: 9:00 am-12:30, 2:30 pm-6:30; Masses: Feriale–8 am, Chapel of the Holy Infant), noon; Festivo–8 am, Chapel of the Holy Infant).

Nearby is Il Gesu, the Church of Jesus, and we arrived just before it closed (12:30).  The first Jesuit church in Rome, the Church of the Holy Name of Jesus grew from the Church of the Madonna della Strada (Madonna of the Street) honoring a miraculous Madonna that had become popular roadside shrine.  Ignatius prayed before this Madonna, and the new church created a chapel to house it.  He lived in the rooms next door.

We entered the nave of gold and marble, and stepping up the center aisle, looked to the ceiling and the fantastic trompe-d’oeil (trick of the eye) figures that seem to fall from the heavens. In the northern transept we found Ignatius’ shrine where his remains lie beneath the altar.  I paused before a massive sculpture, Truth Vanquishing Heresy, which I used in my Il Gesu scene in Pilgrimage.  The image, showing a woman with the lamp of truth conquering the snake of lies (a mirror of Mary in Revelation) continues to encourage me in this age of relativism.  While I realize everyone might see truth differently, objective Truth exists apart from our take on it, and that Truth is not changeable.  While we respect one another’’s beliefs and their individual journeys, each of us must search for that Truth in our own span of life. As a Christian, I believe that Truth is God, and that Christ is God’s revelation to us, a revelation of love, and I am blessed to journey with His Body on earth, the Church, a fabulous pilgrimage through time.

We stepped into the neighboring Chapel of the Madonna della Strada, and honored this ancient image of Mary, a sweet consoling face,which still moves me after all these years.  To think I was praying before it just as Ignatius of Loyola once did! Thank-you plaques for graces received line the walls.

We headed for a light lunch, our heads and hearts and minds full of color, image, soaring prayers, and thankfulness.

(Open: 7 am-12:30 pm; 4 pm-7:45; Ignatius’ rooms: 4-6pm; Masses: Feriale-every half hour from 6 am; Festivo: every hour from 6 am ,http://www.chiesadelgesu.org/ )

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