We woke to blue skies on Monday and headed out to revisit two of the major basilicas, Santa Croce in Gerusalemme and San Giovanni Laterano, both built along the ancient Aurelian Wall.
Santa Croce, once the atrium of the Empress Helena’s third-century palace, has long entranced me. For many years it was scaffolded for restorations and closed, but since the millennium celebrations, it has remained open mornings and afternoons. Set back from the busy street behind a lawn and cobblestone drive, the church is welcoming with its white façade and gently curved portico. We entered and gazed at the cerulean blue apse, Christ in the center, holding a book that reads I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. We followed the marble-tiled central aisle to the canopied high altar and turned up the south transept and then left to the back of the church where, I recalled, Helena’s rooms could be seen.
When the present basilica was built, Helena’s bedroom and private chapel formed the back of the church. The chapel housed the wood of the True Cross she brought back from Jerusalem as well as Jerusalem soil she spread upon the floor. Today the wood has been transferred to a relic chapel off the north aisle.
We followed a tunnel-like passage down a gentle slope to the first room, the original chapel, today empty. The second room through an archway has become the monastery chapel (the church is cared for by Cistercians). We paused in Helena’s Chapel and gazed at the incredible mosaic vault above, Christ in the center again holding a book, this time open to the words, I am the Light of the world. I realized this church was all about truth – the True Cross, the Truth of Christ, the Light, the Way to Truth. Today, that is heady stuff, for truth is difficult to come by, constantly assailed, and often ridiculed. It is generally believed that it doesn’t exist, a concept in itself that, to me, seems unbelievable.
Thinking about truth and authorities and real and unreal I gazed at the many other relics in the northern relic chapel. Somehow I trusted that they were real, given their pedigrees, and their association with these early years of the Church. A nail. A thorn. The title bar raised above Christ’s head. And others. The wood of the Cross.
We paused again at the foot of the nave and pondered the stunning spherical apse bathed in blue. This was a church of the Cross, I knew, used by popes on Good Friday, and associated with the Passion of Christ, the crucifixion. Yet while the wood of the Cross remained behind the glass, the risen Christ spoke victoriously from the apse and ancient chapel vault. He reminded us that by that wood He conquered death, and with Him we too could conquer death.
We would not forget His truth as we headed out into the bright morning, finding the long straight path that led to the church of Resurrection, St. John Lateran, the Cathedral of Rome.