A light rain fell as we walked up Via Torino to the Esquiline Hill, one of the seven hills of Rome and home to some of her most beautiful churches.
Our first stop was Santa Prassede, an exquisite medieval church, dating to even earlier times. It is said that Santa Prassede and nearby Santa Pudenziana were built over titula, houses used for first-century Christian worship, owned by Senator Pudens, mentioned in Peter’s letter to Timothy. It is said that Peter stayed here and celebrated the Eucharist. Prassede and Pudenziana, daughters of Senator Pudens, cleansed the bodies of the martyrs and buried them in wells on their property.
We entered Santa Prassede through the south aisle and walked to the foot of the nave, past mysterious side chapels to the open doors of the original entrance. A monk in black robes stood in the entryway, watching over his church, his figure outlined by the sudden bright sun lighting up the garden court beyond. We turned and gazed at the glorious chancel and apse.
Mosaics covered the apsidal arch and dome, rising above a marble baldachin and altar. The church is not large, and the effect of the golden chancel, the light pouring in from the garden, and the frescoed side walls creates an ethereal space.
We stepped slowly up the central aisle toward the glittering apse and descended to the Confessio to honor Prassede’s tomb. We touched that first century from this twenty-first century, our fingers, like doubting Thomas, reaching tentatively, through the years. Those believers, like ourselves, lived in a pagan world. But their world of hope was beginning, while ours seemed to be dying. As I thought this, I shook myself, realizing that in that dying, God would redeem us, He would rebuild, transform, rebirth. He would do it through His Church, reaching back to Prassede and all those who gave their lives since those days of persecution. The blood of the martyrs would speak to us, would nourish us, and I left the grave of Prassede with that hope alive and well.
Returning to the nave, we heard singing. A group had filled the Blessed Sacrament Chapel and were chanting prayers in French. We drew closer and listened as the soaring notes echoed through the church, coloring the air.
More hope, more joy, more life. We said a prayer of thanksgiving and stepped into the mist, heading for Santa Maria Maggiore across the street.
Santa Prassede: Resident Order, The Benedictines of Vallombrosa; Open: 7-12; 4-6:30; Mass Sundays 11:30, 6:00; http://www.santaprassede.it