On a bright sunny morning, the sky a dome of blue, we visited the churches of San Silvestro and La Maddelena, each stunning, each with its own history and personality.
The Church of San Silvestro today, with its 8th-century wall fragments worked into its courtyard, looks upon the busy bus turnaround piazza. But upon entering through the garden atrium into the church, I fell into a quiet delight.
Built over Emperor Aurelian’s temple to the sun, San Silvestro in Capite derives its name from its precious relic, part of the head of John the Baptist (”in capite”). Pope Stephen III and Pope Paul I built the first church in the eighth century to house bones brought from the catacombs (a list of the saints who were entombed frames the front door), and it was rebuilt in the twelfth and sixteenth centuries. Poor Clares cared for the church until 1876, taking part in services from behind altar grills. Today, the Irish Pallottini Fathers are in residence, and it is the national church for British Catholics in Rome and others who speak English.
We entered the small narthex and gazed at the marble and gold, the softly rolling barrel vaulting, the frescoes, the light that danced through the airy church. A Confessio under the high altar houses the relics of Popes Silvester, Stephen I, and Dionysus. I have learned more about Silvester on this trip, for he was the Pope who baptized Constantine, whose papacy covered those first years when Christianity was legal in Rome. We had seen the Lateran Baptistery where the baptism took place in the mid-fourth century. We had seen Santa Croce where the basilica was built to house Helena’s Wood of the True Cross. Silvester was Helena’s Pope, and here he was under the altar of his own church. I could see he shared with John the Baptist the quality of forerunner, the first to proclaim, each in his own era, the reality of Christ’s resurrection. I was beginning to connect the dots.
A red candle burned and I knew the Sacrament was reserved on the High Altar. I said a prayer of thanksgiving for the church, its people and its clergy, and moved back to the chapel off the north aisle where the head of John the Baptist lies in a glass reliquary. There too I said a prayer for a friend who would that day be tested and tried, as he led and shepherded, a friend who was ordained on the Feast of John the Baptist. I also prayed for my little novel in progress, that I be given wisdom in the myriad of choices to be made, for I plan to set some of my story in this church. Perhaps the first true evangelist was John the Baptist, crying repentance in the desert and pointing to Christ, and I prayed I would have his vision and his courage, or maybe just a bit of his vision and courage would be ample.
We met the bright sun streaming onto the square of buses and turned toward the Corso, the busy shopping street bordering the lovely meandering neighborhoods around the Pantheon and Piazza Navona. We crossed over to the broad Piazza Colonna and turned into the warren of shady lanes, stepping carefully on uneven cobbles and avoiding tour groups, which seem to suddenly appear like a frenzied cloud of bees. A few blocks in, and we found the Rococo Church of Santa Maria Maddalena, known as “La Maddalena.”
The church faces a pretty and intimate square of restaurants and is a block from the Pantheon. We stepped up to its small porch and entered. At first disappointed by the scaffolding covering the first part of the nave, I soon realized the best had been restored – the chancel, the transept chapel, and the golden organ over the doors.
Historical records dating to 1320 speak of a small oratory on this site, dedicated to Mary Magdalene and connected to a hospital near the Pantheon. The complex was overseen by a confraternity, a guild of lay men and women dedicated to helping others and devoted to a particular saint or relic. Saint Camillus founded a similar order toward the end of the 16th century and was given this church.
The saint’s story was similar to many: the repentant hedonist gives himself to God. His name was Camillus Lellis (1550-1614) and after being crippled in a war with the Turks, he returned to Rome where he met Phillip Neri who converted him. He was ordained and devoted his life to helping the needy and sick, forming the Order of the Ministers of the Sick. The Camillians, as they came to be called, wore red Latin-cross emblems, visited hospitals and homes as they cared for the dying and nursed plague victims. From La Maddalena, they distributed clothing and food to the poor and homeless. When Camillus was canonized in 1746, the church was beautifully renovated by the Camillians.
We walked through the scaffolding and into the restored nave under frescoed domes through light shafting through clerestory windows. The Madonna of Health, a sweet and comforting image, resides in a south aisle chapel. Off the south transept we found the Holy Crucifix Chapel which I recalled had a miraculous crucifix. Here, in this three-pew sanctuary, behind ornate grillwork, a large wooden crucifix is suspended over an altar. Here, in 1582, Camillus heard the words: ”Take courage, faint hearted one, continue the work you have begun. I will be with you because it is my work.” How often I have longed for those words, but then, visiting these saints where they lived and worked, I believe I have heard them, again and again. A great blessing, and I shall take courage indeed, faint hearted as I am.
Also in this lovely chapel is a charming fifteenth-century sculpture of Mary Magdalene, and a fascinating cross created on the side wall from brass carvings of the Stations of the Cross, three forming each arm, three above, and five below. I traced my fingers over the cool metal, wondering at such a marvel, here in this chapel of holiness.
As we stepped back through the scaffolding, I looked up to the Baroque organ, the golden angels taking wing amidst gilded clouds.
La Maddalena, I decided, was definitely a church of healing, and appropriately so, dedicated to the woman brought the ointments to the tomb that Easter morning, who was the first to recognize the risen Christ. She would run to tell the others the news, that death had been conquered.
La Maddalena: Open Mon-Fri, 8 am-noon, 5-8 pm; Sat-Sun, 9:30-noon, 5-8 pm; Masses, Feriale-8 am, 7 pm; Festivo-9:30 am, 11:30, 7 pmSan Silvestro in Capite: Open 7 am-12:30, 3:30-7:30 pm; Masses, Feriale – 12, 6:30; Festivo – 10, 12, Italian, 5:30. Resident order: the Pallottini Fathers.