The last few days in Rome sped by in a whirl of color, image and song:
Finding Santa Croce closed (we were too late), after visiting Maria Maggiore, we continued up the wide park-path to the St. John Lateran and soon found the road barricaded by police. Loudspeakers blared. As we approached, we recalled it was May 1, May Day, the national day of strikes and union demonstrations for much of Europe. This year the demonstrations were held in front of the Lateran where an amphitheater had been erected to the left of the basilica. The throng was thick, boisterous but orderly, with a strong police presence. I recalled that the church has been named “the Roman people’s church” so it was appropriate that such a gathering took place here. But we could see it was not a day to visit St. John Lateran, so we worked our way through the light rain back to our hotel, stopping for lunch at Le Caveau, a charming neighborhood restaurant serving a reasonable daily menu.
We did eventually revisit San Giovanni Laterano, with the wonderful leaping apostles along the sides of the nave and the heads of Saints John and Paul in the canopy over the high altar. The church is a feast for the senses and a joy for the lover of history, as well as a setting for my new novel, The Magdalene Mystery. As part of my research we visited the cloisters, making more historical discoveries, solving more puzzles.
Another day we visited Il Gesu, the first church of the Jesuits. St. Ignatius of Loyola lived in the rooms next door and his remains are in an urn in a side chapel. There is a stunning chapel off the north transept with a street Madonna brought inside for protection, the Madonna della Strada, who comforts me each time I visit, and I have read that she comforted St. Ignatius as well. Like Maria Maggiore, this Madonna is a humble one, glorified in this golden church. I love the glorification of humility.
Near Il Gesu is Santa Maria sopra Minerva, built over the old Roman Temple to Minerva, another example of the Christianizing of the pagan. Today in this magnificent church of blue domes, it is good to pay a visit to St. Catherine of Sienna, whose relics lie under the high altar. A third order Dominican, she spent her last years here in the convent attached. The façade of the church may seem austere, but inside the starry domes presage heaven. Fra Angelico’s tomb is in the north transept, alongside another stunning Madonna and Child. The church holds many other treasures as well.
In the same neighborhood is La Maddalena, at the top of my list, but with opening times only morning and late afternoon, it took some scheduling to visit. (Also true of Il Gesu, but Sant Maria sopra Minerva is open all day, as is Saint John Lateran). This church, of course, is one of the settings of my new novel, The Magdalene Mystery, and it was so good to have the chance to revisit, and check my original impressions for details. The church is a perfect Baroque jewel, and this time most scaffolding was removed, the restorations complete. The glorious golden organ loft, the miraculous crucifix off the south transept (through which Christ spoke to Saint Camillus) and the lovely carved Magdalene to the side are all surprise joys.
It was fitting that we were able to visit Sant’ Agostino on the feast day of Saint Augustine’s mother Monica and pay honor to her relics there. Such a mother, to have so gently converted her son, and such a son to have become one of the great Church Fathers. The church was lovely, and I made sure to say a prayer before the Madonna of Childbirth in the back of the church. In our world there seems to be little respect for the unborn, and even less respect for mothers or their vital vocation in our culture.
A highlight of many highlights this week was an unexpected delight, as often happens when one enters a church in Rome. We visited the French church near the Piazza Navona, San Luigi dei Francesi (Saint Louis of the French). I recalled that there was a famous painting there – St. Matthew by Caravaggio – in the north transept. But I wasn’t prepared for the organist practising Bach. The notes filled the space, soared through the gold and white vaults, and we paused, resting in a pew, being restored by the notes filling our ears and senses. This is one of the pleasures of visiting churches in Rome – the sudden fullness of sound in a glorious and holy place, unbidden, graciously given. We left smiling, a bit teary at such a great and unexpected gift.
We couldn’t leave Rome without heading to the quiet, green Aventino district where palaces became churches in the fifth century. We wanted to revisit the fifth-century basilica of Santa Sabina, built over an earlier house church. Santa Sabina is home to the Dominican College; St. Dominic resided and St. Thomas Aquinas visited. I included a scene in Pilgrimage where Madeleine describes the profession of young nuns at Santa Sabina:
Tall Corinthian columns lined the bright and airy basilica, towering over the congregation assembled in the long nave. Elena and Cristoforo knelt in the front with others from the convent. We found seats in the back as ten white-robed Dominicans entered from the north aisle and circled the altar.
Parts of the church dated to the fourth century. Like Roman ghosts, the old stones carried into the present that other terrible time, a violent time, a time of torture and execution by crazed emperors, a time of slaughter and pillage by savage tribes.
Today, before the novitiates took their vows, the Eucharist would be offered just as it had been then; the infinite would enter the finite, as God gave us himself in the humble bread and wine. Banning the pagan ghosts of the past, this transformation ensured a new way, a way of redemption. Chants echoed from an upper balcony as today’s light streamed through clerestory windows onto yesterday’s fluted columns. The church danced to the counterpoint of time.
The young women in white blouses and black skirts, their faces partially veiled, sat in the front row, their friends and family behind them. Each girl approached the altar, spoke her vows before the bishop, kissed his ring in obedience and respect, and returned to her seat, glowing. Carlina, tears of joy streaking her face, smiled to us as she rose. Jack took my hand, squeezed it, reached for his handkerchief, and dabbed his eyes. The girls sang a lilting melody, and their song floated high through the upper windows and over Rome. Surely, the angels sang too.
I reached for Jack’s hanky.
(There is also a lovely gift shop off the courtyard).
And nearby is San Allessio, with it’s amazing tale of a boy coming home and living under the stairs (you can see the actual stairs from the Roman times), and also where a haunting Madonna adorned the south transept chapel.
Further up the road in this quiet Aventino district of Rome is San Anselmo, home to Benedictines who sing the offices, and a popular wedding venue. Tall cypresses and a long drive, a lovely porticoed narthex. The keyhole through which you can see St. Peters is nearby.
From the high Aventino we descended stairs (to the right of Santa Sabina’s orange garden) to the Tiber, walked along the river to the ancient footbridge, Ponte Fabricio, another setting in The Magdalene Mystery. Crossing over, and passing under another lovely street Madonna, we visited San Bartolomeo, where the relics of the apostle Bartholomew (Nathaniel) rest under the high altar.
San Bartolomeo is home to the young people’s community of San Egidio, who do mission work for the poor. Present now throughout Italy, they have revitalized the young Catholic community with service to the poor and daily evensong. The church is as I recalled – three vaulted aisles, but still intimate and ancient, charming. The relics of the apostle lay in an ark under a slab, creating the altar. Primitive and touching.
And there are great photos from the bridge, up and down the raging current pouring around the island, Isola Tiberina. One of these days we will make it across to the other side, to Santa Cecelia, worth a visit for the mosaics.
We planned to pack our bags the day before leaving for home on an early morning flight, but I wanted to donate a few more copies of Pilgrimage to the American Church, Santa Susanna, for their library, so we stopped in at the 6:00 anticipated Saturday Mass. Such a beautiful church, but to be there during a mass, with full organ and Easter Alleluia hymns, was a true blessing, so glorious. And Father Greg was most gracious in accepting my little novels.
A magnificent last few days in Rome.
And while we didn’t actually throw coins in the Trevi Fountain, a handsome waiter sang “Three Coins in the Fountain” at our table one balmy evening in a neighborhood trattoria (Vladimir’s near the Via Veneto), so maybe that counts. We now know we will some day return to this magical, mystical, and marvelous Roma!
Ciao, Roma…. only for now.