We arrived early to the 10:30 Sunday Mass at Santa Susanna and climbed the steps to the parish library.
My protagonists Kelly and Daniel in The Magdalene Mystery, begin their quest here in the library of Santa Susanna. It is here that they learn what must be achieved to receive a great legacy, here they receive the first clue. The rooms lined with books in English were as I recalled from earlier visits, and we searched for my trilogy of novels in the books – Pilgrimage, Offerings, and Inheritance – and sure enough, there they were in the Fiction section. I didn’t see Hana-lani – perhaps it was checked out.
Sister Nancy sat behind the desk and greeted us. I told her about The Magdalene Mystery soon to be available, partially set at Santa Susanna, and she and two other women (also sisters, I believe) were enthusiastic. I explained I wanted to correct the lies in Dan Brown’s stories, particularly about Mary Magdalene, and they nodded with vociferous agreement. As members of the American Catholic church in Rome, located across the street from a setting of Angels and Demons, the folks of Santa Susanna knew all about Brown’s mistakes, about his lack of respect for Christianity.
We excused ourselves for Mass downstairs. As we entered I thought how on this site stood the home of the saint and her place of martyrdom. Here she was beheaded by Emperor Diocletian’s soldiers in 293 for refusing to renounce her beliefs and for refusing to marry Diocletian’s general. Her family was Christian, her father a priest, and her uncle Caius was Bishop of Rome (280-296). Other members of her family were martyred; Bishop Caius escaped, to live another three years.
As we found seats I gazed at the stories covering the walls, the stories of both the Roman Susanna and the Old Testament Susanna. The pinks and peach tones, the soft wash of light and color in such balanced and welcoming space gives a tranquil cast to the interior. When I enter this church, like many in Rome, I feel as though I have left the noise and fumes and secularism of the busy city outside and stepped inside to heaven.
Looking about me at the glorious interior of art and color, I did indeed fall into another world. The choir, sitting in the south transept was practicing, and their voices echoed through the vaults. The raised chancel was flowered with Easter lilies, and the white Eucharistic table waited, in the modern manner, creating a more central altar, pulled away from the apsidal wall. A grated window could be seen in that wall, where once nuns could be silently present at the Mass. The Paschal candle burned brightly. The nave soon filled with faithful Americans in Rome, and clergy followed acolytes bearing crucifix and flaming candles, processing up the central aisle. We helped them with our singing, Love divine, all loves excelling…. and I noticed that the regular clergy of Santa Susanna were not among them this day, but rather Paulists were here on pilgrimage, some in the procession, some in the congregation. Father Paul Robichaud, former Rector of Santa Susanna and currently Postulator for the Cause of Father Isaac Thomas Hecker, celebrated and preached. He preached on the Good Shepherd, how Jesus is the only way to heaven. He knows us and we know him. He said that in order to understand the importance of this we must admit that life is hard, that suffering exists, and I would add, that death exists. Only when we admit we live in a fallen world, that we ourselves are fallen creatures, can we see why we need God. This admission is largely not made today, and God is not sought after. But the truth is that we are indeed broken and desire mending. Simple and profound, I thought. And so true.
We left Santa Susanna, full of God, his glory, his presence, his weaving through history and his people. Through song, prayer, sacrament, and word, we continued the great Incarnation into today, re-membering, thankful.