I have fallen into a ritual of visiting Our Lady on this trip. Rome has so many stunning Madonnas, some brought in from the street corners where they once blessed a neighborhood, some from private homes where prayers were answered miraculously. Each one is different, each pulls me with a pathos and a joy, and I sense the Holy Spirit still working through these images.
So it was natural, on our last day in Rome to revisit Santa Maria della Popolo, Saint Mary of the People, which guards one of the main gates to Rome, where the Via Flaminia ends, bringing pilgrims from the north. I recalled a striking Madonna and Child over the high altar.
The church has interesting origins. Nero’s grave, said to have been on this site, terrified the locals who saw crows in the form of demons in one of the trees. In 1099 Pope Paschal II cut down the tree, threw Nero’s remains into the Tiber, and built a chapel. In 1472 Sixtus IV built the Renaissance church we see today, which was soon layered with Baroque, and dedicated it to St. Mary of the People. Martin Luther once stayed in the Augustinian monastery next door. We crossed the broad piazza leading to the church and entered as a Mass was ending.
Chapels run along the side aisles, lining the nave leading to the high altar. Above the altar is the stunning Madonna. I paused and genuflected before the tabernacle – the red candle was aflame – and prayed my thanksgivings for the witness here in this church. I said my Ave Maria and she smiled upon me. We turned to the north transept chapel to see the famous Caravaggios, which appeared to have been completely restored, for the colors were unusually vibrant.
One is the famous painting of Saint Paul’s conversion. He lies on the ground, struck blind by the vision, with his horse nearby. The thrust of the light is tangible, and I am reminded of the angels appearing to the shepherds, saying, “Be not afraid.” I also recalled our priest at home mentioning in a sermon that Paul’s vision was permanently damaged, for while he regained his sight, he writes in his letters that he cannot see well. This I can appreciate, as, with age, my own sight is dimming. The second Caravaggio is the crucifixion of Saint Peter, the cross upside down to be different from his Lord’s crucifixion. The soldiers are fixing him to the cross, and I can hear Our Lord’s words to Peter earlier, that he would go where he did not want to go. Both paintings speak to us, for the figures are fully human and we are placed in the center of the drama, the suffering of these saints. And yet also, there is the drama of hope, that in these moments we are given a great legacy. So too, grace redeems our own suffering.
We next visited Santa Maria dei Miracoli, one of the twin churches on the other side of the piazza, at the head of the busy Corso. Here too a miraculous Madonna watches over the high altar, and I believe the story involved the flooding of the Tiber, as many stories do in Rome. We continued along the Corso, visiting several other Baroque churches – each unique with its own divine character stamped upon it through time.
We passed shops and shoppers, tourists, and crossed intersections with great care as cars and scooters whizzed by, and buses took over the road. We soon found the familiar San Silvestro in Capite, the British church in Rome. The name in capite refers to the famous relic housed in the northern side chapel off the narthex, the head of John the Baptist. The Irish Pallottini Fathers are in residence. and when we had visited a few years back, Father Fitzpatrick, the Rector, was in the process of ordering a new reliquary for the valuable relic.
Built over Emperor Aurelian’s temple to the sun, Popes Stephen III and Paul I built the first church in the 8th 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 12th and 16th centuries. The relics of Popes Silvester, Stephen I, and Dionysus rest under the high altar. Beyond the altar the grill remains where Poor Clares, who cared for the church until 1876, could take part in services.
We entered the ancient courtyard where columns and plaques witness to the earlier church, then stepped into the gold and marble interior. Another Baroque jewel of Rome, this church has the sense of holiness that we all yearn for. When I enter these churches – La Maddalena, Santa Sabina, Santa Susanna, San Silvestro – I am called to pause and pray. There is a hush that seems naturally prescient, nearly tangible, urging me. Light a candle, the hush is saying. Pray for a loved one. Pray for the suffering. Pray for your will to be God’s will. Pray, pray, pray. As for myself, I often don’t have the words to pray, to say what is in my heart. So I use words given to me by the Church – the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Te Deum, the simple Glory Be, and I am grateful for those prayers given.
This day, Wednesday, the sun shafted upon the wooden pews and through the gilded arches of the side aisles, and I sighed and smiled with a sudden joy. We knelt and said a prayer, and padded silently back down the central aisle towards the front doors. We entered the side chapel to the right to visit John the Baptist’s relic, which now was indeed housed in an ornate and intricate gilded reliquary, as was fitting. Prepare ye the way of the Lord, he cried, and now we have the way, through the Church known through churches like this one.
We then crossed the narthex to a small office to say hello to Father Fitzpatrick, who was fortuitously in his office. He looked up and recalled me from our earlier visit and smiled a big welcoming smile. I told him about my new novel coming out, The Magdalene Mystery, and he nodded his appreciation (he already had Pilgrimage). He seemed very busy, and I fear we interrupted him, but the few minutes he gave us were ours totally. His eyes rested on mine, full of a liveliness that only God knows. It was good to see him again.
We left San Silvestro to enter the new piazza formed from the former muni-bus lot, a welcome transformation, then found Santa Maria in Via on one of the busiest arteries in Rome, the Via del Tritone. Santa Maria in Via refers to the ninth-century chapel “on the way” to the Via Flaminia, that main route in and out of Rome. It seems that in the thirteenth century there was a well on the chapel property that overflowed. A picture of Mary floated on the top of the waters. She became the Madonna of the Well, Santa Maria del Pozzo, deemed miraculous. Today she blesses a southern side chapel off the narthex, a place of respite in the frenetic Corso to pause and drink from the waters and say a prayer to Our Lady, for her encouragement and direction.
It was time for lunch, time to reflect on our time in this miraculous, eternal city, and to pray that one day we would return to revisit her saints and shrines, her churches and chapels.