We woke this morning to sunny skies and cries of gulls. We have returned to Roma, the cradle of the early Church where Christianity sanctified paganism, transforming shrines, to many unkind gods, with altars to the one God of love.
I noticed a difference from earlier visits. Even in Pope Benedict’s time, more signs were written in English; more churches opened wide their doors. Here and there we could take photos in spite of the competing gift shops on the premises. But Pope Francis has continued the Welcome with open arms. Come in, come in, come and see, the churches of Rome say. And we come in, well in the coming. From all the world, and happily, gratefully, we come in. Visitors throng these holy spaces, politely and quietly and reverently. They peer inside the confessio beneath the high altar of Mary Major’s basilica. With great excitement and tender joy, they point to the bit of wood in the baroque silver ark. It’s from the crèche in the manger, they say. It’s sanctifying the altar above it. Take a photo with me and the holy wood to show back home! And so God sends us his love letters.
Rome is a jewel box of relics, and most of these bones and artifacts, I believe, are genuine. They have long and detailed provenances going back to the time when they arrived, mainly in the fourth and fifth centuries. When Christianity became legal, Empress Helena, mother of Constantine, made it her mission to bring back to Rome all that she could find from the Holy Land. She ordered basilicas built and oversaw the digging. Others also brought to Rome holy relics over time, such was the passion to portray to the world the living story of salvation. Here is Christ’s birth, here is his life, here is his death! they said. Come and adore! Rome may have been the center of empire, but it soon became the center of Christendom. It became the center of the story of love.
I’ve also noticed more and more religious, brothers and sisters, wearing habits, dusting the streets of Rome with many muted colors. They sit on steps with bag lunches and hurry through back doors into sacristies. Masses and celebrations abound. Christianity is visible, tangible here, if one pays attention, present in a good way. Joy and color and music and the meaning of life paint the city. The secular world seems at times to run parallel, separate, but in reality it is woven into the fabric of the sacred. It is good to hear the bells ring as air-brakes squeak and tour buses open doors to visitors hungry for the life-blood of Rome, the Church and the love of God.
Churches we visited today:
Santa Susanna, the American Catholic Church in Rome – closed for restoration, alas. But their English library was open and I found my trilogy still there, under S in Fiction. One of the ladies said Hana-lani had been checked out. But The Magdalene Mystery had not found its way to a shelf, so I shall drop a copy off this week.
Santa Maria Maggiore – the greatest Marian shrine in the world. We heard singing in the Holy Sacrament chapel where St. Luke’s Madonna is honored, the Madonna humble and earthy, painted on wood. At the head of the main nave, under the high altar the holy crèche has returned after a time of restoration. As we stepped down the marble stairs to the confessio I wondered in awe once more, amazed by God’s goodness to give us these humble bits of himself, here in this twenty-first century, bits to help us in our sacramental journeys. The gift shop has new offerings of the Lucan Madonnas, the Salus Populi Romani (Savior of the Roman People). I had not seen these last year. Another change.
Santa Prassede – the church dedicated to the sainted sister who cleansed the bodies of the first martyrs, saved even their blood to be hidden in the family’s well. Here too can be venerated the column of Christ’s flagellation. It’s an ethereal church, built over the first-century house church of Prassede’s family (her father thought to be a Roman Senator, converted; St. Paul preached in their house.)
Chiesa del Gesu – the main Jesuit church in Rome, alongside St. Ignatius’s rooms. The church is a beautiful baroque gilded space with an ethereal ceiling, but I always head for the Madonna della Strada tucked away in a northern chapel. Brought in from the street for safekeeping by Ignatius, she has worked miracles ever since. A charming rustic icon on wood; prints are available in the gift shop off the southern aisle. I say my evening prayers before the image I took home and framed, alongside the Salus Populi Romani, both from many years ago.
Santa Maria sopra Minerva – “Saint Mary over the Minerva shrine” – again a sanctification of the pagan, just as the neighboring Pantheon had been transformed to Santa Maria of the Martyrs. This Santa Maria over Minerva has cerulean blue ceilings bounding over a three aisle nave. I understand why they hold concerts here. There is a good deal of Renaissance art as well. Fra Angelico is buried here; Fra Lippi painted the walls. But my goal as always is to visit the tomb of St. Catherine of Sienna who lived in the adjoining convent, and whose body lies under the high altar. They carved a white sculpture (alabaster I think) to house her body and she lies behind a side glass panel, visible beneath the altar. She was a political saint, I often think. Only a third-order Dominican, she was illiterate, and dictated her correspondence. Born a twin, the twenty-fifth child to a couple in Sienna. She became an anchorite, and Dominican, then brought the pope back from Avignon through her cogent letters and travels. In Pisa she received the stigmata as she prayed in adoration. Humble and great, she was open to God’s will.
San Sylvestro in Capite – in Capite because the head of John the Baptist is in a shrine to the north of the narthex. San Sylvestro because it was the burial place of Pope Sylvester who is believed to have baptized Constantine, so he was the first pope in the newly Christianized Rome and responsible for much of the early growth. We looked into the church office off the narthex for Father Fitzpatrick, but were told he would not be back until later. San Sylvestro is the British Church in Rome and it’s always good to say hello to this radiant Irishman, Father Fitzpatrick.
Ah, Roma! What will she show me? Where will God lead me? What doors will open in my soul?