Monthly Archives: November 2008

Sunday at St. Lawrence

Today was a bonus day. Two visitors from Oxford were asking about going to the Basilica of St. Lawrence for Mass, so I found out there was one at 10 AM and met them there.

Not only was there a Mass, but the pope celebrated it. The climax of a year of celebration of the martyrdom of  Lawrence, the deacon, 1750 years ago, in 158 AD. We were completely surprised to stumble on it.

This church, one of the first churches built by Constantine in the early 4th century and rebuilt after being destroyed by Allied bombs in the 1940’s is one of the most important religious sites in Rome.

The church was packed with ordinary Italians, young and old, some from the neighborhood and some from outlining parishes. You could hardly move in the crowd. They sang their hearts out and prayed fervently with the pope, who gave a simple, yet thoughtful homily on Advent and the inspiring love for the poor that Lawrence challenges the Catholic church to keep afresh.

At the end of the celebration, the people, beaming with joy, poured out into the bright day, lining up along the way and greeting the pope as he walked among them. A young boy was playing a shepherd’s pipes as he made his way through the goodnatured crowd.

We went back to the church and headed for the tomb of Lawrence under the main altar. Many did the same thing we did– walking around the tomb covered with a bright red cloth, we reached through the iron grate and touched it.

This was no tourist affair, today in the ancient church. The place was transformed by the faith of people, caught up in the grace of the occasion.

Afterwards, we walked along the Aurelian Wall nearby. At one point there is gate from imperial Rome which in medieval times came to the known as St. Lawrence’s Gate. Pilgrims came through it to enter Rome from afar. They would turn up the road a little bit and enter the church where we were today and read the story of Lawrence spelled out in the frescoes at its entrance.

They would go to the tomb of Lawrence, like we did today, and ask for his blessing, like we did today.


Rome is filled with unexpected delights. Yesterday evening, I went to St. John Lateran for a free concert: Haydn’s “Seven Last Words of Jesus on the Cross.” Beautifully performed in the semi-darkness of the great church, each word narrated by an Italian monsignor, followed by a sonata.

Instead of turkey, we had some pasta. Not the same.

Today, I got to the Museo Capitoline, which Fr. Adriano assures me is the second best museum in the city. The rain kept people away from the place, so it seemed to be all mine.  I was interested in the little collection of 2nd-3rd century funeral monuments of Roman soldiers, many of them once stationed on the Coelian Hill near our church, one of the favorite bases for soldiers in the city. A further clue for soldier martrys housed and honored here?

Long rows of statues and sculptures from early Rome peer out at you as you walk through this great museum which thoughtfully lets you look out at the Roman forum from time to time. I noticed many of them are gifts from Benedict XIV, the greatest of the 18th century popes, who loved to look at the past and draw wisdom for it.

Tomorrow I’m off to San Pudentiana, where I’ll be meeting two archeology students from Oxford and go down under the church to the excavations below. I hope, anyway.They are interested in house churches.

House Church on the Celian Hill

I’m standing outside an ancient Christian house church on the Clivus Scauri in Rome. Now, of course, it’s in the ruins beneath the Church of Saints John and Paul here on the Celian Hill, but you can see parts of it when you visit the excavations there.

What was it like back then, I wonder, at the end of the 2nd century, when it was the only Christian building on this spot? What would it be like to knock on the door–say on an ordinary day in the year 210 AD –and ask about the group who met here. What would I find?

First, most Christians meeting here had their own homes in this area and came to this house periodically. They lived and worked in this neighborhood of wealthy estates and common apartment houses, some perhaps even serving in the imperial government on the adjacent Palatine Hill and forum.

Whoever I found here, possibly the priest who led the community, would be open to questions. There are other Christians too in the city and beyond it, he would tell me, and he could point out their meeting places–about 25 places in the city alone. Infact, our numbers are growing, he would say, although we’re only a small part of the city’s population. We know each other pretty well.

He would describe the Christians who met here as followers of Jesus of Nazareth, whom God sent to save our world and us all, and he would probably explain their belief using a summary of faith they knew by heart.

I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his Son and our Lord,
who was born of the Virgin Mary,
who was crucified under Pontius Pilate,
who die and was buried,
who on the third day rose again.
He ascended to heaven,
where he sits at the Father’s right hand,
He will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy Catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and life everlasting.

The Christian I met would surely tell me their faith was God’s gift and it was brought to this city more than a hundred years before by Peter and Paul, two of the apostles of Jesus, and those who followed them.  He could show me their graves where they were honored.  Peter was buried in a cemetery on Vatican Hill; Paul was buried along the Via Ostia, where some from this community buried their own dead.

Most likely, he would relate in vivid detail the terrible persecution of Christians under the Emperor Nero (64 AD). That awful memory would still be fresh. If his family were Christian for some generations, he may have lost someone in it. After a disastrous fire swept the city, Nero blamed Christians for the tragedy and had Peter and Paul and other Christians killed, some in the gardens nearby.

In that persecution there were heroes, martrys, but also, there were some who denied their faith and betrayed members of their own community. When it was over, there were disputes whether to admit them back into the community or not. Finally, the fallen members were taken back, but some still wondered if that was the right decision.

Being a Christian is still dangerous, he would warn me. Another Nero could come along. About a hundred years before, Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch in Syria, came to Rome under guard to be put to death in the arena. In a letter to the churches of this city be begged them, particularly those with influence in government, not to stand in the way of his death for his belief in Christ. (107 AD) Other church leaders were killed since then.

Our spokesman would relate the recent executions in North Africa of two women, Perpetua and Felicity, who died for their Christian belief. (202 AD) Not only were Christian leaders in danger, every Christian, man or woman, faced misunderstanding and prejudice in Roman society.

In the Roman empire, Christians didn’t fit in.

The Christian I would meet here in this house church would undoubtedly acquaint me with the works of Justin, an articulate Christian philosopher who tried to make a case for Christianity by writing to the emperor explaining that Christianity was in harmony with the ancient wisdom of Rome. He also engaged the Jews in debate about the Messiah. Justin didn’t get far; he met the same fate as some others: he was executed. (165 AD)

This community is trying to figure out its relationship to Judaism, he would tell me, as it increasingly distances itself from its Jewish past. Marcion, a Christian in Rome, called for complete rejection, not only of Jewish practices, but also of the entire Old Testament as unworthy of the Christian religion.(140 AD) The main body of believers rejects his approach, but still, how can so many of those stories of harsh justice be understood today?

The “great church,” the church throughout the world, as he describes it, is also wary of gnostic teachers who come into its assemblies from time to time speaking cynically about the world and ordinary life as it is. They’re good talkers and say they know things that will help you rise above everyday struggles and live in another, higher world.

The leaders of the church, however, are reacting to them and warning their communities that there’s only one true knowledge, which comes from knowing Jesus Christ, who came in the flesh. Stick to what you know from the Peter and Paul and the other apostles of Jesus. But we also know that we have to make the teaching understood and valued by us today and those we talk to.

Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyons, is especially strong and persuasive against the errors of these new teachers. He’s particularly strong in telling us to hold on to what we have received.  True Christian teaching comes from the apostles and is found in their writings. Naming the books that contain their teaching, he urges the churches to continue to read them as they celebrate the mysteries, especially the mystery of the Eucharist. (200 AD)

“If then the cup of mixed wine and the bread that is made, receives the Word of God and becomes the Eucharist of the body and blood of Christ, how can they deny that the flesh is receptive of the gift of God?” A good reminder where God’s life and wisdom may be found.

God is the creator of heaven and earth; there’s no other world where we can know and serve him, the mystery of our Eucharist says.

Like others, this church on the Celian Hill meets regularly to celebrate this mystery, to pray and to care for the poor.

Already, at this time, the churches of this city have a special place among all the churches of the Christian world, our spokesperson would tell me.  Peter and Paul taught and died here. The bishop who is the overall leader of Rome’s churches is a respected voice in the Christian communion. The churches in other places listen to him.

I think that’s what I would hear if on an ordinary day in the year 210 AD I stopped at this house church to inquire about those who met here. I’m sure I would recognize it as the same church I belong to now, even though some things about it are different.

Like the church in any age, the community that met at this old house church had its ups and downs. It wasn’t perfect, but surely it had its saints. It faced challenges brought by time and circumstances. It didn’t have all the answers. But it was supported by Christ, the Good Shepherd, who had it in his hands, as he has today’s church in his hands.

One thing more. There are martrys honored in this house church, the most important of them are John and Paul, Roman officers put to death by the Emperor Julian the Apostate in the late 4th century, according to tradition. Eventually, they gave their names to this entire complex. Supposedly they were buried here in their own house for their refusal to do the emperor’s bidding.

Were they the owners of this house church? Certainly not the original owners, so then, when did it come into their hands? A complicated story. But this old house church still speaks in its ruins.

Secular Pilgrims

A few days ago at the Vatican with Fr. Franz  I was fortunate to find a book at the Pauline bookstore that had material I’ve been looking for here in Rome. Happily, it was cheap. (8 Euros, on sale)  An Italian book “Viaggio at Roma e nella sua compangna: Pittori e letterati alla scoperta del paesaggio e della magiche atmosfere di un mondo perduto,Roma, 2007”

The book is about secular pilgrims to Rome and its surrounding areas: writers and artists who found inspiration in this ancient world. It’s a big, heavy book of 527 pages; I don’t know yet how I’m going to carry it home. A computer’s one thing, books are another.

The book is filled with pictures painted all the way back to the 16th century and notes about the artists who painted them. Besides religious pilgrims, secular pilgrims have long been attracted to Rome. “We’re all pilgrims looking for Italy,” Goethe said. “We find here something we have lost,” the English poet Samuel Rogers wrote to his friend Lord Byron. So many of them were touched by the ruins of this city.

The book’s author says the artists and writers furnish us today with a “multi-media” look at those times, and that’s precisely what I was looking for.

I’m searching for the secular background of some of our Passionist saints, like St. Paul of the Cross and Vincent Strambi, saints of the 18th and 19th century. This book helps.

We tend to put saints like them into a spiritual world, or a church world, but in reality they also walked in the world painted by the artists mentioned in this book. Besides their links to heaven, they walked on earth.

Some days ago, I was at the shrine of Maria Goretti in Nettuno, and there found some historical pictures of peasant families and how they lived in the poverty-stricken countryside where she lived in the last century. Those pictures were more moving and informative than any holy card I’ve seen of the saint.

Besides holy cards, we need a better appreciation of earthly wisdom and spirituality of the saints and the ground on which they walked.

Saints John and Paul, excavations

I just finished showing some friends of mine our church of Saints John and Paul here in Rome and realized once again what a wonderful place it is to describe some history of the Catholic Church.

Underneath the present church are excavations that are among the most important in Rome–houses from the second century, about 20 rooms in all– which reveal a great deal about daily life in the ancient city. The excavations are now the responsibility of a government sponsored agency, the “Fondo Edifici di Culto – Ministero dell’Interno.” You can get to them through a side entrance along the Clivus Scauri.

I’m interested especially in the ancient house church found in the excavations, which goes back to the earliest days of Christianity when, as the Acts of the Apostles is the first to indicate, believers throughout the empire met in homes or small, inconspicuous buildings for worship. The house church developed in a complex of 2nd century apartment buildings and a wealthy home along the Clivus Scauri, an ancient street that winds down the Celian Hill towards the Palatine.

The wealthy home became a Christian center, decorated with Christian paintings and a mosaic floor. So before Constantine brought freedom of worship to them in the early 4th century, Christians from the Celian Hill, most likely influential Romans for the most part, worshipped here, just a short distance away from the imperial palaces and buildings at the heart of official Rome.

Here they baptized new members and celebrated the Eucharist much like St. Justin, a second-century Roman writer, describes in his Apology, a letter addressed to the emperor, but really intended for the Roman public with mistaken ideas about Christianity:

“No one may share the Eucharist with us unless he believes that what we teach is true, unless he is washed in the regenerating waters of baptism for the remission of his sins, and unless he lives in accordance with the principles given us by Christ.

We do not consume the eucharistic bread and wine as if it were ordinary food and drink, for we have been taught that as Jesus Christ our Savior became a man of flesh and blood by the power of the Word of God, so also the food that our flesh and blood assimilates for its nourishment becomes the flesh and blood of the incarnate Jesus by the power of his own words contained in the prayer of thanksgiving.

The apostles, in their recollections, which are called gospels, handed down to us what Jesus commanded them to do. They tell us that he took bread, gave thanks and said: Do this in memory of me. This is my body. In the same way he took the cup, he gave thanks and said: This is my blood. The Lord gave this command to them alone. Ever since then we have constantly reminded one another of these things. The rich among us help the poor and we are always united. For all that we receive we praise the Creator of the universe through his Son Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit.

On Sunday we have a common assembly of all our members, whether they live in the city or the outlying districts. The recollections of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as there is time. When the reader has finished, the president of the assembly speaks to us; he urges everyone to imitate the examples of virtue we have heard in the readings. Then we all stand up together and pray.

On the conclusion of our prayer, bread and wine and water are brought forward. The president offers prayers and gives thanks to the best of his ability, and the people give assent by saying, “Amen”. The eucharist is distributed, everyone present communicates, and the deacons take it to those who are absent.

The wealthy, if they wish, may make a contribution, and they themselves decide the amount. The collection is placed in the custody of the president, who uses it to help the orphans and widows and all who for any reason are in distress, whether because they are sick, in prison, or away from home. In a word, he takes care of all who are in need.

We hold our common assembly on Sunday because it is the first day of the week, the day on which God put darkness and chaos to flight and created the world, and because on that same day our savior Jesus Christ rose from the dead. For he was crucified on Friday and on Sunday he appeared to his to his apostles and disciples and taught them the things that we have passed on for your consideration.”

That’s a rather complete description of what went on in this house church in the 2nd century. Think about it– Justin says a lot in those few paragraphs.

I noticed the agency controlling the excavations offers the opportunity to come on certain evenings to hear archeologists describe what happened in these old Roman houses. I wonder if they make use of Justin’s description of 2nd second Christian worship. Hope so.

The story of this complex gets even more interesting. According to tradition, John and Paul, officers of the Emperor Constantine (312-37), suffered martyrdom by execution in the reign of Julian the Apostate (361-363), and were buried here in their own house. So this is also a site where Christian martyrs are honored. Another dimension is added to the story of this place.

Early fifth century Pammachius, a Roman senator, who evidently own the complex (it’s called in early documents the “titulus Pammachii”–he has the deed) built a church over the complex of buildings. Now freed from second class status by Constantine’s efforts, the Christian communities of Rome began to build fine churches.  Eventually, Pammachius’ church was called the Basilica of Saints John and Paul.

My hypothesis, which I’ve developed in an earlier blog, is that Pammachius’ church, built in the “show area” of Rome, as Krautheimer calls it,  is part of a Christian effort to influence Romans still resistant to Christianity by offering them a vital spirituality that is both biblical and monastic.

Then the barbarians and earthquakes came, and those dreams seem to have come to an end. But the old church is still there. Who knows how God works?
I’d like to make a video presentation about this. Mauro is coming to Rome next week.
Help me, Mauro.

St. Clement of Rome

I just returned from San Clemente, near the Colisseum, where the feast of St. Clement, one of the early leaders of the Roman church was celebrated. It was an affair that burst out into the surrounding neighborhood as the relics of the saint were carried through the streets before returning for Mass at 6:30 PM. This beautiful church which rests upon another below and a fascinating complex of other buildings goes back to the 4th century and is a favorite of visitors to the city.

Tonight the church was lighted with torches on the outside, like a birthday cake. Cardinal Hummes officiated at the celebration. About two hundred people followed a Roman band and the community of Irish Dominicans and the cardinal and four stalwart young men carrying the golden bust of St Clement containing the relic through the streets. The Dominicans have been in charge of the church since they were banished from Ireland during Reformation times.

The climax of the procession was a waterfall of fireworks that stopped the procession at one point. Smiles on everyones’ faces. Who doesn’t like noisy fireworks?

The one thing we know about St.Clement for sure is his letter to the Corinthians. They seem to have been troublemakers in the early church, and Clement’s letter is basically telling them to cool it. We need to love each other more.

Maybe that was the saint’s message tonight as he went through the crowded streets where a good number of drivers were fuming that their favorite route was interrupted by a procession.

I have some fine video of the event, and I came home with some tea and cookies for some of the boys at Saints John and Paul.

Santo Stephano Rotondo

I went over today to see this church which always intrigued me. As its title indicates, it’s a round church, and it has been renovated recently, although not quite finished. They have a new guide to the church, always helpful when you go to these places.  Good pictures and historically exhaustive. 

Like so many of these guides, it heavy on architecture and light on  spirituality. Many people remark on the grim pictures of martyrdom around the church, 32 scenes, beginning with the executions of Peter and John, on through the Diocletian persecution. All blood and gore. 

But, as the guide remarks, take a look at the faces of those being martyred. No trace of pain or fear. They have strength to carry on.

What I  find most interesting is that these pictures were commissioned in the 16 century when the counter-reformation was beginning. This was a place given to the German-Hungarian Jesuits preparing seminarians for missionary work in a hostile Germany and Hungary. Get ready the pictures say. If you go into danger, expect the Cross.

The pictures are part of Ignatian spirituality. He was training soldiers. Be ready to take on anything.

This was a training ground for heroic missionaries. Somewhere in France they must have been doing the same thing as they sent Jesuits into the Indian country of North America where so many of them suffered so much to bring the faith to others.

I was wonder if we are entering that kind of age again. We may not be facing stoning, like Stephen the deacon, but there are other ways the Cross enters our lives.

Assisi November 17th

November 17th we’re going to visit Assisi.

When I think of Francis of Assisi, I think of that large statue of him facing the Lateran Basilica in Rome. His arms are outstretched and if you look at the statue in a certain way it seems he is holding up the basilica in arms.

That’s what it’s meant to say.

According to some stories, Francis approached Pope Innocent III at the Lateran early in the 13th century requesting permission to found a new order in the church. The times were bad then, and according to one story, the pope in a dream saw the Lateran church falling down, but being held up by Francis and his new community.

I’m not sure the pope was so taken by the Franciscans then, or saw them as a reforming movement in the church. From what we know of Innocent III he was interested in papal power more than charismatic power.

But I think Francis’ statue gets it right. There will always be a charismatic element in the church working for its reform and reinvigorization.

Here’s something the Franciscan Leonardo Boff wrote about Francis:

“Francis is more than a saint of the Catholic Church and founder of the Franciscan family. He is the purest figure of Western history, of the dreams, the utopias, and  of the way of relating panfraternally that we are all searching for today. He speaks to the most archaic depths of the modern soul, because there is a Francis hidden within each of us, struggling to emerge and expand freely among the moles of the modern age.”

Dedication of the Lateran Basilica

The Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of the Dedication of Saint John Lateran this Sunday, November 9th. Seems strange to celebrate the dedication of a church, doesn’t it?  Yet, the readings remind us that churches, like the Jewish temple before them, figure in God’s plan. They’re signs that God is with us.

But why should we celebrate the dedication of a church in Rome that most of us have never seen, or perhaps even heard of?

Because this church is special, it’s called “the mother of all churches.” Let me tell you why.

Saint John Lateran, originally called the Basilica of the Savior, was the first prominent Christian church built in the Roman empire after centuries of intermittent persecution. The Emperor Constantine built it in Rome in the early 4th century after he conquered the city and gave the Christian Church its freedom.

The reason he built this church, which held 10,000 people, was to make clear that Christians had the right to worship publicly, to meet publicly, and to express their faith publicly in the society around them. They weren’t second-class citizens or enemies of the state or people to be looked down on.

That was a major step in our Church’s history. We have a right to worship and to be recognized for what we believe and to express what we believe. Before this, Christians met in private homes or small meeting halls to keep out of the public eye.

Constantine gave this church to the bishop of Rome, and so it was the church of the popes from the 4th to the 14th century, when they moved to the Vatican across the city. It was the center of western Christianity for most of our history. Papal elections, ecumenical councils, imperial coronations took place here. Emissaries from the nations and ordinary Christian pilgrims came here to visit the pope, the bishop of Rome. So the Lateran is like an archive of our church’s past.

Next week, on Friday, a number of us from Saint Mary’s will be going to visit this historic church. I’ll put some entries from our visit on my blog from there.

For me this church is special because it seems to represent so well the human side of the church to which I belong.  Like the temple in Jerusalem it has had its ups and downs. The Lateran church suffered from earthquakes, fires, natural disasters of every kind. It’s been battered by invading armies and robbers. In some sketches of it that I could show you, especially from the early middle ages, it looks like an abandoned barn. Indeed, one reason the popes abandoned it in the 14th century was because the area around it had become too dangerous to live in.

It’s true, too, that not all the leaders of the church who lived there were saints either. It’s had its share of thieves and robbers.

That’s always going to be true for our church. This parish of ours is like it. Who knows what’s going to happen to this building through the years, whether from natural disasters or social catastrophes, or just the passage of time.

Like the Lateran church, we are a church of saints and sinners. Sometime, each of us goes from one or to the other.  We have saints and sinners here.

Yet, as we will see next week when we visit–that old church is still there. Like it, our church too is gladdened by God’s waters of grace ever nourishing it.  We are God’s temple, and the Sprit of God is given to us, ever nourishing us.

That ancient church is a sign that the Lord is with us and will remain with us till the end of time. The mysteries celebrated there, we celebrate here. So today we celebrate  its beginning–our mother– and hope to be its faithful child.

Learning from History

Learning from history

It’s always a temptation when you go to a place like Rome to get lost in its history.
Better when you take from it also a perspective on the present and the future.

I liked the coverage of the recent US election on PBS’s The News Hour so much better than the shouters on the cable networks. Especially I liked the input from presidential historians. History has something to say.

It’s important to look back for you to go ahead.

Human nature doesn’t radically change; it will always have its saints and its sinners.
Factors like climate change, earthquakes, natural disasters– “signs in the heavens” as the scriptures say– will always be with us in one form or another.

The church we see in those old monuments in Rome still lives today and by God’s grace will live tomorrow.

I was thinking of this because of the recent meeting at the Vatican between Christian and Moslem leaders to discuss vital issues like immigration, religious rights, violence, and so forth. Recently too there was a meeting of leading scientists there to discuss the relationship between science and religion–another hot topic.

There was also a recent synod on Holy Scripture in Rome, which will have consequences throughout the world on how we see our faith. Orthodox leaders met a year or so ago with Roman Catholic representatives to discuss the future role of the papacy–they’re calling it “the petrine ministry” now.

You can’t look at these issues without looking at the past. It actually frees you from being frozen in the present and enables you to think about change.