Thursday, 31 January 2008

More of the visiting clergy

For the memoria of St John Bosco not only did I celebrate Mass for the Sisters here at the Casa at 7.00 am in Italian, with some work on Hilary before and after (an early start was needed), but I also accompanied Fr Jonathan to St Paul's Outside the Walls ( I am sure I have seen this rendered St Paul's Without the Walls) for Mass which was celebrated in the chapel of St Benedict.

St Paul's is often talked down by most commentators on Rome. I suppose the new materials used to re-build the Basilica after the unfortunate events of the night of 15th-16th July 1823, as Pope Pius VII lay dying, when a terrible fire took hold from roof repairs and most of the nave was destroyed in the ensuing conflagration, appear to many to give somewhat too clear an air of the Rebuilt. Nevertheless, I find it a stunning building: its style gives some sense of what St Peter's would have looked like in outline (never forgetting that the old St Peter's also had many frescoes on columns and a multitude of altars, as today) and its sheer size is in no way hidden by clever tricks of perspective as in today's St Peter's.

The recent excavations and the discovery of the Constantinian tomb for Paul's relics make ever clearer the roots of traditions in history: just as St Peter's marks the true place of its patron's burial, so too with St Paul's. The excavations indicate how the first Constantinian church actually faced in the opposite direction to the present Basilica's arrangement - St Paul's (with its marvellous mosaics - well worth seeing) being the fruit of the construction begun in 384 by the emperors Valentinian II and Theodosius the Great, during the reign of Pope Damasus. Below is a picture in the Confessio of the excavated tomb which lies behind the grill:

On the walls of the Basilica are portraits of all the Popes up to and including our present Holy Father, Benedict XVI. In the cloister shop area, I found four other portraits which were rescued from the ruined nave in 1823. Who is this not so cheerful chap pictured here?

Visiting clergy

The last few days have seen a priest visiting from my Diocese - Northampton: Fr Jonathan Hill. In between my studies, I have arranged several churches where he and I could celebrate the Mass. The first was at the church of St Gregory the Great on the Coelian Hill yesterday - one of the famous seven hills (the other six are the Capitoline, the Palatine, the Aventine, the Quirinal, the Viminal and the Esquiline). We agreed to meet at 5.00pm at the monstrous/magnificent Victor Emmanuel monument overlooking the Piazza Venezia - called the Wedding Cake or Typewriter, depending on the mood: other names spring to mind. The late time gave me the chance to hurtle on with Hilary work (if I get the chance I may mention something about this again). It was a beautiful evening and in Rome there is a certain quality of light, particularly in the evening when the colours are rich and make everything glow rose-red. Below is a photograph of the scene:

In the centre of the picture you will see Trajan's Column, which stands at the mouth of the Forum. Trajan was one of those successful Roman emperors, ruling from 98 to 117AD, who was popular at home and had the fortune of actually dying from natural causes. His column marks the entrance to that area of the Forum which he constructed and which was completed by his successor Hadrian: Trajan's Forum was so magnificent that it reduced the emperor Constantius to stupified silence when he visited in 357 (Constantius was a nasty little heretical emperor who caused a lot of trouble to the universal Church, to St Athansius and to our hero St Hilary whom he exiled to the east). Trajan's care for poor and abandoned children earned from Pope St Gregory the Great the accolade that he deserved to be granted entry into heaven as an honorary Christian.

So, on to St Gregory the Great's church (San Gregorio Magno) on the Coelian Hill. We were able to celebrate Mass at the altar where St Gregory himself is said to have celebrated the Sacred Mysteries. He lived at the monastery there until 590AD when he was elected Pope and proceeded to consolidate the Church in an empire that was rapidly falling apart. He himself had founded the monastery on what was the site of his father's house. He became Pope most unwillingly but soon it was clear that here was one of the three 'Great' Popes of history (four now with John Paul II?) - the other two being Pope Leo and Pope Nicholas. The altar now has a frontal sculptured in the 14th century:

There is also a chair dating from the 1st century AD that was used by St Gregory - and is still used today (by Fr Hill) as is evidenced below:

Finally, it was at this site that St Augustine in 596, prior of the monastery, received the blessing of Pope St Gregory to begin the mission to England with about 40 others, some of whom were young English monks rescued from slavery by Gregory ("Non Angli sed angeli!"). From here they began and the mission is not yet finished.

Monday, 28 January 2008

Bah Bah See

This is the picture never to be seen on the BBC website; nor the report about 200,000 people supporting the Pope on Sunday 20th January after the debacle at La Sapienza University; nor the account of many in Italy, non-Catholics and Catholics, secularists and politicians, all appalled at the intolerant and dictatorial event at La Sapienza; nor the vast majority of students and academics at La Sapienza who supported His Holiness's right to visit and speak, rather than the few who did not but appeared to be the sole group of people the BBC actually interviewed; nor the truth about what the Pope really said about Galileo; nor any serious attempt to examine what really happened between Galileo and the Holy Office. The BBC turns out to be more Shelob than dear old Auntie in her editorial policy....

Exams, sleep and the Arians

It's exam time in Rome. Most of the University students here are having to grind their minds in the effort to be prepared for the ordeal. As a result, many places experience great tension among the student body.

I am glad to say that none of this seems to be too apparent here at the Casa. Everyone, though working hard, seems fine. It has to be said that the habitus of "working hard" is well instilled into everyone here throughout the year and not just at exam time - and so the house is always buzzing with work. Furthermore, if there is any grinding noise going on from the Licence students, this is probably drowned out by the roar of the drilling operations undertaken by the Doctorate students. These poor students experience an on-going pressure and at times anxiety as they seek to complete on time, work hard at a constant pace, read, think, take notes, develop their arguments and divine their conclusions. Time out, though gratefully undertaken, is always laced with a trace of guilt.

Last night I experienced what most say they end up facing - a fairly sleepless night. I don't know why it happened. In the end I just read Simonetti's comprehensive history of the Arian crisis - useful background reading for my studies on Hilary. The section I read covered much of Hilary's history: his own arguments in favour of the Divinty of Christ as true Son of God in his De Trinitate which became the key text in the West in the debate with Arianism and semi-Arianism; his bravery, despite his gentle disposition, in opposing the Arians, backed up as they were by Imperial threat; his exile in the East and his fruitful study of Eastern theology, particularly Origen; his success in joining the Council of Seleucia in 359 and helping to transform it into an anti-Arian event; his eventual repatriation to the West because the pro-Arian authorities realised how much trouble he had caused - he was considered to be "discordiae seminarium et perturbator Orientis"; his return via Rome to Gaul where he united the Bishops at Paris, persuded them to denounce Arianism, affirm the Council of Nicea, condemn the main perpetrators of the heresy and to extend a level of understanding to those who had signed previous creeds under Imperial threat and who now wished to disown what they had signed and to the so-called semi-Arians many of whom were in reality homoousions (i.e., Catholics: the Son is of the same substance as the Father - in Latin "consubstantialis Patri") but were cautious about terms becuase they did not want to fall into the heresy of Sabellianism. Some of the homoiousions (i.e. semi-Arians: homoiousios = the Son is of a similar substance to the Father) of the East sent a letter to the Council of Paris to let the Gaul Bishops know why they had signed the pro-Arian creeds - again because of Imperial pressure. The reply from Paris was probably written by Hilary (it bears the full stamp of his style and thought): it is full of carefully crafted distinctions which bring out the Catholic understanding of homoousios and also show why homoiousios can be accepted but only because it logically points to homoousios: the true similarity of substance implies being of the same substance if it is to be wholly and utterly similar: similarity "veri Dei sit ad verum Deum."

Simonetti also laid bare how much the Arians and their supporters came to depend on Imperial power for their cause to be espoused and imposed: their violence, cunning and downright dishonesty is treated dispassionately by an author who at times appears critical of Athanasias.

This is a medieval depiction of St Hilary combatting the heresies. Of course, he never used a sword. His weapons were grace, the Catholic Faith, fidelity, something to write with and his mind. One thing is clear: he knew that heresies damage people's faith and their spiritual lives because they distort the living image of God which the Church conveys to us in her preaching and they replace that image with one made according to our subjective reason. That's why they must be combatted - in every time, in every place, including today.

I spent the rest of the day in the library working with his Treatise on the Psalms. It was slow work today after last night. I have a priest on either side of me on my desk in the library - Fr Tad Oxley on my right and Fr Derek Borak on my left. I have dubbed the whole table "Death Row". The clock is ticking and we all know why.

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

St Agnes

Yesterday was the feast of St Agnes, a virgin martyr of (probably) the first years of the 4th century. After my Latin class yesterday, I had the opportunity to pop into the church of St Agnes (Sant’Agnese in Agone) on the Piazza Navona. The Piazza is the site of the Circus of Domition (c.98 AD) and was the scene of staged battles and gladatorial contests, resulting in blood and death - and it also marked the scene of the martyrdom of many Christians. I often think that those who bemoan the existence and influence of Christianity in Antiquity would realise the great benefits that the Church brought: it managed to ensure that such barbaric contests were banished from the Empire.

It is here in the Circus of Domitian that St Agnes is thought to have been martyred and hence the church dedicated to her honour. Inside the church in a chapel on the left hand side is the relic of her skull, enshrined in a beautiful reliquary. Yesterday many people gathered there to pray, with candles alit and flowers decorating the chapel. Some were reading the Bible, others reciting the Divine Office or the Rosary, or just simply kneeling before the shrine.

At the weekend I had the opportunity to go to Palazzola, the villa of the English College that sits on the slopes of Lake Albano, south of Rome. It is a beautiful place and I had the chance to pray and read my books concerning 4th century Church crises. The walk around the lake gives breathtaking views too. Here is a view from the room I was given:

Friday, 11 January 2008

Happy New Year

Last year ended well: the studies are going fine and Fr Ladaria is pleased with the progress - but there is much more to do!

On Saturday 15th December a group of us when to the town of Anagni, City of Popes. Here four great Popes were born - Alexander III (the friend and staunch supporter of St Thomas of Canterbury), Innocent III, Gregory IX and Boniface VIII. It's one of my favourite places to visit. It's beautifully situated on a hilltop south of Rome, about an hour by train. From the train station (which is in the valley) a bus is taken that drops passengers near one of the gates of the city, that nearest the Cathedral. Fr Avram Brown, Fr Martin Edwards, Fr Larry Kozak, Fr Pat Beidelman were the victims on my tour, but proved to be willing ones.

It was a beautifully sunny day. After an initial coffee we popped in to the old studio, now place of exhibition, of the artist and sculptor Tommaso Gismondi. His work is extensive: he was a deeply religious man. As a seminarian I met him a few times at his studio and it was good this time to meet his daughter who is also a sculptor. She told us that her father only died a few years ago in his late nineties. If you want to find some examples of his work go to

After this we went to the Cathedral, dating from 12th to 13th centuries, and on whose side can be found the imposing effigy of Pope Boniface VIII:

The Cathedral had a marvellous bell tower towering in its front piazza, also restored recently

and on the front on the Cathedral are some very old carvings, two of which are shown below as they are my favourites and remind me of my companions that day:

The Cathedral itself not only has a fine altar with baldachino, cathedra and paschal candlestick all dating to the 12th century

it also has a fine crypt in which can be found some beautifully preserved frescoes from the period, detailing scenes from the Apocalypse, the Old Testament, and the lives of saints. An altar marks the site of the tomb of the martyr and bishop of Anagni St Magno. On the wall behind his altar there is cycle of paintings showing the martyrdom of St Magno in his Cathedral - or is it? If it is, the painters, I think, used the story of St Thomas Beckett's martyrdom as the matrix for telling St Magno's story. In the picture, the saint is killed by having the top of his skull sliced off by a sword - exactly what happened to St Thomas.

The fact that in the Cathedral museum is housed a very old reliquary of St Thomas

and his own mitre

backs up my theory, especially given the presence of Alexander III in the city: there was a strong devotion to Beckett at this time and his death made a lasting impression on the medieval imagination. It's a wonderful place to visit and we were blessed to have the opportunity to see it.

The Cathedral saw the canonisations of a number of important saints: Clare of Assisi, Bernard of Clairvaux and Edward the Confessor.

Later in the day, after a hefty but very cheap lunch, we went to the Papal Palace in Anagni, a short walk from the Cathedral. Here the famous Slap (Schiaffo) of Anagni took place when the soldiers of Philip the Fair of France (a ghastly little man) assaulted Pope Boniface VIII in 1303, a slap which had consequences for the Church for over a hundred years with the ensuing sojourn at Avignon. The people of Anagni drove the French out of time eventually and the tortured Pope was carried back to Rome only to die about a month later due to what had been inflicted upon him.

The last picture shows Fr Avram. He was so hungry he began eating the floor: