Wednesday, 27 February 2008

The Blood of Martyrs...

Yesterday morning saw the station Mass celebrated at the church of Santa Pudenziana. The church is one of the oldest in Rome, going back to about 390AD, though it has been rebuilt a number of times. The apse mosaic mostly dates from the time of the original church - again making this probably the oldest mosaic in Rome, despite some damage being done to it in a restoration and redecoration of 1589. There in the middle is the magnificent figure of Christ beneath a jewelled cross: enthroned in glory He is blessing the assembled apostles and the two women who represent the converted Jews and the converted Gentiles, all gathered into the new Israel, the universal Church. They are either presenting wreaths of worship to Christ or holding them over the heads of the two great apostles, Peter and Paul. If it is the latter, perhaps it is meant to reflect the words of Paul in Galatians 2:7-10, where Peter is described as apostle for the circumcised and Paul as apostle for the uncircumcised or Gentiles. The figures are very Roman: Christ, according to some commentators appears like Jupiter (the text he holds reads, "Dominus conservator ecclesiae Pudentianae"); the apostles are in Senatorial togas - there should be 12, but the restoration of 1589 cut them off! Of note too are the 4 creatures from Ezekiel and the Apocalypse representing the Evangelists, which are said to be their oldest preserved representations - I particularly like this chap- or lion - or St Mark:

St Pudenziana with her sister St Praxedes were thought to be daughters of the senator Pudens who housed St Peter upon his arrival in Rome. They survived the initial persecution and are said to have collected the bodies/relics of those martyred, placing them in the well still seen in the church. They too eventually died for Christ. What gives credence to their story is that the churches of St Pudenziana and Praxedes (one of my favourites) were constructed very early on - 4th and early 5th century; it is possible that some kind of monument or oratory was built by Pope St Pius I in around 150 at the site of the church of St Praxedes - the same period when a monument was built over the tomb of St Peter (an altar said to include part of St Peter's altar table is in the church, in the chapel presented by the first Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman).

Below is a painting of the two good sisters gathering relics and placing them in a well - forgive the flash! In the background is an area of execution with all sorts of implements of torture and death, including a Catherine Wheel.

This morning we all trooped over to the church of San Sisto Vecchio: it is a longer walk and it took us past the Colosseum, the Circus Maximus, then the Baths of Caracalla, while we prayed the rosary and carried "The Case". The church was reputedly built on the site where Pope St Sixtus II (257-258AD) met St Lawrence as the Pope went to the Catacomb of Prætextatus to address a gathering of the faithful, perhaps even to offer Mass. The story of this meeting is described by most as a legend. Nevertheless what followed certainly was not. The Emperor Valerian had unleased a fairly severe persecution against the Church, after a brief respite following the terrible Decian attack on Christianity which saw the torture of the great Origen. Valerian forbade the gathering of Christians in any place, even in cemeteries. Sixtus (often written as Xystus in Latin) was specifically breaking the Imperial Law since he was going to comfort and encourage this secret assembly of the Christians of Rome. St Cyprian of Carthage writing a letter in this period tells us briefly what happened (Sixtus had helped to ease relations with the African Bishops after a period of tension and so was appreciated by Cyprian for his gentleness): "You should know that Sixtus, furthermore, was executed in a cemetery on August 6, and with him four deacons..." The soldiers found him in the act of preaching and it is thought that he was beheaded there and then - though some suggest he may have had a short trial and then returned to the cemetery to be executed. A couple of days later St Lawrence too was executed. This year marks the 1750th anniversary of their martyrdom.

Below is the exterior of the church - my pictures inside were not too successful! There's a better picture on Fr Avram's blog (the jokes are worse though). The Romanesque belltower dates from the 12th century.

Mgr Cecchio, the Rector of the North American College, gave the homily. He recalled how St Dominic had lived at the this church and how St Thomas Aquinas too had spent some time there. The church was a place of saints, of men and women who through the ages had prayed and loved God and neighbour. It made me think that despite the assertion of many guides that there is not anything too remarkable about the church, it really had a history that belied its appearance - a history of saints that stretched right back to Sixtus and Lawrence and which surrounds and encourages us today.

Monday, 25 February 2008

Exotic Basilicas and Exotic Popes

I was asked after what I wrote yesterday why I should be interested in Blessed Pius IX. I suppose there are many reasons - his witness, his sufferings, his important work for the First Vatican Council, not to mention his unique sense of humour. Two other important reasons spring to mind. Firstly, he was the Pope who established the North American College here in Rome at what is now known as the Casa Santa Maria - where I am presently living: something for which I am very grateful! Secondly, he restored the hierarchy to England and Wales in 1850: part of this restoration included the establishment of my own Diocese of Northampton. The move created great excitement and there was a strong desire for the "conversion of England" - something we still await but also still long for. There was a fair amount of interaction bewteen Rome and the fledgling Dioceses. One of the fruits of this was apparently that Provost Husenbeth of Northampton managed to secure two peculiar priviledges for the Chapter of Canons in Northampton: firstly, each Canon could wear a ring; secondly, the mozetta worn by the Canons would be the same as the Pope's. These concessions were ratified by Pope Benedict XV. The decisions of the two Popes are referenced in our Diocesan Archive. Another eventual fruit of this interaction came during the papacy of Leo XIII when one of the thousand detailed copies of the ikon of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour (Help) was given to the church of Our Lady at Great Billing - and that church was recently made the Diocesan shrine by our present (and twelfth) Bishop of Northampton, the Right Reverend Peter Doyle. The depiction of Pius IX is to be found hanging in the refectory here at the Casa: you can spot the mozetta...

Today was mostly a sunny day and certainly a productive one: a full morning in the library, some more time there this afternoon and evening, and Latin with Fr Foster. At the moment St Hilary's commentary on one of the psalms is taking the form of a deep meditation of Christ's prayer during His Passion - very appropriate for Lent.

This morning the station Mass was held at the Basilica of San Marco, dedicated to the Evangelist, and rebuilt a number of times over the centuries. It still houses a beautiful mosaic in the apse, put together during the reign of Pope Gregory IV (827-844): he can be seen in the mosaic with a square blue nimbus behind his head - a sign that he was alive at the time this was done. The other figures are St Mark the Evangelist, St Felicissimus, Christ, Pope St Mark (who built the first basilica here and to whom it was eventually dedicated in addition to the Evangelist), St Agapitus and St Agnes. Below the figures Christ is depicted as the Lamb of God around whom gather the 12 sheep representing the apostles. Pope St Mark built the basilica over an older oratory - but he had little time to enjoy the fruits of his labour. Consecrated on 18th January 336, he died on 7th October the same year, of natural causes, and he now lies in the Basilica of which he is co-patron.

The Basilica is an exotic mix of styles, with fine 18th century baroque, a 9th century apse and crypt, a 15th century coffered ceiling. Mercifully, the view of the apse mosaic is not blocked by a baldachino as is the case with the church of Santa Prassede. San Marco serves as the national church of the Venetians; one of its titulars was the Patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Albino Luciani: he eventually became Pope John Paul I in 1978 and, like Pope St Mark, had a very short reign of only 33 days, dying too of natural causes.

Sunday, 24 February 2008

Sunday at San Lorenzo

On Sundays the great American College Circus doesn't head out to the station church of the day. I decided this afternoon therefore to head out on my bike and go to the church of the day - San Lorenzo fuori le mura: it was a beautiful afternoon marred only by the sight of me huffing and puffing my way up the hill of the Via Nazionale. Somewhere after Termini I got lost, but eventually I arrived at the Campo Verano, site of a very old cemetery, catacomb and San Lorenzo. It was to here on 19th July 1943 that Pope Pius XII rushed with his secretary Monsignor Montini, the future Paul VI, having heard that bombs had dropped on the area after an allied air raid missed Tiburtina train station. It was a dramatic gesture: he came with money which he had quickly withdrawn from the Vatican Bank and this he distributed to the needy; he also comforted the injured and anointed the dying, eventually returning to the Vatican with his white cassock stained with blood. He was the first on the scene month later when the San Giovanni quarter was bombed: a wonderful statue stands to commemorate his actions outside the chrch of Santa Croce, placed there by the grateful Roman people who considered him to be "Defensor Civitatis". There is a memorial of the 19th July incident in the porch of the church:

Also in the porch area are some beautiful 13th century frescoes, damaged by the bombing but very carefully restored. They detail the lives of Saints Lawrence and Stephen - the first martyr and one of the first deacons of the Church:

The porch contains 3 ancient Roman sarcophagi. One of them is carved with busy scenes of the wine harvest, with small cherubic figures doing all they can to gather in the grapes:

The church is has its roots in the 4th century. St Lawrence was martyred in 258 in the persecution which also saw the beheading of Pope St Sixtus II: tradition says that he was roasted to death on a large griddle, though some think he too may have been beheaded. His body was brought to the Campo Verano and buried here. A church was subsequently built when freedom came to the Church and San Lorenzo was subsequently declared a Patriarchal Basilica by Pope St Leo the Great (440-461) - one of the 3 minor ones in the City. It has had a few serious modifications: the nave dates from around 435, the chancel from around 585 and the apse was built over Constantine's oratory which enclosed the tomb of Lawrence. Subsequent changes by Pope Honorious III (1216-1227) resulted in what is seen today.

Inside there is a marvellous Cossmatesque floor from the 12th century and the ambone is from the same period, with the Paschal candlestick incorporated into its structure.

Below the High Altar and the baldachino dating from 1147 is the monument enshrining the remains of St Stephen and St Lawrence.

Behind this can be found the slab on which Lawrence's body was laid after martyrdom. This is in an area that leads to the tomb of Pope Pius IX - indeed, Blessed Pius IX, the extraordinary Pope of the 19th century whose reign was longer than any other Pope (1846-1878) and who has been notoriously represented in history - though not as terribly as his successor, Pius XII. Pius IX was a man of great holiness who suffered terribly as an anti-clerical state rose to bring about the unification of Italy: he had originally sympathised with the unification, but its eventual course proved to be deleterious in many ways to the Church.

Saturday, 23 February 2008

Fr Brown (non-Chesterton though Chestertonian)

Fr Avram, my nextdoor neighbour, has a blog too and he has been giving his own unique takes on the station church Masses. If you want to know more, you are welcome to click on the link called "Peregrinus" over there ------->

Anagni art

Someone asked me recently if I had more pictures of the beautiful frescoes in the crypt of Anagni. I have to confess I have. The crypt has a whole series of frescoes based around the Book of the Apocalypse - a very neglected book in modern catechesis: many people shrug their shoulders and shy away from the Book, even though its profound liturgical significance is often forgotten; the crypt also has a vast array of scenes regarding the Ark of the Covenant (without Indiana Jones) and Old Testeament figures, notably Samuel.

Here is a depiction of the burial of St Magnus - in my theory, really that of St Thomas Becket but applied to Magno:

Next we have the prayers of the saints being offered by the angel at the altar of God in the Bookof the Apocalypse. This must surely be linked to the the angel who appeared to Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane in the account of St Luke and comforted Him - comforted Him with the prayers and love and faith of the saints through the ages:

Before the Lamb in the Apocalypse there is the great act of liturgical worship with the 24 elders worshipping Him and asting their crowns before Him. The 4 Evangelical Angels also surround Him in loving worship. He is the Lamb with the perfection of power and wisdome - with 7 horns and 7 eyes:

We also have the assumption of Elijah and his casting of his cloak onto Elisha:

Another wonderful image is of Christ seated in glory, surrounded by angels and with a whole assembly of potent symbols. A sword representing the two-edged sword of the word that cuts so keenly is issuing from His mouth. He has the keys of life and death in one hand and 7 stars in another. He is flanked by the 7 candles representing the fullness of Spirit, the 7 spirits sent out by God. This is truly the Pantocrator.

Finally, since my name is David, would it be too much to mention him of whom was born the great Son of David?

Roma locutus est: causa (case!) finita est

This morning at 6.00am I started off for the next station church - Santi Marcellino e Pietro, two saints mentioned in the Roman Canon (Marcellinus and Peter). Marcellinus was a well-known priest of Rome and Peter was said to be an exorcist.They were martyrs during the persecution of the Emperor Diocletian - 284-305AD. The present church is an 18th century reconstruction on the site of a number of previous reconstructions dating back to the time of the emperor Constantine (306-337AD): the church was built to honour the martyrs at their place of burial in the catachomb of St Tiburtius on the Via Labicana. Here Constantine buried his mother, St Helen or Helena: she had been the faithful supporter of her son's putsch for Imperial power and a key protagonist in his life (he had coins minted in her honour with the title "Nobilissma Femina" and "Augusta" inscribed); it was Constantine who influenced her to become a Christian and she also is credited with finding the relics of the True Cross in Jerusalem (as a result of which she is patron saint of archaeologists). She died around 330AD at the age of about 80 and was buried in a mausoleum at the church; the porphyry sarcophagus which contained her remains is now apparently in the Vatican museums - something to note for a future visit. St Helena is also of course the name of an island in the South Atlantic which is a British Overseas Territory and where a priest from my Diocese - Canon Michael Griffiths - is about to go to minister to the Catholics there.

My job this morning was to assist in being MC at the Mass at the church. I had to carry to the church the case containing all the liturgical books, vessels and other assorted goodies. I left earlier than the main group since I wanted to be there in good time and get a sense of the building. I walked past the Colosseum - you can see from the picture that it was still dark as I lugged the case past the Colosseum: the traffic was not colossal and you can see a very non-colossal buggy-van racing away on the road. Incidently, beside the Colosseum - though not in this picture - the Arch of Constantine can still be seen.

The Mass went well, though the occasional clatter beforehand due to my butter-fingers with plastic bottle and boxes could be heard. At that time in the morning these noises always seem to reverberate even more embarrassingly around the church. Mgr Dewane, spiritual director of the Casa, was main celebrant and preached on the Gospel parable of the Prodigal Son. Afterwards we packed up and moved off home, but not before I took a picture of the interior of the church: you can see the case there posing, smiling and waving. It had a whale of a time.

Friday, 22 February 2008

Chair of St Peter

Last week I was away: I was back in England for a Symposium at Ampleforth Abbey and I saw the Bishop in Northampton. I also spent time with my parents in Luton, both of whom are engaged in a war of attrition with a mouse in the kitchen.

Today was the feast of the Chair of St Peter. The station church in Rome this morning was San Vitale, a church which was dedicated in 416 but has been reconstructed in the 15th century. It is on a lower level to the Via Nazionale on which it is situated - 35 steps down from that level, so quite far down at its original level. As one wag put it, "More metro than retro." The church is dedicated to the martyr Vitalis and his two sons and fellow martyrs, Gervase and Protase: Vitalis was a soldier who remained faithful to Christ in one of the earlier persecutions - either that of Nero c. 64 AD or that of Marcus Aurelius (161-180). He was tortured on a rack and then buried alive - as the not exceedingly clear photograph I took this morning will demonstrate. You can see him there being buried under stones.

The church also has a claim to fame since it was the titular church of St John Fisher who never received his red hat but who wore the true red of a Cardinal in his martyrdom during the reign of King Henry VIII. Fr Tim Laboe from the Archdiocese of Detroit (the church has the Cardinal there as its present titular) preached a very moving sermon about the obedience in faith of Fisher, an obedience expressed in relation to the Successor of St Peter, to his authority received as it is from Christ and so from the Father.

Later, after a few hours work in the library, I went with another priest to the Basilica of St Peter. There the tradition is to illuminate the famous Altar of the Chair with candles on this feast day. The Altar expresses the same Mystery mentioned in this morning's homily: the Church is united in the authority of Peter - the four statues on either side represent East and West, with the two Western Fathers, Augustine and Ambrose, at the front, and the Eastern ones, Athanasius and John Chrysostom, at the back; yet they are not holding the Chair up - this is supported by the clouds that pour forth from the glory of God, from the explosion of light of the Spirit, who inspires and guides the Church into all truth. The point is (to labour the point) that Peter's authority comes from neither flesh nor blood but from the Father in heaven (cf. Matthew 16:17-19). Inside Bernini's magnificent Chair is a very ancient chair carved with a representation of the Labours of Hercules: it was once thought to have belonged to St Peter himself, though it is now thought to be of later though Pagan origin and was once used for the Liturgy.

Moving further on in the Basilica, the old statue of St Peter seated on a throne - the one whose foot pilgrims touch, rub or kiss, with the result that it is now very worn - appeared somewhat differently. It was bedecked in cope and triple tiara and a ring on a finger, another tradition that has continued even after the Papal coronation with the tiara has been discontinued. The tiara itself is not one of those used for the coronations: it is very large and made to fit the head of the statue, not a human head.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Stations continue

This morning at 6.25 we marched off in the cool Roman air to San Giorgio in Velabro. To get there you have to walk across the Piazza Venezia, around the bottom of the Capitoline Hill, and on towards the church of Santa Maria in Cosmadin. Then just opposite the beautiful temple of Hercules Victor, known to many as the temple of the Vestal Virgins (only it isn't), a sharp left turn is taken. Then a climb past the 4th century Arch of Janus leads you to the entrance of San Giorgio. It is worth noting that the temple of Hercules Victor dates from just before 100BC - extraordinary.

The church of San Giorgio has ancient origins, though it wasn't always dedicated to St George. For a period (from about 682) it was dedicated to St Sebastian, the soldier who was martyred in the terrible persecution of Diocletian (c.300) and whose body was thrown into the great drain of the forum, the Cloaca Maxima, which flows under this area of Rome into the Tiber: the Cloaca was designed to drain the marshes between the hills of Rome and still partially in use under the square in front of the church: its dates are c. 600BC for its first canalisation and it was enclosed and built over around c.200BC.

The church was dedicated to St George around the reign of Pope Zachary (741-752) when the Pope donated the head of St George to the church, making him co-patron with St Sebastian. The relic of his skull can be seen under the altar of the church. The altar and baldachino in the church date from the 12th century as does the fresco in the apse. In the fresco you can spot St George on his horse!

The church had as its Cardinal Protector the great Cardinal Newman (1801-1890). There is a plaque inside detailing this - indeed there are plaques to many of the Cardinal protectors. This plaque mentions his claims for fame but then says, "sed ante omnia christianus" - "but before all things he was a Christian":

Newman was made a Cardinal in 1879 and many hope that his beatification and canonisation cannot be far off.

The Mass was very prayerful and it was impressive to see the numbers of clergy, religious and people who attended : a real witness of devotion and dedication.

Lent begins

Yesterday, Wednesday 6th February, saw the beginning of Lent with Ash Wednesday, the day after my 40th birthday, which means that the traditional octave associated with my birthday was solemnly abolished.

A great tradition in Rome is that of the station churches: originally the tradition had its origin in the annual visitation of the Pope to churches in his diocese on set days of the year. The tradition died out after the 14th century but was revived in the 19th century, and since the end of the 1960s the American College has visited each of the church throughout Lent (apart from Sundays): the event is fairly popular and the Americans are joined by an assortment of clergy, religious and lay people.

Yesterday Mass was at 6.45am at the church of Santa Sabina on the Aventine Hill. We left the Casa around 6.05am and prayed the rosary together on the way. Santa Sabina was constructed between 422 and 432 and made by Pope Gregory the Great into the station church for Ash Wednesday; it had a lot of reconstruction work done to it in the 9th century, but after a 20th century restoration, which did away with accretions, appears what seems to be more like its old self. The pictures aren't so good this time:

It was a beautiful morning and from the Aventine a beautiful view of St Peter's in the distance: