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.

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