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 It was a dramatic gesture: he came with money which he had quickly withdrawn from the Vatican Bank and this he distributed to the needy; he also comforted the injured and anointed the dying, eventually returning to the Vatican with his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.