Wednesday, 12 March 2008

On-going Station Churches

Yesterday and this morning the two station churches were a little closer to home, little more than a skip and a hop from the Casa. The first church was that of Santa Maria in Via Lata, an old favourite of mine, and the site of a very old church (though rebuilt many times) going back to the 5th century, having beeen built over what was most probably a warehouse: the remains of this are in the crypt area (not presently open) and it appears the building was a very large one - around 750 feet long! The church is decorated with very fine baroque and the sancturary enshrines the beautiful 13th century ikon of the Vergine Avvocata. There is Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament here each day where the sisters pray for peace in families, among Christians and in the world. I know too that the church has some link with St Ignatius and the early Jesuits but I think I may have to read up a little more on that before daring to say anything.

Another likeable thing about the church is that Blessed Pius IX was once a Canon of the church and in one of the aisles this lovely monument can be found which commemorates the surpassing in 1871 by Pius of the duration of St Peter's pontificate. There is a monument that commemorates the same event too at St Peter's: the observant pilgrim can see it above the seated statue of St Peter in the nave of the Basilica.

This morning we rolled over to the church of San Marcello, like yesterday's church situated on the Via del Corso. The church has links with the the great but shortlived pontificate of its namesake. The brutal persecution of Diocletian (284-305) left the Church in Rome in disarray, with dissensions caused by impenitent apostates who demanded a return to the Church but without penance, the absence of Church property caused by confiscation and the absence of a Bishop or Pope, the previous Pope Marcellinus having died in 304 (it is not clear if he died a natural death or was a martyr).

Pope Marcellus was elected in May or June of 308 but only reigned until 309. In that time he appears to have managed to create some order for the disrupted life of the Church: he organised Rome into 25 districts (tituli) - the 25 titular churches of the 7th century are based on this reorganisation. Each of these was to be led by a priest who would ensure that the ordinary life of the Church continued in its preparation of catechumens for Baptism, the celebration of the Eucharist and the commemoration of the great martyrs, the fair administration of the sacrament of Penance and the burial of the dead. The crisis of apostates however ended up causing more divisions, even bloodshed, and as a result, according to Pope St Damasus, the Emperor Maxentius had the Pope sent into exile by the end of 308 or even the beginning of 309. He died soon afterwards and was instantly venerated as a martyr - in 309 probably on his feast day 16th January. Some stories have him ending up as a stable boy by order of Maxentius, but this account of his end seems to originate in the 5th century. The church is meant to be one of the 25 original parishes of Rome and reputedly Macellus used the house of a lady called Lucina which stood on this spot as some kind of oratory. St Marcellus was buried at the catacombs of St Priscilla and his relics later moved to this fine church.

The church houses the Crucifix of St Marcellus which survived a conflagration that destroyed the old church here in 1519. It is highly venerated in Rome as miraculous and is carried through the streets in times of trial and anxiety, and also in anticipation of major events - it was carried through Rome in preparation for the Second Vatican Council.

At the back of the church is this wonderful frescoe of the Crucifixion painted in 1613 by Giovanni Battista Ricci:

And there is also this interesting painting of the conversion of St Paul. Notice the way in which Christ is directly above the fallen Saul, reaching down to him: all the rest of the painting appears to fade into the background beside these two figures, one in the dpths of the earth, the Other reaching with the depths of love into the depths of sin.

Sunday, 9 March 2008

St Helena

My good friend, Canon Michael Griffiths, heads out to St Helena in two weeks. Some in Rome have met him and many have been impressed by his generosity in this move. According to Fr Tim Finigan, at the Hermeneutic of Continuity Blog, there is an article about the impending move at the website of the Evening Telegraph, a paper known to many of us who had been curates or parish priests in Coby, Kettering and Wellingborough.

He will be very much missed in Luton. This is what he managed to do with his church at Our Lady, Help of Christians, as parish priest. I am sure St Helena will very much benefit from all the colour he will bring...

Canon Griffith moves to St Helena for a two year period: look at Google Earth to see how remote a place St Helena is. Yet, he is guaranteed a good welcome: his reputation as a fine parish priest has already reached the island and both Catholics, Anglicans and others await his arrival with great enthusiasm. Oremus pro eo...

Thursday, 6 March 2008

La Primavera

It is the 6th March. Spring is in the air. But not in our air: it has been cold and Rome has received a fair dousing of rain. Yesterday morning saw an early departure for the Basilica of San Paolo fuori le mura - or St Paul-outside-the-walls, or sometimes even St Paul-without-the-walls (except it does). We were leaving at 5.50am to make the long trek there by foot: I saw the need for my umbrella (bought last summer in Poitiers when France was inundated by rain in August - that must make it an 8th class relic of St Hilary), since the rain was hitting the cobbles outside the Casa hard and determinedly. A group of 8 of us had arisen for the walk and we set off with umbrellas, rosaries and bags at hand (or in hands). The rain soon stopped and we were no longer afflicted by it for the rest of the walk - an answer to heartfelt prayer!

The Mass at San Paolo was led by the Beda College and their Rector. It is a wonderful Basilica. What a shame, however, that the original structure only (!)endured for 1500 years before succumbing to a devastating fire on the night of 15th-16th July 1823, as the Great Survivor of the Napoleonic era himself, Pope Pius VII, lay dying not far away! The present reconstruction followed the original's plan faithfully, but the sense of the ancient isn't quite there. It is still impressive, however, and well worth seeing - particularly for the tomb of St Paul the Apostle. The mosaics in the apse and on the triumphal arch are worth seeing too - sadly I didn't take any pictures this time: Fr Avram has a few on his Peregrinus website.

The previous day we had been to the church of San Lorenzo in Damaso. The Venerable English College led the Mass, though the Rector was unfortunately unwell. The College schola sang beautifully at Holy Communion. The VEC was founded in 1579 as a seminary though it had previously been the English Hospice in Rome from 1362, receiving pilgrims and illustrious visitors as guests. It is where I studied for the priesthood and it has a moving history of student martyrs: when men went there to study for the priesthood during the Reformaton period they took an oath to return to England as soon as was possible after ordination in order to bring the Faith back there. Doing so carried the threat of death: they were already by law traitors for studying at a seminary abroad and the penalty for traitors was to be hung, drawn and quartered - a nasty, bloody and painful way to die invented by Edward I. Yet they returned nonetheless and 44 of them ended up being killed in this or similar ways over a period of about 100 years. They, like the other English Martyrs, are the true glory of England and a powerful witness that to die for the truth of the Faith, in charity, is sometimes what is asked of us; they show that the Truth is important and the Church's teaching is more than a set of Vatican policies that can be changed at will, according to a more political approach to the Church and her doctrine (as evinced often by many an editorial in the Tablet). These teachings are revelations of the Mind of Christ and revelations by God of who He is, of who we are and what we are called to be.

The present church of San Lorenzo was built on top of another one built in the time of Pope St Damasus (366-384) on the site of his house. Pope Damasus was one of the great Popes of history. Not only did he commission St Jerome to produce a standard Latin translation of the Bible (the Vulgate), but he also sought to affirm the truths of the Faith in the great tide of conflict that had arisen with Arianism, continuing to sweep the Church mainly due to prevarication and compromise among many Eastern Bishops: in Synods in Rome in 368 and 369, he condemned Apollinarianism (which kind of fused the Divinity and humanity of Chrit into one nature - thereby destroying the difference between the two and, according to some, creating a new reality) and Macedonianism (a form of Arianism which also denied the Divinity of the Holy Spirit) - a good 10 years or so before the East eventually got round to condemning them at the First Council of Constantinople in 381 to which Damasus also sent Legates. St Athanasius had previously condemned Apollinarianism in a synod in 362. The Church in Rome had tended to side with Athanasius since he was faithful to the Council of Nicaea (325) and so it tended to be suspicious of the many Eastern Bishops who refused to support Athanasius: there had been a long history of mutual suspicion in the East, of dependence on the apparatus of the Imperial state for the imposition of theological positions (often heretial ones) and of disagreement about terminology concerning the Christ and the Trinity. Damasus maintained the faithful stand of his two predecessors, Liberius I (352-366) and Julius I (337-352), which meant support for Athanasius was essential. Sadly, the difficulties of the time meant that his dealing with the Cappadocian Father, St Basil, was cautious to the extreme, based mainly on the suspicion that Basil was dealing too generously with those who had been homoeousians and others who had not accepted the full Faith of the Church. Basil was deeply saddened by this as he had a deep respect for the role of Rome in the life of the universal Church.

The Papacy of Damasus also saw a large amount of church construction. He had a love for the martyrs, particular for St Lawrence: he had the Basilica of San Lorenzo fuori le mura restored and built the church of San Lorenzo in Damaso also in his honour. The present church replaced the structure of Damasus in the 15th century and the church forms part of the splendid Palazzo dell Cancelleria - that graceful 14th century product of Renaissance genius, which now houses the main Tribunals of the Church (apart from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), including the Sacred Rota (translated on one Italian website as the Holy Wheel!). The facade of the palace is often missed by passers-by and in doing so they fail to see a building of fine elegance and simple nobility: the courtyard of the interior is similarly a pleasure to behold. A picture can be seen on Fr Avram's blog - another plug for my illustrious neighbour. The Cancelleria also gives its name to a series of reliefs from the 1st century now on display at the Vatican Museum: they were found underneath the Cancelleria in the 1930s and are well worth a look.

I found the picture below on a website: it shows a view of the Cancelleria from the Campo di Fiori. But note the style of clothes, the car and the poster of the Communist Party - another era...

The church inside is very spacious and the altar itself is by Bernini - I had always wondered why it put me in mind of the one at St Peter's until I found out the name of the architect. Pope St Damasus is buried beneath it, as are the martyr St Eutychius and St Hippolytus. Before the Mass, the priests seated themselves in the stalls behind the altar; the kind parish priest switched on extra lighting - colossal blazing bulbs at eyelevel, blinding the clergy, at the helpful hour of 6.55am: one illumination none of them wanted. A helpful MC rapidly switched them off.

I used to like to pop in here to pray as a student, particularly before this lovely ikon of the Black Madonna enshrined here at the Blessed Sacrament Altar.

I thought back to one of the previous parish priests, Mgr Cecchi. Don Cecchi was a wonderful old priest: he had been a Papal Monsignor and owned a vast array of Papal memorabilia he had collected, including a cassock of Pope John XXIII. At Christmas Midnight Mass, the altar servers would march up and down the aisle ringing bells at the Gloria, with wings tied to their back. He used to stay with us at the English College Villa (Palazzola) and I would sometimes accompany him back into Rome - a journey of invocation and deep in-takes of breath as the good Don Cecchi failed to keep any lane discipline, talked ceaselessly and occasionally at 60mph put the car into reverse gear. He was a fine old priest, though, and arranged each summer for the College students to have a tour of the Papal gardens at Castel Gandolfo. Requiescat in pace.

Sunday, 2 March 2008


The 4th Sunday of Lent: we are half way through Lent and we have barely dented March. There is another list of fine churches to visit in the coming week for the station Masses.

On Thursday we went to the church of Santi Cosma e Damiano. Fr Avram has a great picture of the church on his blog. It's a marvellous place: the deep blue of the apse mosaic makes a deep impression and the whole piece is imbued with a sense that it is impervious to time - so much so that, according to one of the priests there, visitors often go around the church and ask the clergy to show them the ancient mosaic.

And ancient it is. The building had been a library, the famous Bibliotheca Pacis, built by the Emperor Vespasian about 75AD: here many of Rome's spoils of war could be seen on display and it was to here, according to Josephus, that the treasures of the Temple of Jerusalem were brought in triumph - including the Menorah whose image can be seen even now on the nearby Arch of Titus. We often think of the Romans as agents of preservation in Antiquity, a force of great culture and civilisation but they were more often than not agents of destruction, crushing, destroying anihilating any city that opposed them, caring not for the beauty that was erased but determined to exact a punishment that would be total and perennial - hence Carthage, Corinth, and Jerusalem. Anyway, the first library was destroyed by a fire in 191 and subsequently restored/rebuilt by Septimius Severus. Added to it was the temple of Romulus built by the Emperor Maxentius in honour of his son Valerius Romulus who died in 309 and was subsequently declared a god. You can see the temple in the picture below which I took in October: look at the centre of the picture; ignore the obvious looking temple slightly to the left; the temple of Romulus is that roundish or hexagonal shaped building with what looks like a mini cupola on top; it is attached to the church of Ss Cosmas and Damian behind - the one with the arch windows.

In 527 Pope Felix IV converted the library and temple into a church dedicated to the two physician martyrs, twin brothers, who were killed during the persecution of Diocletian in Cilicia. The mosaic dates from 527 - only the images of Pope Felix himself and of 3 sheep below him were heavily restored after an earthquake damaged them. It is also damaged by a restoration of the 17th century: this had to solve the problem of dampness and disease and so a floor was place at the present level; the crypt below was the original level of the church and it is there you can find the spot to which the remains of the two saints were transferred. Despite all this, the mosaic is a great favourite and truly remarkable. This picture gives an impression of the look of the church (I have to improve my photographic skills!). You can just about make out the triumphal arch which is the same age as the mosaic: it is this which is partially covered by the new but necessary walls built around 1632.

The Christ in the mosaic is the Christ of the Parousia, coming in glory, to judge the living and the dead; the saints on either side welcome him and you can see Pope Felix presenting the church to the Lord (one of the priests at the church says that many think the face on the mosaic of Felix is what remains of the original figure). Notice the phoenix in the top left hand corner on a palm tree: the tree represents victory and the bird is a symbol of the resurrection, of eternal life. Christ is pointing to it and in His other hand He holds a scroll - the Gospel itself, the new Law: if we follow this new Law, Christ is saying, then we will reach the resurrection to new life.

Underneath the ain mosaic the sheep representing the apostles go to great Christ the Lamb in the centre. It is a wonderful image: the four rivers pour out from beneath Him and give life wherever they flow.

Finally, of note also in the church is this rather interesting 8th century Byzantine image of the crucified Christ: