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.