July 19th, 2010
A friend returns from Lourdes. She went there to dip into the miraculous spring. As she describes her visit, tears come: She went for herself but was deeply moved by the faith and hope of the others who were there seeking help – that is the stealthy miracle of visiting shrines. She went with her Muslim girlfriend who also wants to visit the Marian holy places of Fatima and Medjugorje. Mary makes no distinctions.
July 22nd, 2010
Although it is hot, I decide to make the rounds of some churches with special nooks and crannies that I either missed or did not fully appreciate. The first stop is San Gregorio which has three garden chapels and a library that once may have been part of the 6th century monastery founded by Pope Gregory the Great. One chapel is reserved for a twelve-foot marble slab table (3rd century) where the saint daily served dinner to the poor. The other chapels house frescos by Domenichino and Guido Reni. Further up the Caelian Hill, at Santi Giovanni e Paolo, I weigh the pros and cons of asking the sacristan to let me behind a side altar to see a 13th century fresco (about the only medieval vestige left in this redecorated church). A mere pointing in the direction of the chapel gets me a gracious ten minutes with the light on. When I reach the Arch of Dolabella (4th century BC), I am able to visit the unassuming church of San Tommaso which commemorates Saint John of Matha, founder of the Trinitarians. While a university student in Paris, he had a vision that he was called to ransom Christians taken captive during the Crusades. A gardener greets me, I must be one of a very few visitors to this church. On exiting, I look up and see a cross in the ancient arch, something I had been looking for on a previous visit. This is the small cell where John lived. At Santo Stephano Rotondo, which I’d visited while heavy restoration was being done, I am rewarded with the repaired 7th century mosaic of Saints Primus and Felician, who perished under Diocletian. The ancient rotunda, once meat market in the time of Nero, resonates with 16th century frescoes of early Roman martyrs, gruesomely put to death, complete with explanatory captions. I set out again in the late afternoon spending the first half hour, binoculars in hand, examining the 4th century mosaics above the equally ancient columns of Santa Maria Maggiore. Then another visit to Saint Paul’s friends in Rome (II Tim 4:21), the sisters Prassede (Praxedes) and Pudentiana: the sarcophagus used for Santa Prassede’s remains has Jonah rising out of the whale’s belly, the image early Christians sometimes used to depict resurrection from the dead and I spend a few moments gazing into a reliquary containing a pink and black marble column used for the scourging of Christ. At Santa Pudentiana, I go to marvel at the 4th century apse mosaic, the most beautiful and oldest Christian mosaic in Rome. Further downhill, just before Via Cavour, stands Santa Maria dei Monti. The mendicant (today we would call him a “street person”) Benedict Joseph Labre is buried here. I look down at the 19th century effigy of the emaciated, thirty-five year-old Frenchman. He was rejected by monasteries as too eccentric and so declared himself a wandering pilgrim. In-between walks to the shrines of France, Spain, Germany and Italy, he would sleep under the arches of the Coliseum and attend Mass at this here. From the moment he collapsed on the steps of this church in 1783, he was called a saint and, one hundred years later, was canonized by Pope Leo XIII. From an outsider’s outsider, it is just a flight of stairs up to San Pietro in Vincoli, where I go not to see Michelangelo’s Moses (masterpiece of a tomb that was supposed to have so many more), but to appreciate the twenty matching Doric columns that support the church’s daylight-filled interior. From an unadorned porch, you enter a wide and bright area with two stalwart rows of fluted columns. In this serene space, finally, I rest, and go over my inventory of cherished fragments collected, preserved and displayed for observant pilgrim and exhausted tourist alike.