From 2006 to 2011 Paulist Father Tom Holahan served as vice rector of the Paulist
church in Rome. During that time he had the opportunity to spend time exploring the
historic sites of Rome as well as the hidden ones. The blog features excerpts from this
travel diary. A new selection appears each week.
February 2nd, 2007
Eventually you have to come to terms with relics, those holy remains of the saints that are displayed in sanctuaries or hidden in crypts everywhere in Rome. “Incorruptible” saints rest in glass coffins under altars; encased and bejeweled fragments of bone flank statues. Reverencing such objects goes back to the miracle stories of the prophet Elisha -- a Moabite was brought back to life when his body touched the prophet’s grave. During the Christian persecutions, having the bones of a martyr helped make spiritual contact. In 156, an account of Ploycarp’s martyrdom reads:
We took up his bones, which are more valuable than precious stones and finer than refined gold, and laid them in a suitable place, where the Lord will permit us to gather ourselves together, as we are able, in gladness and joy and to celebrate the birthday of his martyrdom.
Then there is the strange fascination young and old have with visiting the Capuchin cemetery where over 4000 friars rest in peace in a way that is both decorative and shocking. Nathaniel Hawthorne was so impressed that he used the place in his gothic tale “The Marble Faun”:
The arrangement of the unearthed skeletons is what makes the special interest of the cemetery. The arched and vaulted walls of the burial recesses are supported by massive pillars and pilasters made of thigh–bones and skulls; the whole material of the structure appears to be of a similar kind; and the knobs and embossed ornaments of this strange architecture are represented by the joints of the spine, and the more delicate tracery by the Smaller bones of the human frame. The summits of the arches are adorned with entire skeletons, looking as if they were wrought most skillfully in bas–relief. There is no possibility of describing how ugly and grotesque is the effect, combined with a certain artistic merit, nor how much perverted ingenuity has been shown in this queer way, nor what a multitude of dead monks, through how many hundred years, must have contributed their bony framework to build up. these great arches of mortality. On some of the skulls there are inscriptions, purporting that such a monk, who formerly made use of that particular headpiece, died on such a day and year; but vastly the greater number are piled up indistinguishably into the architectural design, like the many deaths that make up the one glory of a victory.
To lie in the holy earth of Jerusalem, brought to the spot hundreds of years ago, was a great consolation and just being in a place created to inspire and, perhaps, chasten, drains all the irony out of modern visitors. The lack of chatter and comment says it all: Death is being faced on a dirt floor crypt just off the Via Veneto.
February 3rd, 2007
This weekend I accompany about thirty teachers from the school to Villa Palazzola, a retreat house with a past worthy of Italy. The building sits on the brow of crater-shaped Lake Albano. Across the lake lies the massive Palazzo Pontificio in Castelgandolfo. Beside a crackling fire, I read that Hannibal’s elephants froze to death a few miles from here. An ancient aqueduct, visible from a forest trail, once connected to a villa and part of its walls are incorporated into the site’s 12th century monastery; emblems for a consul’s tomb are cut into a volcanic cliff behind the property. By 800 A.D., religious hermits began making use of nearby caves. Cistercian monks were finally sent by the pope to bring some order to the place and in the 1700’s the monastery came under the patronage of a Franciscan bishop. The retreat house chaplain tells me why this bishop was so interested: He thought he might train Catholic seminarians from the English colonies to make converts from Protestantism after they returned home as priests. The scheme was presented to the key Catholic monarchs and the king of Portugal agreed to be its patron. All this is a little too much intrigue for one day. Tomorrow I will walk among the chestnut trees, just happy that history has spared this place for so long.