Updated: Nov 12, 2020
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 8th, 2007
The fine print of your ticket to the Vatican Museums also permits a visit to a museum in an “extraterritorial” zone of the Holy See, the Historical Museum and Noble Apartment of the Apostolic Palace at St. John Lateran. Under the direction of Pope Paul VI, part of the former palace of St. John Lateran became a museum of the papacy. For those who have forgotten about the temporal power popes once wielded, you only have to gaze at the restored 16th century ceiling to see glimpses of violent clashes between men, horses and steel. The guns, swords, and suits of armor of the era of the Papal States comprise the last vestige of the Vatican’s long enchantment with secular power. In 1968, Paul VI did away with all but the Swiss guard for his personal defense. Until the 20th century there was a fear that control of the spiritual realm would never be “quite enough” in the fight for souls, but today even capital punishment is severely criticized by the Vatican, which could legally employ it until 1870. If the oldest organization in the world can change, others can too.
February 15th, 2007
A few months ago, I complained that I felt I was not able to investigate Rome as much as I wanted. The advice I received was to “steal some time.” So, today, I break off my schedule and steal down to the Church of San Clemente and then the Holy Stairs. Two very different experiences that are close to each other. San Clemente is named after the first century Roman consul whose home (still somewhere beneath the 12th century church) served as a place of worship for early Christians. While the above-ground church has striking mosaics and frescos, the warren of rooms beneath is what most people come to see. The first lower level contains the Roman basilica; it was expanded and embellished right up to the sack of Rome by the Normans in 1084. One level below this, lies a chapel to Mithras, whose cult vied with Christianity to replace the old Roman gods. The Christian state outlawed it in the late 4th century. A loudly burbling, subterranean spring snakes through a series of beautifully made adjacent rooms that were, perhaps, a Roman mint. The spring was used during the Mithras ceremonies. If San Clemente is a well-laid out archeological dig, the Holy Steps (La Scala Santa) are part of a crazy jigsaw puzzle. Tradition has it that the Steps were installed in the original Lateran palace (Patriarchum) in the 4th century, when St. Helena brought them from Jerusalem as the stairs of Pilate’s praetorium, used during the Passion of Jesus. By 1586, the first Lateran palace was pulled down, an uninhabitable ruin.
The Triclinium (a mosaic apse from the papal dining room), the Holy Steps and an 8th century chapel of the popes were all moved out of the old Lateran palace to a stie a few hundred feet away. The papal chapel, known as Santa Sanctorum for its world-class collection of relics, now has become the goal for those pilgrims who make their way, on their knees, up the Santa Scala. It was Pope Pius IX, deposed ruler of Rome (1870) and fighter against secularism, who restored devotion to the Holy Stairs and to the nearby icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. The piazza that surrounds the Steps is a supreme distraction, holding a bus depot, a taxi stand, a furniture store, coffee bars and more. In Rome, however, you take things where you find them. Only a few years ago, to commemorate the founding of the Franciscans, an enormous statue of the saint with arms outstretched arms was put up, facing the Church of St. John Lateran. To get the significance, you have to know about the pope’s dream: in the midst of the decadence and turmoil of the medieval church, Pope Innocent III dreamed that the poor man from Assisi would keep everything from falling into ruin. So the statue’s arms are not extended in prayer, but in work: Francis is preventing the Church from falling apart. It’s a comforting thought.