Rome Diaries - Week 18

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. ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

March 24th, 2007


Every spring a “national trust” organization opens the doors of private institutions that have received funds for art restoration. And this is that day. I make the mistake of waiting in an unmoving line for two hours. But you would think such a wait (in the rain) was nothing for those around me. For them, there is nothing like seeing what is behind closed doors. I do see one thing of historic interest: the tower that served as an observatory for the 16th century Jesuit faculty of the Collegio Romano. The College, built over the ancient temple to Isis, goddess of wisdom, was one of the first projects of the Jesuits and had the prestigious backing of Francisco Borgia (of “the” Borgias, but a canonized Jesuit saint) and Pope Gregory XIII (Boncompagni). The Gregorian Calendar, which the world follows today, was invented by Jesuit mathematicians here; it “reset” the world’s calendaring by omitting ten days in the October of 1582. This put the equinoxes back in the right position. The roof of the dome-less Church of St. Ignatius, built to one side of the College, was also used for celestial observations in the 18th century. And Galileo dialogued amicably with Jesuit Robert Bellarmine, who did admit to some reservations about the scientist’s radical ideas:

I say that if there were a true demonstration that the sun is at the center of the world… and that the sun does not circle the earth but the earth circles the sun, then one would have to proceed with great care in explaining the Scriptures that appear contrary, and say rather that we do not understand them than that what is demonstrated is false. But I will not believe that there is such a demonstration, until it is shown me.

Such tact won the hearts of those powerful who loved the rigors of pure science but served to mark the Jesuits for suppression during the political upheavals of the late 18th century. When they returned to again take possession of the College, the Jesuits had fewer than fifty more years of stewardship before the powers unifying Italy took charge of the College and its renowned library. Pope Gregory XIII also figured in another property open to the public for just one day, Palazzo Boncompagni Corcos. When wealthy banker Soloman Corcos was baptized by Pope Clement VIII he took the family name of his favorite pope, Gregory XIII. When later generations built their palazzo outside the Jewish ghetto, they included a chapel. Now the world has reversed itself: the property is owned by a bank and the president’s office is in the chapel, his desk deferentially to one side of the main altar.

April 6th, 2007


In Rome, after the Good Friday service, it is the custom to “depose” (deposit) the relics a church has acquired around the reserved Eucharist, usually this takes place in a side chapel. The idea is that a sort of tomb for Christ is created with the Eucharist in the center and the relics of saints placed around it. The tableau provides the link between Christ (as he appears in the communion bread) and the actual remains of saints, those who worked to be like him in all things during their lifetime. Some churches show relics of the passion of Christ, nails, pieces of the cross, even the painted sign that identified Jesus as “King of the Jews.” Our church keeps the sponge that was used, tradition has it, to wipe blood from our saint (Susanna) after she died; the sponge was removed from a cardinal’s tomb when it was damaged during a nearby excavation. It was decide to display the object in the belief that it would do more good if shown to the faithful at times like this. Wheat sprouted in the dark is sometimes placed around everything being displayed, recalling the parable of the seed, which must die before a new existence occurs.


Around noon, I visit Santa Maria degli Angeli to see their deposition of relics. It is strikingly illuminated by sunbeams coming through the prisms of a modern work installed in a dome of the church by glass artist Narcissus Quagliata. “Divinity in Light” throws rainbows all over the Eucharistic chapel at this time of day. I’ve been in the church a number of times and have failed to notice another object that relates to the heavens -- Pope Clement XI’s meridian line. In the early 1700’s, he ordered it to be built into the floor of the immense church (housed in the tepidarium of the 4th century Baths of Diocletian), complete with astrological signs, to confirm the accuracy of the Gregorian calendar, which began in 1582. A small hole in an upper wall of the Church provides the spot of sunlight needed. For the next 150 years, it determined High Noon in the city of Rome.

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