Rome Diaries - Week 19

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.

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April 8th, 2007

Today (Easter) my quest of getting into the Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone in Piazza Navona is rewarded. The interminable restoration might have had as its end Christ’s Resurrection all along. The white marble bas-reliefs of the interior are a restrained blizzard of baroque depictions of martyrdom. Above the high altar is the Miracle of Sant’Agnese, whose hair grew to cover her disrobement at the time of her martyrdom. The church is covered with masterworks of bas-relief carving depicting the gruesome martyrdom of the day is ecstatic ways. The name “in Agone,” however, does not mean “agony.” It recalls the original use of the location as a place for Greek-style footraces. The word “Navona” is just a corruption of the phrase “in agone” which was taken from the Greek phrase “in the site of the competitions.” When I first saw the church a few months ago, peeping through the scaffolding, I thought Agnes was lost amid the faultlessly carved interior. Now I realize the Pamphilj pope (Innocent X) who commissioned the church, humbly put his large tomb in one corner. The rest of the space is a sublime meditation on the ethereal qualities of martyrdom, complete with a massive lantern dome (its ceiling teems with angels) flooding everything with light. If you go down a small corridor to the left of the high altar, the tiny skull of St. Agnes can be seen behind the glass of a reliquary. It chastens after the Baroque high-wire act of the main church.


April 23rd, 2007

While waiting for a government office near the Vatican to open after the long midday break, an older woman sits down next to me and proclaims (in English), “I have seen six popes starting with Pius XII.” She is from Holland and served as a freelance tour guide all that time. “I will never forget Bishop Sheen. The first time I met him I asked if he knew anyone I could show around. I needed the work.” Bishop Sheen asked for her card and, in the next few years, he steered dignitaries her way. The Bishop died twenty-five years ago but his random act of kindness lives on.



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