Rome Diaries - Week 20

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 25, 2007

At 5:00 PM, I present myself to the Swiss Guard at the Holy Office Gate of Vatican City. I want to see Madre Sofia and I have an appointment. This gets me through the first gate. After the second gate, a phone call, three more guards and advice from two gardeners, I find the monastery; it sits next to the 308-foot Vatican Radio tower. I had no idea the world’s smallest country was so big and steep! It is hot and my gift of Girl Scout Thin Mints is melting, I am sure. But the door to the visitors’ room is open when I arrive and the nuns I am visiting are ready to meet me. They say that I found them with less trouble than the last visitors; these took five cell phone calls as they wandered through the grottoes and fountains of the papal gardens. During my half-hour visit, I find out a bit of the history of Mater Ecclesiae Monastery, the first monastic community within the Vatican walls. It was opened on May 13, 1994 as a site of prayer for the intentions of the pope and the Church. Each monastic group is selected from different houses of that community throughout the world and they make a five-year commitment to live together at the monastery. The Poor Clares and, recently, the Carmelites had completed their terms and “learned as they went” since the grand symbolism of having an international community also brought with it the confusion of different methods and values in monastic life. Now the designated abbess selects the group, a better idea than leaving it to monastic neophytes of the Vatican. The current pope really wanted the Benedictines although they did not have a history of full “papal enclosure” (cloister). For that reason, the group has made a special five-year vow to the pope for the time they will serve in the Vatican. During the sung Vespers, I think I hear rain and then comes lightning and thunder. After the service I discuss the beautiful icon of Christ enthroned that is in the chapel. The pope uses it just for Easter morning and then returns it to the monastery. “I wanted to do some icon-painting while here, but the Vatican Secretary of State, who decides what we will do for our work, wanted me to do calligraphy,” said my host. God, as usual, works in mysterious ways. A week before the conclave to elect the new pope, Sister embellished the document that would proclaim his election.. Within some of the embossing, just like calligraphers of old, she put her own sentiments in tiny Latin script. One of them: “St. Benedict Pray for Him” seems prophetic since Cardinal Ratzinger chose Benedict for his papal name. The day is now cool, with a light rain but the manicured garden is quiet and empty. A guard calls to me, pointing out the exit I had missed. As I go through the final gate, a bishop and his assistant run past, going to their Vatican appointment soaking wet.


April 26, 2007


The theater of Marcellus was begun by Julius Caesar but completed by Augustus who named it after his chosen successor, a nephew who died in infancy. At almost 100 feet high and 430 feet long it could accommodate 12,000 spectators and was the largest theater in Rome. It had openings on one side so that TiberIsland could be seen and appropriated as a backdrop. One commentator notes that the theater reinforced Augustus’s conservative approach to society: the theater was zoned in restricted sections for each and every group could view the other, dressed in their permitted color. The sight of such an audience at the always free performances reminded all of the limits and the benefits of their Roman citizenship it was said. In the middle ages, the vast monument was commandeered by noble families; first as a fortress and later as a palace. The façade of this added construction, at the theater’s third level, is clearly visible today. During this era, Rome’s fish market lay nearby. Today one of its last functioning wings is a chapel to St. Peter, the door sports a lively relief of Peter fishing a boat with the inscription, “This is where the fishermen come to pray.” But instead of a quiet spot for prayer, I find a shop with hundreds of suggested place settings for weddings, a big business in Rome.


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