Rome Diaries - Week 27

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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July 18, 2007

It has taken a while, but I’ve set aside today to see Tre Fontane. It is the probable place of the martyrdom of St. Paul and next year will be jammed with tourists as Christians celebrate the 2000th anniversary of Paul’s birth. The monastery was not in the boundaries of Rome when it was first built, it stood in a malarial swamp just off the Via Laurentina, a consular road Paul could have taken on the way to his death. Three separate churches exist on the property. The Church of St. Paul of the Three Fountains was raised over the spot where St. Paul was beheaded by order of Emperor Nero. It is probable that a Roman military castrum (outpost) was located nearby and perhaps later served as the burial chamber for the remains of Saint Zeno and companions. Legend says that the head, once severed from the body, bounced, striking the earth in three different places from which fountains sprang up, which flow to the present day and are located within the sanctuary itself. Followers of Paul could have taken the body to a burial spot that is now under the Basilica of St. Paul Outside-the-Walls. (Tradition says that the heads of St. Peter and St. Paul are in the large reliquary above the main altar at St. John Lateran.) Our Lady of Martyrs or the “Scala Coeli” Church is built over the relics of Saint Zeno and his 10,203 enslaved companions who built the Baths of Diocletian and then were martyred by his order in 299. The abbey church was built by Pope Honorius I in 626 and given to the Benedictines who were to care for the two older sanctuaries, as well as their own church. Towards the middle of the seventh century, the persecutions inflicted on the Eastern monks by the Monothelites obliged many of them to seek shelter in Rome, and this abbey was committed to them as a refuge. The abbey was richly endowed, particularly by Charlemagne (his arch still stands in front of the complex), who bestowed on it Orbetello and eleven other towns with a considerable territory. In 1140, Pope Innocent II entrusted the abbey to St. Bernard, who sent there a Cistercians from Clairvaux. The abbey was suppressed in 1812 during the Napoleonic invasion. For 50 years, the property remained abandoned in its surrounding swamp, dubbed “the graveyard of Campagna Romana.” In 1868, Cistercians of the Strict Observance arrived from La Grande Trappe, which they had recently built in the aftermath of the French Revolution. It is not so much the aesthetics of the place as the tenacity of the monks to hold on to this spot throughout its long history that comes through. Even today, evidence is everywhere that cleverness and foresight has kept the place intact. A farm and olive grove can be seen over a fence and I notice a sign indicating that a city social service agency is renting space in part of the complex. The surrounding stands of 125,000 eucalyptus trees did not arrive from Australia by miracle, they were what the ItalianState ordered the monks to plant if they were to purchase the 1,234 acres of property that surround the site. The trees are now fully mature and not only help keep out malaria (their original purpose), but serve as a greenbelt for the adjacent, modernist EUR section of Rome. Ancient pavement stones can be seen along the route to the church of martyrdom and an alee of trees slows you down so you can meditate on the last moments of the life of Paul, citizen of Rome, who had exhausted every legal avenue, in “running the race and keeping the faith.”


July 25, 2007

Tradition has it that St. Lawrence, beloved by Romans, was a librarian and archivist also responsible for keeping the Church records. He was thought have access to a fabulous treasure amassed by the Church and to possess a list of wealthy Romans who were secretly Christian. Lawrence was ordered to bring the list of notables and the treasure to officials in two days. Lawrence famously showed up to see the emperor with the poor and sick Christians of Rome declaring, “Here are the treasures of the Church!” Such a bold move from a mere bureaucrat nicely sums up the life of Alcide de Gasperi, the Italian politican who, in that deft Italian fashion, is buried near St. Lawrence in the Church of St. Lawrence Outside the Walls. (De Gasperi also up for canonization). Blessed Pius IX, whose 1868 decree, in the wake of Risorgimento, banned Italian Catholics from politics for almost fifty years, is also buried here “outside the walls” of the city he fled when Garabaldi took possession of Rome in 1870. It was de Gasperi, in large part, who blazed a path for Italians wishing to serve their State and their Church. His political life was a neverending balancing act but de Gasperi came from a town near Trent, alpine country; he knew when to wait and when to make for the summit. He had the vision to make alliances with Socialists to head off Mussolini. Though unsuccessful at the time, after World War II he refounded a Church-approved party, naming it the Christian Democrats. De Gasperi was prime minister of Italy from 1945 to 1953, a record for longevity in that office at the time. The vision of the Christian Democrats set the groundwork for today’s European Union. This effort began in 1951 with international agreements to cooperate on coal and steel production; six years later the founding document of the European Union, the Treaty of Rome, was signed. On my way to an appointment for a dental X-ray, I pass by the starting point of Via Alcide de Gasperi where it forms a trianglular traffic island that serves as modern monument to de Gasperi. Jagged, waist-high steel sheets enclose a “valley” of turf with a “mountain path” cutting through it. An opening in the wall at both ends allows you to take the path, if the spirit moves you. The words of the statesman are cut into the street-facing sides of the steel wall as one continuous line. In English they read:


We are called to be citizens of Europe on the social and international plan. On the social side, love calls us to a spirit of sacrifice in the service of the community. European man must accept and learn from the experiences of others how to live in a larger community where he will learn to defend first his own and the the others’ liberty in works of justice.

-- Alicide de Gasperi



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