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Rome Diaries - Week 28

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.


August 3, 2007

Strange sights await as you exit the Metro at Piazza Vittorio. Until just a few years ago, the colonnaded square was home to a lively city market but that has been cleared away. Now the attraction is the landscaped park that once was hidden by the market stalls. A 19th century recontruction of the space allowed planners to playfully position a World War I memorial, two matching statues of the god Bes (taken from the Temple of Isis on the Quirinale), the entryway from the villa of an alchemist and the ruins of a 3rd century public fountain that served as the terminus for one of the aqueducts. In its day, the flowing water bolstered the reputation of the weak and Christian-leaning Emperior Alexander Serverus who had carved onto his palace wall “Do unto others what you would have done to you.” His fountain was the terminus of a spur that channeled the waters of three aqueducts into this neighborhood of Rome. The magic door (1655) is a remanant from the latter days of alchemy. It was part of the garden décor of Marquis Massimillano Palombara’s villa (now destroyed). He and the famous Catholic convert Queen Christiana of Sweden pursued turning lead into gold with a passion. The story goes that the one night a pilgrim alchemist was permitted to sleep in the garden and next day a bit of gold fruit and his undeciferable scribblings were found. The marquis had the letters cut into the door so that, perhaps, someday their meaning could be discovered (so far, not a clue). For his trouble, the marquis ended up doing hard time at Castle Saint Angelo, but Queen Christiana, royal convert that she was, is buried in St. Peter’s.

August 5, 2007

The original church on top of the Esquiline Hill was named Our Lady of the Snow since Mary indicated the spot for her church by a miraculous snow storm on the morning of the 5th of August in 352. This event is reenacted annully inside the present church, St. Mary Major. During Gloria of the Mass, thousands of chrysanthemum petals fall from the ceiling into a sunken area in front of the main altar. This miracle is also memorialized in one of the mosaics on the church façade that depicts Mary and Jesus shaking snow from heaven. After Mass, I push into the crowd and reach for the petals. An assistant comes up the stairs with mounds of them in a basket and everyone grabs for them in a holy frenzy. Most examine their handful of petals before socking them away in a plastic bag brought for the purpose. (Mine is now “melting” -- drying out -- on my bookshelf.) The church is soon locked and the action moves to the piazza in front. By this time, it resembles a set at Cinecitta. Snow and fog machines flank the piazza and a third snow machine sits atop a crane that will add a special “blizzard” effect at the end. Part of any pilgrimage is enduring hardship so I decide, patiently, to wait for two and a half hours to see the reenactment again, at nightfall. This year, the first part of the event features a marching band playing classical and pop tunes (including the sentimental favorite “It Was Fascination I Know”). I was hoping the vintage film star Gina Lolabrigita would appear, as she did once, and speak about her own devotion to Mary. After the band, a picture of Pope John Paul II (and later Benedict XVI) is projected onto the façade of the church. A recording of John Paul’s voice proclaims the opening prayer. Stars then appear on the façade and Mary’s statue, set on a pinnacle above the entrance, is bathed in a blue light. The fog machines begin and I feel the air temperature fall noticeably. A green laser eerily shoots through the fog and slowly, foam “flakes” of snow appear. The wind mysteriously picks up (no wind machines around) and a swirling storm materializes before our eyes to the taped music from Beethoven and Ben-Hur.

Rome Diaries - Week 28
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