Rome Diaries - Week 57

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.

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- May 22, 2008

For the past fifty years the papal Corpus Christi procession has followed the course of Via Merulana, which links St. John Lateran, Rome’s cathedral, to the Basilica of St. Mary Major. The feast itself began with the visions of 16 year-old saint-to-be, Juliana of Mont Cornillon. She had a great devotion to the Holy Eucharist and longed for a feast in its honor. One day she had a vision of the Church under the full moon, but there was a dark spot; she understood this shadow to be the missing feast. With the conviction and energy only a saint can muster, she made her humble request to the bishop and ruler in Liege. A few years later, in 1264, he began to conduct the ceremony in his diocese. When another Liege prelate had been elected pope (Urban IV), a universal celebration was requested and approved. The pope had the good taste to request that Dominican friar Thomas Aquinas write a Liturgy of the Hours for the feast. A masterpiece resulted. Especially beautiful is the hymn, Pange Lingua from Vespers:

Sing, my tongue, The mystery of the glorious body, And of the precious Blood, Shed to save the world, By the King of the nations, The fruit of a noble womb. Given to us, born for us, From a stainless Virgin, And having dwelt in the world, Sowing the seed of the word, He closed in a wonderful way, The days of his habitation. On the night of His last supper, Reclining with His brothers, The law having been fully observed With legal foods, He gives Himself as food with His Own hands to the twelve. The Word in Flesh makes true Bread His Flesh with a word; Wine becomes the Blood of Christ, And if sense is deficient, To confirm sincere hearts, Faith alone suffices. Then let us prostrate and Venerate so great a Sacrament, And let the old law yield To the new rite; Let faith stand forward to Supply the defect of the senses. To the Begetter and the Begotten, Be praise and jubilation, Health, honor, and strength, And blessing too, And let equal praise be to Him, Who proceeds from Both. Amen. Alleluia.


As the pope was considering universal celebration of the feast, a miracle had occurred in the town of Bolsena. The pope was in nearby Orvieto, seeking the protection of its walls and sheer cliffs from Frederick II, the expansionist Holy Roman Emperor. When the pope heard that a communion wafer, consecrated by a priest who had been plagued by doubts about transubstantiation, began dripping blood, he ordered that the altar cloth, or “corporal,” marked with the spots of this blood be transferred to the safety of Orvieto. On September 8, 1264, the pope proclaimed the feast of Corpus Christi and presented the important relic to the city saying, “the good people of Orvieto, who with much valor and sacrifice saved our person and protected us thereby, [are] fully deserving the honor to protect the Lamb's blood as they saved the Lamb's vicar." The relic was the pope’s parting gift; the next day he left for the even better protected city of Perugia. It did him no good, he died of natural causes a month later. Meanwhile the gift inspired the people of Orvieto to construct one of the most beautiful cathedrals in Italy to house their holy object. In 1950 Mario Moretti caused a stir by suggesting that the relic be part of Rome’s Corpus Christi procession, in honor of the Holy Year. But politics had changed since 1264 -- in 1950, the mayor of Orvieto was a Communist and he encouraged the fears already with the people of Orvieto. “Will they keep it in Rome and give us a fake?” they wondered. The bishop appealed to his flock:


"I beg you Orvietans…we live in dire times…There is so much suffering…in the prisons…hospitals…streets…homes…behind the Iron Curtain that has been lowered across Europe. For the sake of our brothers beyond, one of whom saw faith's light because of our corporal, don't be divided by quarrels. Make the sacrifice, however great it may seem, for the sake of our persecuted brothers ..."


It worked. The town released its relic for the world to see and that year the Bohemian College in Rome, compatriots of the priest who, 700 years ago, had witnessed the miracle, would bear it aloft during its journey from St. Peter’s to the Arch of Constantine in the Roman Forum. That evening’s procession attracted 300,000 onlookers. Only a few thousand line Via Merulana tonight, but it is a colorful group: nuns in full habit; walkers holding red, white and green lanterns; and the pope with the monstrance on a canopied, white flatbed truck. The Pange Lingua can be heard over loudspeakers in front of St. Mary Major. This year, those having the position of honor around the pope were not the Bohemians but students from the Irish College. Their presence commemorates the “Flight of the Earls.” And this is where Roman bella figura comes in to play since when the Catholic earls from Ireland came to the pope in 1608, they were looking for military help against Protestant England; instead they were given honors (such as walking by the pope during the Corpus Christi procession) and a pension. Ireland was left to the British. Tadhg Ó Cianáin, a member of the earl’s entourage, reflects on the day in his diary:


"The Italians were greatly surprised that they should be shown such deference and respect, for some of them said that seldom before was any one nation in the world appointed to carry the canopy. With the ambassadors of all the Catholic kings and princes of Christendom who happened to be in the city at that time it was an established custom that they, in succession, every year got their opportunity to carry the canopy. They were jealous, envious, and surprised that they were not allowed to carry it on that particular day."


The history of the feast of Corpus Christi does point up a lot that is odd and fallible about the world, but the reason it endures is because we were told there was hope for us – with all our faults, we were loved anyway. The pope’s homily tonight gets at this same message:


"[As Christians] we prostrate ourselves before God, Who first bowed down towards man…to save him and give him life, Who knelt before us to wash our dirty feet. Adoring the Body of Christ means believing that there, in that piece of bread, Christ is truly present and gives real meaning to life, to the vast universe as to the smallest of creatures, to the whole of human history as to the briefest of lives."


May 29, 2008

The Roman desire to see what cannot otherwise be seen is briefly satisfied in May and June when the Municipal Rose Garden unlocks its gates to display winners in the annual international Premio Roma competition for new varieties. Strewn among the prize-winning roses are marble chunks from the Circus Maximus. Roses do well in the heat and sun of Rome, especially after the drenching rains of early spring, but how the rose garden itself came to be here is not a happy story. Its stunning location, on the Aventine Hill, overlooking Circus Maximus and the House of Augustus on the adjoining Palatine Hill, was only possible because of Mussolini’s insistence that, after 300 years, Rome’s Jewish Cemetery be relocated outside historic Rome. Of course the dictator got his way, but the lawn that replaced the cemetery was a wound for the Jewish community. In an effort to reconcile with the Jews after World War II and because the existing municipal rose garden had been heavily bombed, the old site of the Jewish Cemetery was chosen to be both a memorial to the Jews and the city’s new rose garden. Two stelae, one at each entrance to the garden, represent the tablets of Moses and the design of the pathways form a seven-branched menorah, the candelabrum used in the Temple of Jerusalem. By sheer coincidence, celebrations to Flora, goddess of flowers, were celebrated on this spot during Roman times. I notice someone’s romantic scrawl on the pavement between the two main sections of the garden: “No rose is more beautiful than you are to me.”


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