Rome Diaries - Week 74

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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March 16, 2009

While in Ephesus last month, I was told of the great interest in moving forward with spiritual developments regarding the “House of Mary,” a stone structure near the site’s classical ruins that may have been built by St. John the Apostle for the mother of Jesus. A reference from a writing of Nestorius (431) and two 19th century visionaries support this tradition. The Vatican has approved of pilgrimages to the House of Mary and, since 1967, it has been visited by three popes and is now on the itinerary of thousands of day-trippers from cruise ships. Today I meet with a man who wants to locate the pathway Mary made as she prayed the “stations of the cross” on the hillside behind this house near Ephesus. Marked stones with such a pattern have been found and, I am told, are in an archeological museum in Ephesus, but now cannot be located. Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the map an indication that the tomb of Mary lies within the circuit of the stations of the cross. If Mary’s tomb were to be found near Ephesus, the Orthodox Church might have to defend their own tomb site in Jerusalem.


And Turkish officials are also interested in finding such a tomb, Mary is a revered figure in the Muslim religion and mentioned in the Koran. These secondary considerations have been complicating the search for the tomb. But such quests, being spiritual in nature, possess their own way of working themselves out. I am told at today’s meeting that it is really the outcome of a cure from polio granted to a young man in 1954 while his grandfather was praying at the “Madonna del Miracolo” altar in church of San Adrea della Fratte near the Spanish Steps. About a century before, Mary had appeared to Alphonse Ratisbonne, a young, Jewish banker on this spot, at the time, a side altar dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel. He had dropped into the church to view the artwork and received a vision of Mary. Later he joined his brother as a Catholic priest in the Fathers of Sion, establishing their monasteries in Palestine. Since then, this shrine within a shrine has been a constant source of miracles, ex-votos -- testimonial medallions for favors received -- ring the painting of Mary above the altar. In the case at hand, the grandfather, a philanthropist, was seeking a way to show his gratitude for the healing when he received his own vision – Mary asked him to restore her house in Ephesus. I take the side door out of San Adrea della Fratte to the adjacent convent courtyard of the Order of Minims (which, since 1870, has also housed Italian military offices). Surrounded by frescos depicting the holy lives of these very strict religious, I sit by a burbling fountain and think about angels: Bernini’s two twelve-foot ones by the church’s high altar; St. Michael the Archangel, who can be seen, sword at the ready, on a side altar as well as within the military offices in this courtyard…to say nothing of Gabriel who announced God’s intended future for Mary. Here, God doesn’t seem to be very far away for the world at all and, another thing, the Supreme Being seems very interested playing a part.


March 20, 2009

It may be true that, in Rome, a British-themed bar is where the serious drinking goes on, but there is another side to things British here -- it is half-way up the Caelian Hill. Here stood the patrician home of St. Gregory the Great (540-604), who began his public life as a civil servant. When he was about thirty, he retired from public life turning his large home into a monastery (it is still unexcavated). Since his gifts of organization and diplomacy were already well-known from his previous work in Rome, he was plucked from his cloister for a mission to the glittering court of Constantinople, capital of the Empire. The indifference to Rome Gregory experienced there led him to take an independent path in 590, when he was elected pope. The city was under the domination of the Goths and the slave market in the Forum was filled with youths from the North called Angles. Early in his life as a monk, Gregory harbored a zeal to convert these unbelievers. He may have purchased Angle slaves so he could train them in his monastery to become missionaries to their own country. In 596, he entrusted the prior of his monastery, Augustine, a friend and fellow Roman, with a group of forty missionaries to convert England. The 16th century church built over the monastery ruins still contains precious relics from Gregory’s time: the fresco of a Madonna and Child on an ancient chapel wall where he prayed; an ancient Roman chair he used and, near it, his monk’s cell; a marble table where he would tend to the needs of Rome’s poor. I find these remnants deeply consoling; they bring to life a nearly legendary figure in a most touching way.


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