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Rome Diaries - Week 81

May 11, 2009

About 20 miles southwest of Parma, on July 6th, 1495, the Battle of Fornova was fought. As battles go, it was not momentous: a king of France, with aspirations to empire, was sent home, his booty taken from him, his conquests forfeited. But scholars make clear that after word got out from returning soldiers about the riches and sophistication of Italy (once thought to be simply a staging point for the Crusades), sixty years of plunder from the North ensued and a covetousness for Italian lands lingered long after. This, in turn, left Italy feeling vulnerable and a mix of resentment and distain for foreigners remains, even today. Most foreign tourists are exempt from this negative reaction; the tourist is clearly just a visitor and one who pays. I am reminded of all this today as I hear an Italian come to our church and ask if it is Protestant. I say, “No, it is not Protestant, it is Roman Catholic, we serve English-speaking Roman Catholics.” “Well,” comes the reply, “if it is Roman Catholic, why is everything in English?” That, I realize, is not a question, just a frustrated rhetorical flourish.

May 13, 2009

On my way to visit the Museum of the Souls in Purgatory, I catch a poster advertising Lars Von Trier’s new film Antichrist, a psychological thriller. This seems appropriate to the purpose of the museum: it hopes to show how thin are the walls between this world and the next. The diminutive Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus was built, in the gothic style, on the banks of the Tiber in 1894 by Father Victor Jouet, a French missionary. Three years later, a fire broke out in a side chapel and became an inspiration for Fr. Jouet and his congregation. Eyewitnesses saw a face in the midst of the flames and, after the fire was extinguished, that image remained on the wall (the chapel was later destroyed). Today, a photo and a painted replica of the image are the first items to be seen in the narrow corridor that serves as the Purgatory museum. In the years after the fire, Fr. Jouet dedicated himself to the gathering of additional evidence from the souls in Purgatory. In 1905 Pope Leo XIII established the Association of the Sacred Heart of Jesus for the Suffering Souls in Purgatory with Fr. Jouet as its director. Members of the association were to pray for these souls to obtain their release from the sufferings of Purgatory. I make my way to the Purgatory museum by an ancient pilgrim’s route that passes Castel San’Angelo. A sign explains its history: In 139 Hadrian built the bridge over the Tiber to this massive structure, which was built originally as his tomb. Some time after that, the bridge served pilgrims visiting St. Peter’s tomb. In 1544 Raffaello da Montelupo created a marble statue of St. Michael the Archangel for the top of Castel San’Angelo, to remind visitors of God’s compassion for Rome -- the city was spared from a plague in 590. Soon after the angel was in place, Bernini was commissioned to decorate Hadrian’s old bridge with angels holding the implements of the passion of Christ. After all these good angels, I am not in the proper mood to visit the somber objects of the Purgatory museum. Three other visitors also arrive; we each take a handout that describes, in six languages, each item in the collection. Incongruously, each text is linked to “e-cards, the innovative postcards that you can send from your mobile phone.” But who would? Here are selected descriptions:

Item number 5:

A photo of the mark made by the deceased Mrs. Leleux, on the sleeve of her son Joseph’s shirt, when she appeared to him on the night of 21 June 1789 at Wodecq (Belgium). The son related that for a period of eleven consecutive nights, he had heard noises which almost made him sick with fear, at the end of which his mother appeared to him on 21 June 1789. Reminding him of his duty of having Masses said in compliance with the terms of a legacy left him by his father, she reproached him for his way of life and begged him to change his behaviour and to work for the Church. Then she put her hand on the sleeve of his shirt, leaving on it a very clear impression. Joseph Leleux was converted and founded a congregation of pious laity. He died in the ordour of sanctity on 19 April 1825.

Item number 8:

Mark left on the copy of The Imitation of Christ belonging to Margherite Demmerié of Ellinghen Parish (diocese of Metz) by her mother-in-law who appeared to [her] in 1815, thirty years after her death in 1785. The deceased lady appeared dressed as a pilgrim in the traditional costume of her country; she was coming down the stairs of the barn sighing and looking at her daughter-in-law, almost as if begging for something. Margherite, on the advice of the parish priest, spoke to her and received the following answer: “I am your mother-in-law who died in child-birth thirty years ago. Go on a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Mariental, and have two Masses said for me there.” After the pilgrimage she appeared again to Margherite to tell her that she had been released from purgatory. When her daughter-in-law, on the advice of the parish priest, asked her for a sign, she put her hand on the book and left a burn mark. After that she appeared no more.

Purgatory and its possible threat is a very personal matter. Italy, though, can be all things to all as I discover on my third stop of the day, an exhibit of books by Galileo at the Library of the Italian Senate, which is rather pointedly chosen, since the building is adjacent to the old Office of the Inquisition (where Galileo was tried for heresy) and just a block from the tower at Collegio Romanum where the author of “Starry Messenger” made celestial observations. On the 22nd of June 1633, in the Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva (a few yards from the senate library) Galileo made his famous promise to hold his tongue and quit his writing:

But since I, after having been admonished by this Holy Office entirely to abandon the false opinion that the Sun was the centre of the universe and immoveable, and that the Earth was not the centre of the same and that it moved, and that I was neither to hold, defend, nor teach in any manner whatever, either orally or in writing, the said false doctrine; and after having received a notification that the said doctrine is contrary to Holy Writ, I did write and cause to be printed a book in which I treat of the said already condemned doctrine, and bring forward arguments of much efficacy in its favour, without arriving at any solution: I have been judged vehemently suspected of heresy, that is, of having held and believed that the Sun is the centre of the universe and immoveable, and that the Earth is not the centre of the same, and that it does move.

Nevertheless, wishing to remove from the minds of your Eminences and all faithful Christians this vehement suspicion reasonably conceived against me, I abjure with sincere heart and unfeigned faith, I curse and detest the said errors and heresies, and generally all and every error and sect contrary to the Holy Catholic Church. And I swear that for the future I will neither say nor assert in speaking or writing such things as may bring upon me similar suspicion; and if I know any heretic, or one suspected of heresy, I will denounce him to this Holy Office, or to the Inquisitor and Ordinary of the place in which I may be.

In the quiet, contemporary space that floats above a centuries-old courtyard, I view Galileo’s bold works, one printed, in 1613, by a scientific society in Rome and others, published in 1632, by the Duke of Tuscany in far-off Florence. Even now, they seem to hold the indomitable spirit of an inquiring mind.

Rome Diaries - Week 81
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