June 19th, 2009
Don Bosco was a dynamic priest from Turin who gained the support of politicians and popes for his work with the poor youth of 19th century Italy. Some envied his skills at fundraising but one day, early in 1880, a Cardinal advised the pope that the only way to get the great Basilica of the Sacred Heart built in Rome was to bring down Don Bosco. In a classic exchange of favors, the pope blessed Don Bosco’s missionary efforts in Patagonia and the ailing priest agreed to bring his religious community, the Salesians, to Rome and build the basilica. Today, on the Feast of the Sacred Heart, Don Bosco’s body, in a crystal casket, is visiting the basilica. It was purposely built next to Rome’s original central train station (constructed in 1874), but is now blocked from good access to the current station. However the a giant gilded statue of the Sacred Heart is poined on the basilica’s tower – a theatrical gesture courtesy of Don Bosco, who was known to put on juggling shows for the “fee” of a prayer. He devoted the last seven years of his life to finding the money to build this church and an attached shelter for youth that is now a pilgrim hostel. His presence is also felt in a working class neighborhood near the film studios of Cinecittà. After World War II, this area was chosen for redevelopment. Now a massive concrete basilica to Saint Don Bosco, surrounded by blocks of modernist apartment buildings, memorializes him. Economic troubles slowed construction; it took twelve years to complete (1952-1964). I visit both locations today considering the humble obedience of a “man of action” whose faith always led him to the next project. He was famous for having visionary dreams, but knew when to make the detour to Rome for a good deed.
June 24th, 2009
The Feast of the Birth of John the Baptist is, ironically, an occasion for Romans to get back to their pagan roots. The reasoning goes like this: As the herald of Jesus, John was born first (Luke 1:26-45) and, since Jesus’s birth was placed at the winter solstice, John’s birth marks the summer solstice, the beginning of the “sunset” of an entire age – the time before the Christ. In pagan Rome, summer solstice was marked by out-of-control fertility celebrations to the goddess Fortuna, yet another reason for the Church to “baptize” this date in favor of an esteemed ascetic. Fortuna also had her wheel, symbol for luck and fate that rob us of any illusion of control. This may be the original reason for tonight’s mandatory feasting on snails fried with garlic: like the snail, which mysteriously disappears and then reappears suddenly, so does our luck. Serendipitously, the snail is also a forager’s food, something the Baptist would have dined on along with the locusts, so it’s a good meal for Christians too. Lombards, after the fall of Rome, contributed their own pagan notion to this feast, creating the idea that, on this date, witches from around the world flew in to congregate around a tree on the nearby slopes of Lake Nemi, Diana’s realm. A prayer to St. John and a dish of snails was good protection against them as they flew over Rome. My own version of the feast begins at St. John Lateran with a billboard of corporate sponsors including a pasta manufacturer, a mobile phone company and “the wines of Castelli Romani.” As I pass a sommelier giving a class to potential wine buyers, the basilica’s late Baroque façade is silhouetted in the twilight and the 20-foot high statues of Christ, John the Baptist and John the Evangelist seem to preside benignly over the commerce, perhaps also welcoming the believer and the merely curious into the church’s brightly lit interior. Its massive central doors are open wide. About a thousand people quietly wait in an outdoor theater for the night’s entertainment, Angelo Branduardi, a pop-folk troubadour who has mined the forgotten music of the Renaissance for thirty years. Branduardi begins to introduce the story of the witches’ arrival at Lake Nemi; this reminds me, I have seen no one downing snails. As I pass out of the ancient city through a nearby gate, ready to leave, I notice an encampment that was not there a few days ago. (The place is normally a rough-looking park, filled with mangy dogs and their owners.) Tonight it has been re-imagined as the “dark” side of the festival, where you enter through a gate of flying witches and can sit down to a pile of garlicky snails under the dim light of candles. For the non-supernatural, a recent movie glows on a makeshift screen. Somehow Fortuna and St. John maintain their uneasy truce and share the solstice for one more year.