Rome Diaries - Week 93

November 6th, 2009

It’s harvest time and that means demonstrations. As I pass St John Lateran, in search of approvals for an upcoming wedding, a sizable group of farmers is being marshaled together for a parade of tractors. The protesters blame the low prices they are paid for food on regional buyers who make huge profits when they sell. The farm equipment parade finally gets underway, just beneath an arch that holds the remains of the 9th century banqueting hall of Pope Leo III. By the time I return, police have cleared the front of the church and debris is being swept away – its all as efficiently controlled as a crowd scene from an opera.


November 19th, 2009

England’s first brush with Christianity is unrecorded, but by the 2nd century, Tertullian included it in describing the sweep and triumph of Christianity:


For upon whom else have the universal nations believed, but upon the Christ who is already come?...as, for instance, by this time, the varied races of the Gaetulians, and manifold confines of the Moors [Mauri], all the limits of the Spains, and the diverse nations of the Gauls, and the haunts of the Britons --inaccessible to the Romans, but subjugated to Christ... (Adversus Judaeos 7:4)


The Romans abandoned Britain in 410 and with it went the stability needed by the Church to maintain its religious control. A papal evangelizing effort to the Kingdom of Kent in 595 regained Christian dominance in the region and soon pilgrims began arriving in Rome. They followed the sandy bank of the Tiber to a crossing that would put them near Constantine’s church, built above the bones of St. Peter. In 726, King Ine of Wessex abdicated his throne to make an end-of-life journey to Rome; he built the first hostel for Anglo-Saxon pilgrims on the far bank of the Tiber, very near their destination. (Santa Maria in Sassia [“of the Saxons”] and its adjacent hospice memorializes the site today.) After the second Holy Year (1350), great crowds continued to flow into Rome from England. In 1362, the guild of English residents of Rome bought a rosary-sellers’ house on Via di Monserrato, along the pilgrims’ way, and created “The English Hospice of the Most Holy Trinity and St. Thomas.” It would become a “seminary in exile” for English students considering Roman Catholic priesthood, and possible martyrdom, during the Elizabethan Age. The seminary is properly referred to as “Venerable” English College; the honorific is a way of remembering those who died carrying out their convert-making. I stand in front of the seminary chapel, built in 1866 on the site of the old rosary-sellers’ house. The medieval street retains its practical curve, honing to the meanderings of the Tiber, but little else suggests the struggles that went on here. Across the street lies Philip Neri’s church, San Girolamo della Carità. Each morning, this engaging evangelist would greet the English seminarians with a cheery, “Salvete flores martyrum” (Hail, flowers of the martyrs). In 1580, just before the execution of the first priest to go back to England from here, Durante Alberti painted the “Martyr’s Picture” for the high altar of the church. In dramatic, Counter-Reformation style, it depicts God the Father holding his martyred Son out to St. Thomas Beckett (martyred by Henry II) and Blessed Edmund of East Anglia (martyred by King Ivar of the Danes); above them, a cherub holds aloft the seminary’s motto: Ignem veni mittere in terram – “I have come to bring fire on the earth.” Later, during the more conciliatory reign of Charles I, the poet and humanist John Milton visited the Jesuit-run seminary for dinner, but in his political tract, written when he was Oliver Cromwell’s Lord Protector over England (1654), he defended the visit by showing what an ordeal he had to go through for simply being honest about his staunch Puritanism:


As I was about to return to Rome, the merchants gave me an intimation, that they had learnt from their letters, that, in case of my revisiting Rome, the English Jesuits had laid a plot for me, because I had spoken too freely on the subject of religion: for I had laid it down as a rule for myself, never to begin a conversation on religion in those parts; but if interrogated concerning my faith, whatever might be the consequence, to dissemble nothing. I therefore returned notwithstanding to Rome; I concealed from no one, who asked the questions, what I was; if any one attacked me, I defended in the most open manner, as before, the orthodox faith, for nearly two months more, in the city even of the sovereign pontiff himself. (Pro Populo Anglicano Defensio Secunda, chapter VIII)


Frescoes of some of the 44 martyrs and their associates were painted on the seminary walls for the edification of the priests-in-training. Their clandestine efforts to bring England back to Roman Catholicism were not extinguished until the death of the last public claimant to the throne, Henry Benedict Stuart, Cardinal-Duke of York in 1807. As elsewhere, the civil wars of England had to give way to plain civility. But in Rome valiant acts and glorious efforts are savored for centuries.


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