Rome Diaries - Week 95

Updated: Aug 23

December 8th, 2009

At 4 PM the pope makes his way down Rome’s most exclusive shopping street, Via dei Condotti. His popemobile takes a “victory turn” around Fontana della Barcaccia in front of the Spanish Steps; the waving pontiff shows off a hint of Christmas in his ermine-trimmed, crimson cape. He does not take advantage of his proximity to high-end consumer goods to speak against them, but tells the crowd assembled in Piazza di Spagna to take responsibility for what is wrong with the world and work to change it. And this is the proper theme for today when the pope comes to pray at the foot of an ancient Roman column topped with a statue of Mary. In 1854, as European revolutions swirled, Pope Pius IX declared that Mary, as the mother of Jesus, was conceived without sin; with his own rule of the Papal States being questioned (it finally ended in 1870), this was a bold exercise of papal spiritual authority. Two years after the solemn declaration, 220 firefighters joined forces to erect the column; to this day, firefighters return each December 8th, early in the morning, to position a wreath of white roses on the statue’s extended arm.


December 10th, 2009


A friend holds a gathering commemorating the death anniversary of Thomas Merton, the influential American Trappist monk and author who met his death by accidental electrocution in 1968, at the age of 53. He is not well-known in Italy, but his ideas about social responsibility ring true to Europeans. The conversation quickly becomes peppered with frustrations about strict zoning codes and a desire for Italy to come up with alternative energy plans. Facebook is proclaimed as a way to get things done in spite of the government’s inertia. But I sense a lack of hope in the group, an irreducible skepticism about anyting being done.


December 24th, 2009

I take true Christmas joy in directing visitors to come and see the Nativity scene the Cistercian nuns have created in their tiny religious goods ship this year. Underneath a glass floor that shows off the ruins of our 4th century church, they have fashioned a cave and stable amid the ancient Roman brick and marble rubble. Tiny shepherds graze sheep nearby and a village, filled with hammering and sawing figures, can be seen – all from a bird’s eye perspective – as you walk over the glass floor. In the center of the room, a display case shows off a Byzantine-style Madonna and Child fresco from the 7th century. It was recently discovered, broken and buried, in an empty sarcophagus beneath the church. Art experts believe that medieval workers who were rebuilding the church decided the fresco was too good just to throw out. Stumbling upon such treasures at every turn is what makes Rome, Rome.


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