Updated: Aug 13, 2020
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.
Sept. 15, 2006
Today I go for dinner at a parishioner’s apartment. It is a condo in a 17th Century palace off the Piazza Navona. This piazza was created by Pope Innocent X (1574-1655) and his cardinals built their palaces nearby to help reclaim the ruined area. I enter the condo by a stone spiral staircase and found myself on the piano nobile floor, where the fanciest rooms were built. A thirty-foot ceiling and massive fireplace along with assorted décor from renovated churches greets me. The kitchen was newly carved out of the enormous space since it would have been elsewhere centuries ago. A second floor has bedrooms. The next day I read a feature in the Style section of the New York Times on a “fantasy” house in Rome – it was in the stables of the same building. (Later I would meet a young woman who was the proud resident of the attic: two rooms with 20-foot ceilings, connected not by a hallway but by a four-foot high crawl space!)
Sept. 17, 2006
The Church of St. Alphonsus is not in the magic circle of churches built before the 17th Century, but it holds the famous icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Just about every church in the historic center has an icon of the Madonna and Child, usually the image began its existence as a street shrine on the side of a building. Then a miracle was attributed to the picture and it was put into a proper church. Icons are not painted, they are “written” and when the artist makes them they must be at peace with themselves and the world. The completed image is not a simple portrait but the means by which the saint is present to the believer.
In the case of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, the image had to insist on leaving the house of the merchant who brought it to Rome as booty. The image wanted to be placed “between St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran, in the church dedicated to St. Matthew the Apostle.” This took a while, since it was a beautiful and valuable painting and people wanted it for themselves but finally, in 1499, it was hung in the small Church of St. Matthew, between the two great pilgrimage basilicas, just as it wished. Miracles began at once. For three hundred years all was well, then Napoleon’s occupation of Rome caused the Church of St. Matthew to be destroyed and the image followed the Augustinian monks as they moved from one church to another in Rome. After generations, the story of the image was told by an old monk to an altar server. That boy became a priest with the Redemptorists who now occupied the property where the Church of St. Matthew had stood. The tale could have ended there, a sweet memory of the past, but Rome is in a constant state of recalling itself to itself and on February 7th, 1863, during a retreat preached at the Church of the Gesu, the congregation heard from the pulpit:
"I hope that someone in this crowd of faithful listening to me today, knows where this picture is! If so, please tell that person who has kept the picture hidden for seventy years, that the Mother of God has commanded that this picture be placed between the Basilicas of St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran. Hopefully the person will repent of his thoughtless act and will have the picture placed on the Esquiline Hill once again, so that all the faithful may honor it.”
Word of this sermon reached the Redemptorists and they sought permission from the pope to take charge of the icon. The transfer was not a gift but a mission. The pope told the Redemptorists to “Make Our Mother of Perpetual Help known throughout the world.” The icon, still a powerhouse of miracles, has been copied in every medium from porcelain to plastic. Shrines dedicated to the icon have been built in major cities like St. Louis, Belfast and Manila. Seeing the original, high on a white gothic altar and impeccably restored, I can’t help but wish that a patina of age would hint at its history but. alas, it looks newly-minted.