BC Pilgrimage/Class in the Eternal City

I’m now getting closer and closer to caught up with my documentation of our group’s travels in Europe. Today I’m posting on our first few days in Rome, a whirlwind tour of awesomeness. (Note, I’m not even pretending to proofread these posts or sound too sophisticated, as Italian internet doesn’t offer me the luxury of much time to work).

Day 1: We arrived in Rome and caught our bus to Residenza Buonamici for our 10-day stay in the Eternal City. After checking in at our temporary residence, we quickly left and headed out for the night, wasting no time even though we had just come from a whirlwind tour of Greece and Turkey. Tonight we did only two things. First, we stopped at the Flaminio metro station and got out to see the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, a gorgeous church which boasts two Caravaggio paintings, one of St. Peter’s crucifixion and the other of St. Paul’s conversion as he fell off his horse. Then we took the tram to the former Olympic Village where I used to live in Rome when discerning religious life. As the name suggests, this area of town is located near the city’s Olympic stadium and is also right next to the famous Milvian Bridge where Emperor Constantine had a vision of the Cross which eventually led him to become Christian and to legalize Christian practice in the empire in 313 A.D. This evening the Apostles of the Interior Life hosted us for a wonderful dinner. We got to assist at mass with the community’s founder, Fr. Salvatore Scorza, a man from whom I have learned a great deal–not the least of which is his teaching on the need for equilibrio or “balance”–a teaching I still heard him giving his novices today. After sipping some espresso and limoncello, we grabbed a taxi and headed back for some sleep. The only downer of the day was that I couldn’t sleep that night because it was extremely hot as well as loud outside of our window, and the hotel had no A/C. The next day we got a fan!

Day 2: Today we visited 8 churches. I’ve lived in Rome before, but we went on this escapade because I wanted to cover some crucial sites before my parents had to leave and go back to the USA. We started off the day at St. John Lateran, one of Rome’s four major basilicas and the official church of the pope even though he resides at St. Peter’s these days. The inscription on front of the basilica reads that this is the head of all churches in the city and in the world. Inside you find relics of St. Peter and St. Paul (their heads). The baptistery next door is fantastic, and you have the Holy Stairs right across the street. These were taken from Jerusalem by St. Helena, Constantine’s mom, and were the stairs Christ ascended as he went to meet Pilate. Next to the church you also find the Pontifical Lateran University. I persuaded the guard to let us in for a peek since I used to study here. From here we walked down the street to the Holy Cross Basilica, where substantial relics of the True Cross and a cool copy of the Shroud of Turin are found. We took a quick lunch break at a nearby bar, and then headed off to our next major basilica, St. Mary Major. This church, which I believe was built after the proclamation of Mary’s divine maternity in 431 A.D., boasts the manger of Christ brought from Jerusalem as well as an early icon of Mary which some claim was painted by St. Luke the apostle himself. Walking down the street, we popped inside a random church, St. Alphonsus, and then made our way uphill to St. Peter in chains. This is a great church and worth the hike because it contains the chains with which Peter was held in prison as well as Michelangelo’s masterpiece statue of Moses. On the hunt for more masterpiece art, we came to the Pantheon neighborhood and started with St. Louis of the French, one of my favorite churches in the world because it contains a chapel with not one but three Caravaggio pieces on the life of St. Matthew–his calling, his inspiration, and his martyrdom. The calling of Matthew may just be my favorite single piece of Western art, as it portrays Christ holding out his hand to the tax collector in a gesture imitating that of God reaching out to create Adam in Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. Thus the calling of Matthew is for him a New Creation wherein he dies to his old sinful way of life and rises to newness of life in Christ. Walking behind the Pantheon, now a church but once Rome’s temple to “all the gods,” we spent some time in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, “Saint Mary above Minerva (Athena).” There used to be a temple to Minerva and, like many ancient temples, was destroyed and replaced with a church. Here lies the body of St. Catherine of Siena. Finally (to my recollection), we visited the Gesù Church, an ornate Jesuit masterpiece where you can venerate the body of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, and the hand of St. Francis Xavier, one of the greatest missionaries of all time.

Day 3: Today was Sunday, and we began the day with mass our cozy modern, but still nice, parish down the block from our residence. It is nice sometimes to get away from the tourist spots and see how real Italians practice their faith, and this was a nice mass with a good homily and music. After taking the metro to a bar and grabbing some lunch, we made our first stop of the day at Santa Maria in Trastevere, one of Rome’s most ancient churches, used even before the religion was legalized. This is an awesome church in a fun neighborhood. It looks Byzantine because of its mosaics and because of their content, for example the massive icon of Mary’s dormition to the right of the altar. From here we walked across a bridge to the other side of the river to wander through the Jewish ghetto, another cool neighborhood. This is the place from where we get the name “ghetto” in American use today, and the reason–like today–was not a pleasant one. Christians segregated Jews and persecuted them for centuries, and in 2000 Pope John Paul II famously visited the synagogue here and asked forgiveness for the sins of Christians against Jews over the centuries. As it was Sunday, there was free admission in the Jewish museum, so we spent some time in there and then sat down outside at a café for a while to rest. Across from the café was an old school with a sign that memorialized the 200-some Jewish children who were taken from it during WWII and sent off to concentration camps to be murdered. Next up came an unexpected visit to the Church of St. Bartholomew where the apostle is buried. I knew it was located on an island in the middle of the Tiber River, but I had no idea it was right in front of us until we walked right into it (this seems to happen a lot in Rome!). At this point we hopped on the metro again and headed to another major basilica, St. Paul Outside the Walls. All the popes from St. Peter to Benedict XVI have their pictures displayed above the inside pillars of this great church, and under the main altar you can venerate the body of St. Paul who was killed nearby and buried within. One cool thing about this particular visit to St. Paul’s was that Jen and I ran into a former student of mine at BC in the courtyard as she was on pilgrimage in Rome by herself. I always say–and I am not the only one–that you always run into someone you know in Rome, and this proved the rule. In fact, we again ran into someone we knew a couple days later on a random side street near the Pantheon–Jen’s grad school room mate, who is now a nun. Our last stop of the day before we completely ran out of energy was a quick visit to the “bone church” of Santa Maria della Concezione, an awesome little place with a Franciscan museum and a small crypt which the friars have decorated hauntingly with countless bones in ways that remind visitors of the transience of life and the imminent reality of our death and judgment by God. One unexpected perk of this stop was that the museum you visit on the way down to the crypt happens to contain Caravaggio’s awesome portrait of St. Francis meditating on death as he contemplates a skull.

Day 4: At long last, today we made it to our fourth and final major basilica, the granddaddy of them all: St. Peter’s. We had a guided tour which walked us through the 3 phases of the church’s history beginning at the time it was constructed over a former circus (in the Roman, not modern sense) where Peter was killed and buried. Last time I visited St. Peter’s, Pope John Paul II was in the crypt, but now his tomb is in the main church along with the (visible) body of John XXIII, Michelangelo’s Pieta, Bernini’s baldacchino, and all the other masterpieces within. After a sack lunch in St. Peter’s square embraced by Bernini’s impressive colonnades, we embarked on a walking tour of Rome, visiting Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, and some other churches we had already visited once before. One unique church we covered today was that of Sant’Ignazio, a cool place because it has a faux dome on the inside; that is to say, they were unable to make a real dome, but they managed to paint the top of the church in such a way with perspective that you can’t tell it’s not domed! Another awesome feature of the church is that St. Robert Bellarmine, a bastion of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, is buried there.

Day 5: From here on out, our days starting to get somewhat more relaxing. In the morning, we had a guided tour of the Colosseum and Roman Forum. This was spectacular for me. I had walked and driven by these places countless times, but had never actually been inside them. It was a cool and rainy day. The GPS I had zipped in my backpack got ruined from water damage. Still, we didn’t have it as bad as all the Christians who were martyred in this place in the years before Christianity was legalized. One highlight of the forum that struck me was getting to see the Arch of Titus up close. This war memorial was built in celebration of the Roman’s conquest of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. You can see the Romans carting off the Temple’s menorah and taking its citizens as slaves after the defeat. In turn, these Jews were used as slaves to build the Colosseum, which in turn was used to kill Christians. Thus it is a glorious place from one perspective, and an eerie, hallowed place from another. In the afternoon we had some pizza and came back to the hotel to relax.

Day 6: This morning we were blessed to assist at the Papal audience of Benedict XVI in the Paul VI Hall inside the Vatican. It’s always great to see the pope, be engulfed in the emotion of the crowds, and learn from his catechesis. This particular visit was spectacular because our son became famous in the middle of it as he made his way onto the jumbotron of the audience hall and subsequently into the headlines of Catholic News Service. After receiving dozens upon dozens of greetings from his admirers on the way out of the hall, Joseph accompanied Jen and me to the Capitoline Museums where we caught the tail end of an extraordinary temporary exhibit displaying the recently unveiled Secret Archives of the Vatican. Among the pivotal documents we got to see for ourselves first-had were:

  • The proceedings of Galileo’s trial, with the legendary scientist’s signature at the end
  • John XXIII’s unexpected decree convening the Second Vatican Council
  • The document opening the Council of Trent or the Catholic Counter-Reformation
  • The University of Cambridge being granted licensure to teach by the pope
  • Letter to the pope proclaiming victory at the Battle of Vienna
  • Letter to the pope proclaiming victory at the Battle of Lepanto
  • The petition sent to the pope by the British parliament asking for Henry VIII’s marriage to be annulled
  • The pope’s letter recognizing the Franciscans as a religious order
  • A letter from Voltaire to the pope
  • Proceedings from papal consistories/elections
  • Decree of excommunication of the Knights Templars
  • Excommunication of those on the Fourth Crusade for having sacked the city of Zara
  • Letters documenting the defeat of the Papal States and the creation of the nation of Italy
  • Communications between the pope and Chippewa Indian leaders
  • Communications between the pope and the Dalai Lama
  • A letter of St. Teresa of Avila to the pope
  • A decree of the Council of Florence in Latin & Greek side-by-side
  • The concordat between Orthodoxy and Catholicism (East/West) and the Second Council of Lyons

This was truly one of the unique experiences I’ve enjoyed in Rome in my visits there. Later in the afternoon, I also got to see some things for the first time, such as the glorious Santa Prassade Church which contains a large relic of the pillar upon which Christ was scourged, as well as astounding Byzantine-style mosaics. Finally, I want to mention our visit to the Church of San Clemente, a fascinating edifice because it has 3+ layers of history through which you can walk: an upper church built in the past millennium, a now-underground church from the 4th century, and a Roman house that once served as a temple to the god Mithras in the first century. St. Cyril, the great apostle to the Slavs, is buried here, and an amazing funerary icon-mosaic of Christ’s descent into Hell has been uncovered and cleaned at the site.

Day 7: Awesome day out of Rome and out on the paths St. Benedict walked. Today we took a very bumpy bus ride from Rome to Subiaco out in the mountains. Julia threw up on two chairs in the bus, but then was fine and slept for a while. Subiaco was, not surprisingly, outstanding. Perched on a mountainside, the monastery is built over the cave where St. Benedict spent years in meditation, and you can go in that very cave and pray for his intercession today. I was very moved by this, being a professor at Benedictine College and a devout follower of Pope Benedict, who chose the saint as his namesake. The frescos inside are spectacular (see pictures for a couple profound and chilling ones on the subject of death). Among them stands the only portrait of St. Francis painted in his presence while he made a visit to the cave. After singing the Benedictine “Ultima” chant which we sing on campus after Friday daily mass, we continued on the bus for another couple of hours to Monte Cassino, the site perhaps most connected with the life of Benedict and the spot where he lies buried with his sister, St. Scholastica. The church complex is relatively new, as it was bombed during World War II. Great reconstruction and great atmosphere, but I have to say I have a thing for the old and rustic which you find in Subiaco.

Day 8: This is where our energy really began to drag, which gave us the providential opportunity to get some rest, let the kids play in the park across from our hotel, and revisit some sites at greater length. The highlight of this day for our group was a tour of Scavi underneath St. Peter’s, which is located directly under the main altar of the church and where you can see the bones of Peter. I actually skipped out on this. I had seen it before and didn’t feel crushed by not doing so, but the real reason I didn’t go is because someone needed to watch our kids during the tour (kids aren’t allowed down there). I spent this time running them around in St. Peter’s square desperately trying to keep them happy!

Day 9: Today we had a splendid tour from an art historian in the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel the next day. Raffaello’s papal signing room with its twin frescos highlighting the unity of faith (La Disputa) and reason (The School of Athens) is about my favorite place to be in any museum, period. The Sistine Chapel is great to see, though it is always full of commotion and guards yelling at people to stop taking pictures. I really enjoyed how our guide helped us see the antecedents of Michelangelo’s Renaissance art in classical pieces of Roman sculpture. One random thing I really enjoyed as well was seeing an ancient statue of the goddess Artemis. Since we had just been at her temple in Ephesus a week or so earlier who no longer had statues, it was fitting to see her here in Rome. Thank God and the Vatican for preserving not only Christian art but also much great classical art which can be appreciated for its own sake as art. Sadly, the kids were shot and we were mentally exhausted, so we spent less than two hours in the museum and, after a quick picnic in Villa Borghese, returned to our residence for some rest and play with the kids.

Day 10: From Rome to Florence — to be continued. Pics also forthcoming.



Matthew Ramage



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