Today was a bonus day. Two visitors from Oxford were asking about going to the Basilica of St. Lawrence for Mass, so I found out there was one at 10 AM and met them there.
Not only was there a Mass, but the pope celebrated it. The climax of a year of celebration of the martyrdom of Lawrence, the deacon, 1750 years ago, in 158 AD. We were completely surprised to stumble on it.
This church, one of the first churches built by Constantine in the early 4th century and rebuilt after being destroyed by Allied bombs in the 1940′s is one of the most important religious sites in Rome.
The church was packed with ordinary Italians, young and old, some from the neighborhood and some from outlining parishes. You could hardly move in the crowd. They sang their hearts out and prayed fervently with the pope, who gave a simple, yet thoughtful homily on Advent and the inspiring love for the poor that Lawrence challenges the Catholic church to keep afresh.
At the end of the celebration, the people, beaming with joy, poured out into the bright day, lining up along the way and greeting the pope as he walked among them. A young boy was playing a shepherd’s pipes as he made his way through the goodnatured crowd.
We went back to the church and headed for the tomb of Lawrence under the main altar. Many did the same thing we did– walking around the tomb covered with a bright red cloth, we reached through the iron grate and touched it.
This was no tourist affair, today in the ancient church. The place was transformed by the faith of people, caught up in the grace of the occasion.
Afterwards, we walked along the Aurelian Wall nearby. At one point there is gate from imperial Rome which in medieval times came to the known as St. Lawrence’s Gate. Pilgrims came through it to enter Rome from afar. They would turn up the road a little bit and enter the church where we were today and read the story of Lawrence spelled out in the frescoes at its entrance.
They would go to the tomb of Lawrence, like we did today, and ask for his blessing, like we did today.