Tag Archives: Rome

Dedication of the Churches of Sts. Peter and Paul

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On November 18th, we honor the great apostles, Peter and Paul, in the ancient churches where they were buried: the Vatican Basilica of St. Peter and the Basilica of St. Paul, both built in the fourth century. The two apostles are founders and protectors of the Roman church.

Rome’s Christians marked where these apostles were martyred with special care. Peter, early sources say, was crucified on the Vatican Hill in 64 near the obelisk not far from the circus of the emperors Caligula and Nero and was buried  nearby. The Emperor Constantine erected a basilica over his burial site in 326, while Sylvester was pope. Later in 1626 the present basilica replaced it. Recent excavations have uncovered Peter’s burial place under the papal altar of this church.

Paul,  tradition says, was beheaded on the Ostian Way, outside the ancient city walls, in 67. Constantine built a large church over his grave in 386. It was rebuilt after a fire in 1823 according to its original measurements. The apostle’s grave lies before the main altar of the church.

We build churches honoring apostles and saints, often enshrining their relics, because we believe they watch over us even now. “The company of the apostles praises you…From their place in heaven they guide us still.”

Defend your Church, O Lord,

by the protection of the holy Apostles,

that, as she received from them

the beginnings of her knowledge of things divine,

so through them she may receive,

even to the end of the world,

an increase in heavenly grace.

Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,

who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

one God, for ever and ever. Amen   (Collect for the feast)

Keeping Heroes in Mind

We’re reading the Letter to the Hebrews at length these days in our liturgy at Mass. Why was this written? When and to whom was it written? Interpreters of the Letter to the Hebrews ask these questions to understand this writing better.

Obviously Hebrews is written to Jewish-Christians, some think in Rome which had a substantial Jewish-Christian population in the 1st century. It was written after a time of persecution, perhaps when the Emperor Claudius banished Jewish Christians from the city in 49 AD because they were causing riots in Rome’s synagogues in disputes over Jesus Christ. Or maybe a later persecution.

Did that  cause the followers of Jesus there to tamper down their efforts and embrace their faith less fully? Perhaps. The writer of Hebrews warns his hearers against “drawing back” and “losing confidence” in the faith they profess. Were they losing their enthusiasm? That sounds like something that happens to us too.

Keep before you the heroes of faith, beginning with Jesus, the author of Hebrews says as he draws up for them a lengthy list of inspiring believers.

“For, after just a brief moment,

he who is to come shall come;

he shall not delay.

But my just one shall live by faith,

and if he draws back I take no pleasure in him.”

 To that list of Old Testament heroes we can add the saints of the New Testament and saints of our times. They can inspire us too.

Father Theodore Foley, CP

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Fr. Theodore Foley, whom I knew and lived with in community, may take his place among the saints someday. He died October 9, 1974. Here’s a summary of his life.

He was born in 1913 in Springfield, Massachusetts into a devout Catholic family.  He went to Catholic schools and experienced a vibrant Catholic life in Sacred Heart parish in the north end of Springfield.

As a young boy of 14 he was attracted to the missionary spirit and spirituality of the Passionist community. Entering the Passionists, he was ordained a priest in 1940 and became one of its best spiritual guides and teachers of theology.

In 1958 Father Theodore went to Rome to be a general consultor for the worldwide Passionist community. In 1964 he became its superior general. He led his community through the turbulent decades of the 1960s and 70s when social unrest, political confrontations, assassinations, anti-establishment and anti-war demonstrations began shaking the western world and the Catholic Church.

As traditional values came into question and church membership (including membership in his own community) began to decline, he was a rock of hope to those shaken by the times.

A participant in the Second Vatican Council, Father Theodore took up its challenge and worked tirelessly to bring the message of Jesus Christ to the world. Seeking new opportunities to do God’s will, he traveled to Asia and Africa to extend the missionary outreach of his community. He also promoted the study of the Passion of Jesus as a remedy for a world in danger of forgetting God.

For him a perilous time like ours was not a reason to do nothing. It’s a time for “God’s purification in our lives and we have to accept it and do our best for the future of the congregation and our church.”

While furthering new ventures in Africa, he contracted a deadly virus which on his return to Rome caused his death on October 9, 1974.

A gentle man, faithful to prayer and unfailingly kind to others, Father Theodore believed that God is always at work in our world, even in bad times. The mystery of the passion of Jesus, which he kept constantly before his eyes, nourished in him a steady hope that God leads us on, no matter how dark life seems to be.
https://vimeo.com/19438932

A hope like his is a hope to pray for today. Father Theodore is a candidate for canonization, and here’s a prayer that his cause succeeds:

Prayer for the Beatification of Fr. Theodore Foley, CP

 

Lord Jesus Christ,

You called Theodore Foley to follow you to Calvary’s heights as a Passionist priest and through your Immaculate and Sorrowful Mother taught him to fulfill your Father’s will by loving God and neighbor.

Let his life inspire us to a life of deeper virtue.

We humbly ask you to glorify your servant Father Theodore according to the designs of your holy will and through his intercession, grant the request I now present to you. (here mention  your request). Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

 

A Church with a Mission

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Ss. Giovanni e Paolo 

A few days ago we celebrated the feast of St. Jerome, the great 4th century scripture scholar and controversialist. I’ll be staying through October in a place well known to him in Rome– the Caelian Hill and the church of Saints John and Paul.

In Jerome’s day Rome’s rich and powerful lived on the Caelian Hill, across from the Palatine Hill and the Roman forum. Jerome had prominent friends among them. Pammachius, the ex- Roman senator who built Saints John and Paul, the noblewoman Paula and her daughter Eutochium, who later joined Jerome in his venture in Bethlehem to study the scriptures, her other daughter Blaesilla and others.

Interest in the scriptures ran high among well-off Caelian Christians then, but they also were keen for gossip and religious controversies. Jerome loved the scriptures, but he also loved the fight. His relationship with Paula and her family was part of the gossip that  probably figured among the reasons he left Rome for the Holy Land. Following him there, Paula created a monastic community in Bethlehem and she and her daughter undoubtedly played  a bigger part in Jerome’s scriptural achievements than they’re credited for.

Jerome’s a saint, but I appreciate why so many artists picture him doing penance for his sins. He needed God’s mercy.

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Excavations, Saints John and Paul

Underneath Pammachius’ Church of Saints John and Paul are remains of Roman apartments going back to the 2nd-4th centuries, probably the best preserved of their kind in the city and a favorite for tourists.

Years ago, when I studied here, one of the rooms in the excavations was pointed out as part of a house church with Christian inscriptions , now archeologists are not so sure.. That doesn’t mean Christians didn’t meet or worship in these buildings, only they didn’t create a special liturgical space for meeting or worship.  Christian evidence, however, says a “house church” was here early on.

Why then did Pammachius in the fourth century build the imposing basilica of Saints John and Paul here on the edge of the Coelian Hill facing the Palatine Hill and the Roman forum ? Many retired soldiers settled on the Caelian Hill then. Did he wish to win them to Christianity through the example of two soldier saints, John and Paul, who were honored in this church? Their remains are still found under the church’s main altar today.

Is there another reason? According to Richard Krautheimer, an expert on Rome’s early Christian churches, the emperor Constantine built St. John Lateran, St. Peter, St. Paul, St. Lawrence, the first Christian churches, on the edge of the city most likely in deference to the sensibilities of the followers of Rome’s traditional religions. He didn’t want any Christian church in the “show areas” of the city, near the Roman forum or the Palatine hill.

Saints John and Paul, Interior

 

 

By Pammachius’ time Christianity was more assertive. Was Pammachius’ church a statement to the city that Christianity had arrived and wished to speak its wisdom here at the heart of traditional Roman religion, near the Palatine Hill and the Roman forum? Jerome’s new translations and commentaries, along with the works of St. Augustine and others, gave them something to say.

So was this a church with a mission? A lesson for the church of today? Speak to the world of your time.

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Clivo di Scauri

The First Martyrs of Rome: June 30

June 30th, the day after the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, we remember the Christians  martyred with them in Nero’s persecution in the mid 60s, a persecution that shook the early  church.

It began with an early morning fire that broke out on July 19, 64 in a small shop by the Circus Maximus and spread rapidly to other parts of the city, raging nine days through Rome’s narrow street and alleyways where more than a million people lived in apartment blocks of flimsy wooden construction.

Only two areas escaped the fire; one of them, Trastevere, across the Tiber River, had a large Jewish population.

Nero was at his seaside villa in Anzio and delayed returning to the city. Not a good move for a politician, even an emperor. Angered by his absence,  people wondered if he set the fire himself so he could rebuild the city on grand plans of his own.

To stop the rumors, Nero looked for someone to blame. He chose a group of renegade Jews called Christians, whose reputation was tarnished by incidents years earlier when the Emperor Claudius banished some of them from Rome after rioting occurred in the synagogues over Jesus Christ.

“Nero was the first to rage with Caesar’s sword against this sect,” the early-Christian writer Tertullian wrote. “To suppress the rumor,” the Roman historian Tacitus says, “Nero created scapegoats. He punished with every kind of cruelty the notoriously depraved group known as Christians.”

We don’t know their names,  how long it went on or how many were killed: the Roman historians do not say. Possibly  60,000 Jewish merchants and slaves lived in Rome then; some were followers of Jesus and had broken away from the Jewish community even before Peter and Paul arrived in the city.(cf. The Letter to the Romans)

Following usual procedure, the Roman  authorities seized some and forced them by torture to give the names of others. “First, Nero had some of the members of this sect arrested. Then, on their information, large numbers were condemned — not so much for arson, but for their hatred of the human race. Their deaths were made a farce.” (Tacitus)

The Christians were killed with exceptional cruelty in Nero’s gardens and in public places like the race course on Vatican Hill. “Mockery of every sort accompanied their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.” (Tacitus)

Nero went too far, even for Romans used to barbaric cruelty. “There arose in the people a sense of pity. For it was felt that they (the Christians) were being sacrificed for one man’s brutality rather than to the public interest.” (Tacitus)

How did the Roman Christians react to this absurd, unjust tragedy? They had to ask why God permitted this and did not stop it. Fellow  believers were among those who turned them in.

The Gospel of Mark, written shortly after this tragedy in Rome, was likely written to answer these questions, scholars say. Jesus, innocent and good, experienced death at the hands of wicked men, that gospel insists. He suffered a brutal, absurd death. Mark’s gospel gives  no answer to the question of suffering except to say that God saved his Son from death.

The Gospel of Mark also gives an unsparing account of Peter’s denial of Jesus in his Passion with no excuse for his failure. Jesus was betrayed and abandoned by his own followers.

Finally, the Roman Christians afterwards would surely wonder whether to stay in this city, an evil city like Babylon Should they go to a safer, better place? The Christians remained in the city. Was the “Quo Vadis?” story a story prompted by questions like these ?

The martyrs of Rome strengthen us to stand where we are and do God’s will, inspired by the Passion of Christ.

A video about the persecution is at the beginning of today’s blog.

Here’s a video about Peter’s encounter with Jesus as he flees from the city during this same persecution: “Quo Vadis?”

Here are Stations of the Cross in the gardens of Ss.Giovanni e Paolo in Rome, once the gardens of the Emperor Nero. Were some early Roman martyrs put to death here?

St. Philip Neri, (1515-1595)

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Philip Neri, whose feast is celebrated today, helped to rejuvenate the Catholic church in the city of Rome following the Protestant reformation in the 16th century. He’s an important example of the way reform can take place in the church.

Philip came to Rome as a young man, became a priest, and fell in love with the city’s history, its churches and holy places. He roamed the catacombs of St. Sebastian where early Christians were buried and was a regular guide for pilgrims searching for their roots. He promoted pilgrimages to the great churches of St.Peter’s, St.Paul outside the Walls, St. Lawrence, St. Sebastian, Holy Cross, St. John Lateran and St. Mary Major, which are still the major pilgrim churches of the city.

Philip was also a familiar figure on the Roman streets where he engaged ordinary people, especially the young, with cheerfulness and simple conversation. People listened to him and he listened to them. He made people aware of the beauty and joy of an ancient faith.

Philip inspired saints like Ignatius Loyola, Charles Borromeo and Pius V.

In his day Protestants were turning to history to back up their claims against the Catholic Church. At the same time Philip encouraged Catholic scholars and historians like Caesar Baronius to look into the history of their church with fairness and accuracy.  Baronius said of him: “I love the man especially because he wants the truth and doesn’t permit falsehood of any kind.” He supported Galileo: “The bible teaches the way to go to heaven, not the way the heavens go.”

In promoting an honest study of church history and archeology Philip was influential in helping the Catholic Church then to examine its traditions and roots. At a time when fierce controversy between Protestants and Catholics was the norm, Philip brought gentleness, cheerfulness and friendship and a search for truth to Christian reform. He believed reform would best come about by showing the beauty of faith in art, music and tradition.  He was an unassuming man. A biographer said “ his aim was to do much without appearing to do anything.”

He died in Rome on May 26, 1595, at eighty years of age.

The great Christian scholar John Henry Newman, attracted to Philip Neri,  entered the religious society he founded, the Oratorians.

Here’s one of his prayers I like: ” Let me get through today, and I won’t worry about tomorrow.”

The Feast of St. Mark

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May 25th is the Feast of St. Mark, author of one of the gospels. We can forget real people wrote the gospels, but the medieval portrait above shows the evangelist real enough as he adjusts his spectacles and pours over a book, surely his gospel. A lion looks up at him, the powerful voice of God.

He’s an old man, his eyes are going,  He has to be old if he’s a disciple of Peter, as tradition claims. Mark’s gospel appears shortly before or after the destruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD. If he’s the author of the gospel, as it’s said,  he’s in his 70s at least.

He may have written his account in Rome, where he came with Peter, who calls Mark in his 1st Letter “my son.”  In 64 AD, the Christians of the city experienced a vicious persecution at the hands of the Emperor Nero. Peter and Paul died in that persecution. For years afterwards, Christian survivors were still asking themselves, no doubt, why it happened.

They say Mark wrote his gospel in answer to that dreadful experience. He would have heard Peter’s witness to Jesus many times; he knows his story.

Mark was not just a stenographer repeating Peter’s eyewitness account; he’s adapted the apostle’s story, adding material and insights of his own. For a long time Mark’s gospel was neglected, but scholars today admire it for its simplicity and masterful story telling. It’s the first gospel written and Matthew and Luke derive much of their material from it.

I like the wonderful commentary: The Gospel of Mark, in the Sacra Pagina series from Liturgical Press, by John Donohue,SJ and Daniel Harrington, SJ (Collegeville, Min. 2002). A great guide to this gospel and its rich message.

It offers a unique wisdom. It does not flinch before the mystery of suffering. We can’t understand it. There’s a darkness about this gospel that makes it applicable to times like ours. We’re disciples of Jesus.We must follow him, no matter what.

Father,
You gave St. Mark the privilege of proclaiming your gospel. May we profit by his wisdom and follow Christ more faithfully. Grant this, through Christ, your Son.