Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Last Day in Rome

Last Tuesday was my final day in Rome (a week already?!), and I had it all to myself since Sister Paul planned a kind of retreat day (at the Basilica of St Paul, no less!). After breakfast, I left our residence and trotted down to the nearby bus stop. I didn't have to wait long, and the 881 was trundling down Via Gregorio VII. I hopped off when the bus got to the first Tiber stop, crossing the river on foot to save a bit of time. I had noticed that the Church of St John "of the Florentines" just across the bridge was open all day long for visits, and I was eager to visit.

Okay, at first I was unimpressed. The place was dark, the art unretouched and dusty. I visited the several side altars on the right before kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament altar for a special prayer. Then I crossed to the left side of the sanctuary, where there was a small, well-lit shrine. Behind glass, the golden image of a woman's foot held a "theca" (tiny round relic case) sealed with a red ribbon. Near the candlestand a sign in Italian and English identified the relic in the theca as from the foot of St Mary Magdalen; "the first foot to enter the tomb of the risen Christ." The relic had been donated to the church by Pope Benedict XVI.

Now this was something. All I could think of was "Blessed are the feet of the one who brings good news" (Is 52:7). That foot stood under the cross with Mary and John, stepped into the tomb where the angels inquired "Woman, why do you weep?" and then ran to the upper room and then back again, once Peter and John had left for the empty tomb. I lit a candle and prayed for my sisters around the world, that we would follow in Magdalen's footsteps, announcing the same message. (Naturally, I also prayed in a special way for our sisters who are the most devoted to St Mary Magdalen: Sister Julia Mary and our provincial superior, Sister Mary Leonora.)

I thought that was enough to put St John of the Florentines on the map, but there was a surprise waiting for me near the exit. Evidently, the roof of this Baroque-era church was being restored, for lined up along the back wall were four immense stone statues, each one carefully protected by scaffolding. I came upon John the Baptist, the parish patron, first. He was holding his baptismal bowl high, ready to baptize any who came near. (I stood right beneath that stream, imagining myself being inundated with waters of renewal by the one who baptized Christ!) Next to the massive John, Christ bowed meekly for the ritual, while across the aisle Peter and Paul looked on.

With that blessing, I continued down toward the Church of the Gesรน, my goal being to visit the tomb
of St Ignatius before heading "outside the walls" to the Basilica of St Lawrence. Little did I know that I would be making more than one stop along the way! But the day was mine and wide open, so I was ready to follow any hint of inspiration or interest. The first one came quickly: just beyond the Campo dei Fiori and its bustling market, the tiny chapel of St Bridget was open. A placard announced that this was where St Bridget of Sweden had lived for 19 years, and where she had died. A Bridgettine sister was keeping watch before the Blessed Sacrament, exposed on the altar in a simple monstrance. To the left, a magnificent painting of the royal saint and her saintly daughter Catherine hung over a side altar which features an unusual reliquary--one topped by the distinctive headpiece worn even now by the Bridgettine sisters over their veil. Respect for Our Lord (and, truth to tell, for the elderly nun at prayer) kept me from documenting this with my smartphone; others were not so...pious, so I have a picture for you.

San Marco: notice the
9th century apse mosaic!
Happily moving on, I paid my visit to St Ignatius, lighting a candle for a pair of friends who are also devoted to the Jesuits' founder (and for my nephew and brother, who attended Jesuit high school and
college). I was now near the bus that would help me get "outside the walls" to the basilica I had never seen: San Lorenzo's. But I saw that the Basilica of St Mark (in the Piazza Venezia) was open (finally!) so I took advantage of the opportunity to visit this ancient church. (You can tell a church is ancient when you have to go downstairs to get to the front door; in this one, you go down the stairs after passing through the portico area.) When I lived in Rome, I had visited San Marco and even made my Hour of Adoration there once or twice (when I could find it open!), but it was usually so dark and forbidding. This time it was still dark, but I noticed that the passageway to the crypt was open. That was new! Since there was a school group in the church, I wasn't too nervous about going down below the main altar... On my way to the entrance, I saw and altar to St Dominic. Evidently, he had raised a dead girl to life in this very church! Below the sanctuary, I found fragments of ancient masonry and a plaque commemorating the Persian martyrs whose remains had been relocated to this spot. (The relics of St Mark the Evangelist were placed below the main altar in the 12th century.) As I emerged, camera in hand, from the crypt level I heard men praying the Hail Mary in Italian. Two pious street people were standing before the Blessed Sacrament chapel, a good reminder to me. I genuflected and paused before going up and out to catch my bus.

Finally I was on my way outside the walls, to the Basilica of St Lawrence! This was the site of a World War II bombing raid aimed at a nearby freight yard that took the lives of some thousand Romans and all but destroyed the ancient basilica. The extent of the damage is clear when you enter the restored building, so massive in size: only two or three fresco images remain, and these are fragments. At one point the entire interior would have been covered in such art.

The ancient basilica had been built on the traditional site of the martyrdom of the heroic (and humorous) deacon Saint. In fact, it was an ancient cemetery, and to this day is the site of a large "camposanto" (burial ground). When the bus driver let me off, I had to ask the shopkeepers in the area where to find the basilica, and their directions ("diritto"--straight ahead) led me to a district of monument makers and florists. I still couldn't see the basilica itself, but that is largely because I was expecting something with baroque flourishes, but this had no ornamental facade; just its ancient Roman portico and tile roof just like the olden days.

True to the basilica's ancient origins, a funeral was going on as I approached. Noon was also approaching, and I knew that if I respected the dead too much I was going to miss my chance to see the basilica. I slipped in through a side door while the congregation applauded "Giovanni," whose mortal remains had just been hoisted to the shoulders of his pallbearers. (May he rest in peace.) I will let the pictures tell the rest of the story; I only had 15 minutes to take in this whole magnificent, if out of the way, place:

In the portico. I barely had time to take in the exterior frescos.

Interior fresco.

Funeral inscription from the ancient cemetery.

Burial chapel of Bl. Pius IX.

St Lawrence (and the gridiron).

A glimpse of the raised sanctuary.

View from the sanctuary.
Note the pulpit in the nave.

Statue commemorating Pope Pius
XII's consoling visit immediately
after the air raid. Photos show his
cassock stained with blood.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading this, Sister Anne, the details are what make it so real to me. -Jean