Friday, May 21

 
Friday Facts

Have a gander at this little article by apologist extraordinaire James Akin on the canonical obligation of Catholics (still binding, actually) to abstain from meat or do some other sort of penance on Fridays outside of Lent. It's not impossible to work into your daily routine if you make a little effort. I can tell you from personal experience that a strawberry jam and parmesan cheese sandwich can actually be pretty tasty. Seriously, though, a little sacrifice like abstinence or saying a rosary or two is a great way to remember the events that took place on a certain Friday afternoon about 2,000 years ago.
 


A Lenten Magnificat

Reminiscences from Rome and Sicily

I began writing this entry while seated in the empty couchette compartment of a sleeper train speeding from Rome to one of the ancient cities of atavistic Sicily. Cefalú, a name that, when spoken, recalls all the primeval delights and terrors of the Stone Age. Something simple, chthonic, elemental.

There was something monkish about my little mobile cell, the regular hum of the tracks, the pale electric light, and my Carmelite-brown bathrobe hanging on a plastic excrescence later discovered to be a cup holder. And then there’s me, scribbling silently at a little fold-down table by the black window, glazed with the opaque iridescence of the night. Occasional sparks of distant cityscapes bob into view beyond the darkness. Orange light, white light, yellow-scarlet light. Perhaps, I thought, I’ll soon turn off the lights and watch them.

We would be in Sicily on a class trip that coincided with Holy Week, the eve of Palm Sunday to the night of Maundy Thursday, pulling into Rome on the tenebrous morning of Good Friday. The trip proved to be consumed with touring and watercoloring, but as the week passed, we would make close brushes again and again with the somber rites of the Passion. A minute here, a second there, little reminders like drops of blood falling from the Crown of Thorns. My notes from the trip are curiously stained with grey irregular gouttées of dried rain.

I was frustrated to be missing Palm Sunday in Rome. Still, as the train blazed further into the darkness, I consoled myself by remembering that the Old Rite set Passiontide’s beginning, not on Palm Sunday, but on the fifth Sunday of Lent, one week earlier. According to ancient custom, this is the day assigned to St. Peter’s among the Station Churches. There is one for each day in Lent, and when I visited it that morning, all the great reliquaries were heaped on the high altar beneath Bernini’s baldacchino, a blazing mound of jeweled caskets, ostensories, and golden papal busts.

Magnificat anima mea Dominum.
et exultavit spiritus meus in Deo salutari meo.


Customarily, a solemn mass is said by a Cardinal. I had once straggled into little San Nicola al Carciere, that tiny church that stands standing silently by the curve of the Theater of Marcellus, knowing I had missed the stational mass for that day but still choosing to linger and catch the thick scent of incense that hovered over the nave from the liturgy more than half-an-hour earlier. A poignant perfume.

My friend the Roman Seminarian, had been reminding me dutifully for weeks before that the ceremonies at St. Peter’s commemorating the occasion were once-in-a-life opportunities, gravely sinful—or at the very least, significantly venial—to miss. I listened in rapt excitement over pasta all’ arrabiata as he described the penitential procession around the church’s nave, and, most spectacularly, the display of the implements of Christ’s Passion, two of the four great relics in the pier-chapels of St. Peter’s. Bells would ring as Vespers concluded, and a purple-robed bishop would appear high above the congregation at the balcony, showing the miraculous Veil of Veronica amid swirling clouds of incense.

There was no way I could turn down an invitation like that.

So I barraged my friends Vera and Amelia about the upcoming rite and placarded the walls of the studio with grandiloquent notices in 48-point font about the VEIL OF VERONICA, all in caps, and other liturgical and pseudo-liturgical terminology about the SOLEMN VESPERS that everyone worth their study-abroad salt should attend.

Vera and Amelia, my long-time accomplices, of course rose to the challenge. I have yet to get either of them to a Tridentine Mass, or to completely stop singing We are called, we are chosen but relics are easier to get them interested in. Vera, of course, wanted to see this hallowed, mind-bogglingly hallowed, relic of her namesake. The Veronica. The True Image, the Greco-Latin vera ikon. Amelia, being her roommate and, as I like to think, her faithful, if sharp-tongued, squire, was perfectly happy to tag along. And so, loaded down with my notebook, a abbreviated Breviary I didn’t quite know how to use, and some spiritual reading to keep the girls occupied during the lengthy and Latin Vespers service, we set out for the Vatican that Sunday afternoon.

We weren’t quite late, but once we crossed the broad marble thresh-hold of St. Peter’s, we realized that we weren’t the first people to get there. The polished floor gleamed with the blazing, searing white klieg-lights that rimmed the gilded cornice far above, and the side aisles were packed solid with pilgrims. Threading our way through the thick crowds, we found ourselves at last by the glass-sided altar of John XXIII, craning our necks over the three-deep rank that stood between us and the main body of the church. I fumbled indecisively with the books cradled in my arms and tried to figure out what to do next. Vespers was minutes away, and we weren’t even close to the apse of the great Basilica.

Things, however, have a way of working out for my friends. Amelia and Vera (especially Vera) have a peculiar resourcefulness which flows from them, as I clearly saw a week later in Cefalú. We spent most of the morning wandering slowly through the pale, cool, half-deserted streets of the seaside town as I filled my sketchbook full of tangled black hatchings representing interlocking Norman-Moorish arches and aboriginal baroque doorframes. My memories are vague and peaceful, sun-drenched and shockingly cerulean blue.

The heraldic insignia of Sicily is a party per saltire quartering of her former overlords the Hohenstaufens and the Aragonese. However, there is nothing stronger and more symbolically colorful than the sharp-edged meeting of golden stone and startlingly blue sky you see everywhere across the island as summer begins to rise from the womb of spring.

The day had begun under a pale sky, viscous with mother-of-pearl clouds, but as we made our way closer to the long, low waterfront, it grew bluer and brighter. I have on my desk, as I continue this far away from the train, a stack of photographs from that day that tell the story with a staccato procession of light and stucco, wildflowers and smiling faces. I can see the blue sky above rows of cubical plastered houses with simple geometric iron balconies, the sun painting a cruciform shadow from the cross-topped church across the street. I can see the long, even, silver-blue sea stretching infinitely broad, the horizon narrow and fading blue between the ocean and the puffy, low-hanging clouds. And then there are Amelia and Vera, arm in arm. The mountains rise like green humps above the town’s enclosed harbor in the background, the sky bleached by the growing sunlight. Amy’s squinting, teeth bared in a self-depreciatory smile, pencil clutched at her side. Vera looks like she’s about to laugh, head tilted ever-so-slightly to one side, her small, blocky sketchbook clutched at waist-level. The scarlet page-marker tape flaps loosely in the wind.

The class tour finished much earlier than expected, and Professor Lessmann urged us to climb the verdant, craggy peak that loomed high over the town. It was forty-five minutes to the top. The sun was shining, the sky was clear, and I decided to join the two girls on the hike to the circle of crenellated ruins that clung to the little mountain’s green summit, flecked with spring wildflowers.

Both the girls were in their element on the switch-backed, steep path. Especially Vera, who had by this point taken off her shoes and was climbing the pebbly path barefood. She does things like that. It’s somewhat unnerving, but one learns not to stare. There’s something of a Charismatic Franciscan pure-child-of-nature streak in her genes which manifests itself at odd points. In Assisi, she’d gotten up in the cold pre-dawn and walked down to the church of the Porziuncola in the valley, sans shoes. At five AM. In the middle of a power failure.

Somehow, she survives these little adventures. Amelia has concluded she has some sort of blithely serene superpower immunity to danger.

She comes by it honestly, I discovered, as we made our way with exquisite slowness up the sunny slope. Down in the town far beneath us, by the coast that now looked as intensely blue-green as an aquamarine, there’s a little secluded courtyard walled in stained rose stucco where the townswomen used to wash. You approach it by curving, irregular steps, overhung by bracketed medieval stairways and the great black shape of a leafy tree. Low parabolic arches link it through a grate to the harbor beyond, a stone-lined channel flowing into shallow wash-pools. I was standing on one of the broad stepping-stones, wondering how cold the water was, when I heard Vera excitedly pipe up to Amy, “This is just the way my mother used to wash!”

Et exaltavit humiles.

As we climbed the mountain, amid the stiff, brown weed-grass and thick groves of green pine and olive, she told us more of the serene days of her childhood.

Her parents were of humble estate at that time (Quia respexit humilitatem ancillae suae?), choosing this simple cabin life out of a mixture of practicality and poverty. Paradoxically, her father was a mathematician and computer-expert, hard-wired into the twentieth-century by necessity rather than choice. But still, he and his wife and young daughter lived in a simple one-room house for the first few years of their life, surrounded by peaceful woods. Peaceful woods with no electrical hookups. While I’d often thought myself exceptional by remaining computer illiterate until seventh grade, one of my friends had grown up in a Laura Ingalls Wilder novel, quite literally. Little House in the Big Woods.

It was stunning, surprising, and yet strangely enthralling. It all seemed so uncontaminated, so simple. And yet I knew, as she spoke of her mother knee-deep in water with linens swirling around her as she fished them out and young Vera playing obliviously downstream, I knew that I would have been miserable in such a world for all the adventure it might have promised. And I thought about that for a long while as we walked up the mountain.

Dispersit superbos mente cordis sui.

A little more than a week earlier, we’d been at St. Peter’s, wondering what was going to happen next. I clutched and fumbled with my green leather-bound Breviary, anxiously craning my neck over the crowd of people, trying to grasp one insistent sliver of the great domed crossing of the Basilica. Faithful pressed close to the lamp-ringed confessio, while at the southwest pier, above the dramatic marble statue of a windswept St. Veronica, one of the chapel balconies was draped with rich scarlet velvet. Four candles were set upon the marble rail, while above them rose the twin vine-wreathed, spirally-twisted columns of the chapel’s aedicule. Within it, Bernini angels cavorted in heavenly play around a marble effigy of the veil that bore the face of God.

At the moment, however, the old legend that the columns might have come from Solomon’s Temple, or that they inspired the big bronze canopy over the high altar, did not give much consolation. Vera and Amelia were wading further and further into the crowd as my eyes clicked back and forth between the empty, gleaming nave and the north transept. Would it be so terrible if I hopped over the velvet rope that marked off the Confession chapel from the rest of the basilica? I couldn’t think of any other way to get round to the blazing bronze Cathedra Petri in time for Vespers.

Esurientes implevit bonis: et divites dimisit inanes.

Now the girls were chattering away with some woman, and I tried to bite down my frustration. The clock was ticking. It was less than five minutes to five. Vera waded back and I pushed my way forward. I could hear the grey-haired matron—maybe a nun—speaking. They’d let us through to the crossing after the procession finished. I stopped fumbling with my Breviary and breathed an easy breath. Maybe I was letting too much ride on this. I’d see what I was meant to see, and I had a whole book to read in the mean time.
However, as I soon discovered, there are few places better than St. Peter’s to spend five minutes—or even an hour—standing in eager anticipation. Soon, the organs sounded and the long Gregorian neumes of the Litany stretched solemnly across the inlaid pavement. Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis. I soon joined in, watching as the scarlet and purple of the penitential procession moved slowly down the edge of the nave, past the immense statues of mystics and founders stretching stony hands up to God. Sancte Petre, ora pro nobis.

Soon, Amelia and Vera had joined in, ora pro nobis. Before us, not a yard away, we saw clerks and priests move in profile, two-by-two, led by the thurifer, with a great silver crucifix and tapers just behind. Ora pro nobis. There must have been forty of them, in stark black and white, with only the numerous iterations of folds and trim and lace of their surplices to distinguish them. Ora pro nobis.

And I noticed, with a startled little laugh, my friend the Roman Seminarian move past in the procession, hands folded at his chest over his server’s cassock. He gets around.

Then came six or seven of the canons of St. Peter’s in their gleaming violet mantellete over their laced rochets, square purple-tufted black birettas carried at their breast. Bishops and even a scarlet Cardinal followed in choir dress. Ora pro nobis. Last came the hebdomary and his two assistants in penitential violet and priestly gold, heavy baroque copes armoring their backs. Omnes Sancti et Sanctae Dei, intercedite pro nobis.

And, as the chief priest and his attendants passed us by, all the crowd broke loose from their moorings and followed the procession into the apse, beneath the glowing gold alabaster window of the Holy Ghost. Up on the high altar, the great heap of reliquaries still gleamed magnificently, a sanctoral necropolis of gilt obelisks and sepulchres of happy, hallowed bone. (Et sanctum Nomen Ejus.)

The hebdomary ascended the steps of the sedilia beneath the billowing Cathedra Petri, his splendid coped figure dwarfed by the scale and history of the Basilica. We shuffled in somewhere to the back, a few ranks back from the last pew, and stood, watching as the priests and choir sung the Psalms back and forth across the chancel. Amelia and Vera listened to the Latin with me, sometimes understanding, sometimes not as I pointed to the scarlet and black of the rubrics and responsories outlined in my Breviary.

It is a world they have only begun to taste and scent in Rome, this elemental little universe of clouding incense and silver veins running in lightning tangles on black marble, a world more familiar to me, but only just. I carried such splendors in my head from reading books. Only in Rome did it become real to me as to them, as real and solid as the rough fabric of St. Veronica’s veil might have been long, long ago, before it was softened by the touch of holiness.

Quia fecit mihi magna qui potens est.

And up on that mountain hillside, we were in another unequally-shared world, me, the citified indoorsman and these two sturdy climbers. I’ve hiked before, felt the sun on my face, watched the light reflected bright as a mirror on a mountain lake, even carried relics to 10,000 feet in a surreal and somewhat exhibitionist Catholic Nerd stunt. But, it isn’t a world I can disappear into, not yet, and I know any tale of country comfort is just a fantasy. But it can be a pleasant escape, for an hour or two.

We sat on a small mound of broad, flat rocks amid the high, brittle grass, looking out at the cityscape far below as Vera fantasized excitedly and jokingly about fixing up the abandoned rocky hovel we’d passed on the way up here. It brought to mind thoughts of a simpler time, of candlelight and fireplaces, of families gathered close, of kerosene and farther back to Sicily’s ancestral memories of ancient Greek oil-lamps. And the thought that such a time had never existed outside of my fertile imagination.

She has left that world behind, too, as her family grew more prosperous, but she still dreams of it, I can be sure. Except hers was real, a real world of work, rather than something bred by one-too-many misreadings of The Hobbit.

The clouds were rising in a sky that was intensely blue at its zenith and faded slowly into a silver blue-grey along the sea-green horizon. The gnarled, knobby hills abruptly dropped below into a coastal plane, rich with green that soon broke suddenly into a maze of tiled roofs and church campaniles. The view grew more magnificent as we moved towards the summit, taking our time as we had hours until we had to reach the bus. Delightful, constructive indolence.

The hilltop was thick with green, with low-growing iridescent olive trees and sprouting silky-tufted weeds, with thick amorphous pines and ground studded with bright yellow wildflowers and bleached shards of boulder. Fragments of wall snaked along the edges, a few figures perched atop the ramparts in casual silhouette against the sky like characters from a Caspar David Friederich painting.

A clump of architecture students crouched relaxedly on a massive pile of rubble looking, I suppose, like the monkeys do on Gibraltar. Some of them started throwing rocks to see how far they could get, and another tried to see if he could get the shortest student in the class to climb into a rather deep well in the rock by offering him a bribe.

The mountaintop classicism of Sicily, windswept and blue and warm is a fine place to think of Rousseau and his natural man, bathing himself in sunlight as vividly-hued geckoes scurry amid the rock. But the fantasy never becomes reality, and the chthonic romance of these ancient places where archaic temples might have stood is soon clouded by the frightening memories of the darker turns of Greek myth, of bloodsoaked Hecate and the sacrifice of Ipheginia. Original sin crowds out our pastoral dream of some past pagan innocence.

My set of pastorelles was idle and Virgilian, the natural man dreamed up by someone who wouldn’t survive in the woods alone for a week, much less the natural stretch of his life. Yet Vera still sat there, a little ways down the rampart, as a rebuke to my thoughts. She was still barefoot. (Charismatics can be so puzzling). But tune that marked the time of her rural memories was not the Rousseauian scream of “Man is born free and everywhere is in chains,” but the simple firebrand Franciscan hymn of “All praise be yours, my Lord, through all you have made.” Nature was fallen, is fallen, but still remains a reflection of her glorious Creator, lit by the lamp of the Sun, a reflection of the face of the Sun of Justice.

And while her smile was genuine, nobody said that it was easy, living by the sweat of your brow. Beatitude is not happiness. An idle jaunt in the mountains one day could just as easily become a Via Crucis on another.

But, for the moment, anyway, I perched myself on the edge of one of the crenellations, looking down into the valley far below, and enjoyed the moment and the sunshine. Perhaps I recalled, however fleetingly, taking another of the photographs in my roll, a relief of Christ meeting His Mother on the road to Calvary, enclosed within the pointed Gothic arch of a humble church door.

Suscepit Israel puerum suum recordatus misericordiae suae. Sicut locutus est ad patres nostros Abraham et semini ejus in saecula.

And, beyond the doors of another church, locked deep in my memory, Vespers was drawing to a close. One final antiphon was chanted, and the choir rose the notes of the great Magnificat. I rummaged through my Breviary and pulled out a manila insert with the text in English, and handed it back to the two girls.

My soul doth magnify the Lord
And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior
For He hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden
For behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed
For He that is mighty hath done to me great things
And Holy is His Name
And His mercy is on them that fear Him from generation to generation.
He hath showed strength with His arm,
He hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts
He hath put down the mighty from their seats
And exalted them of low degree
He hath filled the hungry with good things
And the rich He hath sent Empty away.
He hath holpen his servant Israel in remembrance of His mercy,
As he promised to our fathers to Abraham and to his seed forever.


My friend the Seminarian, who was up there somewhere tells me that sometimes the acolytes, through Providence, humor or bad taste, end up incensing the Cardinal when the choir gets to He hath put down the mighty from their seats. I imagine it’s a liturgical urban legend. I turned around and I noticed Amelia was smiling to herself as she read it, utterly, unconsciously, lost in the wondrous text. The next day she asked me if she could photocopy the page.

Soon, the procession was making its way in the midst of the people again, in perfect ecclesiastical order, circling the altar and its great canopy, until it coiled around itself in the south transept, the cross rising like a black silhouette against the grey stone. Billows of incense rose high, transfixing slants of afternoon light. And suddenly, a thousand or so heads turned as bells rang high in the balcony above us. The moment had come.

I had, perhaps, completely forgotten it that sunny afternoon on the mountain, but there was one thing, one image of the face of the Sun of Justice I had not forgotten. That morning, we had visited the Cathedral at Cefalu, a massive, blocky Romanesque structure with two stumpy towers crowned by pyramidal stone roofs. Ornate Saracenic arches festooned the façade, more ornamental than structural.

Within, amid porphyry columns crowned by tesserated capitals that looked like the cushions of a Constantinopolitan Patriarch, was possibly one of the most memorable things I’d seen that year, a magnificent Norman-Byzantine mosaic of Christ the Pantocrator hovering high in the apse. God’s face. I scribbled notes in my sketchbook, frantically trying to get the emaciated Eastern countenance of Christ just right, and simply gave up. It was unbearably beautiful, vastly different from the fearsome faces of so many reigning Judges of the World that were enthroned in so many Greek and Russian cathedrals. Christ had personified God’s Justice, and rightly so, but here, His humanity was softened, merciful, even poignant. Incipient iconographic wrinkles swirled on His brow. His dark Phanariot hair was streaked with Viking blond in comparison to His dark curling Arabic beard, His eyes staring, almost as if on the verge of tears, His lips trembling on the verge of a smile. He seemed on the edge of a fathomless lament, or a fathomless sigh of contentment. Gilt shadows bloomed on His kingly tunic, His hooked fingers curling into a blessing.

Blessing. The bells were ringing. High above us in St. Peter’s, flanked by attendants with lights, stood a bishop in violet choir vesture. He raised his hands, a golden box in them held up before the crowd. I clutched at my Rosary, at the relics in my wallet, thinking that I was in the presence of something even older than the Church, an eyewitness to the day God had died. He lowered the box, and picked up a heavy reliquary cross. The true Cross, soaked with Christ’s blood, a sign of ignominy made into a mark of triumph. Exaltavit humiles. He raised and lowered it in a cruciform blessing, and then bells rang again and he withdrew beyond the ornate iron grill of the chapel door.

Gloria Patri, gloria Filio, gloria Spiritui Sancto. Sicut erat in principio et nunc et semper et in saecula saeculorum. Amen.

We had just seen two of the holiest relics in Christendom. Perhaps it was a momentary glimpse: and all I could see was a vague rectangle of gold with a face-shaped cut-out to show the imprint on the holy cloth. But I like to think that the Face on the cloth, faded by history and the candle-smut of veneration, was the sorrowing face I had seen in Cefalú, on the day I stood on top of a mountain.
 
What if Poe had written Sally, Dick and Jane?

Wednesday, May 19

 

A Swiss Guard from the early 1920s. From The Arador Armour Library.

Sacred Variations on the Theme of L’Homme Armé

L’homme, l’homme, l’homme armé, l’homme armé,
l’homme armé doibt on doubter, doibt on doubter.
On a fait par tout crier,
Que chascun se viegne armer, d’un haubregon de fer.
L’homme, l’homme, l’homme armé, l’homme armé,
l’homme armé doibt on doubter, doibt on doubter.

The fifteenth-century cantus firmus L’Homme Armé inspired numerous Mass settings in the liberal—and libertine—period that characterized the late Renaissance and the run-up to Trent. Desprez, Dufay, and even Palestrina wrote polyphonic settings of it, elaborately inverting and weaving the profane mode into more minor and appropriately ecclesial notes. One more bizarre-minded composer of the late ’60s, Maxwell Davies, re-wrote portions of an anonymous late-medieval Mass on the theme with instrumentation ranging from timpani, crotales, tabors, temple blocks and Swannee whistle and as well as something listed only as a “nightingale.” Another musical group from Britain, called Perfect Houseplants, wrote an equally idiosyncratic Mass for St. Michael’s Day on the same theme, with parts for countertenor and saxophone, among other things.

The original song is rather a surprising choice to serve as an inspiration for religious music. The text runs something like this:

The man, the man, the armed man, the armed man
The armed man must be feared.
Everywhere, all have cried,
That they should armor themselves in a mail shirt.
The man, the man, the armed man, the armed man
The armed man must be feared.


A song for uncertain and disconsolate times, about fear and violence. Yet, sometimes, the armed man can carry the fear of God rather than inspire merely earthly fear, like the mighty warrior St. George, like St. Michael, and like 147 warriors who died over five hundred years ago in an unfair fight, just steps away from where the first Pope was martyred. I met their spiritual descendents the other day. They’re called the Pontifical Swiss Guards.

***


Nightlife in Rome is something I scrupulously avoid, unless it’s partying late at L’Eau Vive. That’s the Pope’s favorite restaurant, just down the street from the studio in Via Monterone. One journalist described it cheekily as an “ecclesiastical Beni-Hana” with branches from Paris to Manila. It’s staffed by a group of Carmelite tertiaries dedicated to evangelization through French cooking. The only downside is sometimes they make you watch their pseudo-liturgical bouts of interpretive dance.

Most of my friends, however, tend to prefer something a bit more exciting than dancing nuns, and so they go to a bar nicknamed Donnie’s, somewhere in the tangle of streets between the Pantheon and the old temple that is now occupied by Rome’s stock exchange. I’m agnostic about the place; I went there twice. The first time, a five-minute wait for pasta turned into forty-five and, regarding the second time, I’m still waiting for them to take my order.

All that notwithstanding, I have to be grateful to Donnie himself. I’ve never met the fellow—I assume the name’s short for Donato—but he’s a legendary figure among the arkies. He tends to give us his surplus produce, and so there are usually large crates of bananas and lettuce lying inexplicably around the school kitchen. Fruit, while necessary for the oftentimes Vitamin-C deprived Roman student, is still fruit. You can wander over to the chaos of Campo dei Fiori and buy some yourself rather than relying on the good graces of an Italian restauranteur. However, there was one thing which Donnie managed to get for us which you can’t buy at Campo dei Fiori.

A chance to see the Swiss Guards up close and personal. In full armor, no less.

(…un haubregon de fer…doibt un doubter…)

In 1527, Charles V, a Holy Roman Emperor that was neither, swept down on the Eternal City with a vast force of disgruntled Lutheran Landsknecte and utterly trashed the place. It was the result of one of the Renaissance’s complicated religio-political power-plays that brought a man who was king of Spain, Europe’s most solidly Catholic nation, as well as the putative successor to the caesars, to lay waste to the spiritual center of all that he should have held dear, with the assistance of a crowd of beer-swilling heretics. It was one of the worst tragedies in western history.

Rome, of course, had been sacked before. Four centuries before Christ, the Gauls started the trend, while in the declining years of the Empire, the Visigoths, Goths, Vandals and even the Byzantines, who should have known better since they owned the place, contributed to progressively destroying the city. Then there were the Lombards, who merely scuffed up the place, and Saracen pirates, and finally the Normans, who, at the close of the eleventh century, had been invited by Pope Gregory VII as the medieval equivalent of rent-a-cops. They didn’t have much company loyalty.

Fast forward to 1523. Pope Clement VII, a Medici of somewhat dubious legitimacy, had been elected to succeed the ascetic Dutchman Adrian VI. As soon as he had ascended the Cathedra Petri he found himself completely out of his league, painted into a diplomatic corner in the middle of a complicated military-dynastic struggle between Charles V and the King of France, the crooked-nosed bon vivant Francis I. When, at Pavia in February of 1525, Francis found himself in captivity, he acceded to all of Charles’s demands and swore solemn oaths to keep them. Nonetheless, he seems to have been lying through his teeth and cast off the dictates of the Emperor’s treaty in short order.

Here Clement, poor Clement, made his mistake. Following the scorecard of history, Clement had been backing the French before Pavia: the Emperor, despite being in some sense the Pope’s other half, was generally no friend to the Holy See. That being said, his decision to continue his support after Francis’s betrayal of a lawful treaty was, at the very least, poor planning and seriously annoyed Charles V in the process. Clement, naturally, had his reasons, considering the one worse thing than having Francis I rummaging around in Italy was having the Emperor as a next-door neighbor.

Clement, meanwhile, had shut himself up in Castel Sant’ Angelo while the bandit Colonna family had, with Imperial backing, proceeded to steal everything in Rome except the kitchen sink, principally because it hadn’t yet been invented. To make matters worse, the German Protestant soldiers of Charles now positioned in northern Italy were starting to get uppity without food or money. A temporary truce with the Emperor, after he had disavowed his association with the Colonna mafia, meant that the Eternal City was defenseless.

L’homme, l’homme, l’homme armé, l’homme armé,
l’homme armé doibt on doubter, doibt on doubter.


So, on May 5, 1527, the Germans, under their weak-minded commander the Constable de Bourbon, showed up on the Pope’s doorstep. What followed was barbaric. The Landsknechte pillaged palaces, desecrated altars, kidnapped cardinals, defiled women both consecrated and lay, drank altar wine in drunken revels held amid the empty, shattered churches. The chaos lasted eight straight days, but the aftershocks didn’t die down for months afterwards. The more predatorial of Rome’s families joined the Protestant looters: though the violence proved too great even for the Colonna, who holed up in the Cancelleria and tried their best to ride out the storm. By the end of the summer, over 45,000 of Rome’s citizens had fled or been murdered. Nobody could say exactly how many had died.

The Sistine Chapel proved to be one of the survivors of the sack, because the dead Constable de Bourbon had been laid there in state after his death. The hoodlum goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini had been using him for target practice from the heights of Castel Sant’ Angelo and nailed him with a crossbow bolt. While history remembers Cellini as a honest rogue—or at the very least, a braggart—Bourbon was a true traitor. He had originally fought under Francis I, but finding the money running low, had switched sides and joined the Emperor, being made Governor of Milan for his trouble. He proved incapable of curbing his own soldiers, and had, on their own urging, led them to Rome after, ironically enough, being unable to pay their wages.

The practical Florentines had, incidentally, bribed him to stay out of their neighborhood en route to the Eternal City.

L’homme armé doibt on doubter, doibt on doubter.

Another survivor, besides the Sistine Chapel, was Clement VII himself. Seven months later, he was still in hiding in Castel Sant’ Angelo. The Emperor may not have been directly responsible for the sack, but he certainly was enjoying watching the Pope roast in the moldering fortress. There, he had fended off the invaders with Cellini’s assistance, dropping a hail of arrows, lead and occasionally marble statues onto the besiegers below.

However, how the Medici pontiff had gotten to Castel Sant’ Angelo, is one of the few moments of heroism in this horror. As May 6 dawned, the Pope was still in the Vatican. The enemy was swiftly advancing, and the only thing between Clement and the Germans were 200 Swiss mercenaries who had been brought in by one of his predecessors, Julius II. As the Landsknecte swarmed over St. Peter’s Square, the Swiss stood their ground, buying valuable minutes for Clement to escape down the narrow pasagetto atop the Leonine wall connecting the Vatican with the papal bolt hole of Castel Sant’ Angelo. 147 were cut down in their defense of the Holy See, slaughtered on the very steps of the greatest church in Christendom.

To this day, in their honor, the Swiss Guards bear the proud title of Defensores Ecclesiae Libertas, the defenders of the Church’s liberty. Today, May 6, four hundred and eighty-seven years later to the day, the Swiss Guards would remember their fallen countrymen and swear in 33 new recruits to pledge their life’s blood to defend the honor and safety of the Papacy.

It would be a day of pomp and martial ceremony. And, as of an hour and forty-five minutes before the celebration, Rome was engulfed in rain. The Swiss Guards were going to melt in their stuffy felt uniforms. Plus, for once they’d be in full armor-plated rig. It wouldn’t do for one of the finest fighting forces on earth to have to get hosed down with rustoleum on their official holiday.

(…d’un haubregon de fer?)

My friend, the Roman Seminarian, had appeared on time in the vestibule of the studio, and I ushered him upstairs as the rest of the group assembled to head down to the Vatican. He was impeccably turned out in a black cassock with a black umbrella in hand—a rather striking contrast against the faux gold and scarlet marble of the studio. He was also feeling somewhat overdressed as he considered the motley crowd of architecture students he would be joining. For my part, I was wishing I’d worn a tie, but the rest of the group was dressed in a ratty assemblage of jeans, tee-shirts, and at least someone had highlighted his hair with fuscia dye.

Neither of us were quite sure what to expect. The Seminarian studied the bright orange tickets with the Papal escutcheon atop them, translating the fustian and courtly Italian invitation on them. “ ‘Your Lordship’! ” he chuckled. “You have to admire the way they phrase things around here!”

“Mmm?”

La Signoria vostra. Your Lordship in Italian.”

I considered the ticket with a little laugh.

GIURAMENTO GSP 2004

Il Commandante della Guardia Svizzera Pontificia ha l’onore di invitare la Signoria vostra al assistere al Giuramento della Guardia che avrà luogo nel Cortile di San Damaso il 6 Maggio alle ore 17.00, per commemorate l’eroica morte delle guardie in difesa del Sommo Pontefice Clemente VII nel Sacco di Roma, 1527.

Which means, rather grandiloquently:

The Commandant of the Pontifical Swiss Guard has the honor of inviting Your Lordship to assist at the Oath-taking of the Guard that will take place in the San Damaso Courtyard on May 6 at 5 o’clock, to commemorate the heroic death of the guards in defense of the Supreme Pontiff Clement VII in the Sack of Rome, 1527.

That’s a doozie of an invitation. First, cassocked seminarians, and now discovering that Colonel Mader thought I was something out of a Gilbert and Sullivan comedy. The local color was through the roof already.

“Of course,” reminded my Seminarian friend, “they tend to inflate titles over here. Go to university four years and you’re suddenly a Doctor.” All the invitations were written that way, after all. Nonetheless, I decided to enjoy my time being a Lordship.

***


If I thought that Rome’s talent for the unexpected had been satisfied by my brevet title of nobility and my friend turning up looking like one of the scale figures in a Letarouilly print of Napoleonic Rome, I thought wrongly. I’d already noticed a surprising number of cassocked priests in Largo Argentina, taking the opportunity to console the Seminarian by pointing out he wasn’t the only one overdressed. However, as we piled off the bus-stop and hurried over to the Paul VI Audience Hall, where the ceremony was scheduled to take place in case of rain, I saw the one thing which I never expected to see anywhere, much less Rome.

Marching up the curving south colonnade of Piazza San Pietro was a regiment of 18th century Franco-Swiss mercenaries. I was sure about it, I recognized the flame-patterned scarlet and blue colors they carried at their head, recognized the Viribus Unitis embroidered in gold on the white cross, recognized their splendid cocked hats with bobbing scarlet pompons, their powder-blue coatees. They passed by in an ear-splitting thunder of drums, bayonets fixed, chins uplifted. Jowly chins uplifted. As I looked closer, I saw florid arteries splitting their faces, disordered tangles of wig, growing veteran paunches. Definitely too old for active service. The Giuramento had been invaded by a bunch of re-enactors.

The Seminarian, my classmate friends, and myself soon found ourselves in the Paul VI Audience Hall, a vast, well-lit seventies-style cavern with a Charles de Gaulle Airport roof and two gigantic though mediocre imitation rose-windows piercing the clerestory. It’s on the whole, fairly unobtrusive stylistically, if unremarkable.

The crowd around us, however, was far from dull. Indeed, as the Seminarian pointed out, jokingly, it was swiftly turning into a military history pageant. Another historical enthusiast was heading to his seat resplendent in a beautifully-cut bright blue habit-veste that would have done an Old Guardsman proud. A couple of real-life Columbian generals sauntered up the aisle in extravagantly braided olive-green uniforms, trying to outshine the silver-laureled Carabineri pooh-bahs taking their privileged seats in the front row. A few of the over-the-hill re-enactors exchanged salutes with alarmingly tall and Germanic Swiss soldiers in green berets and grey jackets, while men with patrol windbreakers marked POLIZEI and POLIZIA mingled freely. The Seminarian almost thought he’d seen some Mounties out of the corner of his eye when he turned around to see it was just a tour-group in red tee-shirts piling into the seats on the south side of the hall.

Like most Vatican events, there was a certain amount of waiting involved, and plenty of false starts. A woman realized she was on the big TV screen showing images of the crowd, and started frantically waving. We tried to guess the orders of nuns around us and played “who’s that Cardinal?” a few times as we watched one Prince of the Church with tufted eyebrows play ostentatiously with his pectoral cross. Occasionally, a pilgrim group would get up to chat with some local personage, bishop, priest, monsignor, taking his seat and everyone would mistake it for the main event. Meanwhile, the Seminarian and I debated the possibility of starting the Wave while I wrote down further local color in my note-book.

And then there was the Pace Maria guy. He’d gotten a seat across the center aisle from us. He has a peculiar habit of appearing out of nowhere at these events; he’d sat across me at the St. Cyril’s Day festivities at San Clemente and scolded me on my casual posture. He’s a small, rather insect-like fellow, with a rainbow Pace peace-activist flag (l’homme armé doibt on doubter) worn scarf-fashion around his neck and hauling around a broken tape-recorder. Today he looked stern and rather distressed under a flapped sheepskin cap with sun-glasses and his usual fringe of beard.

Another false start, this one unusually loud. The forty re-enactors suddenly marched down the aisle. More rolling of drums. Everyone scrambled to their feet for an excited view as the scarlet and blue banner bobbed down the center. They thumped towards the stage in perfect formation and took their places along the wall towards the front, leaning on their muskets as they awaited the moment we were all waiting for.

Then it was time. Three buglers in the full uniform of the Swiss Guards appeared on the left side of the empty platform at the far end of the hall. A solemn fanfare echoed sonorously across the hall. Then came a long, slow beating of drums somewhere far behind us. Several thousand heads turned to the rear of the hall at once, a great wave of people rising to their feet. People climbed atop chairs and crowded the aisle barricade.

First came the drummers in gleaming morions and piebald yellow-black plumes, followed by the great damask banner of the regiment in vivid—startlingly vivid—yellow and aquamarine blue and scarlet, the livery of the Medici and della Rovere pontiffs who founded the guard. The colors were flanked by fully-armored sergeants shouldering long two-handed flame-bladed swords, and then a vast expanse of polished steel. Forty guardsmen followed, their gleaming helmets marked with the della Rovere oak tree and crested with scarlet plumes like bloodied flamingos.

(L’homme, l’homme, l’homme armé, l’homme armé.)

It was a jaw-dropping sight. It wasn’t just the pageantry. We’re so familiar with mediaeval melodrama and historical pomp from overblown box-office smashes, we forget the sheer, shocking visual power of a forest of spiked halberds on the march, of light on polished steel armor. The mind fumbles with ridiculous comparisons to kitchenware, to clanks and clinks and clunks, to stage-plays and imagination. But the full weight of such a splendid sight defies the mind of modern man, and yet fills him, deep within him, with a subconscious call to arms. These were real soldiers here, not actors on parade: most could probably break bone with their karate skills and some might carry very real and very modern pistols tucked beneath the slashed folds of their Renaissance finery.

Their piebald Harlequin appearance was a crystallization and stylization of sixteenth-century tough-guy fashion, tunics ripped to shreds by blades and pikes. And they looked like they meant business.

Their weapons were raised high over their heads as they moved with slow, deliberate steps, not quite automatons and yet fearfully human. You could feel coiled concentration in their steps rather than coiled springs. Man the killer angel. They strode up to the front of the hall, stopped, and turned to face the crowd in one sweeping united gesture as quick as a piece of ballet. They dropped their halberds to their sides with one single deafening clank, steel paudrons and besagews snapping together in unison. Their drill, their dance, had a mesmerizing splendor to it, and it was easy to see how, on the battlefield, the dance could become a dance of death. Meanwhile, a subaltern gave a gracious salute with his slim cup-hilted rapier to the cardinals seated in the front row, another mingling of honor and ferocity.

Everyone was still standing, and some in the back rows began to squall. Cries of “Seduti!” as the front rows slumped into their seats. We may have been robbed of the Renaissance beauty of the San Damaso Courtyard, but the sloped seating of the Paul VI Audience Hall actually guaranteed us a better view than we would have gotten standing in the traditional venue for the Giuramento. Another lucky break for being a lordship.

And his Lordship continued to watch the guards as they went through their magnificent drill. It was sheer martial pleasure to study this strange composite organism, this body of bodies, watching them as they stood there, stock-still, as a quadrilingual speech in Italian, French, German and dialectal Romansch were read by the Commandant. He was resplendent in slashed violet velvet, a white plume bobbing on his morion. He was armored from neck to waist, from shoulder to wrist in elaborately etched plate, a scalloped chain mail fringe hanging beneath his sword-belt. He gave his fealty to a cassocked cardinal seated in the front row, and then the Prince of the Church took the lectern from him and gave another lengthy multi-language oration.

Amelia, Vera and S., who had come along with the group, passed the time debating which one they wanted to take home with them, but decided that the potential for excommunication and possible bodily harm with a halberd precluded any attempts to ask one out on a date. At least one person, overwhelmed by work, fell asleep. Meanwhile, I chatted quietly with the Seminarian about liturgical minutiae and reconsidered his offer about trying to start the Wave.

And then I heard the word Giuramento, oath, and my ears pricked up again.

The Commandant had returned to the podium, loudly declaiming the official text of the age-old Oath. The moment had come when they would pledge their life, their blood, their fortunes, their sacred honor, when they would bind their fate to Providence and Pontiff. Most of them couldn’t have been much older than I was. Probably most of them would have been mere freshmen back at Notre Dame. But there they stood, paladins of the Church, the Pope’s divisions, armored like centurions and trained like Green Berets. The entire regiment took one thunderous, precisely shifting step sideways, and the color guard moved forward. The sergeants swung their heavy swords around with the skill of a drum-major, bringing them to their shoulders again. Then, the ensign lowered the banner, attended by that gallant velvet subaltern with the drawn rapier.

Then a loud, startling clank and thud. The first Swiss guard to take the oath had handed—slammed is a better word for it—his halberd to the guard next to him with perfect precision and stepped out to take the oath. He moved towards the flag with a strutting, military walk, the unfamiliar strutting walk of the armored, armed man, that would have seemed splendidly swaggering if it had not been so clearly and deliberately been rehearsed. He strode up, placed his left hand on the banner and thrust his right hand sharply into the air, two fingers and a thumb crooked up in a traditional invocation of the Holy Trinity. He barked out the Oath with vigor, his face magnified a thousandfold on the enormous TV screens, turned and marched back to his post. 33 times we saw them come and 33 times we saw them return to their ranks, accompanied by the staccato click of halberds and the sharp shouts of the Oath in four different languages.

I swear to observe faithfully, legitimately and honorably all that has been read to me. May God and His Saints assist me!

“They’re not using inside voices,” I heard one of my friends joke. They weren’t, for sure. L’homme armé doesn’t have to.

I sat there and watched, racking my brain to put into words what I was seeing, what I was hearing. The sound—the harsh music—of armored men moving in unison simply defies description. My notebook is filled with complex scrawls trying to grasp those fleeting sensations. It was like rainfall, like the jingle of rings, like quiet thunder, like change clinking in your pockets. It was like all of these and none of these, a poetic, warlike sound.

The Giuramento finished, the Commandant inspected his troops, threading his way through the three ranks of armored soldiers. I was somehow reminded of the columns in St. Peter’s Square I’d seen earlier, staggered and shifting in perspective. Then there was a loud blast of drums and trumpets, of screeching police-whistles, a flourish of excitement and celebration. The color guard moved to the center with a swinging martial step, and the bandsmen moved down in cadenced silence. There was a polite fumbling with their sheet-music, and they played a long series of cheerful marches, each growing more and more exuberant.

So exuberant that the Seminarian and I exchanged incredulous glances as the band slid straight-faced into a trumpets-and-drums number that sounded more salsa than solemn. I’d go as far as to call it jazzy. Or spicy. Or Latin, and not in the usual liturgical sense. The big TV screens panned the scene, and I caught a glimpse of one meticulously martial Swiss bandsman shaking a lone maraca at one side. Neither the Seminarian nor I succeeded in keeping a straight face. “This would work so much better out in the sun,” he said. I smiled and agreed, and sat and listened. It may have been incongruously in a cavernous bland hall, but the splendid colors and eccentric martial jollity certainly put a carnival spirit in the air. The serious business of blood and oaths and history was over with. It was time to party with the best-dressed army on earth in their moment of glory.

Considering all the variations that L’Homme Armé had gone through in the last five hundred years, from polyphony to Perfect Houseplants, and from pikes and halberds to karate blackbelts and concealed machine-guns, somehow a maraca didn’t seem amiss. It just goes to show you that sometimes God’s warriors, les hommes armés, are still good at surprise attacks.

Tuesday, May 18

 

Yes, I know, you've seen this picture on The Shrine already. Tough noogies.

The Rector of the World Turns 84

Sto lat, sto lat,
Niech żyje, żyje nam.
Sto lat, sto lat,
Niech żyje, żyje nam.
Jeszcze raz, jeszcze raz,
niech żyje, żyje nam!
Niech żyje nam!


For those of you whose last name is not Klejeski (or Wojtyla, for that matter), that means:

Good luck, good cheer,
May you live one hundred years!
Good luck, good cheer,
May you live one hundred years!
Good luck, good cheer,
May you live one hundred years!
One hundred years!


His Holiness turns 84 today, marking the occasion by publishing a new book with the typically direct title of Get Up, Let us Go. Sounds like a great party to me! I bet, though, that he'll also probably indulge in his favorite dessert, which is vodka over ice-cream. Really.

May you live one hundred years! Definitely. Though, while wandering through St. Peter's the last day of my stay in Rome, I had the morbid though hopeful thought that when JP the Great is called to heaven, whenever God so wills, his Holiness is going to blow the doors off the place with his intercessions! The Church will have to brace Herself for all the cool stuff he'll be able to get done at celestial warp-speed.

Sunday, May 16

 
Eastern Orthodoxy discovers The Matrix: Reloaded

In all fairness, the Catholic Nerd community was making jokes about Neo's cassock months before The Onion Dome did. We Westerners are always on the cutting-edge of liturgical fashion...

(Matt pauses, considers ugly polyester chausibles he's seen in use lately)

...which isn't always necessarily a good thing. Never mind.

Saturday, May 15

 
Drool-worthy pre-Conciliar black vestments from the Notre Dame basilica sacristy, courtesy of fellow Domer Brian of In Pectore.
 
Ave Maria Update

Michael Rose showcases a spectacular Spanish Baroque alternative to Ave Maria University's impractical and futuristic chapel, as well as other proposals for the university and town. The stunning new chapel design was worked up by a friend of mine at Notre Dame who just graduated, Matthew Enquist. Message to anyone out there who's an architect: give this man a job, pronto. He's brilliant.
 


Austriae Est Imperare Orbi Universo

According to fellow Hapsburg enthusiast Don Jim, the Venerable Karl, last Emperor of Austria and Apostolic King of Hungary, is to be beatified on 3 October 2004. While he was launched into the cockpit of European politics in the midst of the First World War, he nonetheless sought peace for his subjects and lived a heroically virtuous life, dying in humble obscurity in Madeira in 1922, four years after the collapse of his family's 400-year-old empire. Upon opening his tomb, his body was discovered to have not suffered decay. In the sainted ruler's honor, I have composed a new stanza for Horatio Bolton Nelson's Catholic classic From All Thy Saints in Warfare:

Hymn Verse in honor of the future beatus Charles of Austria
Tune: Ewing, 1853

For Thy lordly vassal Charles, we praise Thee, Heaven's King,
With toil he reign'd beneath Thee, his subjects peace to bring.
Laid long in crownless exile, in sweetness incorrupt;
Now enroll'd among the blessed, the Lamb's feast he has supp'd.

 
We are the people our parents warned us about?

What to expect when your child is a Catholic nerd, part twenty-seven:

Me: I've got the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom stuck in my head.
My Father: Oh, I hate it when that happens.

And even better:

My Father: What are you doing with my croquet instructions?
Me: I needed to write something down, so I'm using the back.
My Father: What, strategy notes?
Me: No, a hymn to Venerable Charles Hapsburg.

Not that my dad isn't much better: we spent a large chunk of lunch talking about the Catacombs together. It's nice being on the same wavelength as your parents, no matter how oddly tuned you both are.

Thursday, May 13

 
Steve Martin to be the new Inspector Clousseau

But zen ve ask, "can he fix ze bell from ze rhinging laak ze talented Monsieur Peter Sellers"? Mais, non. He cannot fill zese shoes tres big. Helas. Ah yes, and did anyone here order un bimb? Un bimb...aaaaaghhhh!!! (Un explosion tres grand).

Wednesday, May 12

 


Ambrosian Rite Fun

Courtesy of Una Voce. Guest-starring none other than the Templars. Really.
 

The Little Vatican” at Rome's Catacombs of San Calisto. What I saw at Santa Priscilla, however, was even cooler. Dr. Henry Jones, Jr., would approve.

Indiana Matt and the Catacomb of Doom

Sloth occasionally has its benefits. One grey Sunday morning in December, I’d wandered over to studio in a haze of sleep and plopped down at a computer terminal, trying to decide whether to go over to the 10:30 Tridentine at San Gregorio or wait until the evening when our indefatigable chaplain, Fr. O., would celebrate an English mass at Santa Maria in Monterone, the little Redemptorist church next door. I usually do both on Sundays, taking advantage of Rome’s liturgical variety as well as the pleasant albeit largely unknown canon which allows the faithful to receive the Eucharist twice in one day. However, for whatever reason, I hung back and decided to let morning mass slide.

As if on cue, the next person I saw come into the computer lab was none other than our very own Fr. O. in his clerical suit and matching black sweater vest. He’d not come to upbraid me on my lapse in Catholic nerd enthusiasm, but instead heard up the faithful members of his theology class to head out for our private tour of the Catacombs of Santa Priscilla.

Which I had forgotten completely about.

Fr. O. is one of the finest priests I know, and his seamless mixture of real, get-your-hands-dirty holiness and humor is about the only way to cope with the Eternal City. He’s from the diocese of Kalamazoo.

I sometimes wonder if he’s the only man who works there, in that vast imitation-renaissance Fascist-classical pile nicknamed “Vatican South.” He must have the busiest schedule in the Holy See, and yet he still finds time to sit down and talk with us, give spiritual direction, hear confessions, or simply spend a few minutes sharing some bureaucratic clerical joke. How he ever got chained to a desk in Trastevere’s Palazzo San Calisto is a mystery to all of us, including himself. I’m envious of whatever parish gets him when they finally let him go home.

We waited for stragglers, Fr. O. muttering pepperishly about the Italian bus system. We had an hour until our appointment with the famous—infamous?—Sister Ellen, the Vatican’s directress for the catacombs of Santa Priscilla. And if we missed that, it could be months before we got a shot at seeing the place again. Fr. O. had warned us about Sister. She’s less Indiana Jones than the Flying Nun, with an accent that’s two parts Brooklyn and one part Frau Doktor Professor. She’s also hilarious.

It was, I believe, an hour after we had seen bus 630 speeding into the far distance of a side-street near the Vittoriano that we decided that it was a lost cause. No replacements in sight, and we’d missed our tour. Father shrugged with a half smile, half-frown, and promised us lunch and a real tour in the spring. And that was the last I heard about it until a week before we were due to leave for home.

***


And so, one equally grey rainy afternoon in Spring, we’re standing in the little stuccoed cloister of the Pontifical Commission on Sacred Archaeology at the Benedictine convent of Santa Priscilla in the vague northern hinterland of Rome. It would have once been rolling fields and rich villa gardens, but now it’s a suburban tangle, though you wouldn’t know it by the milky white silence of the courtyard. The dull cloudy light was beautiful on the salmon-pink stucco, vivid green leaves sprouting from a tangle of thorny bushes in the small garden. It’s all soothingly domestic, the benches along the walls, the Roman brick pavement, the white marble fragments set into the walls, startlingly bright in the shadows.

And then there’s Sister Ellen. She greets Fr. O. with easy, energetic familiarity. She’s definitely Brooklyn, all sturdy five-foot-nothing of her. She bashfully says she’s put on her full habit for us; she’s dressed neatly in black, scapular, white-trimmed veil, tunic down to the floor, with a sensible waterproof windbreaker thrown over it. She’s a new recruit to the order, though she’s in her forties; she’s been studying the arcana of the early Church for decades nonetheless. Then she admits she drank a little red wine for lunch—and she doesn’t drink at all very often. “So if we get in trouble for going too deep, just tell them it’s the drunken nun’s fault,” she teases. She certainly seems sober enough to me.

But Father is right; she is a scream, and a sweetie at that. We later decided that if we ever owned a bar, we'd call it The Drunken Nun in her honor.

Soon, we’re down in the tunnels. I’m not sure what to expect, and I’m not sure what I want to expect. The semi-perverse let’s-freak-out-Protestants side of me is hoping for the undercroft of the Castle of Otranto full of lugubrious decay. Another voice is calling on Indiana Jones and still a third bit is wondering if I could get an indulgence out of this communion with the ancient Church. Sister does not, however, look particularly like the Crypt Keeper, so option number one, for better or worse, is probably out.

Or is it?

We descend into the darkness, and the first thing I notice is the smell. Subterranean Rome is full of fascinating odors. The excavations beneath St. Peter’s have a spicy, moldy sort of smell, with a hint of something verging on instant coffee as you pass the Egyptian tomb. Here, however, it’s slightly different. It reminds me of a mixture of mildew and baking bread. Then things start getting interesting.

After all, we were underground. Really. Our flashlights dazzled momentarily on a thin skin of stagnant, clammy water coating the stone-hard, stone-cold earth floor, packed rock-solid by two thousand years of footprints. Slices of faded vermilion fresco on walls pockmarked with light and darkness as we passed. The darkness was palpable, malleable as we moved up and down across uneven, sloping, curvilinear pavements of sculpted dirt, black all around us save for the blacker slits of the loculi inset into the walls, the stacked, empty tomb-chambers that had once stored the bones of saints, martyrs and ordinary sinners like me.

It was like climbing up and down through the stony viscera of a giant: everything, from walls to floor, was warped and curved and organic, funereal Gaudí, full of vermiculated channels like an age-scored face.

We finally came to the first tomb chamber, mellow in the electric light with its faded pale stucco and ancient frescoes. The tomb of the barrel-makers, so-called because of the crude, dashed fresco of two men hoisting an enormous tun on their shoulders in the shallow low apse. Overhead, in a low vault, a webwork of crimson lines compartmentalized a serene assembly of anonymous saints, arms spread out in prayer. Crude, naïve, wonderful.

Sister Ellen was soon dissecting the simple paleo-Christian iconography around us with childlike gusto. She had a stubborn, sharp-featured face, ever-so-slightly weathered, dark brows above dark energetic eyes, darting around the symbol-encrusted walls of the little chamber. On one side, Jonah was vomited out onto a barren shore by an antique dolphin, resurrection and baptism in one figure. Above him—“See the jack in the box?” Sister laughed. It was Noah rising from an ideographic ark, looking for the dove to return. And then there was the Good Shepherd at the center, abstract and delicate as a new watercolor, delicate grayed brushstrokes just enough to suggest perfection.

Some incongruous childish graffiti in a bold Renaissance hand littered one wall, an a five-hundred-year-old date and an artificially classicized Italian name, a man trying to look antiquely hip to his peers. Condensation—our condensation—was beginning to gather in big fat droplets on the fresco. Delicate conditions. We moved on, through the crazy-quilt maze of tunnels. On either side, black holes gaped abutting onto slitted galleries with curving walls, onto chill damp air. Inscriptions in incised, curling Roman cursive, in Greek, broken off by time and accident. A splash of copper-green mold around a mine lamp. An air-shaft going down into Borgesian infinity, pierced with black windows.

As we walked, Sister continued her lecture, pausing by the ominous black cicatrices of the loculi. They were the reason the catacombs were here. The reason we were here. “If you had asked an early Christian,” she said, “where the catacombs were, they wouldn’t know what you were talking about.” Ad catacumbas was a place, a very specific place by the church of San Sebastiano, from a Greek word meaning “hollow.” The term eventually became applied to the vast underground cemeteries that both pagans and Christians had begun to dig as cremation fell out of fashion in ancient Rome under both the influence of Christianity and the mummification rituals of Egypt.

And so the loculi, these shallow sideways graves like bunks on an underground railway, came into existence. They were long empty by now, many of their bones moved to churches in the fifth and sixth centuries for safety and reverence. Around seven thousand bodies lay buried under Santa Bibiana in Rome, moved from here ages earlier. A few were still mysteriously bricked up, others marked with the crude palm-branches that might—just might—mark the grave of a forgotten martyr.

I could see the glitter of pyrite embedded in the walls around us. We were going to see another martyr’s tomb, far grander, but now empty. Sister gathered up her skirts primly, and we disappeared, flashlights in hand, down steep steps into a lower, narrower gallery. Overhead, suddenly, the close vaults vanished and the ceiling rose into irregular nothingness, loculus rising on loculus. Some were even graves within graves, children laid to rest with their parents, crowding close to one arch-niched tomb set high in the wall above us. The martyr’s tomb, now empty.

Palm branches are not always a sure clue of martyrdom: they were, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, enough to prove St. Philomena’s authenticity and raise her to celebrity status among the holy (and become a personal pal of the Curé d’Ars), and yet, not enough, as Christian archaeology evolved, to keep her on the calendar during the changes of the mid-60s. However, here there was more than ambiguous iconography to tell the tale of this sepulcher.

You see, this tomb high overhead—twenty, thirty feet—amid the broken remains of half-excavated, half-empty loculi had once been far closer to the ground. They’d lowered the floor, excavated a vast double-height gallery just to accommodate the Christian dead who had wished to be buried so close to this simple tomb with its white plaster arch and delicate fresco of martyrial palm branches in faded scarlet and green. The very stones were crying out.

It was eerie. It was spectacular. Everything seemed changed, otherworldly. Vera, standing next to me in her mundane grey hooded sweatshirt, now seemed to have the face of a Roman Egyptian tomb-portrait with staring Minoan eyes, the very stone around us—already strange and unfamiliar—seeming to come from a whole other universe. It was strange and wonderful, less a dungeon than a subterranean maze on Mars full of extraterrestrial aesthetics one could never even dream.

And there was more, much more. We passed weathered amber-stained bones there, left haphazardly in a burial hole, or a vast Ezekiel-like cache lying in a blackened pile beneath an arch. Just sitting there, the physical residue of twenty people’s earthly lives, within reach, within touching distance without glass or earth or museum-quality plastic to seal them off. We saw a moldering round nymphaeum that might have been the grave of some of the earliest popes. Seven of them lie somewhere within the maze of Santa Priscilla. We saw the oldest Madonna and Child still in existence, from the year 220 AD, delicate as a Renoir pastel.

“How’s that! Hah!” cried Sister triumphantly.

We saw another martyr’s tomb—occupied—protected by a modern metal grate against intruders. We went down and down and down, we saw small knots of anonymous bones caught momentarily in the yellow gleam of the flashlight. We peaked into half-open loculi and saw a shard of skull lying in the gritty dirt. Fr. O. paused. “This was somebody’s wife or cousin or sister. This was somebody’s Aunt Mabel. They wanted to stay close to them. They were their ancestors; and they’re our ancestors, too.”

He smiled, and then a little farther down the tunnel succeeded in scaring the student walking in front of him by grabbing him by the arm. He was quite proud of that. Of course, the student in question was usually pretty unflappable, so it was quite an achievement.

Eventually, we surfaced once again in a broad, low cellar, familiar Roman brickwork rather than gnarled interstellar sculpture. The light was clear and pale on the whitewashed vaults. A square marble altar-top stood on a disused Corinthian capital next to a verdigrissed crucifix. “This might have been the cellar of St. Priscilla’s house,” explained Sister Ellen. “She may have been a Roman widow who helped with the burial of martyrs. Or perhaps she was the Priscilla St. Paul salutes in one of his letters.” Another mystery of the catacombs.

She had one more secret: the Greek Chapel. It stood off one side of the well-lit cellar, small and dark, until she threw a magic switch and we saw a chamber, a delicate little jewel, straight out of Pompeii. The walls were lined with rich painted faux marble, mustard-yellow and crimson, with mellow shadow-colored silhouettes above showing stories from the Old Testament. Moses and Aaron, the wrongly-accused Susanna defending her innocence like so many Christians accused of atheism and cannibalism as pagan after pagan in high places perverted their true beliefs out of ignorance.

It was a perfect little church; and while the catacombs were seldom used for public mass before the fifth century, above one red-stuccoed arch was the first image of the Mass we still have extant. It’s highly stylized, looking more like a fashionable image of a supper than a sacrifice—but it isn’t meant to be literal, for the faded figures gathered around the table have before them in addition to the Body and Blood, a basket of fish recalling the feeding of the five thousand in addition to the slaughtered Lamb of the Last Supper. Ichythys, Jesus Christ Son of God, Savior, the Big Fish among the little fish, the Christians moving unnoticed in a Roman lake. A curious image, a secret, esoteric image that, like the luminous Christ-Helios of the Vatican might have been a deliberately secretive pun that suggested rather than represented.

As we consider these underground chapels, with their shape—faintly basilican even in these early times, we see not a mere symbolic banquet but the familiar shape of the faithful standing with the priest before them, standing like the Jews at the Passover, like the Jews in the Synagogue, like the Jews in their temple, with gutters running red with atoning blood.

At St. Peter’s, the ancient trophy erected over the apostle’s grave in the second century was used as an altar, the same basic shape one could have seen in any church from Nicaea to 1970. Priest and people together faced liturgical east, and like that coded fresco, it too was a secret sacrifice. The altar—facing a wall and a funereal niche—stood six feet off the ground, and only could be reached with a temporary wooden footpace that could be pulled away in the event of a raid by pagan authorities, and the visible reality of Cavalry would melt back unnoticed into the heathen graves all around it.

There was one more thing. A group photo. Fr. O. snapped it, and we blinked our eyes into the blinding white light. “You all look like you’re on the moon,” he teased, looking at the digital display and the pale stony background all around us.

He wasn’t too far off. We’d gone to the moon, to Mars, to Venus, to Dante’s Purgatory and back today. There was a dash of mortuary piety, a dash of the gruesome and the bizarre, a dash of Indiana Jones and gothick romance, but it was too weird and wonderful to be weighted down with fear. And yet it was more than weird and wonderful—it was almost familiar, as if you had sailed to Mars and discovered some crop of childhood secrets entombed beneath the surface. We were among our ancestors, our Christian forebears, whose bones should be venerated rather than reduced to ghoulish Halloween props. And not just venerated, but loved, really loved like the closest of relatives.

We’d gone to the moon and discovered our family—God, Jesus, Mary, Joseph, saints and martyrs and maybe even perky discredited Philomena—were waiting for us there. Maybe that’s what Heaven’s like. Though I’ll pass on the green mold.
 
The inimitable Meridith of Basia Me, Catholica Sum contributes two possible showstoppers for P.O.D., the Musical inspired by our Catholic Nerd bumper-sticker contest and Les Miserables. They can go right after the tapdancing Jesuit number and "I am the Very Model of a Modern Vicar General," right?

Tuesday, May 11

 
Roman Holy Days

On looking through my capacious notebooks from my year in Rome, I realize I have easily enough to cover ten years of blogging about my stay in the Eternal City. Perhaps I exaggerate; nonetheless, I hope over this summer to continue writing of my adventures in this marvelous place, as well as my other rambles around the Italian peninsula. This being the Shrine, they are likely to come in no particular order over the next few months. Nonetheless, I expect you all will enjoy them! Now, coming soon to a blog near you: Indiana Matt and the Catacombs of Doom (or Santa Priscilla, whichever you prefer). Though they couldn't have had that much doom in them if our tourguide was a five foot tall nun, even a nun from Brooklyn.
 
Speaking of the Sacrament of Penance...

You know you're a Catholic nerd when you watch the trailer for Van Helsing and you immediately notice they got the screen on the St. Peter's confessional wrong.
 
The Best Caption Ever

From Wolfgang Lotz's Architecture in Italy, 1500-1600, p. 12, lower right-hand corner:

4. (right) Giuliano di Sangallo. Project for the loggia of the Pope's tuba players, 1505. Florence, Uffizi (A203).

Needless to say, The Pope's Tuba Players would make a great name for a band.

Monday, May 10

 
Shakespearean Pasta

No kidding: tortellini was an Elizabethan delicacy. File this under "Who'da thunk it?"
 


The Descent of Mount Tabor

The sign on the confessional said English and Italiano, but the priest was Polish. He was a black-robed OFM Conv., like all the confessors at St. Peter’s, and through the holes punched in the screen I could see a little silver fringe of beard around his chin in the amber light of the booth. If I had been more whimsically-minded, I would have said his voice sounded almost Californian in its casual ease.

It was a little before nine in the morning, and the taxi was scheduled to pick me up at ten sharp—or as sharp as ten A.M. can be in Italy. And so, naturally, I was nowhere near the hotel. One last time at St. Peter’s, one last pass at the Sacraments. There wasn’t time for mass, but at least I could snag a penance. The piazza was blissfully empty that morning, and as I stood on the steps of St. Peter’s, the pavement shone like beaten silver in the dazzling morning light. Summer was coming, and I felt steamed under my leather jacket.

The priest wasn’t my usual confessor. Every now and then, I would find myself, at odd hours of the day, at the polished-wood baroque box labeled Italiano, English and Bil Malti for five minutes with a sweet Anglophone Maltese priest who gave the same penance to me every time in a slow, deliberate tone. Say the Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory be seven times in honor of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

A seminarian friend had recommended him to me, after I confided my initial uncertainty of confessing to a non-native speaker of English. I’ll always remember that neat, gentle little spiel he’d give before absolution in his accented voice: The Blessed Mother will obtain for you the graces…um…necessary… Uh…mmm, something…oh yes: Have so much charity, compassion… Never mind, I’ve forgotten it. It was a cool little speech, the little fellow had style. But I’ve forgotten it. Perhaps, though, that’s the whole point of Confession, the grace to forget. Not that I usually have much to forget these days: I seem to remember a number of confessions about riding on the Roman bus system for free, and something about overweight baggage.

Binding and loosing, it covers a multitude of sins, no matter how absurd. Thanks be to God.

Forgetfulness. I’m not sure now how much of Rome I remember. It’s a thought—sometimes a gauzy golden blaze, sometimes a cozy drizzle—tucked away in the back-alleys of my mind as I adjust to the United States. It’s somewhere deep in the substrata of my subconscious, the actual course of events less important than the changes it wrought on my soul and body. I sometimes find myself trying to piece together the customary walk from my hotel to my studio, past Sant’ Andrea della Valle and the white spike of Sant’ Ivo against a blue—or dirty brown—sky, and I still find the streets familiar. It’s there, when I need it again. For now, I’m content to let the Eternal City slumber in the lumber room of my mind.

Five til nine when I step out of the confessional and say my penance—three Hail Marys, three Our Fathers, three Glory bes, and an act of kindness. Penances in Rome were startling to me at first. I was so used to those lengthy and complexly vague meditations assigned by my old Rector; not without merit but somewhat difficult to finish off to your own reparatory satisfaction. Five Hail Marys, three Hail Marys, whatever, assigned in a curt, happy voice or slow, solemn voice, seemed almost preconciliar, as if Fr. O’Malley and his mandatory biretta were lurking behind the screen.

I once did see a priest in full surplice, biretta and stole hearing confessions—as a “judge at his tribunal,” as the old rubrical manuals put it. In the back of a church, during Holy Week services. It was a jowly, sturdy, hunched old South American, Fr. I., the first priest I’d seen celebrating the Latin Mass in Rome. He’d waved around an enormous cross during the homily, celebrating the mass with the frenetic quickness of the late 1950s. But, I imagine, confession is a world apart from that. I seem to remember reading somewhere that the biretta was worn to represent the priest’s juridical power, of binding and loosing. I’d never seen anything like it in my life, such an antique vignette going on in the middle of Good Friday.

The old ways, often, have their own hidden logic. I grew up on face-to-face Confession, “reconciliation rooms,” mini-therapy sessions with the confessor. Penance mystified me as a child. About my only memories of my first confession are some vague mnemonic association of the Sacrament with small flags—pennance, pennants, a typical thought for a kid—and mistaking the white plastic rosary they gave me afterward for a small packet of popcorn. And then there were the little lamp, the uncomfortable chairs, the disused and ornamental screen in the back.

The new way, I suppose, has some benefits as a mini-spiritual direction session for those who can’t find the time. There’s somehow more comfort in the no-frills, businesslike recitation of sins that looking at the priest through the grate, kneeling at that uncomfortable rococo kneeler, seems to inevitably call forth. It’s easier to stop justifying yourself, stop rehearsing your speeches, inventing excuses. Then three Hail Marys, as neat and simple as a prescription of pills for your spiritual disease. And like medicine, they’re easy to swallow and while they may not seem to work right off the bat, something’s still different afterwards. They’ve done the job no matter what you think.

Sometimes you can’t even see the priest’s face save for a vague whiskered profile in the darkness. It matters not: like the intentional alter Christus at an ad orientem mass rather than the unintentionally post-conciliar talking head, you shouldn’t be distracted by the fascinating wart on the end of the priest’s nose, or whether he looks tired, or bored, or even sympathetic. I found this out the hard way. For all my traditional-minded airs, my first handful of confessions at St. Peter’s were face-to-face, through the open cabinet doors of the box, but it was too much, too flustering as I looked up and saw the tired eyes of the Franciscan propped up on his checkered cushion. He had to endure this litany of excuses and petty sins all day, probably, and nothing else. It was too much.

Then I started doing it through the grate.

Simply watching the various shades of hieratic gesture that priests use in their boxes, the ones who sit out staring from the open cabinet, the ones who close them and let the light glow beneath it in even slits, the priests who read and the priests who don't, the priests who press their ear to the screen, one half-door open, another closed, covering their face anonymously. Green lights, red lights, on and off, signs and tables of available times in languages from Tagalog to Russian and something that could have been Korean or Japanese.

To think of the experience accumulated, the collective tally of years of sacred service represented by the confessors of a side-aisle in one Roman major basilica alone never fails to boggle the mind.

I’ve confessed at St. Peter’s, where I thought the confessionals were uncomfortable; I’ve confessed at St. Mary Major where they’re less claustrophobic and the Dominicans have the rather interesting sacramental superpower of absolving those reserved sins. (I once nervously blurted out in the middle of confession some complement about how nifty his order was). One priest there them even has the ability to hear confessions in Latin, though I’m not linguistically or sacramentally adventurous to try. I’ve confessed to Americans, to British, to even a very cheerful somewhat polyglot Dutchman, and it’s all the same sacrament. And now this gentle, somewhat reticent Californian Pole. And he absolves me, and I'm done.

It seems, in its own way, the best end to my trip.

I say my prayers, and meditate on them like he asked. I start thinking about an act of kindness I could do sometime today in between changing planes.

I try my best not to define these last few moments on my own terms, not to be too concerned about ferreting-out local color. I simply soak in the moment, for now, maybe for later. I watch the blaze of light on the intricate inlaid marble floor with its giallo antico and Amazon shields, the rising sun filtering through the big half-round window of the contrafacciata above the Pamphilj escutcheon. One or two tardy Sampietrini men are washing the floor with enormous chrome-hilted mops. I can hear the startlingly ethereal voices of a group of pilgrim monks celebrate mass in the south transept, two candles burning on the altar of St. Joseph.

I’d spent nearly two hours yesterday there amid the thick crowds. Attending mass, wandering, wondering, stopping and praying at appropriate side-altars for everyone and anyone I could think of. For friends, for priests, for nuns, even for archaeologists, civil authorities, soldiers and sedevacantalists, for some quirky set of reasons. Before Longinus; before Andrew, Veronica and Helen; before the horrible bloated statue of gentle, businesslike Pius X that looks more like a white-marble beluga than a saint; looking up at Louis de Montfort and having a little chuckle beneath Philip Neri, and even atop the porphyry disk where Charlemagne was crowned, 1,204 years, five months, and thirty-five days ago.

Somehow, oddly enough, I don’t recall pausing by the massive mosaic of Raphael’s Transfiguration with its eye-rolling demoniac and ecstatic Christ against a cerulean tessellated sky. But now I remember it, however vaguely, and those hours spent before the original in the Pinacoteca in a vast dark room full of glass cases and tapestries and another canvas showing St. John the Baptist with 1980s rock star-quality hair. And it seems appropriate now, that luminous mystery.

Deacon Paul, a lean-faced, olive-skinned and literary seminarian in neat, down-to-earth clericals, had invoked that Biblical memory a week ago right after our last school mass. We were at a reception in the architecture studio, jostling for refreshments with the rest of the arkies and a large number of other study-abroad students crowding against the imitation-marble walls of the undersized and distinctly Roman foyer. An ex-teacher with the masculine enthusiasm of an idealistic high-school baseball coach, he’s a smart man, a good man, and circumstances had kept frustrating earlier attempts for me to get to know him better. And so I enjoyed our few minutes chatting, bringing up my thoughts about leaving Rome, leaving this citadel of churches and plentiful mass-times, this interwoven network of grace and indulgence.

To go back, so to speak, into the real world. Paul understood perfectly. He became enthusiastic, gesticulating happy recognition. “But you gotta look at the Transfiguration! ‘Lord, it is good to be here,’ Peter says, but they come down and it’s complete chaos! Someone’s screaming, someone’s possessed, the rest of the Apostles can’t do anything. Chaos!” He smiles. He’s going to be ordained in a few months and sit in booths like my anonymous Polish, Dutch, Maltese friends. And he knows he has to face that chaos, too, and let God’s Spirit move on the formless void of the waters of the Terra Incognita of so many people’s lives. “You have to come down eventually.”

That’s his priestly mission, to come down into the confusion. And it’s my mission, too.

It’s time to go. I’ve got to leave Mount Tabor. As I step outside, the piazza’s already started to fill with pilgrims, and that lunatic blue balloon that floats up over the Pincio hill on the other side of town, is already hanging in the perfect sky like a weightless marble.

Life goes on, at Rome or at home. And the City (for there is only one City), in all its odd, luminous glory, isn't going to go anywhere once I leave the Mountain.

Sunday, May 9

 
Speaking of My Parish...

The local paper has, after publishing such winning quotes as that 2000 Associated Press disaster "We Catholics Worship Mary," finally thrown the Catholic Church a bone. Here's an article I found rather inspiring, on a recent addition to St. John's:

Sheboygan-Press: After winding spiritual journey, prof converts to Catholicism: "After winding spiritual journey, prof converts to Catholicism"

 
Home

"Home at last, home at last.. thank God, I'm home at last."

Don't get me wrong. I love Notre Dame dearly, and if I had my way I would happily live out the remainder of my days there, taking classes and teaching. It is the most Catholic environment I have ever encountered (this side of the Atlantic, anyway), with a living community of some of the most devoted Catholics I have ever met and the most sincere priests I have ever encountered. It is certainly some of the most beautiful acres in the nation. Further, Our Lord is present is no less than 40 chapels in that small area; and, devastated as some of the chapels may be, for this reason Notre Dame has been called a "Eucharistic City." Physically, socially, spiritually, Notre Dame is a blessing, blessedly undisguised.

But there is something about a week of grueling finals that makes one really, profoundly appreciate a full, backwards retreat home. And there is nothing more enjoyable than coming home to family, in my book. After a year of study I can say, for example, that my family is the ecclesia domestica (yeah, I'm not going to look up the correct Latin), the initial community of persons that initiated me into the communio personarum that is the Church which, in turn, initiates us all into a vibrant life in Christ, mystical body and Spiritual Head. But for now, I'd rather experience family than describe it, eat dinner together than consider the implications of eating dinner together. I'm done. Er, finished. (does Nihil Obstat still haunt this blog??)

But one thing I truly love returning to is my parish -- St. John's. St. John's. Between Masses, the year is still 1954. The lights of our 1940's neo-Gothic edifice fade out, and suddenly the reredos and sanctuary look like the painted backdrop from a film starring Fr. Bing Crosby. I love that. Before Mass, just as the parish rosary ends, the electric small pipe organ takes up Ave Maria, sung beautifully by the choir. The pews are filled and stragglers stand in the back. The cassocked servers light candles just as the electric lights fade on, and we fast-forward straight to, oh, about 1968 for the duration of the Mass. The people are admonished to stop gossiping about the next pastor appointment and reminded to dress modestly during the coming summer in consideration of Our Lord's Eucharistic Presence; the culture of death is denounced to families of 5 or 6 who have already taken that message to heart; bells ring, communion plates flash; and with a round of "Immaculate Mary," the building warps back another 10 years.

St. John's is really a puzzle; how its culture remained utterly unchanged through 1975-2002 I can only attribute to the pastor we had during that entire time. Our renovations that followed Vatican II were perhaps the only renovations in the county where a (simple) Gothic reredos and a side altar were ADDED. Yet the people themselves get some credit; the new pastor wanted to stop with the bells, but no one would have it. Nonetheless he is quite an impressive priest, teaching the Confirmation classes himself and managing to quote some papal encyclical in every homily. Basically, it is just the witness of vibrant parish life that eases the thought that some day, some day soon, we will have to leave Notre Dame and the Catholic community we've found there -- but, luckily, I realized this morning, not only there

Friday, May 7

 
So there is a Voice of Reason at Georgetown

Or at least a voice of faith:


"I will not continue to be at Georgetown if [crucifixes in the classrooms] are removed," said Yahya Hendi in Rome May 5. "I believe religion has a lot to contribute to Georgetown and to America. An attempt to remove religious values from our public discourse is dangerous."

- The Word From Rome, May 7, 2004

Sadly, that voice has to come from its Muslim Chaplain.

Bully for him, at least.


 
Whoa...

Psychadizzy, man...
 
Pac Man ...hattan!
 
Alaskan Statue Bleeding

Thursday, May 6

 
Tomorrow is my last day in Rome.
 


Freaky Fresco

The week after Spring Break, I was on vacation in Italy and we stopped in Padua to see St. Anthony's old hangouts. St. Anthony spent some time just before his death in a castle in Camposampiero, a small town outside Padua. He lived in a small cell in a hermitage of the castle and it was there that the Child Jesus appeared to him. A church has since been built over and around what is left of the hermitage. In this church, Shrine of the Vision, I turned the corner and found this painted on one of the original walls of the hermitage.

I asked the local guide and it turns out that St. Anthony of Padua's patron was none other than St. Flutius. So great was Anthony's devotion to Flutius, that he asked Count Tiso IV, who ruled Camposampiero at the time, to commemorate this fresco in honor of the great bishop. Here, Flutius is depicted healing the left ankle of Vigius. In fact, this most famous miracle of St. Flutius mirrors one of St. Anthony. A young man, Leonardo by name, kicked his own mother out of anger. Upon hearing St. Anthony preach on Christ's words in Mark, "And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life crippled than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna." Leonardo promptly ran home and cut off his foot. Learning of this, Saint Anthony took the amputated member of the unfortunate youth and miraculously rejoined it. An amazing resemblance spanning centuries between two holy men.

Of course, my battery died as soon as I got my camera out, so my mom had to take the picture for me. That's why it has taken so long for me to get it scanned.

Wednesday, May 5

 
Some Latino Style

"Soon we'll have our own sacristy!" - Dan

Considering that we have recieved no less than three standing offers by priests to say the Novus Ordo in Latin (thanks Fr. Johansen!), our eyes have turned to the next piece of our liturgical dream... say it with me now...

MISSALE ROMANUM

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