A blessed Feast of St. John Paul II to all, in these strange days in the Church.
Please enjoy my speech at the opening of the lay men’s group I have just begun with several friends here in Rome. A reminder that we are still fundraising – more info here.
Eamonn Clark, STL, President of the Oratorio
Rome and the Spiritual Life
“Memories” and “opportunities.” Perhaps there are no two words which capture what Rome is better than these. It’s not “splendid architecture,” “fine wine,” or even “beautiful women” – I assure you, you can find all these things in Paris, and in other places too! No, Rome is a place of memories and a place of opportunities. In fact, in some way, for us they are one and the same.
First, some memories.
About 14,000 years ago, the Palatine Hill began to be host to a small village. How could these people have known what was to come of their small foundation? Certainly, they could not have dreamed of it.
As more settlements were built over the millennia, they slowly merged into one until a city was formed. By the time we reach the end of the reign of the mythical King Romulus near the close of the 8th century B.C., Moses had already left Egypt some 500 years ago, and Isaiah was then busy confronting King Ahaz about the sign to come of a Virgin with Child – evidently, God had been working more quickly than men.
The City grew. Seven kings of Rome came and went, and the Republic began, initiating a period of non-stop conflicts and crises which somehow never seemed to destroy the City entirely – not unlike the Kings of Israel and Judah and their nemeses – but rather saw its incremental expansion of power and terrain, all over the Mediterranean. The Republic ended with an ironic catastrophe: the ambitious and extraordinarily popular Julius Caesar slowly secured himself a position as the “dictator pro vita” through various power-grabs, which alarmed the senate who feared the end of the Republic and a return to a kingdom. They killed him, of course, and accidentally paved the way for the inauguration not of a mere kingdom, but of an empire. Strange things are reported to have happened in the moments following the death of Caesar, here in the City, supernatural things, says Virgil: “Who dare say the Sun is false? He and no other warns us when dark uprising threaten, when treachery and hidden wars are gathering strength. He and no other was moved to pity Rome on the day that Caesar died, when he veiled his radiance in gloom and darkness, and a godless age feared everlasting night. Yet in this hour Earth also and the plains of Ocean, ill-boding dogs and birds that spell mischief, sent signs which heralded disaster. How oft before our eyes did Etna deluge the fields of the Cyclopes with a torrent from her burst furnaces, hurling thereon balls of fire and molten rocks. Germany heard the noise of battle sweep across the sky and, even without precedent, the Alps rocked with earthquakes. A voice boomed through the silent groves for all to hear, a deafening voice, and phantoms of unearthly pallor were seen in the falling darkness. Horror beyond words, beasts uttered human speech; rivers stood still, the earth gaped upon; in the temples ivory images wept for grief, and beads of sweat covered bronze statues. King of waterways, the Po swept forests along in the swirl of his frenzied current, carrying with him over the plain cattle and stalls alike. Nor in that same hour did sinister filaments cease to appear in ominous entrails or blood to flow from wells or our hillside towns to echo all night with the howl of wolves. Never fell more lightning from a cloudless sky; never was comet’s alarming glare so often seen.” It was at this moment in time that everything began to change. An imperial reign began with Caesar Augustus which he would oversee for some 40 years – a familiar number – and 27 years into that reign – 3 years short of 30 – a Child was born of a Virgin. No mere king had come into Judah, either. Interestingly, it is rumored that Augustus was inspired by a dream one night, around the year 1 AD, to build an altar to a ruler that had been born far away, and this altar supposedly now rests buried underneath the Ara Caeli, atop the Capitoline Hill.
Augustus’ adopted son Tiberius became his successor. He regarded Augustus as a god, we should remember, beginning the whole sad cult of the emperors. It was Tiberius who sent Pontius Pilate to the north to govern what they both must have thought of as the ancient version of “flyover country.” In fact, Tiberius signed the document giving Pilate authority to use capital punishment in a little room just on the slope of the Quirinal Hill, right near the Angelicum, which you can see preserved today. The governor of Judea would find himself caught up in a conflict eerily similar to what had been unfolding in far-away Italy just a generation ago and into his own time – a figure rising to an alarming degree of power and influence, claiming His Father to be God and maybe Himself as well, killed by those pleading their loyalty to Rome… and then the ironic catastrophe was followed by the ushering in of something even greater and more powerful than had been feared – not a kingdom, and not even an empire, but a Church, with a true “dictator pro vita,” One Who will never die, and truly supernatural things coming in the wake of His booming voice crying out from the Cross – the sun was darkened, the curtain of the Temple was torn from top to bottom, the Earth shook, and many of the dead were raised up and later appeared in Jerusalem. Just as well, prophetic and Divine words were spoken by mere men not too long after – like mere animals using human speech! The Roman guards who “became like dead men” (Matthew 28:4) and no doubt eventually ran away at the second earthquake which occurred when the Emperor of the Universe rose from the grave were a sign of things to come. Some weeks later, the fire of the Holy Spirit came down, at the “dedication” of the New Temple, so unlike to the Temple whose remnants now possibly sit as prizes in the Arch of Titus in the Forum after its final destruction, and the Good News was preached for the first time from the cenacle by the foremost representatives of Christ’s Mystical Body. As Acts 2:10 tells us, there were Romans there to hear the first apostolic preaching – this was certainly not by chance. The “death of Rome” was now the Holy Spirit’s special goal, in order to replace it with something much more glorious.
It was Rome, then, where Jesus Christ’s Church would have to go to be most firmly established, going out of Jerusalem, much as God had “escaped” from the old Temple whose veil He tore from top to bottom and went out into the Nations – out to the wicked Assyrians, Babylonians, and even the Romans who had crucified Him. And so it was that the very same fisherman from Galilee would find his way down here, to preach especially to the Jews who had already been dwelling in this place for quite a while. Peter stayed here until his brutal death, just around the corner, which he must have known would come, not only from common sense but also from the time that he walked on the shores of Galilee with the Risen Christ, Who told him of his coming martyrdom, and Who had turned him back along the Appian Way as he tried to move on from here, a site which is known and preserved as “Quo Vadis Domine.” When Peter was living on the Aventine at what is now S. Prisca, he would have looked over in this direction at night and seen the glowing embers of the bodies upon the pikes atop what was the Vatican Hill, a warning to would-be rebels that the cruelties of Nero’s wicked circus awaited them should they have a mind to oppose him. John also made a famous appearance, though the attempt at killing him did not go the way it was planned – he emerged from a pot of boiling oil unscathed, converting the crowd to the Faith, though the Emperor Domitian was unfortunately not persuaded. But of all the wonders Our Lord has worked in the hearts of men, perhaps none has been greater than what was done in Paul, who, lest we forget, was the one-time leader of the Jewish version of ISIS who became “the Apostle.” It is Paul, a Roman citizen, who most especially confirms the integrity and veracity of the witness of the original disciples – he came from outside the apostolic college of Jerusalem, though being no less appointed by Christ to preach, especially to the Gentiles. For about two years he ministered in this City alongside Peter unto his own all-too-predictable martyrdom, and his sacred bones are with us today, still crying out in testimony to the immense sanctity he received from the Lord – “I want to know Christ, and the power of His Resurrection and participation in His sufferings, so that I might somehow attain to the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:10-11)
There is no need to describe the bitter persecutions of the wicked Emperors Nero, Domitian, Decius, Valerian, and Diocletian and the ultimate heroism of the early martyrs – Clement, Agnes, Cecilia, Ignatius, Sebastian, Pancras, Lawrence – especially Lawrence, who, like Peter, had made it out of Rome but turned back to face his impending death, which came on the Viminal Hill by fire… Almost every stone it seems has been marked with the blood of a saint, who chose the distant joys of the Heavenly Jerusalem over the worldly glory of Rome.
I’ve already mentioned the Ara Caeli. Constantine’s mother St. Helen rests there, whose collection of relics from her Holy Land excursion are kept at her old palace in what is now Santa Croce in Gerusalemme – and if one stands beneath the Capitoline Hill in Piazza Venezia looking north down the Via del Corso, through Piazza del Popolo and basically straight up the Via Flaminia – a long way to look, but not so far to walk – there one finds the bridge where her son was converted, Ponte Milvio, where he fought 1,708 years ago one week from today. This event triggered the first Golden Age of Christendom, bringing us the great construction projects and politico-religious shifts that we still enjoy the fruits of today. Our brothers and sisters came up from obscurity and stopped their semi-clandestine worship in the farmlands and catacombs and emerged victorious through Christ’s Providence into the center of the City, with Pope St. Sylvester leading the charge. The conciliar Tradition began shortly thereafter, with First Nicaea, at the request of none other than Constantine himself. Soon after this, the canon of Sacred Scripture was being solidified, by Pope St. Damasus and St. Jerome, right here, just down the road.
The Empire slowly waned – the Church did not. As the Emperors became less relevant, the popes became more relevant, among them St. Innocent I, St. Hilarius, St. Zosimus, and so on, all here, each knowing the same hills and many of the same churches which we know.
With the Donation of Pepin in 756, the Papal States came into existence, and the Bishop of Rome became a sovereign king, as is right and just. Only 44 years later, the Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day, on a round piece of porphyry which today sits near the entrance of the new St. Peter’s Basilica. The tables had turned; the Church, and the Bishop of Rome, were now the reference point in the “caput mundi,” the capital of the world.
While we certainly face a troubling period in the Church today, the centuries around the turn of the First Millennium were arguably much worse. The wicked Counts of Tusculum, the Theophylacti family, rose to power and brought a level of perversion to the papacy that is practically unthinkable, with so many clergy of the Church, including especially here in the City, falling into the most shameful of sins, as St. Peter Damian relates in his ever-relevant book on the topic. But this was not to last. From the Benedictine abbey at St. Paul’s tomb, the Abbot Hildebrand rose to the Throne of St. Peter as Gregory VII, initiating a reform that the saint would use to purge so many evils from the Earth. In the century and a half afterward came some of the most important moments in the world of religious life: the Cistercians were formed at Cîteaux, St. Norbert founded his Premonstratensians, and then came the two great mendicant orders of St. Francis and St. Dominic. These two great men were both in the City, but Dominic had more of a personal impact here, not only by bringing so many of his own men to Rome to study, and working countless miracles in various locations, but also by reforming female religious life, bringing the women together from S. Maria in Trastevere to San Sisto Vecchio, which convent was eventually moved to Ss. Domenico e Sisto on the Quirinal Hill, before finally going on to Monte Mario, where the same community dwells today.
St. Dominic’s greatest spiritual daughter, St. Catherine, would help steady the Bark of Peter in the following unbelievably turbulent century full of plague and anti-popes, in part by dragging Gregory XI from France back to his true home here, and she rests now just down the road at S. Maria Sopra Minerva. Not too long after this tumultuous time came the terrible errors of the so-called “Reformation.” So many men and women in Rome met the challenge, including St. Ignatius of Loyola and our own special friend St. Philip Neri, who became active in the years around the great Council of Trent, at which point the level of religiosity in Rome was perhaps at an all-time low. Philip spent a long time in Rome as a layman, until finally he realized that God wanted Holy Orders for him. His little group of men, many of them laity, who gathered around him not long after his ordination sought to fix the problems of a lack of devotion and pious learning in the City, starting with themselves.
The Roman liturgy by now was proliferating all over the Earth, including in the New World, the missions of which were watched closely by the popes, into the 19th Century. Special mention must be made of Blessed Pope Pius IX of happy memory, whose epic reign included the unfortunate loss of the Papal States with the violent and anticlerical unification of Italy. He still had the guts to hold an Ecumenical Council in the Vatican, while the unifiers looked on with hunger at their desired capital before finally taking it in 1870. The First Vatican Council only officially closed 90 years later, in 1960.
At last, we emerge into the realm of living memory. The World Wars touched Rome but only barely – perhaps the confused and ambitious bully Napoleon had had a worse effect some 140 years earlier, to whom we owe the injustice of so many churches belonging to the State; though, it is true, this no doubt saved many sanctuaries from being “improved” in the 1970’s. The kindness, zeal, and prudence of the Venerable Pope Pius XII not only kept the Germans from flattening the City but it also converted the rabbi of Tempio Maggiore. Then came several saintly popes who would lead and implement the most recent Council, especially our dear friend John Paul II, who charged students to “learn Rome,” “imparare Roma,” and whose impact on this City was enormous, even approaching that of Pius IX. As we can see, there is plenty to learn, and it is worth learning – it is spiritual food, is it not? Of course, this is only an appetizer; the omissions of this summary are vast, as you well know.
All this brings us to today, to current joys and sorrows, and to our own personal memories. Just as the first settlers on the Palatine came here and lived together in a tight-knit group, so have we, and we too draw closer and closer to become a “little city” of our own. The same question is before us: how can we know what awaits us and our small foundation? Well, we have looked at the past, and that helps us to think of our future.
Now then, onto some opportunities.
We all know that we can go to Mass with the Holy Father, or visit the tombs of several apostles and other saints, both those well-known and those somewhat obscure to us, or climb to one of the great vistas of the City and marvel at its reality as a present testimony to its past, which is itself a testimony to the Faith. Likewise, we know of the ancient churches and the sprawling subterranean complexes which lie just beneath the visible City, both of which have such a special place in Christian history. All of these are indeed opportunities – like a spiritual playground, and I want to emphasize this; the City is a place to be used to elevate the heart and the mind to God. It is a spiritual tool. And its great instrumentality in the present is directly a function of its past which we have just examined, if only briefly. It is an immense treasure trove of material for deep reflection on what God did in the Incarnation, and on what it means to be a Christian. However, there is more to consider.
The fact is in front of us in this moment: Rome is international. After all, here we are. It’s not simply that we are some “stranieri” passing through, like the foreigners in Jerusalem at Pentecost who were brought there for Divine instruction through Providence alone. No, rather we have come here intentionally from afar to meet God and listen to Him by sitting around the feet of St. Peter. We are here to study, to teach, to work for the Lord in various ways. Rome remains the “caput mundi” for those of us who wish to know the Church from a global perspective, that is, to understand the “catholic” part of the Catholic Church. They say that Rome is a village – well, it is in some ways, but it can also be quite isolating, especially for us laymen, and above all for those among us who haven’t yet quite mastered Italian, or maybe still can’t even use the subjunctive correctly! So, the reality is that many of us are in need of intentional community, and by that community so many possibilities can manifest themselves. The whole world opens up through these friendships, let alone the City of Rome.
But not only can we not flourish here without a good social network; we also require support in the spiritual life. No matter how far we have advanced in the life of prayer, there is always further to go, and the diversity of experiences which we have in virtue of our different backgrounds makes us each have something to contribute, even if it is small. Each of us is an expert in our own life history, from which we can hopefully draw edifying spiritual lessons for the whole group. On top of this, we have the chance to plead the Lord on each other’s behalf. Praying together for one another, for our intentions, for our families, creates a bond of spiritual fraternity which goes to the heart of the purpose of our efforts. Transcending mere natural association helps us to orient our lives around our common destiny in eternity. In spiritual concord we find that the narrow gate becomes a little bit wider, so to speak. As the Psalm says, “How pleasant it is when brothers live in unity! It is like precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron’s beard, down upon the collar of his robes.” (Psalms 133:1) With a union of charity magnified by fervent prayer and mutual edification, we tap into the graces which God has already shared with each of us. “Without cost you have received. Without cost you are to give.” (Matthew 10:8) This verse speaks of the initial preaching of the Twelve, wherein they are instructed not only to preach that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand but also to “cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and drive out demons.”
We must indeed help each other in our spiritual journey here on Earth as brothers. But the whole world too stands in need of help. To be more specific, Europe needs to be evangelized – including Italy – and Rome is no exception. Just as St. Phillip Neri faced a Rome full of spiritual squalor, so too do we. The secular state of Italy has weakened the Catholic heart of the peninsula to the point of being overflowing with an anemic and grotesque kind of “cultural Catholicism” which poisons minds much like the culture of Judaism did the Pharisees, leaving those of us who insist on the plain truths and demands of the Gospel and of the Church as “unmerciful,” “unpastoral,” “unkind,” and so on. It is a mindset which chiefly afflicts the young, and also a certain type of clerical subculture. Yet let us be on our guard, for this attitude has a grip not only on those who seek to interpret the Gospel into a bizarre mix of feel-good storytelling and impossible moral ideals, but also on those who might be tempted to announce the truth in a corner and leave the rest of the works of mercy to others. It is just as easy to forget not to try to turn stones into bread in the desert as it is to forget that there are people stuck out in the desert who need food – both material and spiritual. Such “country club Catholicism” is a species of “cafeteria Catholicism”: taking only a part instead of taking the whole. Granted, we are not pastors, designated missionaries, or any such thing, yet there are indeed works of mercy which we can undertake, and there are indeed pastors and missionaries and others whom we can encourage and aid in their important ministries. Rome is full of clergy and religious who would more than appreciate having a little help with their work. Why not assist where we can? And why not take other initiatives that are appropriate for us as laymen?
The last opportunity to note is the one which pulls these other opportunities into itself, and it is what draws us here today: the Oratorio. It is my sincere prayer that our diverse backgrounds, connections, and talents will allow our common faith and zeal to bring forth wonderful fruit in this, our little village, and in the City of Rome for years to come.