Of Mollusks and Marble

I don’t normally do personal posts, let alone lifestyle posts, but… the past two days have been particularly Roman.

Today is the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. Normally, it would be tomorrow, but it has been moved because tomorrow is Sacred Heart. So yesterday was the vigil, which means…


It is an ancient Roman tradition – originally connected with the solstice and warding off ghosts, and now connected with the Vigil of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist – to eat snails. So eat them I did, with several friends and several bottles of white wine, in the Monti neighborhood. Lumache alla Romana, at Osteria della Suburra. Great stuff!

Today I meandered down, for the first time in almost a calendar year, to St. John Lateran. The full name of the basilica, which is the cathedral of Rome, thus the “mother church” of all Christendom, is the Archbasilica Cathedral of the Most Holy Savior and of Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist in the Lateran. Despite the name there is no relic of either saint as far as I know – but John the Baptist’s head (at least the “Roman” contender) is at San Silvestro in Capito, where I did not make it today unfortunately.

Some details of the left transept:

That is Leo XIII’s tomb on the right. He looks a little camera shy – or just got out of the movie theater and can’t take the sunlight?

One of the most striking things about the basilica is the statues of the apostles. They are very large, lining the right and left sides of the nave. Many of them are depicted with the instruments of their martyrdom.

St. Bartholomew, skinned alive.
St. Simon (not Peter), with a saw.

You can see one of the dedication crosses on the right, which were smeared with oil at (I suppose) the re-dedication of the basilica after its last major renovation (under Innocent X, his name is everywhere). I really dislike the fake candles, as I explained in a post a long time ago. It is especially bad when it is a papal basilica… the things we offer to God matter, especially in formal worship and sacred spaces.

Ugh. Convenient, yes, but… that sort of defeats the purpose.

There was another curious statue, in a side chapel on the right. It’s a saint who looks like she is playing table tennis, and she is holding a snake as well. I guess it is supposed to be a mirror, but… I like to think saints liked ping pong. But I have no clue who this is. Anyone got any idea?

The gate to the chapel is its own great piece of art. I think the guys who made it would have eschewed fake candles, for what it’s worth…

Look at the detail, and the creativity… I would wager the thinking with these creatures is similar to the gargoyles of French fame… scaring away evil angels. (Wait – they aren’t snails, are they!?)


There was a little exhibit going on about St. Therese of Lisieux. I was especially interested in the fact that they had a whole section on Pius XI’s devotion and teaching on her, as he is the object of my doctoral studies. The posters are a bit out of date… I wonder if you can see why.

Pius XI: [she is] “the star of my pontificate”

Speaking of Pius XI, here is a plaque about him in the basilica:

My Latin is not good, but luckily I ran into a friend (whose monastery I will be staying at in Poland next week – yes, pictures will be forthcoming), and his Latin is excellent. Had I bothered to work out the date, I would have figured out what this was, but… I took a shortcut.

It is commemorating this chapel, which is where the young Achille Ratti was ordained a priest. I knew he was ordained in the Lateran, but I always thought it was at the main altar. It was not… it was here, in this small side chapel.

He was ordained December 20, 1879 by Cardinal La Valletta – who also happened to ordain Benedict XV a priest.

On my way out, I stopped by the baptistry. Constantine was baptized here – before the structure existed, which essentially serves to commemorate that blessed event.

Here is one of the famous obelisks of Rome. This one is Egyptian – one of 8. (Several others are Roman.)

It is the tallest in Rome, if one doesn’t include the base in the calculations. (With the base included the tallest is the obelisk at St. Peter’s.) This one weighs 330 tons, after reconstruction trimmed it down a bit, from 455 tons (quite a diet). It was in the temple of Amun in Karnak, near Luxor. It came over to Rome in 357 to be a decoration in the Circus Maximus.

The base.

And finally, a quick look in toward where the educational facilities are… including the main Roman diocesan seminary (I think Rome has about 30-40 seminarians of its own – incredible…), and the now-destroyed JPII Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family. So sad. I think they have very few students. People vote with their feet – and their wallets. That includes candidates for the priesthood!

Well, that is it. Despite my rare “lifestyle” posts, another one coming up soon, from the Archabbey of Jędrzejów. But, with 5 likes on this post, I will do these more often!

Be sure to subscribe as well…

St. John the Baptist, pray for us!


How the Camera is Spoiling Religion

A while back a professor commented to my class about the cover of a recent edition of The Word Among Us. He noted that the title was “The Gospel of Encounter,” and yet it featured something rather opposed to such a notion… A woman who actually “turned away from the Vicar of Christ,” as he put it, to take a selfie. (It’s the June 2015 issue.)

You have no doubt experienced the frustration of such things before, if you’ve ever been to Notre Dame, the Holy Sepulchre, or any major church or shrine. A lot of people are there just to snag photos.

I was recently at the Holy Father’s Sunday Angelus address, which is held weekly in St. Peter’s Square. Yes, it makes sense that people would take a picture or two, yes, it makes sense to have two large television screens with live streaming due to how far away the Pope’s window is. But what I noticed was something very odd and disconcerting: many people were taking pictures of the screens.

They were taking pictures. Of pictures.

“Little Johnny, look at this photo here, it’s from 40 years ago.”
“Oh boy, what’s it of, grandpa?”
“It’s a picture of some footage of the pope.”
“Wow, golly gee, that must have been special. But can’t I just look up the real thing on YouTube?”
“That’s not the point – I saw this footage in person.”
“I can too, grandpa, here it is. If only you had seen the pope himself!”
“I did, but the screen was just as interesting.”

Why aren’t people satisfied with a postcard from a famous church? Certainly, it’s not the 50 cents it costs, because people are likewise not satisfied with the professional quality footage that is now taken at every papal event and then immediately uploaded for the whole world to see. Is it really necessary that it’s on YOUR phone? Why not just soak in the experience instead, so that it’s actually in YOUR brain?

“I just want to remember it,” people will say. Well, first of all, if you need to take a picture to remember something, it couldn’t have been that spectacular, so why do you want to remember it? And you can’t remember something you never really encountered in sincerity anyway. The “flesh and blood” of the experience must be primary, the digitized “word” of the experience must be secondary.

In focusing too much on getting a picture, one immortalizes a moment that he never had.


God can’t be experienced directly in this life, only in the next life in the fullness of the Beatific Vision, where we will behold the Divine Essence “face to face.” For now it is always, as St. Paul says, “dimly in a mirror.” (1 Cor 13:12) Why are we so intent on adding yet another piece of glass to hide Him from ourselves?

Many years ago I traveled to Quebec. I was in some reenactment Native American village (or is it Native Canadian?), where my group was told by the guide that absolutely no pictures were to be taken of the masks inside one particular hut – that if this law was broken, our cameras would be too. Why? Because there was a belief that developed that taking a picture somehow steals the soul away from the object… It desecrates it, profanes it, sucks its life out. While we know that masks don’t have souls, and that cameras don’t half-kill what they capture images of, perhaps this is not far off from the truth, but in the opposite direction: taking pictures of the sacred, if done irreverently, is bad for the photographer’s soul. It half-kills the experience he could have had. It has profaned and desecrated his relationship to it.

Now, there can be good photography of the sacred. There is plenty of it, actually. But good sacred photography is never done out of vanity, out of “touristic” motives, out of bandwagon-hype. Such would be, in some small way, a sacrilege. If a Catholic walks into one of the great churches of Christendom, forgets to genuflect, and starts grabbing pictures of the statues, hasn’t he sort of missed the point? And how much of an excuse does he really have?

Perhaps some person or place really speaks to you, and after having authentically encountered it you desire to catch a picture. That is quite a different phenomenon, as you have already genuinely engaged with what you now encounter through lenses, mirrors, and a screen. The Word became flesh, after all – He certainly did NOT become a digital picture.

In the meantime, let’s all sit back, relax, and actually experience the incarnational nature of our Faith, rather than neurotically re-immaterializing it.


Post by: Eamonn Clark

Main image: CTV’s coverage of the Papal audience of May 25, 2016