Wednesday, September 26, 2012


It is amazing that Ss Cosmas and Damian are so beautifully  commemorated both in Catholic liturgy (their names are in the "old Roman Canon," aka "Eucharistic Prayer #1) and in architecture (their church, on the edge of the Roman Forum, is a 6th century wonder), and yet we know virtually nothing about them beyond the tradition that they were brothers, physicians, and martyrs (presumably during the persecution of the Emperor Diocletian in the early 4th century).

They were saints originally honored especially in the Eastern Empire; their traditional site of burial is Syria.  The church in Rome, though, is of special interest in light of political turmoil today.

Its vestibule (these days, not used) is actually the so-called "Temple of Romulus" adjacent to the House of the Vestal Virgins in the Forum.  This temple is thought to have been built to honor the son of Maxentius, the rival of Constantine who lost the battle of Saxa Ruba (the "Milvian Bridge").  And so Pope Felix IV in dedicating it to these saints did what many other bishops of Rome would do:  convert ancient pagan monuments into churches (most famously, perhaps, the Pantheon).  This accomplished several purposes:  it helped to celebrate the triumph of Christianity over paganism in the City of Rome; it helped preserve great examples of ancient art and architecture; and it gave a canvas, so to speak, for artists to create their own magnificent works of art, especially (in this period) mosaics. 

The alternative would have been razing these temples with the ground.  This, I take it, would have been a great loss.  Even in their ruined state they are amazing and awe-some (it only takes a few minutes standing inside what is left of the "Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine," next door to Ss Cosmas and Damian, to understand this). 

The trouble is that this is exactly what the Turks did in the middle of the 15th century when they conquered Constantinople.  They turned the glorious church of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) into a mosque.  Is this different, and if so, why?

Actually, it is in one important aspect:  by the time the bishops of Rome chose to convert pagan shrines into Christian ones, paganism was a long-forgotten memory.  The whole of Rome (and the Empire, for practical purposes) was Christian (at least in name).  This was not, and is not, the case in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul):  the Greek Orthodox are very much alive and around, and it is a pain beyond belief to them to see their great mother-church used in this way.

Think how western Catholics would feel if the same thing happened to St Peter's in Rome...

Having said all that, I am glad that when I was a student in Rome I could give historical tours of the original Roman Forum and appreciate the artistic Christian wonders produced inside their re-purposed buildings.  Perhaps I am more blessed than many by this two-fold gift--I am certainly grateful for it!  Thanks to the Chicago Jesuits who made sure our education was classical as well as Christian.

On the top of this post are the two external views of the old Roman and now Christian building; below are view of the apse mosaic inside.  Enjoy!

Friday, September 21, 2012


           In the early 1970s David Frye did a satirical LP recording called “Richard Nixon: A Fantasy.”  As Frye’s basic comedic gift was that of vocal impersonations, this was a roaring success simply on those terms.  The fact that later on several of the wildest details of the album’s storyline turned out to be true gave the whole production an aura of hallucinogenic quality.
            This is my political fantasy.  Sadly, I am certain it will never come to be true, but I wish with all my heart that it could.
            In (especially, but not exclusively limited to) presidential election years, I would love to see campaigns limited as follows:
            3 sets of “public debates” will be offered on national television.  The format will involve one moderator and the two candidates.  The moderator will have a list (shown beforehand to the candidates) of 18 issues of importance for the election.  Each “public debate” will deal with 6 of the 18.
            To each of the 6 issues, each candidate will be strictly limited solely to explaining what he/she would propose as the best way to respond.  The candidates will be strictly forbidden to comment on existing for former policies, and they will also be forbidden to speak with regard to the perceived benefits/drawbacks of their opponent’s replies.
            In other words, the campaign would be based completely and only on the actual positive proposals made by the men/women running for office.  There would be therefore no negative attack ads, and there would be no criticism of present or former policies and the degree of their success or failure (with the single exception that the incumbent could refer to his policies if they are intended to remain in place if he/she were to be elected.   There would also be no room for saying why one’s opponent is wrong; there would only be space for saying what the candidate would do that is right or best (never “better” as that would require a direct comparison with the opponent’s ideas/policies).
            So the electorate would make their political decisions on the basis of their agreement or disagreement with the candidates’ vision and recommendations for current policy and future direction for the nation (or state, or city).
            One can always fantasize…

Tuesday, September 11, 2012



 This past Sunday marked the celebration of Our Savior’s parish feast.  Although the actual patronal day is 9-14 (Exaltation of the Holy Cross), we transferred the commemoration to Sunday in order to encourage more folks to attend our solemn Evening Prayer and parish supper.  As always, it was well attended.

          This year the liturgy, though completely Roman, was marked with an ecumenical flavor.  Pastor Joy Blaylock of St Paul ELCA co-presided and was our guest preacher; Pastor Chris George of 1st Baptist also co-presided and led the Intercessions and Lord’s Prayer.  Members of both congregations were in attendance and joined us afterward for a pork tenderloin dinner.  Lutherans brought salads and sides; Baptists brought desserts. 

          The evening was a glimpse of what could (and should) be with brothers and sisters in Christ; it was at marked divergence from the climate of our world—both in terms of national politics and in terms of international tensions.  What marks the rest of the world all too much—hate and violence—were inverted at Our Savior as we rejoiced in love and tolerance.  Indeed, how good and pleasant it is (see Psalm 133)!

          There were times during the service (notably, during Pastor Joy’s preaching, during the Magnificat/Canticle of Mary, and the closing hymn) that I could not control my emotions of gratitude, happiness and longing for this to be a regular and not a special occasion.  I know that I have brothers and sisters in the ecumenical effort who feel the same way.

          “What separates us besides our ideas?  Admit that these are of little consequence,” once said Abp Angelo Roncalli (aka, Pope John XXIII).  How right was he?  I often wonder…

          The biggest divides between denominations seem to me to be ecclesial rather than doctrinal (though those do exist as well).   What I mean is that we all confess Jesus Christ as Lord, though we disagree on how the Church should be structured, governed and should operate.  How “central” are these?  Jesuits, Cistercians and Franciscans all have differing forms of governance, and not to embrace any one means you are not one of them.  Yet all are still Catholic.  The many rites of the Church reflect significant liturgical and even theological variation, yet all are still Catholic.   Pharisees and Sadducees disagreed about the reality of resurrection, yet they could share a seder together.  I know you can see where I’m going.  And I am not sure this is a deviant path to pursue.

          We declare that we are all united in Christ to some degree through our mutual baptism. How much “to some degree” is necessary?  What does it mean to be “in full communion” when we consider, for example, the sometimes pro forma behavior of baptized Catholics who nevertheless are welcomed to Holy Communion? 

          I pray constantly:  “Come, Holy Spirit:  FILL the hearts of your faithful…”  It will take His touch, but if we are open, it can happen!