Wednesday, March 19, 2014


I love this church (I know--I've already said that about a number of the station churches; true is true, though).  Santa Maria Maggiore is larger (that's why it's called "Maggiore/Larger"), but Santa Maria in Trastevere is older-- the first church in Rome dedicated to the Blessed Virgin. 

It is an ancient site, associated with healing oil flowing in the piazza (pretty much where the fountain now is).  The church itself is 3rd/4th century and perhaps the oldest property owned by the Church (rivaling the catacombs of San Callisto on the Via Appia).

12th century mosaics adorn this church, inside and outside:  the apse (here) and fa├žade (below) show their majestic beauty to great advantage.

My own most special memory of this church was while attending a Mass marking the 10th anniversary of the assassination (= martyrdom) of Archbishop Oscar Romero.  The church was packed, and the preaching (in Spanish) was powerful, emotional, pointed:  yet it was a magnificent celebration of the theology of liberation, properly understood, and of trust in the power of the Risen Lord.  I will never forget that Eucharist.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014


St Cecilia is a beloved early martyr of the Roman church, named in the Roman Canon (aka, Eucharistic Prayer #1).  The church named for her is built on the remains of her house.

I often come to this church for its peace when in Rome (besides the fact that I love the Trastevere neighborhood, and that a near-by trattoria, Le Mani in Pasta, was the site of one of the most memorable "Iron Chef"-quality meals I've ever eaten).   The last time I was here, a nun (there is a convent attached to the complex) entered and began playing the organ--fitting for the saint dubbed the "patron of music."

Cecilia's body was discovered in the catacombs (her statue by Maderno is in front of the main altar);

in the attached convent (yes, extra charge; YES, go pay and see!) are the remains of a fresco by Pietro Cavallini of the Last Judgment, including a majestic image of Christ.  But go:  let your soul be awash in the peace of the knowledge that the Lord's martyrs are rejoicing at the heavenly wedding feast of the Lamb.

Right next door is a trattoria that claims to have the best cacio e pepe in Rome, but I know a place I think is even better (also in Trastevere)...


If you take a walk along the Circus Maximus from St Anastasia church, at the far end and to your left is the complex of San Gregorio Magno; to the right you'll see the huge complex of FAO, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization.  Behind FAO is Santa Balbina.  Full disclosure:  I've never been in this church.

But it was consecrated as a basilica by Pope Gregory the Great, and that is what little personal connection I have with it.  For the church named for him was built on his family's property, and at one point he had turned the estate into a monastic center where he and some companions lived (in one of the patterns of communal life that would coalesce into the Rule of St Benedict).  That was then; what about now?

Now this complex is the international motherhouse of the Missionaries of Charity, the order of Bl Mother Teresa of Calcutta.  Here the sisters run a soup kitchen/overnight shelter for men and women, and here I spent one night a week during one of my years in seminary, helping with serving, washing up, and one evening actually having to lead the Rosary in Italian (thank heavens for the Italian women there who didn't need my "help"!).  There was hard work involved because of the nature of the poverty the sisters had embraced.  In fact, their chapel and cells were in what was once a chicken coop, while the men and women had beds and dormitory style rooms on separate floors of the larger building.  Gregory had sent some of his companions as missionaries to the Angles and Saxons of Britain; now his family's property is the center for another group of missionaries.  When the sisters take their final vows, they must take them either here or in Calcutta. 
Tomorrow's post will have more proper "personal" reflection than today's!

Monday, March 17, 2014


Item from the Vatican Press Office:
In the late morning, the Holy Father Francis received in audience the Domus Sanctae Marthae the president of the Argentine Republic, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, accompanied by a large delegation.
The visit had the aim of presenting to the Holy Father the greetings, wishes and affection of the Argentine people to commemorate the anniversary of the first year of his pontificate.
The Pope awaited and received the president and the delegation at the door of the Domus Sanctae Marthae around 1.10 p.m. The meeting took place in the Hall on the ground floor, first with the entire delegation, then with the president alone. Then, at around 1.30 p.m., the Pope and the president lunched privately.

The Holy Father (when Archbishop of Buenos Aires) and the President of Argentina have not always seen eye-to-eye on issues.  Yet can one think of a more gracious reception than standing at the door to welcome the officials visitors? 
Last year we had a special clergy breakfast reception at 400 Government St for Rabbi James Rudin (who was speaking for the Christian-Jewish Dialogue), and there was Archbishop Rodi, standing at the main entrance to the residence on Franklin St, smiling and waving folks into the parlor.  The same sense of warmth and hospitality was shown by our Archbishop and the Holy Father.
These are small gestures, but they speak loudly (and without the need for the proverbial "big stick").  
Bl (soon-to-be St) Pope John XXIII was asked, while he was Apostolic Nuncio to France, what was the secret of diplomacy.  His response:  "A good table and a good cellar are great assets."  There's nothing like food & drink.  But beyond that, it acknowledges the role of hospitality as fundamental to human relationships:  hospitality unfeigned (Caritate non ficta, as Archbishop [Emeritus] Oscar H Lipscomb's motto put it) breaks down barriers far more effectively than dialogue alone.  After all, do we or do we not believe that we are all sons and daughters of God, and therefore brothers and sisters? 

Saturday, March 15, 2014


What a wonderful church!  It's also tucked in behind the Colosseum (this time, heading toward St John Lateran), and it has an ancient pedigree:  3 levels of art, architecture, and archaeology are contained in this one building:  the joy, the interest and the adventure never cease.
But more personally, this church is dear to all Slavs (of which I, of course--1/2 Polish and 1/2 Slovak--am one) because its name comes from the martyred Bishop of Rome Clement (author of an important early Christian letter to the Corinthians:  dealing with the same issues St Paul dealt with, and with language very reminiscent of the Letter to the Hebrews). 
In the 9th century, Constantine (soon to be named Cyril) and his brother, Methodius, were challenged by German (Latin) missionaries in the territories of what is modern-day Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bulgaria and northern Yugoslavia--for they had the nerve (!) to translate the liturgy into the Slavonic language and even create an alphabet to translate the Bible.  When the conflict reached Rome, the two Greek brothers pleaded their cause to the Pope while bringing the supposed relics of St Clement (according to tradition, martyred in the area of the Crimea).  This won for them papal approval, and the relics were enshrined in what was believed to be the family estate of Clement himself.
In one of my more recent groups to Italy I had the great honor of celebrating Mass in this church.


This church is not exactly "on the beaten path," but it is worth exploring "the road not taken" to find it.  It is down the Via Claudia, along the back side of the Celian Hill, not all that far from Ss John & Paul (from Friday after Ash Wednesday).  The church's name comes from the Latin word Dominus.  In this case it means the chief of all diaconiae, or "social service centers" in Rome.  But the name of the street could confuse you:  this church is located on Via della Navicella...

The street's name is taken from the small fountain (boat-shaped) later added to the piazza at the front entrance to the church. 
But the church itself is 9th century, and it has the magnificent mosaic to prove it.  Here you can see the Blessed Mother with the Christ Child on her lap, surrounded by saints and angels, in all the glory of a Byzantine Empress.

For me, the biggest disappointment is how long it took me finally to visit this church (only 2-3 years ago); but if the wait was too long, the reward was wonderful for its restorative, peaceful spirit. 


There's not much need of an introduction to this church, is there?!

My first visit to St Peter's was back in the spring of 1973, while on a between-terms break during my time studying in England.  I was in what I might call my "semi-Protestant" phase, pretty well convinced of the evils of institution and the rightness of the Reformers.  So I was pretty well convinced that I would despise the building that was built at the cost of the Reformation.

In those days, the lira was still the Italian currency, and I was sharing a bedroom with 2 other guys in a pensione near the train station for £900 (the equivalent of $1.85/night, with fixed price suppers £600 or about $1.25--students know how to do cheap).  Once I dropped my backpack at the pensione, I walked toward St Peter's.  The closer I got, the more confused I was because I was loosing sight of the dome.  After coming out from a side street into Piazza Venezia and seeing the monument to Victor Emmanuel in all its glory, I kept walking and did what Bernini always wanted folks to do:  come through the back alleys of the Borgo area and break through his colonnade into the piazza--it was a bigger surprise than Piazza Venezia was.  And so I went in (no metal detectors and one-way entrances back then).

I was absolutely stunned when I entered:  the size was out-done, so to speak, by the perfection of the proportions:  everything seemed so wonderfully in balance.  So much seemed so miraculous there, especially Michelangelo's Pieta` (the first and most famous of the four he sculpted), and Bernini's monumental Altar of the Chair.  Mass was celebrated every day at 5:00 pm at this altar, and I found myself back there every day to participate--5 times in a week I headed back (always on foot) to this incredible basilica.

At the beginning of seminarian life in Rome, St Peter's the first place we come for Mass; at the end, it is the place where we are ordained transitional deacons.  When I take groups to Italy, we always have Mass here--sometimes in one of the crypt chapels, and more recently at the altar of Bl (soon-to-be St) John Paul II. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014


Originally dedicated to the Apostles Philip and James, this 6th century church was soon the Roman site for honoring all 12 of the Apostles.  It is about as much in the "center" of the centro storico as you can get, just up from Piazza Venezia and the monument to Vittorio Emmanuele II, where tribute is also paid to the tomb of "The Unknown Italian Soldier" (with honor guard posted and eternal flame burning). 
Among students (the American ones, anyway) at the Jesuits' Pontifical Gregorian University, just a couple of blocks away, there is a "darker" association to this church.  In it is Canova's tomb of Pope Clement XIV,
the pope who in 1773 suppressed the Jesuit order (thanks to pressure from the governments of Portugal, Spain and France in particular).  Though they were re-instated (obviously) by Pope Pius VII some 40 years later (a story in itself), students who suffered from what to them was an unfair examination system at "The Greg" would often bring roses to lay at the tomb of Clement, thanking him for the suppression and wishing it had lasted!  [No, I never did this!]

The palace across the piazza is tied to the last of the Stuart royal family of England (their monument, also by Canova, can be seen in the left-hand aisle of St Peter's). 

There is for me one more association with this neighborhood:  a restaurant alongside the church, nicknamed the Dodici (actually, the Abruzzi), offers a wonderful antipasto smorgasbord and perhaps the finest spaghetti alla carbonara in Rome. 

Tuesday, March 11, 2014


In the same way that sites of martyrdoms are not the same as places of burial (I think immediately of St Agnes, martyred in what is now Piazza Navona, but buried much farther out along the Via Nomentana, outside the old city walls), so this church commemorates the site of St Lawrence's martyrdom, though he is buried on the far side of Stazione Termini, on the edge of the modern-day cemetery of Campo Verano.  The latter I have been to; the former, sadly to say, I have not.  Nevertheless...

The narrative of St Lawrence (one of the most important and popular of all Roman martyrs--right up there with Peter, Paul & Agnes) is well-known, but in these days of Pope Francis it seems worthwhile to emphasize one of the details of his legenda:  when asked to surrender the treasure of the Roman church (of which he, as deacon, was the custodian), he brought poor beggars to the tribunal, insisting that these people were the true treasures of the Church. 

Our present Holy Father would surely agree, and he would surely resonate with this story!


What a wonderful basilica this is:  the latest of the 4 "major basilicas" (after St John Lateran, St Peter's and St Paul's Outside the Walls), built in the 5th century to mark the declaration (at the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD) of Mary as Theotokos, "Mother of God."  It is not the oldest Roman church dedicated to Mary, but it is the largest, and the first dedicated to her under this special title.
It was built on the top of the Esquiline Hill, the highest of the "Seven Hills of Rome"--if you have any doubt of that, just walk up Via Cavour from the Forum to the back of the basilica (shown here).  This picture shows the modifications made by Popes Sixtus V and Paul V--side chapels added and topped by the two domes.  The first of these, unfortunately, is also called "The Sistine Chapel" in some guidebooks, and when I was helping chaperone our Archdiocesan group during World Youth Day in 2000 I had to inform a couple of Americans that this wasn't "the" Sistine Chapel, and it was going to be a LONG walk to the far side of St Peter's, to the entrance of the Vatican Museums, if they wanted to see the famous one.  Oh, well...
Inside this basilica is artwork of the highest quality and of great age:  important mosaics from the 5th century and the 12th century are featured, honoring the Blessed Mother. 
Of note also, in this church, is the very humble grave of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, just along the right side of the sanctuary of the main altar.
The Dominicans who regularly hear confessions in this basilica are legendarily some of the harshest in all of Rome.  But I have never found that to be the case, and whenever I am in Rome the Sacrament of Reconciliation in this church is always on my "Do List."  I have always found these monks to be gentle, understanding and helpful in my spiritual walk. 
When I brought my Mother to Rome in 1994, we paid a special visit to Santa Maria Maggiore so she could fulfill a promise to say a prayer and light a candle for a dear friend of hers back in Chicago.  In my Mom's honor and memory, I do the same, at the same vigil candle shrine--which (just as it was in 1994) features electric (!) "candles"!!!

Monday, March 10, 2014


St Anastasia is a 5th century church I have never actually been inside of.  But for myself, this church's memories are more with the area around it--the back of the Palatine Hill (where the imperial palaces were) and the Circus Maximus, which in its day could seat over 100,000 to watch chariot races. 
But in the year 2000, alongside this church and in front of the Circus Maximus, a far more special series of events was taking place as part of World Youth Day (aka, Giornata Mondiale del Gioventu`).  Here were set up hundreds of stations for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and over the course of 5 days probably multiple thousands of priests took their turns for shifts of 1-2 hours each, offering forgiveness and mercy.  I took 3 turns, and during one of them I heard the confession of every single member (I think!) of the youth group from the African country of Gambia...

Most awesome, though, and utterly humbling, was when 2 of the Missionaries of Charity (Mother Teresa's order) came to me for the Sacrament.  Their international mother-house is just off the far end of the Circus Maximus, at San Gregorio Magno, where I'd done a year's worth of apostolic work while in seminary.  I remember thinking (and perhaps actually saying), "Sister, you should be sitting in this chair and I should be on the kneeler asking you to grant me absolution!" 

It was incredibly hot during those days--all of them over 100 degrees.  But it seemed peaceful enough while at those makeshift confession stations that had been constructed.

St Anastasia's name comes from the Greek for "Resurrection," and in the shadow of that church many young people were truly lifted up in mercy and peace.

Sunday, March 9, 2014


This church is tucked away so that unless you were deliberately looking for it and knew (more or less) where to look, you'd probably never find it (rather like the Blessed Sacrament chapels in most of these churches--but I digress...).

The Via Cavour is a major street that runs from the entrance to the Roman Forum, past Santa Maria Maggiore, to the main train station, Stazione Termini.  Along it if you are attentive you'll find an archway where a covered staircase begins; the end of the staircase opens onto a piazza in front of this church.
The traditional treasure of this church is the chains which supposedly bound St Peter while awaiting his martyrdom.  They are in a clear casket below the main altar, in full view. 

But to the right is the treasure most people come to see:  the magnificent sculpture of Moses by Michelangelo, intended for the funerary monument (never completed) of Pope Julius II.  It may well be that Moses' face is Julius' portrait...  Not located in the position it was intended to be seen in the overall monument, it is still an overwhelming achievement.

For historians, though, a better treasure can be found in here:  a monument to Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa (near the main entrance, on the wall of the left side aisle). He was a 15th century churchman in all the best senses of the term:  a leader, a mystical/spiritual writer, and one of those who proved that the so-called "Donation of Constantine" (granting the Pope sovereignty over virtually all of Europe) was in fact a 9th century forgery.  Good for him!

The forgery was finally undone in the 19th century with the war of unification of Italy, capturing Rome in 1870.  This this, papal temporal rule came to an end, and there has been no greater blessing on the Church.  To quote the lines of Malvolio in Twelfth Night:  "Some are born great; some achieve greatness; and some have greatness thrust upon them."  And so the Church had greatness--release from temporal power--thrust upon them.  Praise the Lord for His goodness!

Saturday, March 8, 2014


Once upon a time this was the beginning of Lent (of course, once upon a time what we now call "3rd Sunday" was the beginning of Lent, with the reading of John 4:  "The Samaritan Woman at the Well").  Instead, it is the celebration of the station church of St John Lateran.  It's a sort of self-contradiction, in fact:  why?

Simply, the origin of "station churches" was a way of having the Bishop of Rome more "visible" than just in his own church, which for obvious reasons could hold only a limited number of people.  So he would make the trek to various churches, almost in the spirit of a royal "grand progress."  But then, St John Lateran is the Pope's church...

People forget that St Peter's is not the Cathedral of Rome:  St John Lateran is.  It is the oldest of all the churches built by order of the Emperor Constantine (on estates he claimed as his own through his wife's family).  Its original dedication was to "Christ the Redeemer"--its name was changed when relics attributed to Ss John the Baptist and John the Apostle were brought to it (it also is reputed to have the heads--or portions of them-- of Ss Peter & Paul:  a detail important in trying to determine if the bones found near the tomb of Peter were possibly actually his).
As Cathedral of Rome, it refers to itself as "Head and Mother of all churches of the City and the World."  Here the Pope traditionally celebrates Holy Thursday (though as we know, Pope Francis marked the Mandatum, or foot-washing, at a juvenile detention center last Holy Week).

Here Pope Boniface VIII announced the very first "Holy Year of Jubilee" in 1300--a fragment of a fresco of this event by Giotto can be seen on a column in the right-hand aisle. 

Of all the major basilicas in Rome (the others are St Peter's, St Paul's Outside the Walls, and St Mary Major), this is the least impressive building (to me, anyway).  But theologically it is the most important.

Friday, March 7, 2014


Today's station church is really special to me:  Sant' Agostino.  Located in the Centro Storico (historical center) of the City, just north and west of Piazza Navona, it is an early Renaissance church (15th century)--not ancient, but containing wonderful treasures. 

These include a depiction of the prophet Isaiah by Raphael, the high altar designed by Bernini, and a painting of Our Lady of Loreto by Caravaggio.  But these pale in significance (to me, at least) after coming to the chapel along and just past the left-hand side of the main altar.

Here is the tomb of St Monica, the Mother of St Augustine.  She died in Ostia, what was then the port city of Rome (and I have seen fragments of her original tombstone there), but her body was later transferred here.  She is entombed under the chapel's altar, but her older sarcophagus is also preserved here.

The most recent group I took to Italy (September 2013) went under the aegis of St Augustine, and we celebrated Mass in this church as the beginning of a pilgrimage that would ultimately end with Mass in Pavia, where Augustine's relics are enshrined. 

But I go to Italy often enough on my own, and when I am in Rome this church and this chapel are a required visit for me.  In this chapel I always pray the Rosary for my Mother (who else could be the patron of Mothers than St Monica, who prayed for her son for so many years, before he let God's grace work its effect in him)?

Mother's Day is not during Lent, but prayers for our mothers (living or deceased) are surely never out of place, most especially in this church, in this chapel.



The church of Ss John & Paul is another ancient one, located on the Celian Hill just up from the Colosseum.  These two saints were actually martyred after the time of Constantine, during the period of the Emperor Julian "The Apostate."  The church was built within only a few decades of their deaths, on the house where they were beheaded.  It's a peaceful place, and it is currently the center for the Passionist order, of whom Joe Barbieri, a friend from seminary days, is now a member.  Joe was stationed for a while near Manduria (in the "heel of the boot" of Italy--famous for wonderful Primitivo wine); he's now in Texas. 

This church is also the traditional "titular church" of the cardinal-archbishops of New York.  As such, when Cardinal Cooke died in 1984, this was the location for a memorial Mass for him, for which I was part of the choir. 

But Cardinal Dolan does not have this as his titular church since Cardinal Egan (his predecessor), though retired, is still alive; so it is still his titular church.

Why "titular churches" at all?  It is a way of tying cardinals around the world to the Church of Rome, and since the origin of cardinals was in part to take care of the churches and "social service centers" (diaconiae) of Rome, this honorific, so to speak, keeps up the fiction.  The illustration here is the best image of the whole church's exterior--photographs typically focus on the bell tower only.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014


I have a special attraction for the church of San Giorgio in Velabro, at the base of the Aventine Hill and just up from the far more famous (for its Bocca della Verita`) Santa Maria in Cosmedin.  On the edge of the Forum Boarium (the old Roman cattle market), it is a 12th century church of simplicity and dignity that is nevertheless a favorite "wedding church" in the City Center.

But the main delight for me is the fact that when Pope Leo XIII named him a cardinal in 1879, this was the titular church given to John Henry Newman.  If you know me at all, you know of my love affair with his writings and his life.  There is a plaque in the wall of the right-hand aisle, celebrating this great man; his association is enough for me to love the church.


You can easily get other versions of the narrative of the practice of celebrating Eucharist in the "Station Churches" of Rome from other web-sites, but I want to offer my own insights and memories of these churches (most of them, anyway), for your spiritual delight and edification.  I hope you enjoy the pictures and my recollections.
#1 on the list, for Ash Wednesday:  Santa Sabina on the Aventine Hill.

It is an ancient and beautiful church, in a stark and pure sort of way--dating from the 5th century.  It is currently part of the headquarters of the Dominican "Order of Preachers."
For me, the most powerful memories I have are related to an event in the spring of 1984 which ultimately became "World Youth Days."  It was a gathering of thousands of young people, culminating in Palm Sunday Eucharist in the piazza of St Peter's.  I was part of the planning committee, and I was also in charge of the music for the English language group--which met for three days here at Santa Sabina.  We had 3 keynote homilists:  2 were American priests (both very involved in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal), and the 3rd was Mother Teresa!

We had a conflict on her day--the church had double-scheduled a wedding at the same time as we were to be there (all 3,000 English speaking youth).  We worked out a compromise, and our music group joined the couple's organist, 3,000 extra attendees were at the Nuptial Mass, and the newlyweds received a special blessing from Mother Teresa.  All was good!
The doors of this basilica are extremely important:  they contain a wood-carving of the oldest devotional image of the Crucifixion that we know of...
Here the Holy Father begins the marking of Lent (with a procession that begins from Sant' Anselmo, the Benedictine headquarters just up the hill, and my alma mater for advanced studies while I was in seminary).

Tomorrow's church is very, very important to me:  San Giorgio in Velabro.  But more about that later!