In Your Midst

"Rome is Yours!"

  March 2006

In this city, you will be able almost to touch with your hand
the wonderful miracle of your being a Christian,
of your belonging to the Church

    The flyer that advertises the Cathedral parish’s pilgrimage to Italy reads: This is your opportunity to explore the sights, sounds and tastes of Rome all on your own! …. There are always plenty of churches, museums, piazzas and ancient ruins to explore. This is the time to hit Gucci’s and other high fashion spots, as well as the local shops and street vendors. Rome is yours!

    Blatant advertising—but it’s true. In a certain sense, Rome is yours. Because Rome as we see it was built not so much for the people who live there as for pilgrims like us! For the Jubilee of 1450, Pope Nicholas V dreamed of creating an “ideal Christian Rome, where newly arrived pilgrims would be awestruck by its unbroken series of wonderful sights.” The Popes who succeeded him took as their primary responsibility the renewal of the city. Almost every great monument—churches, palaces, public buildings, fountains, piazzas—has an inscription with the abbreviation PONT MAX, Pontifex Maximus, telling you which Pope placed it there—even the Trevi Fountain.

    It is said that Alexander VII sent for Bernini on the very day of his election as pope—a powerful indication of where this Renaissance pope’s priorities lay. The beautification of the city was not tangential, but rather central to his pontificate.

    The dream of Pope Nicholas V has come true: pilgrims have been and are awestruck and overwhelmed by the wonders of Rome. And I think, in a sense, both pilgrims and tourists come in order to be overwhelmed, with devotion or awe.

    The early pilgrims, including Dante, who joined the throngs who went to Rome for the very first Jubilee of 1300, came to Rome to be overwhelmed with new fervor. One of the city’s chief relics—hence one of its chief attractions—was Veronica’s veil, the sudarium, miraculously imprinted with the image of Christ’s face. For these pilgrims, coming to Rome was coming to see the very face of Christ. Dante describes just such a pilgrim in the 31st canto of Paradiso: “Just as one /who, from Croatia perhaps, has come/to visit our Veronica—one who, as long/as it is shown, repeats these words in thought:/’O my Lord Jesus Christ, true God, was then/Your image like the image I see now?’”

    But for most visitors, it is not one particular place or relic, but rather the superabundance of beauty that overwhelms. In 1350, on his first visit to Rome, Petrarch wrote: “I know not where to start, overwhelmed as I am by the wonder of so many things and by the greatness of my astonishment. …. I no longer wonder that the whole world was conquered by this city, but that I was conquered so late.”

    The great German writer Goethe, visiting Rome in 1786, wrote that he was “overwhelmed with admiration… how can we, petty as we are and accustomed to pettiness, ever become equal to such noble perfection?”

    Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, arrived in Rome in 1819: “My letter would never be at an end if I were to try to tell a millionth part of the delights of Rome—it has such an effect on me that my past life before I saw it appears a blank and now I begin to live.”

    Henry James first went to Rome in 1869: “At last—for the first time—I live! It beats everything: it leaves the Rome of your fancy—your education—nowhere. It makes Venice—Florence—Oxford—London—seem like little cities of pasteboard….”

    Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus went on pilgrimage to Rome in 1887: “Ah! what a trip that was!” she wrote in The Story of a Soul. “I saw some very beautiful things; I contemplated all the marvels of art and religion; above all, I trod the same soil as did the holy apostles, the soil bedewed with the blood of the martyrs. And my soul grew through contact with holy things.”

    Thérèse, as usual, is right. Ultimately that’s exactly why we go to Rome: not to learn, though that’s important; not to get away from it all—though that’s important too; but because the long experience of pilgrims has shown us that our souls, too, can grow through contact with holy things. The Eternal City may not remember us when we’re gone, but we will certainly remember for ever the experiences we have there.

    In Rome, our Cathedral pilgrims will have the privilege of praying in five great churches. At San Pietro in Vincoli (St. Peter in Chains), Michelangelo’s Moses so overwhelms the modest interior. This is why British essayist Georgina Masson has said, “It is the church’s misfortune—one cannot view it in any other light—that it contains one of Michelangelo’s masterpieces, the famous Moses on Julius II’s tomb.” It is also here that pilgrims have venerated the chains of St. Peter since the 5th century.

    The Sistine Chapel requires no commentary. Goethe once said that you cannot conceive of what a single human being can accomplish until you have seen the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo’s contemporary Vasari could only exclaim, “O truly happy age of ours! O blessed artists! For you must call yourselves fortunate, since in your own lifetime you have been able to rekindle the dim lights of your eyes from a source of such clarity…. thank Heaven for this and strive to imitate Michelangelo in all things.” This is a place of history as well: this is where the conclave is held to elect a new pope.

    St. Peter’s Basilica (with Bernini’s ecstatic baldacchino and Chair of St. Peter) demands a response. Dostoevski visited Rome in 1863 and wrote not a single line about his visit, except one: he said that this Basilica “made shivers run down his spine.” Henry James observed that “the great temple seems to rise above even the highest tide of vulgarity and make you still believe in the heroic will and the heroic act. It’s a relief to feel that there’s nothing but a cab-fare between your pessimism and one of the greatest of human achievements.”

    It’s impossible to walk into this building without being aware of the events that have taken place here. At the solemn opening of the Second Vatican Council on October 11, 1962, Pope John made reference to the Basilica: “Behold we are gathered together in this Vatican Basilica, upon which hinges the history of the Church. Here heaven and earth are closely joined near the tomb of Peter and so many of the tombs of our holy predecessors whose ashes seem to thrill in mystic exultation in this solemn hour…. Everything here breathes sanctity and arouses great joy.”

    Finally, the pilgrims will gather for Mass at Sant’Andrea al Quirinale, where Father Ryan said his first Mass in December, 1966. This church was designed by Bernini and was one of his own favorites among all his works. In 1858 Hawthorne wrote of this “gem of the baroque”: “I have not seen, nor expect to see, anything else so entirely and satisfactorily finished as this small oval church; and I only wish I could pack it in a large box, and send it home.” (If only!)

    On the eve of the great Jubilee Year 2000, Cardinal Roger Etchegary offered this wonderful meditation on the experience of the modern pilgrim:

    “You will see a city like all others, yet unique in its mission. You will walk along the streets of a city marked by time and by man’s hand, and yet the site of something that surpasses time, and goes beyond man. You will visit magnificent artistic monuments from the past, but they are still alive today, unlike the Greek temples or the Pyramids.

    “What, then, is this city of Rome, so profane and at the same time so mysteriously sacred? Rome is perhaps the most astonishing result of the union between our Christian faith and the physical reality of history. In Rome, almost every corner bears witness to both man’s wretchedness and his capacity to be inspired by what is eternal….

    “Sisters and brothers, you who believe in Christ, when you arrive in this city, you will be able almost to touch with your hand the wonderful miracle of your being a Christian, of your belonging to the Church.”


Corinna Laughlin is the Pastoral Assistant for Liturgy at St. James Cathedral. Visit the PILGRIMAGE PAGE to follow along with pilgrims day by day, with photos, links, a pilgrim blog, and more!

Back to the March 2006 Issue of In Your Midst