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Skeletons, saints, and scandalous ecstasy

Enjoying the Roman folliage

An unexpectedly beautiful Saturday afternoon today in Rome. There was nothing to be done but go for an afternoon passagata around to some of the better-known churches in Rome.

Just across the street from Santa Susanna is Santa Maria della Vittoria, best known for Bernini’s sculpture of St. Teresa in Ecstasy, which he completed in 1652. The church itself is quintessential Baroque, overwhelming the senses. Built as a chapel for the Carmelites, it is currently the titular church of Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston.   


St. Teresa in Ecstasy, Chiesa Santa Maria della Vittoria

We also wanted to go in for a more casual perusal of Santa Susanna, but it was closed for the day. Likewise, San Pietro in Vincoli (Saint Peter in Chains) which we stopped at on our way from the Lay Centre. It is easy to forget about that three hour lunch break sometimes.

Not far from Susanna and Maria della Vittoria, on the pricey Via Veneto, is the church of Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini (St. Mary of the Conception of the Capuchins), the ossuary of which is generally known as the Capuchin Crypt. Famously macabre, the crypt is six rooms decorated almost entirely with the mortal remains of about 4000 Capuchin friars who died between the 16th and 19th century.

Capuchin Crypt

Cappuchin Crypt

“What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be…”


Hallowe’en in Rome, St. Paul Outside the Walls, and All Saints

I nearly forgot it was Halloween yesterday without all the candy and pumpkins in the stores; barely any orange or brown to be found in the city.

Apparently, it has not been a big holiday for Romans, or Italians in general. The big costume holidays are Epiphany, where they tend to dress up as La Befana, a gift-delivering witch who visits on January 6, and Carneval.

A small group of us went out for an evening passagata around the Pantheon and Piazza Navona, stopping for gelato en route, and finishing with a nice bottle of wine at a little wine bar/café. We saw a few Befana hats out early, but really it was only as we were heading home for the night, about midnight, that we saw more people in costume.

For the morning of All Saints, I opted for the Basilica San Paolo fuori la mura (St. Paul Outside the Walls). Rezart, one of my Muslim housemates, is working on a paper about the Eucharist, and he decided to join me so he could compare his first mass experience from Wednesday night here in the Lay Centre to a more formal experience at the Basilica. An added bonus is that Abbot Edmund was presiding at both liturgies, so the difference in personal presider styles could be taken out of the equation. Matthew joined us on location, in exchange for a visit to his parish next week, to which I am looking forward.

St. Paul’s is the huge basilica built over the tomb of St. Paul, outside the old city walls (hence the name), one of the four major basilicas. Until the new St. Peter’s was built (1506-1625), St. Paul’s was the largest church in the world. Along the walls are the images of the bishops of Rome going back to Peter – the source for those posters one finds all over the place.

St. Paul’s has also become significant in Rome’s ecumenical efforts, including being the location of the culminating liturgy for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity each year. In fact, it was from the steps of St. Paul’s that John XIII announced Vatican II at the end of the celebration for Christian Unity 50 years ago.

Afterwards, Abbot Edmund was generous enough to meet with Rezart and me to answer questions and show us around a little. It is a gift to share the liturgy with someone experiencing it for the first time, especially someone so interested in learning about our worship. The questions remind us of the theology and symbolism we take for granted, and push for better understanding of what we might do out of habit. His first question was like this, he wanted to know why, if the Eucharist itself was a sacrifice made for the forgiveness of sins, why we had a penitential rite just a little while before celebrating the once-and-for-all penitential act! From there we ventured into the symbolism of serving only one species or both, the meaning of incense, and expansion from the homily and so on. It was a blessing for me to just listen!

After returning to the Lay Centre for lunch and a little homework, we ventured out again to All Saints Anglican, to celebrate their patronal feast, and to cheer on Stian who had his acolyting debut. Nine of us in total joined the small English community fro Evensong, then ventured to a pizzeria founded in 1753 (according to the waitress’ t-shirt anyway) and located just down the road, near San Clemente. Donna assured us in advance it was the best pizza in Rome, and we were not disappointed!

On monkishness

“Two monks were walking along in the woods one day, some time ago. As they approached a stream swollen with spring rains, they came across a woman clearly wanting to cross, but afraid to do so because of the strength of the flooded river.

“According to the rule of the order, these monks were prohibited from speaking to women – and certainly from touching a woman. After a brief pause, one monk looked at the other and said, “Ah well”. He then asked the woman if she needed assistance across the river. She eagerly accepted, and he carried her across, with his brother monk following behind. On the other bank, the first monk let the woman down, and she went on her way, in a different direction than the two brothers.

“The monks travelled on in silence for about half an hour. Suddenly, the second monk whipped around to face the first: ‘How could you?! You know the rule! You should not have spoken to that woman, and yet you even picked her up! What were you thinking?’

“’It is true’, replied the first monk, ‘In helping her cross the stream, I carried her for four minutes. But, Brother, you have been carrying her ever since.’”


Rt. Rev. Edmund Power, O.S.B., Abbot of St. Paul Outside the Walls

The guest presider and speaker for our community evening tonight was the Right Reverend Edmund Power, Abbot of the Benedictine Abbey at the Major Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls. And it was with this story that he opened a discussion on what it means to be a monk.

A monk is a man (as a nun is a woman) who stands in the night with arms outstretched waiting for the dawn – and of course the dawn in Christ. Unlike some of these “modern” orders – like the Franciscans (founded c. 1210) or the Jesuits (founded c.1534) the primary charism of a monastic order like the Order of Saint Benedict (founded c.529) is not a particular work or ministry, but the interior life of prayer and purification of the soul.

This is not to label one order as contemplative, so as to insist that others are not, or to suggest that activity is not involved in the life of a monastic. For of course, monks need work to support their life, but each monastery does whatever work is suitable to it – some farm, others make wine or chocolates, and the Abbey of St. Paul Outside the Walls serves the needs of the Basilica, mostly the pastoral and practical needs of pilgrims.

Each of the major basilicas has a Cardinal Archpriest who is, at least nominally, responsible to be patron of the basilica and an advocate for its upkeep and other needs. The most (in)famous is of course the Cardinal Archpriest of St. Mary Major, Bernard Law.

What was news to me is that until four years ago, St. Paul Outside the Walls did not have a Cardinal Archpriest. The reason being that, historically, the archpriest position was created only after the religious order at each basilica closed or withdrew from service, the last being St. John Lateran several hundred years ago.

During that time, there has remained a Benedictine abbey at St. Paul outside the Walls, and the Abbot has been the equivalent of the Archpriest. With the election of Pope Benedict, however, an archpriest has also been named to St. Paul. (It was the first cardinal archpriest who commissioned the minor excavations that were announced at the close of the Pauline year this summer confirming the presence of first-century remains in the sarcophagus believed to be St. Paul.

And speaking of sarcophagi, as one is wont to do, did you know that the most beautiful of those found underneath St. Paul, the famous Dogmatic Sarcophagus was, ah, “borrowed” in the 19th century? Yes indeed. By Pope Pius IX, for display at the Vatican Museum…


Dogmatic Sarcophagus, 4th century, first known artistic depiction of the Trinity

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