Wednesday afternoon, another papal basilica, Saint Mary Major. The smallest of the papal basilicas, it is also the most architecturally ancient, and possibly the most beautiful (always bracketing St. Peter’s as another experience entirely). The building dates to the fifth century (from the reign of Pope Sixtus III), and its fifth-century mosaics of Old Testament scenes and the life of Christ may be the sacred works of art that speak most powerfully to the devout Catholic in me, as opposed to the art student, in all of Rome. (The art student in me would probably go for the Sistine Chapel.)
I’ve seen St. Mary before, but with a guide you learn things you don’t necessarily discover on your own. I’m fascinated to learn that the ornate golden ceiling, uniquely among all the churches in Rome, is actually solid gold, not gold-plated or gold-filled (allegedly Inca gold); that the marble columns in the nave predate the church, and may go back to the original church or even some more ancient Roman building; that the distinctive recurring disc pattern in the floor was created by slicing up pillars borrowed from some previous structure.
Then it’s off to Mass at St. John Lateran, celebrated by Archbishop Myers. Though little remains of the original building, St. John Lateran is still in principle the first legally recognized church building in history—that is, the first church building constructed with imperial approval under Constantine’s Edict of Toleration, which legalized Christianity. As the pope’s cathedral, St. John Lateran is Christendom’s first church in another sense: It’s the home church of the universal pastor, the mother church of the whole world.
In some ways, the basilica today conveys a sense of a mini-St. Peter’s, with rows of immense arch-bearing piers inset on both sides by massive Renaissance statuary. (Also, both St. Peter’s and the cathedral have been criticized for what some critics consider clumsy façades.) In other ways, though, St. John Lateran more resembles the other basilicas outside Vatican City, such as its golden apse mosaic. Also, only St. Peter’s has a barrel-vaulted ceiling; the Lateran, like the others, has a ceiling that is—I don’t know, what do you call non-vaulted ceilings? You can’t call them “flat,” because the basilica ceilings are all elaborately coffered, with gilded panels and recesses. Horizontal, anyway.
Throughout our pilgrimage, different members of our group have been asked to do one of the readings at our Masses (I did the first reading on our first day in Florence at Santa Maria Fiore). On the way into the cathedral I’m asked if Sarah would like to do a reading.
When I ask Sarah, she objects, “But Papa, Mama says kids don’t make good lectors.” She’s alluding to Suz’s (and my) low level of tolerance for “family Masses” with grade schoolers stumbling through the readings.
“Sarah, you’re not a kid!” I reassure her. Sarah is 15 and a champion reader. I give her some pointers: read slowly with pauses between phrases; project your voice for the person farthest away; keep your distance from the mike (there’s no mike, so that one was unnecessary).
And so Sarah’s first Mass reading is the first Mass reading in Christendom’s first church. She does a fine job, of course, and a number of fellow pilgrims compliment her afterwards. At dinner the next evening, Archbishop Myers himself praises her reading—a kind word I’m sure she’ll always remember.
After Mass, a Pauline coda to our day: Our last stop is Saint Paul at the Place of Teaching (San Paolo alla Regola, literally “St. Paul of the Rule”), a church built on a site traditionally believed to be the location of Paul’s house arrest in Rome, with a room believed to have been Paul’s actual cell. Two images in this room proclaim in Latin “On account of the hope of Israel I wear these fetters” (Acts 28:20) and “But the word of God is not fettered” (2 Timothy 2:9).
Then we’re on our own for dinner. Since we’re not far from Rome’s historic center, I take Sarah up to the Pantheon, and later to Trevi Fountain. Since my other trip to Rome was infused with Dan Brown-iana, we’ve been talking about Brown a lot on the trip—mostly how dumb his books are—and at the Pantheon we have a good laugh at Brown’s mistaken etymology of the Pantheon’s name as a reference to pantheism.
We have dinner on the Piazza della Rotonda, right across from the Pantheon. The guides tell you that eating off the main piazzas is less expensive, and it is, but hey, sometimes the view and the atmosphere is worth paying for like anything else. I mean, there you are sipping wine and looking out on the piazza with its central fountain and happy crowds milling about, and there are a couple of street musicians playing away, and in the background is the Pantheon. What’s better than that? After awhile the street musicians make the rounds soliciting tips, which I’m happy to give. They’ve added to our experience.
Thursday morning, a special treat: a tour of the Vatican Gardens, followed by the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s. I’ve glimpsed the Vatican Gardens from above, from the cupola atop the dome of St. Peter’s, but you generally can’t get into Vatican City (beyond St. Peter’s itself) except with a tour group, so it’s exciting to see the gardens up close.
The garden tour begins in the park of the Villa Pia—a beautiful building commissioned by Pius IV and used today by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences—and ends in the shady garden wood, which is largely uncultivated. Along the way are courtyards with topiary work—including a large papal coat of arms—exotic trees and such, and plenty of fountains. There are also great views of the dome of St. Peter’s that you can’t see anywhere else.
The highlight of the garden tour is an exact replica of the grotto of Massabielle in Lourdes where the Blessed Virgin appeared to Bernadette, which includes the original altar from Lourdes (I think a replica altar now stands in Lourdes). A statue of the Blessed Virgin stands where Our Lady appeared. Watching Sarah kneel where Bernadette knelt, even in replica, I get goosebumps (or “Godbumps,” as someone commented reading my catacomb post). If I never get to Lourdes, this moment will do for this lifetime.
After the gardens, we make our way through the upper level of the Vatican Museums to the Sistine Chapel. Unfortunately, as I know from my last time in Rome, the Sistine Chapel really needs to be seen first thing as soon as the museums open, while there’s still room to breathe. If you get there early enough, you can walk about freely, sit wherever you want, even lie down on the floor. After an hour or so, it’s a unquiet sea of people, with a general tide flowing from the entrance toward the exit. Even going with the flow involves jostling, to say nothing of going against the flow if you want to see something again.
Still and all, it’s the Sistine Chapel. Sarah and I work our way around the room, identifying as many scenes and subjects as we can and working out the compositional schema. When I tell Sarah to take a good long look at the ceiling as we walk, she says she’ll bump into someone, so I lead her while she looks. We say a prayer for the papal conclaves that will meet here in the future.
The end of the tour—of our whole tour—takes us back to St. Peter’s, where we walk through the tombs of the popes and then through St. Peter’s itself. Once again I kneel at the tomb of Peter, this time with Sarah. By this time I think I know St. Peter’s pretty well, so I’m gobsmacked when our guide tells us up in the church that the images on the columns that appear to be paintings or frescoes are actually detailed mosaic replicas of paintings—that in fact there are no paintings or frescoes anywhere in the church. Frescoes fade and need restoration, but mosaics are forever (barring, like, earthquakes and such).
Thursday afternoon, left to our own devices, we do the only thing that makes sense: We climb the dome of St. Peter’s to the cupola. The best view in Rome, and a last view of the Vatican Gardens after having seen them up close. Along the way you also get to see the interior of St. Peter’s from high above. You have to climb hundreds of stairs to get there—some of them in the narrow space between the inner and outer walls of them dome, literally leaning on the inner wall of them dome as you go—but it’s totally worth it.
Then down from the dome, and inside St. Peter’s again one last time. Goodbye to St. Peter’s, goodbye to Vatican City.
That evening, a farewell Mass at North American College’s Immaculate Conception Chapel, where a final surprise awaits us. Just before Mass begins, I text Suz in New Jersey and tell her where we are. Replying, she notes that a recently ordained priest we know—not so long ago a rather wide-eyed teenager, full of questions, whom Suz first ran into outside our church’s Eucharistic adoration chapel—is studying at the college. When I look up, there he is at the altar! He’ll be concelebrating with Archbishop Myers.
Early Friday morning we’re off to the airport, where we will face more delays and frustrations getting home. It doesn’t matter. The delays and frustrations are ephemeral; our pilgrimage is, in an almost biblical sense, abiding. Sarah used to wryly note that although she had been up and down the Eastern seaboard, she had never been outside her own time zone. This week we have traveled crossroads where time itself is intersected by eternity.
Not that we had to leave our time zone, or even our home town, to do that. Every Mass is a crossroads of time and eternity. For that matter, so is every sacrament, every prayer, even every good work done in grace. But even the Mass, though the source and center of our devotional lives, is only a service road, if I can put it that way, off the one great crossroad, the crucial intersection when eternity broke into time.
God became a man, and he did so at a particular time and place: a seismic event causing aftershocks through time and space and even into eternity. Some of these aftershocks cannot be measured or calculated: the grace of the sacraments; the salvation of souls; the workings of the Holy Spirit. Other effects are more palpable: the proclamation of the apostles; the succession of popes and bishops; the witness of the early martyrs; the heroic virtue of saints like Francis and Catherine.
It is because God became a man that we are baptized, go to Mass, and pray the prayers we do. But it’s also the reason there are churches built on the sites of the Nativity and the Resurrection, and why Catholics have always made pilgrimages to these sites. It’s why the relics of the apostles and early martyrs were venerated, and why the early Christians celebrated Masses on the tombs in the catacombs. The way of the sacraments, the way of prayer and the way of pilgrimage are not rival ways. They are crossroads, and their intersection is Jesus Christ.
In my last entry I wrote that having experienced St. Peter’s Basilica makes me love my home parish of St. John’s more, not less. Likewise, countless pilgrims have found, as Sarah and I have, that our participation at Mass is enriched, not diminished, for having experienced the catacombs and prayed at the tombs of Peter and Paul. When I confess in the Creed one holy catholic and apostolic Church, my idea of oneness and catholicity has new vitality for having experienced the papal Pallium Mass. And the challenge of Francis’ simplicity, poverty and devotion is more potent for me for having walked the streets of Assisi and celebrated Mass at his tomb.
One’s participation in the Mass is meant to flow backwards and forwards throughout the week, to touch everything we do and everyone we interact with. In the same way, a pilgrimage should bring into focus the spiritual pilgrimage that is this life. The homecoming that matters is not the one at the end of the trans-Atlantic flight.
There is also a sense in which we go to Mass not only for ourselves but also for others around us. It is not only we who benefit, it’s also those with whom we are able to share the fruits of our participation in the Mass. In this series of blog posts I’ve tried to do something similar: to share our pilgrimage with others. For those who have made the journey with us in this online forum, I hope you’ve found it worthwhile.
P.S. Yes, I’m still planning on adding photos! Stay tuned.