ROME—The early morning traveler these days along Rome's Via Aurelia, passing by the walls of the Vatican, might catch a glimpse of the red and purple-sashed Synod fathers on their way into the day's assembly. The month-long Synod for America is in full swing, gathering cardinals, bishops, monsignors, priests, and lay experts from the Americas and around the world.
A few minutes and a few miles farther along Via Aurelia, the observant traveler, passing by Our Lady of Guadalupe basilica, would also spot another group bundled up against the morning chill, dashing across cobblestones. But this time it's the parish's daily Mass-goers, heading into church.
Our traveler may be too occupied dodging Rome's survival-of-the fittest traffic to reflect on whether there is any connection between the two. But that plain little modern church just passed is an important link between the Americas and Rome.
“Your parish dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe,” Pope John Paul II told parishioners in a 1980 visit, “is like a living witness of the tie, which here in Rome at the center of the Church, we wish to always maintain with the Church of the distant American continent.”
Our Lady of Guadalupe is the patroness of the Americas. And there are other official ties, too. The church in Via Aurelia has been named the national church of Mexico, and more broadly, of Latin America, and is the titular church of the Cardinal Archbishop of Guadalajara. Hundreds of pilgrims from Latin America stop in every year to pray.
Even from a distance, the church has an appearance unique in Rome. The geometric brick patterns with alternating shades of color are more reminiscent of a Spanish mission church in Mexico.
And in fact, though designed by the Italian architect Mazzocca, stone was put on stone with money from Mexico. Some of the building materials also have Mexican origins—the onyx windows, for instance. Instead of the traditional stained glass, the windows are translucent rock, one centimeter thick. At night, lights inside the church send rays through the stone's chocolatey-swirls. And for mid-morning Mass, the windows soften and warm the sunlight filtering through.
The rose window on the front of the church, also onyx, frames a mosaic of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Stepping into the church entryway, tell-tale signs of parish life fill the notice board: The final figures of a special collection for Italy's earthquake victims; announcements for pilgrimages; Mass times, of course; and a reminder of the church's American connection—a notice posted for parish-sponsored English lessons.
It is said that visiting the church on one of his rare journeys to a Roman parish, Pope John XXIII passed through the large wooden doors and throwing wide his expressive Italian hands, looked around and said, “Now this is beautiful!”
Any tourist to Rome can testify that a day of visiting churches in the eternal city carries the risk of a cultural overload: baroque gold ornaments, cosmatesque stone patterned floors, famous statues, centuries-old paintings and mosaics. There is so much to see, and too much to absorb.
In this setting, Our Lady of Guadalupe is visitor-friendly. The clean architectural lines carry one's gaze to the altar and the dark-blue mosaic apse surrounding the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
The simple shape and design follows closely the ancient “basilica” style of church. But closer inspection reveals distinctly modern innovations to the classic model. The pillars lining the aisle are topped with an inverted tripod, breaking off horizontally once the legs reach the ceiling. It adds a crispness to the look and takes the weight off the upper part of the church.
In a city where some churches are almost 2,000 years old, Our Lady of Guadalupe is very, very modern. Construction began in the mid-1950s after Pope Pius XII urged the superior general of the Legionaries of Christ to build a church in Rome's periphery, next to the order's general house. Forty years ago, that section of Via Aurelia was empty of buildings, very much outside Rome.
The Pontiff foresaw the city would expand outwards, and that the number of churches on the outskirts would be insufficient to serve the spiritual needs of the new inhabitants. Today, that part of the Via Aurelia hums with traffic and activity, serving as a major artery between the city's heart and the Italian highway network.
The parish is now one of 328 in Rome and is home to some 6,000 parishioners. It prides itself on certain unique characteristics, one of which is being the only parish in Rome (and the world?) where the parish bulletin is delivered by hand, door to door.
The church was consecrated and inaugurated in 1958, at the dawn of Pope John XXIII's pontificate. The first major event was the Pope's visit, not long after he opened the Second Vatican Council in 1962. He prayed there for the Council's success and crowned the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
The image of our Lady is the best possible replica of the image left on the peasant Juan Diego's tunic near Mexico City in 1531. AMexican artist duplicated the mysterious picture, even using ayate cloth, the same type as Juan Diego wore.
The frame around the picture is the only highly-worked ornate dressing to the church. It is done in three metals: from the edge moving in there is a border of bronze, then silver, and then gold. But the gold, as one would-be thief found to his chagrin, is only gold-plating on silver. The burglar was so disappointed he left his 20-foot ladder behind.
In the sacristy, which wraps around the apse, there are several official looking documents, written in Latin and bearing Pope John Paul's personal signature and seal. One announces the conferring of the honorary title of “basilica,” indicating a privileged position based on a church's religious or historical importance. There are two types of basilicas: the four “major” basilicas in Rome, and many “minor” basilicas, named by the Pope, in Rome and around the world.
The document reveals another of the church's links to the American continent, this time by blood. There the new basilica is officially referred to as “Our Lady of Guadalupe and St. Phillip, Martyr.” Who is this St. Phillip? Felipe de Jesus, the first Mexican martyr, was one of St. Paul Miki's companions, crucified near Nagasaki, Japan in 1597.
The church is linked to more modern blood, too. John Paul II assigned the basilica in 1991 to the Cardinal Archbishop of Guadalajara, Juan Jesus Ocampo Posadas, as his titular seat. Cardinal Posadas was assassinated less than five years ago. The title has passed to his successor, Cardinal Norberto Carrera Rivera Sandoval, who is here in Rome for the Synod.
Less than two miles from Our Lady of Guadalupe basilica, America's bishops are at work in the Vatican Synod Hall, charting a course for the new millennium. And the Pope's words to them and his prayer at the Synod's opening still echo: “To you, Mary, Mother of hope, beloved and venerated in many shrines throughout the whole American Continent, we entrust this synodal assembly. Help the Christians of America be vigilant witnesses of the Gospel in order to be awake and ready on that great and mysterious day, when Christ comes … to judge the living and the dead!”
John Norton is based in Rome.