American Eternal

“When you go to Rome, you have to see …”

I find myself using this phrase often as friends travel to Italy. This past winter I was able to give myself advice, as I returned to the Eternal City, my second home.

When I was a resident in Rome I often visited the American church of Santa Susanna, because that parish was known for its outreach, its library and its coffee hours. It served as a comfort zone for the expatriate when the ways of foreign living grew perplexing.

Santa Susanna is officially the national American Catholic Church in Rome, as of 1922, when its pastoral ministry was given to the very industrious Paulist Fathers.

I had thought of it more as a spiritual consulate, not as a place where ancient Christianity was alive in its very stones. But at last I discovered that here the pilgrim can experience the holy awe of the ancient Christian past — in a way different from other Roman churches.

This year, I discovered another Santa Susanna: one enfolding a mystical crypt where Cistercian nuns chant on Sunday, a recent excavation showing an early fresco of saints and bits of wax from an Agnus Dei rite. And yet the traditional parish keeps on in its friendly, accommodating way, even more than it had years ago.

Santa Susanna is one of Rome's 25 oldest churches. In Rome, of course, that's saying something. Beneath the floor, excavations date back to A.D. 280, when relatives of Diocletian, who would be emperor in the year 284, lived here. Susanna, a member of his family, was also in residence. She and her father were secret Christians; the family home served as a “domus ecclesia,” or house church, because the Christian church (pre-Constantine) could not own property.

Susanna's saintly history begins about the year 284, when Diocletian unilaterally announced her engagement to Maxentius, who was being groomed as the next emperor. Susanna refused the offer, causing turmoil in the family. Finally Maxentius came to this house, thinking he could persuade her in person.

When she refused, she was accused of being a Christian. (Not only was that true, but she had also taken a secret vow of virginity.) Summoned to the Roman Forum, Susanna was told to prove her loyalty to the Roman deities by placing incense before Jupiter's shrine, which she refused.

When Diocletian, who for political reasons had wanted her to marry Maxentius, learned of it, his guards came to her home and she was beheaded. Other members of her family were martyred at Ostia, Rome's seaport.

A Maderno Masterwork

Susanna's house, where she was martyred, would become a shrine in 330, when a church was built above it. At first it was named for St. Caius in honor of the Pope (her uncle) who had lived here. The bodies of Santa Susanna and her father, San Gabino, were brought from the catacombs and buried in the church. In 590 Gregory the Great, recognizing the cult developing here, had the church renamed in her honor.

The familiar Roman façade we see today, completed in 1603, was the work of Carlo Maderno, who was responsible for the façade of St. Peter's. On the higher tier stands San Genesio (patron of actors, martyred in 303) and Susanna's uncle, Pope St. Caius. Inside, The frescoes of the central nave tell the life of Susanna — threatened by Maxentius, defended by an angel, refusing to worship Jupiter. Behind the high altar, the saint is shown being beheaded. The ceilings of the nave glow splendidly in polychrome wood, also the work of Carlo Maderno.

Now to the best part. Ask the Sacristan, Bita, to see the crypt. After descending a short staircase you will breathe in the sacred air of centuries, next to the bodies of Sts. Susanna, Gabino and Felicita. In this very place she lived and was martyred in the cruelest fashion, I thought, kneeling in the tiny chapel. The Eucharist has been celebrated here since A.D. 285, a fact that in itself may sink you to your knees. This room was connected to the dining room where Susanna and her family gathered each evening.

In the altar fresco, she looks to heaven, as does her father, while Felicita looks right at us, telling us it is now up to us to witness to Jesus in our earthly life. Santa Felicita, by the way, was martyred along with her seven sons, during the second century. She is patron of parents who have lost a child in death. In the church, her martyrdom also is depicted, on the walls of the presbytery.

Wondrous Nuns

The Cistercian nuns at Santa Susanna are a wondrous order, dedicated to community and personal prayer, to manual labor, and to lectio divina, which they describe as “food for the journey.” They sing vespers on Sunday at 5 pm. Push the red button on the door off the left aisle of the church for admittance to the nuns' sacristy, unless a service is ongoing in the church.

This sacristy is a place I'll never forget — yet another discovery after more than 35 years of visiting Rome regularly! The magnificent fresco within came from the excavation seen though the glass floor. More than 750 small pieces had to be carefully assembled, elegant bits of lapis lazuli blue and rose, an undertaking begun in 1990. Some think Susanna is depicted on it. The words printed include those of the Agnus Dei. St. John the Evangelist is seen pointing upward with the middle finger and index of one hand, a symbol of the presence of the Divine. The Book of the Seven Seals is also shown.

In this sacristy you'll also find “the Agnus Dei,” bits of pure white wax that have been enclosed in ribbons and lace, like baby ex-votos. In an ancient Roman Catholic rite, Popes blessed and consecrated this wax, stamped with an impression of a lamb, and called Agnus Dei. Miraculous powers are ascribed to it.

Exquisite works of embroidery are available from the nuns, and I brought home two pieces of great beauty, a kind rarely found today, when most such cloths are machine made. They reflect the peace and discipline of the sisters' lives very clearly. Spiritual gifts for birthdays and Christmas are to be found here in abundance, to send you off carrying a touch of this wonder-filled church.

Barbara Coeyman Hults is based in New York City.