Beneath Trastevere's Most Ancient Bell Tower

I'm sure I would never have noticed the fragile bell tower and plain façade of Chiesa di San Benedetto (St. Benedict's Church) — except for a colleague of mine who lived nearby.

It's down toward the end of Trastevere, just off the river, on the piazza in Piscinula.

When I moved to this neighborhood for a summer years later, I remember worrying when heavy trucks jumbled along the cobblestones, oblivious to the frail treasure above them.

But, as I thought about it, I realized that my “frail treasure” had been built in 1069. It survived the sack of Rome by the Normans in 1084, centuries of war since then and even the bombs of World War II. Surely it can withstand a little motor-vehicle traffic passing by.

Naturally the church, boasting Rome's oldest and narrowest bell tower, has seen much shoring up through the years. Its age alone makes it worthy of a stop for pilgrims bopping between bigger attractions in the Eternal City.

And then there's its beauty.

Inside the remodeled façade on the piazza in Piscinula, a charming, ancient church now emerges from reconstruction, more resplendent inside than its exterior hints at.

You want beautiful marbles and frescoes, aged to perfection? Right this way.

The church was built, it is thought, in part of the house occupied by the Anici, the family of St. Benedict, father of monasticism and patron saint of Europe. (The word piscinula apparently comes from an ancient water tank of some sort that supplied Benedict's family home.)

The building was declared a domus (early house), where Christians met to worship before Constantine legalized Christianity upon issuing the Edict of Milan in 313.

Nearby are early houses dedicated to St. Francesca Romana, Rome's patroness, and St. Cecilia, patroness of music.

Heralding Holiness

As for San Benedetto, it positively glows with the sunlight streaming in on its 13th-century statues and alcoves. Its notable frescoes include one of the Virgin and Child and another depicting the life of St. Benedict. Eight antique columns contribute to its eternal feeling.

St. Benedict, born in Nursia, in Umbria, was of noble birth and spent his boyhood in Rome.

About the year 500 he used the still-visible, cross-vaulted chapel for meditation and prayer — a time that led ultimately to his establishing his famous Rule for monastic living.

The Rule is still used today, in many forms. It combines both spiritual doctrine and practical norms for daily life.

His sister, St. Scholastica, must have lived here too, although we know nothing of her early life. Carmelite sisters occupy the adjacent convent today.

In taking the saint's name, Pope Benedict XVI reminds us daily of this great tradition just by showing up.

The first section of the church to be identified was that of the Cella (chapel) di San Benedetto, according to the Roman legend of the saint's life here. The church we see today was begun probably in the 11th century.

When I was there earlier this year, a layperson knelt in devotion before the Blessed Sacrament, exposed for adoration at the tiny altar. Others prayed in the larger church area beyond.

After I had knelt there for some time, humbled by the awareness of centuries of prayer around me — and warm with the glow of the altar lights and frescoes while outside a persistent rain battered the city — I looked around toward the cracked plaster of the back wall of the church.

Suddenly a priest dressed in an dramatic habit, like a king's herald in Shakespearian times, appeared from nowhere. It seemed rather like a scene from Alice in Wonderland.

After the Mass, he told me that he was from the Order of the Heralds of the Gospel, a new international movement, Brazilian in origin. Their charism is the New Evangelization, spread with joy, beauty and music.

Their order is part of the International Association of Pontifical Right. They are busy getting the church in order, and they seem to be enjoying the task. You can learn more about these heralds, as I have since, at their American website, heralds.us.

Medieval Chic

This ethereal place, St. Benedict's, is rarely mentioned in guidebooks and if it is, just a few words are given.

Of course, part of the reason is that it was long open only for early Mass; otherwise you had to know to ring a bell to the right. Much of Rome was like that when I moved there in the ’60s.

Now this medieval area is chic — and the rents have skyrocketed. Fortunately there are rules about what must be preserved, or little Catholic heritage would remain here.

It is often said that, to appreciate Rome's enchantments, non basta una vita (a lifetime isn't long enough).

Thus far, I can attest to that adage. The heart of Christendom has many chambers.

Barbara C. Hults is based in New York City.

PLANNING YOUR VISIT

Mass is celebrated daily at 8 a.m., and at 9 a.m. on Sundays and holy days. The Blessed Sacrament is exposed for adoration on Thursdays. The Rosary is said daily at 6 p.m. In Rome, you might call ahead (06-39030517), as repairs are ongoing to preserve this unique gift of early Christianity.

GETTING THERE

It's a 10-minute walk from the major avenue of Viale Trastevere. Or take the bus along the river to Ponte Cestio. The Piazza in Piscinula is just to the right.

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