Fifteen years ago today, the world saw John Paul II for the last time. He came to his window at the time of his usual Wednesday Audience to greet the crowd. I was there. And these were my thoughts, published shortly after in our diocesan newspaper:
After joining the hundreds of thousands of people gathered in St. Peter’s Square for the Holy Father’s Urbi et Orbi blessing on Easter Sunday, I returned to the square on Wednesday hoping to see him again.
As we headed into the piazza, we all agreed that we would be very blessed if he would come to his window, especially since the following day we were leaving for Paris for the weekend. Since his hospital stay, the Holy Father’s public appearances had been suspended, but he still continued to come to his window on Sundays at noon for the Angelus and on Wednesdays around eleven (at the time of his usual large public audience in the square). When we entered the square, the large televisions had a message in Italian that the Holy Father would come to his window at eleven.
Around five after eleven, the Holy Father’s window opened and the crowd erupted in cheers. His arms seemed to be moving fairly freely, and he was blessing the crowd and waving. It wasn’t until I looked at the television and was able to see his face that I realized how much he was suffering. His appearance was short and everyone left in tears. His pain was evident, but he still came to his window to greet his flock. After years of telling us to “be not afraid,” he clearly did not fear death nor suffering. He wasn’t afraid to show his suffering to a world that has condemned suffering and forgotten the blessings attached to pain.
[On April 2], although I was in Paris while some of my classmates kept vigil in St.Peter’s Square… we were all tied to what was happening in the papal apartments through prayer. When the Holy Father passed away, I was gathered with hundreds of others in Sacre Coeur Basilica in Paris, where they have perpetual adoration. After a prayer service for the Holy Father, we celebrated the vigil for the Feast of Divine Mercy– less than twenty minutes after his death.
Every time I saw the Holy Father this semester, I told him goodbye in my heart. Each time, I never let myself hope to see him again. This Wednesday, we saw him for the last time. But I didn’t have to tell him goodbye. As hard as it is to accept, he is closer to us now than he ever was before. While he was alive, we all felt like he knew us individually. Now he does.
As you read this, I’m on pilgrimage in Italy. One of my favorite parts of my job is leading trips to places in important to our Catholic faith. While you might assume it’s my favorite because it means traveling to Europe, seeing the Pope, and eating good food, it’s actually my favorite for a different reason.
I get to experience people experiencing. I get to pray with people as they climb the Holy Stairs on their knees for the first time. I get to see people reach out to touch the Pope as he drives by. I get to witness the joy of people praying in front of the Crib of Our Lord and weep as they see the relics of the Passion.
Each time I take a group over to Rome, I’m shaken out of my own jadedness towards the Eternal City. Anyone who knows me knows I can’t express my love for Rome enough. But familiarity breeds complacency. As the trip approaches, I calm the jitters and answer the questions from people who have never traveled abroad. Both their excitement and concern reminds me of the importance of pilgrimage – something that I fear I take for granted. Packing for Rome is little different than packing for the East Coast for me, and I can almost do it in my sleep. I need the reminders of the pilgrims in my charge to awaken me.
That is why I love to experience people experiencing Rome. This is my tenth time hopping on an airplane to Rome (and two of those trips were extended stays for studies), and although each trip has always involved seeing something new, mostly I will revisit places I have been dozens and dozens of times. But I will go there anew – because I will go there with people seeing it for the first time. I will be at Mass with permanent deacons who have never set foot in Europe – and now are assisting at Mass in the great basilicas of Rome. I will witness people praying at the tombs of their confirmation saints. I will see people gaze at the Sistine Chapel for the first time.
These experiences are an important part of one’s faith formation. As director of adult formation, I offer speaker series, write bible studies, and film catechetical videos for social media. But these pilgrimages provide formation in a way sitting in a classroom or listening to a podcast never can. Touching the Catholic faith as one does on pilgrimage is life-changing. I was abundantly blessed to have parents who realized importance of this, even to the point of taking me out of school for two weeks so that I could travel to France and Italy. At only fifteen years old, I stepped into St. Peter’s Square for the first time. And although I didn’t know it then, my life would never be the same, thanks to that piazza.
Not everyone has the chance to travel to Europe, and I know that for many, something like seeing the Pope or praying at these sites might always remain on the bucket list. That is why I must never, ever take it for granted. I must never become jaded at the sight of Michelangelo’s dome, rising over the rooftops of Rome. I must never tire of walking through the Forum on Via Sacra, my steps tracing the steps of our first Pope and St. Paul. I must never lose the joy I had that very first time I walked into the loving embrace of Bernini’s colonnade.
That is why I bring others. Because I have to experience it for the first time – again.
Pray for my group, as we begin our pilgrimage, and pray for our diocesan seminarian Anthony, who will be ordained on September 28 to the diaconate in St. Peter’s Basilica with his classmates from the North American College.
(And if you’ve never considered a pilgrimage, pray about that, too. You won’t regret it. Especially if you go with my friend Mountain.)
Today we celebrate the feast of the First Martyrs of the Church of Rome, which officially commemorates the martyrs killed under the Emperor Nero (54-68). Fittingly, their feast is celebrated the day after the two most famous martyrs killed during that time, Peter and Paul.
While no one knows for sure why or how the famous burning of Rome took place, we know that Nero need a scapegoat. And he found that scapegoat in the new mysterious sect that had been growing steadily in Rome.
The historian Tacitus gives an account of the persecutions under Nero:
“Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired.”
It is believed that Christians were also killed before the time of Nero, during the reign of emperor Claudius (41-54). Claudius probably expelled the Jews from Rome for a time because of disturbances caused by a certain “Chrestus,” and he was famously opposed to the proselytizing of any religion.
Saint Prisca was a thirteen year-old girl killed during reign of Claudius. She was of a noble family and was baptized by Saint Peter. When the emperor tried to kill her in the amphitheater with a fierce lion, the lion licked her feet and did not hurt her. Later she was beheaded. She’s remembered as the “protomartyr of the West,” killed more than ten years before Peter and Paul.
Whether or not there was a girl named Prisca – modern historians doubt her existence – we know her story was repeated again and again, as the persecutions against Christians raged throughout the Roman Empire for almost three hundred years. Lions, arrows, beheadings, fires — the martyrdoms were varied, but the witness the same: these people, regardless of age or sex or wealth, were willing to die at the hands of their emperor before denying their Lord.
The stories of the early Church martyrs also remind us that their witness did not begin with their deaths. There must have been something that set them apart. How did the emperors know about a thirteen-year old girl’s religion? Why were there disturbances because of “Chrestus,” why was their “superstition” known by Tacitus, and why were they punished for “hatred against mankind”?
Their faith did not remain in the catacombs, hidden from view. Their faith spurred them onward — to preach to their neighbors, to bring the good news to others, to live their lives differently. Secular sociologists note that Christians were more likely to survive the diseases that plagued the city of Rome precisely because they were cared for by other Christians. The Christians were known for their generosity to the poor and their service to the widows and orphans. They didn’t just worship on Sundays — they served Christ every day of the week. And it was obvious to those around them.
Someone once rhetorically asked me a thought-provoking question. If I was arrested for being a Christian, would a jury find me guilty? Or would I be acquitted for lack of evidence?
We know how the Christians went to their deaths singing songs of joy, their deaths prompting even more conversions. “Martyr” is from the Greek word for “witness.” But in order for them to be rounded up and thrown in jail, their witness must have been visible in the world before their deaths. And so must ours.
When “freedom of religion” becomes “freedom of worship,” we must take notice. What threats against religious liberty mean for Christians in this country is that we cannot live our faith outside the catacombs. It is fine to go to Mass and worship, but our beliefs cannot influence our daily lives. We cannot live as Catholic Christians in our workplace, in our hospitals, or in our schools.
May the martyrs of the early Church be witnesses and reminders to us, in 2016, that our faith sends us out into the world. And may their intercession give us the strength to be witnesses ourselves.
One of the most remarkable places to experience while visiting Rome is a small dark room under Vatican hill. Very few tourists even know of its existence, and access is limited to 250 people a day. In a city filled with art, this room is bare. A tour guide shepherds you into the room, and then points through a large glass window. There, with a light shining on it, tucked in the ancient ruins of shrines and altars dating back to second century, is a plexiglass box, through which you can see their precious contents.
The bones of St. Peter.
The bones lie directly under the main of altar of St. Peter’s Basilica, far below the soaring dome of Michelangelo. While most people believed the bones were there, their existence was not confirmed until the middle of the twentieth century, when archaeologists began excavating the pagan cemetery that lies under the vast basilica.
It is hard to not be moved when standing in the silence, seeing the bones of the first century fisherman. The sinful man who denied Our Lord (Lk 22:59-62). The repentant man who was commissioned to feed the Lord’s sheep (Jn 21:17). The man named Rock (Mt 16:18). Here are his mortal remains, far from the land of Palestine.
Could a fisherman from Bethsaida ever imagine he would find himself in Rome? From the shores of the Sea of Galilee to being killed in Nero’s circus and buried on Vatican Hill. From completely unknown to having one of the most glorious churches in the world built over his grave. From a sinful, rash, passionate man to a saint in heaven, who is celebrated two thousand years later.
Even after meeting Jesus, when his life was drastically changed, Peter could never have predicted his own fate. Christ reminds him that his life is no longer his own: “‘Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you girded yourself and walked where you would; but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will gird you and carry you where you do not wish to go.’” (Jn 21:18)
Likewise Saul, an observant Jew, a promising scholar of the Law, never would have dreamed while studying at the feet of the famous Gamaliel that he would be accused of betraying Judaism and be killed for preaching a new Way (Acts 24:14). Zealous against this new religion, Saul was an unlikely candidate to be the greatest preacher the Church has ever known. But thus was the call of Christ (Gal 1:13-15).
St. Peter and St. Paul did not seek their fame. They weren’t seeking to be remembered in 2016 in a far away land called America. And yet they are remembered to this day.
Peter did not run for office. If anything, he ran from office. The Romans have a beloved story where St. Peter, fleeing the city of Rome and the wrath of Nero, meets Christ on the Via Appia. Christ is headed in the opposite direction, towards the city. “Quo Vadis, Domine?” Peter asks. Lord, where are you going? Christ responds that he is going to Rome to be crucified a second time.
The Good Shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.
Peter returned to Rome.
These two men could not have known the future – but they knew the present. And they knew that Christ would give them strength for the future, even if it was a future they had not chosen for themselves.
Like Peter and Paul, we stand for a Way that is contrary to the ways of the world. We stand for a Truth that is contrary to public opinion, the secular culture, and even some policies of our government. We didn’t choose this battle. But the battle is here.
The future is unknown. What will be asked of us? We don’t know where this battle will lead, but we know where it stands right now.
It is still possible to walk through the Roman Forum and walk the path that Peter the fisherman walked. One can stand on the hill where the Temple of Jupiter once stood- the most important Temple in Rome. Overlooking the Forum, it stood watch over the center of the known world.
Now when one stands on that spot, your vision is directed elsewhere. Instead of east, you face west. And looking out over the modern city of Rome, your eyes rest on the glorious dome of St. Peter’s.
The Colosseum and the Roman Forum stand as stark reminders that worldly victory is fleeting. Nero thought he had won, when Peter was crucified upside down and Paul was beheaded. Instead he had crowned them with the glorious crown of martyrdom.
May we have the courage to accept the unknown future and the trust to accept the call of Christ.
People going to Rome often ask me what they should see when they’re over there. It’s a hard question for me to answer– the places I would list would either be the obvious ones you’ll find on most tourist lists (the 4 Major Basilicas, the Vatican Museums, the Flavian Amphitheatre) or places that I would want to take you myself, so I could show you what you needed to see. Actually, any place I tell you to go in Rome I would want to take you myself, because it’s too easy to miss something (table of the Last Supper, anyone? How many people miss that in the Basilica of John Lateran?) or because you’ll probably have some silly guide who tells you something absurd, like that no martyrs died in the Colosseum.
There is one place, however, I would always recommend to someone visiting the Eternal City. Something that often escapes the tourist lists and a place where *most* of the guides are pretty legit (I’ve only had one bad one, and that was almost 10 years ago).
The excavations under St. Peters. Only about 200 people get to go down there each day, so email a few months in advance and then pray. (see here.)
Basically, St. Peter’s is built on a pagan cemetery. After St. Peter was crucified in the circus of Nero (which ran sort of diagonally to the present basilica and piazza), the Christians cut him down from the cross (most likely leaving his feet behind — that’s the quickest way to remove a person who has been crucified upside down) and buried him in a tomb on the hillside nearby, where there was already an expansive necropolis. Over the years a shrine was built up around his tomb, where the Christians would come pray, touch things to his tomb, etc. Eventually, other Christians were buried around him.
When Constantine wanted to build a church around the shrine, he was faced with two problems — one, Peter was buried on a hillside. How do you build a giant church on a hillside? And two, to build anything around the shrine would require destroying hundreds, perhaps thousands of tombs — in a necropolis that was still in use. Not only would such an action be illegal, but it would be wildly unpopular and highly suspect, given the Roman respect for the dead.
The fact that Constantine leveled the hill (chopping off the top and using the dirt to fill in the bottom, thus created an even plane) and destroyed the necropolis is a clear indication that he knew Peter was buried there and it was crucial that he build the church on top of his tomb.
Fast-forward to the 20th century. Pius XII’s predecessor, Pius XI, asks to be buried in the crypt of the Popes. While making room in the crypt for his grave, the workers break through the floor of the crypt and make an interesting discovery — they’ve broken through into a family tomb. Pius XII gives permission for the excavation work to take place, although in secret, and five or six archaeologist spend the next several years discovering the pagan necropolis.
You hear this story and others on the tour, as you make your way through the necropolis, admiring beautiful pagan family tombs, eventually seeing Christian tombs, and then seeing the remnants of the early shrines, and the Constantinian high altar.
The climax of the tour is when you step into a dark room. You know the tour is almost at an end. You’ve heard the story of the search, you’ve heard of the false alarms and you wait with expectation. Did they find his bones? And the tour guide begins to describe the graffiti on this one wall… and how they brought a graffiti expert in, who deciphered the early Christian writing, and when she discovered the words “Peter is here,” she asked that they look in the wall. They did, and they found bones- bones of an old man, of robust stature. Bones of almost an entire male body… except the feet.
And there you stand, in the darkness, and peer through glass into lighted excavations. There, in a fiberglass box, you can see bones. And your first instinct is to fall to your knees and weep, knowing that you are looking at the bones of the humble fisherman who walked on water, who denied Christ, and who was told, “Feed my sheep.”
A box of bones on which — literally– a church has been built. For almost two thousand years.
Everyone should visit Rome during Lent. Both times I lived there, I was blessed to experience the Lenten season. It’s a remarkable time in Rome for so many reasons – celebrating the Triduum with the Holy Father and the universal Church, marking Fridays by climbing the Holy Stairs, being able to venerate the relics of the Passion at Santa Croce. But my favorite Lenten tradition in Rome are the station churches.
Before the legalization of Christianity and the building of churches, Christians would gather in homes for the Mass. These churches were known by the names of their owners: titulus Pudentis, titulus Lucinae, etc. Priests were put in charge of each house church.By the end of the first century, the Church had grown large enough that there were many of these house churches in each city. To show the unity of the Church and to enable the Christians to gather on occasion with the whole community in the city, bishops began making visits to the churches in their area.
In Rome, the bishop was the successor of St. Peter and seen as the head of the entire Christian church. He visited the principle house churches in a similar fashion, and after the Peace of Constantine in 313 AD, churches were built near or on these sites. Many of the churches also received relics of the early martyrs, so the practice of visiting these churches also became pilgrimages to the tombs of the saints. By the fourth century, visits to these churches took on a penitential, pilgrimage character in the midst of the season of Lent. The list of stational churches has not significantly changed since Pope Leo III (795-816).
Thus, the stational churches are the oldest churches in Rome, and the pilgrimage to each of them continues today. Each stational church has a designated day (Santa Sabina, for example, is always Ash Wednesday). The North American College priests say Mass in English (along with the English College, Irish College, and Scottish College) at 7 AM in the morning. Masses can be heard in various languages throughout the day, and the day concludes with Mass at 5pm in Italian and Latin with the Collegium Cultorum Martyrum.
There are plenty of places online to find out more about the station churches. A great place to start is the website of the North American College. The NAC guys played a large role in reviving the tradition, and in the cold spring mornings, before the sun rises, men in black leave their residences on the Janiculum Hill and Via dell’Umilta and walk to the station church of the day, regardless how far away it might be.
You can also find out more about my personal adventures at the various station churches here.
A perk of attending early morning station Masses with the NAC was worshipping with the English-speaking community in Rome. My first Lent in Rome, it wasn’t unusual to see John Allen or George Weigel at Mass. My second Lent in Rome, I went to school with several of the NAC priests and seminarians, so those of us who didn’t have to rush off to class would often get our morning espresso together.
For a host of reasons, the station churches had a substantial impact on not just my time in Rome but on my faith life as a whole. Every Lent since 2005, I’ve tried to incorporate them into my Lenten days, even if I’ve been thousands of miles away.
I received it as a Christmas present, but I didn’t really crack it open until a few days before Lent started. I knew the book walked through Lent, detailing each station church, so I decided to read it each morning, preferably before going to Mass. Then at Mass, when I prayed my thanksgiving after Communion, I would close my eyes and place myself in the church of the day. This has been my practice for the last few years, so I figured the book would help me do that, especially as the memories of eleven years ago grow dimmer.
As soon as I began to read the introduction, I knew this book was going to be much more than a history book or an art book. It wasn’t going to accompany me on a nostalgic journey back in time. It was going to accompany me on a pilgrimage towards holiness this Lent.
Each day, Weigel weaves together the daily Mass readings or parts of the liturgy of the Hours for the day. Elizabeth follows his reflection with a description of the church and its historical and artistic high points. I was so happy I had decided to read it each morning – I’m not sure how else you could read this. It’s not meant to be read cover-to-cover in a few days, but to be savored throughout the Lenten season. Weigel’s reflections are masterful tapestries of spirituality, Scriptural meditation, and Lenten catechesis.
This book is not only for those who have been to the station churches, and not even only for those who have been to Rome. Yet I guarantee it will make you want to go.
The station church pilgrimage can be, and in fact is, walked on many levels, not unlike the city in which it takes place. For Rome is so deeply layered by the accumulated stuff of centuries that the roads along which one makes the pilgrimage in the twenty-first century are many meters above the roads along which Gregory the Great would have led his people … Thus, along the pathways of the station church pilgrimage (and at whatever time of year it is walked), the twenty-first century pilgrim or visitor passes through multiple layers of the history of Western civilization and has the opportunity to ponder the rise and fall of empires…
… Making the station church pilgrimage is also a marvelous way to discover the many faces of Rome. On the pilgrimage, one walks through the always-clogged and now-funky streets of Trastevere, crosses the high baroque Piazza Navona, breathes the early-morning aromas of the markets of the Campo dei Fiori, skirts the ruins of the Circus Maximus, and climbs up the beautiful Aventine Hill…
Yes, the early mornings were my favorite time to see the city. But the pilgrimages were about more than sightseeing. They were reminders of the bigger pilgrimage we are all on, whose ending will not be the earthly supper of the Lamb, but the heavenly one. Weigel reminds us, “At yet another level, the station church pilgrimage — especially when it is made during Lent — is an itinerary of conversion. . . . the station church pilgrimage can become an extended retreat: seven and a half weeks of reflection that synthesize the truths of the Christian faith and offer pilgrims an opportunity to reflect on how well those truths have been integrated along the pathways of their lives.”
That is gift of this book. A pilgrimage from your home – one that can be done from your couch, but one that will take you away from the comforts and acedia of what your life has become, and towards the holiness and life to which you are called.