October 14, 2006


By Sean Gallagher

(See a photo gallery for this post)

Rome celebrationCalling Rome “the eternal city” is not a cliché.  There is some real meaning to it.  There are, to my knowledge, no churches in the United States that 500 years old.  In Rome, there are scads of them and they aren’t really that new.

My wife and I ventured out at 7 a.m. to a church more than 1,000 years old—the Basilica of Santa Pressede, just across the street from the Basilica of St. Mary Major, one of the four major basilicas of Rome (the other three are St. Peter’s, St. John Lateran, and St. Paul Outside the Walls).

We were happily surprised to meet upon entering it Msgr. Frederick Easton, archdiocesan vicar judicial, and Father Thomas Schliessman, pastor of St. Rose of Lima Parish in Franklin and Holy Trinity Parish in Edinburgh.  (Meeting friends unexpectedly in anywhere is usually a treat.  Doing so in a city thousands of miles from home is a godsend.)

The church building is more than 1,000 years old and most of its interior has not been changed since then.  It is small and doesn’t overpower its visitors.  But its ancient mosaics in the beautiful Byzantine style are evocative of the deep faith of those who were responsible for putting them there and inspired me to pray for a growth in my own.

A visit to St. Mary Major followed.  There we met up with the pilgrimage group.  Archbishop Buechlein was the primary celebrant for Mass in one of the church’s side chapels.  Msgr. Joseph F. Schaedel, archdiocesan vicar general, was the homilist.

A tour of the church followed.  St. Mary Major is a good example of the “eternality” of Rome.  The church building dates in large part from the fifth century, more than 1,500 years ago.  Its apse contains a large and ancient mosaic.  But much of the rest of the interior decorations of the church date from the 16th and 17th centuries, some 1,000 years after the building was constructed.

St. Mary Major also contains the wood that tradition says made up the crib in which the newborn Christ child laid in Bethlehem.  Many pilgrims venerated it and prayed before it.

From St. Mary Major, the pilgrimage group went on to tour and pray at St. John Lateran.  My wife and I took a taxi to St. Peter’s where I met up with Father Stan Pondo, an archdiocesan priest studying canon law in Rome.  He was accompanied by Father Patrick Beidelman, pastor SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral Parish in Rome and director of liturgy for the archdiocese.

Father Pondo assisted me as I made my way into the Vatican to the offices of the Pontifical Council for Social Communication where I picked up my photo credentials.  While I was there I had the chance to chat with Archbishop John Foley, the secretary of the council.  Archbishop Foley was originally a priest of the Philadelphia Archdiocese.
As we made our way out of the Vatican, we heard Pope Benedict chanting the Angelus with a large group of people gathered in St. Peter’s Square for a Mass in honor of St. Pio of Pietreclina (Padre Pio).

Again, the eternality of Rome.  A large group of pilgrims were gathered in the square, built in the 15th and 16th centuries, in front of an obelisk more than 2,000 years old, which may have been the last thing that St. Peter saw before he died for the faith, celebrating with his current successor a saint who died just some 40 years ago. 

My wife and I then shared a relaxing lunch with Father Pondo and Father Beidelman, two friends of mine for more than 10 years.

Cindy and I then tried to make our way, based on Father Pondo’s directions about Rome’s bus system, to St. John Lateran.  Well, I don’t really know what was to blame, but we didn’t get there.  After walking some streets for a short time not knowing where we were, we literally stumbled upon the Basilica of San Clemente, another ancient Roman church that makes 500-year-old churches look brand new by comparison.

Like the other churches we had seen earlier in the day, it was marked by many beautiful mosaics.  Unfortunately, we did not have time to view the ruins that lie underneath it, including what is left on an ancient temple of Mithra.

We then took a taxi to the Church of the Gesu (about 400 years old), the home in Rome of the Jesuits.  The church was packed with likely far more than 1,000 worshippers for a Vespers service in honor of Blessed Mother Theodore Guérin.

A choir made up of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, the religious community founded by Blessed Mother Theodore in 1840, provided some beautiful music for the service which traced the course of the soon-to-be-saints life and how her legacy lives on today through the ministry of the Sisters of Providence and the thousands of people whose lives have been shaped in many positive ways by them.

A short impromptu choir concert followed afterward by a group of people from Etables, France, the hometown of Blessed Mother Theodore.  There were also many sisters there from the convent in Ruille sur Loire, where she entered religious life in 1823.

At the conclusion of Vespers, there was a real excitement in the air.  It seemed that everyone was looking forward with joy to the great celebration in St. Peter’s Square tomorrow where Pope Benedict will solemnly declare Blessed Mother Theodore a saint—the first from Indiana and only the eighth from the United States.

But before that can happen, sleep must be sought, something that, for me at least, is a rare commodity in this city filled with churches that seem to stretch across eternity.

Posted by Sean Gallagher at 5:18 p.m. on Saturday, October 14, 2006


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