October 18, 2006

Rome and papal audience

By Sean Gallagher

(See a photo gallery for this post)

Papal audience in RomePapal Audience

After a week of focusing our hearts and minds on the saints, we spent some time today reflecting with the Holy Father on the quintessential “anti-saint”:  Judas Iscariot.

After a week of witnessing how human freedom and God’s grace can come together to make miracles, the ultimate abuse of freedom—Judas’ betrayal of Christ—was laid before us.

Today our pilgrimage group attended Pope Benedict XVI’s Wednesday general audience held in St. Peter’s Square.

I went to a general audience in the Paul VI Hall in 1993.  That auditorium holds a few thousand people.  How things have changed.  At least half the square was filled today for the audience.  Pilgrims from all over the world came to see the pope and listen to the final installment in his reflections on the lives of the apostles.

We arrived approximately two hours before the start of the audience and were able to secure seats along the side of one of the front sections of the general seating.  We soon learned that these were very good seats indeed, at least if you want to see the pope up close.  At about 10:30, he drove by slowly in his popemobile.  I was able to get several decent photographs of him.

After several months of presentations on the holy apostles, Pope Benedict spoke today about the one apostle, Judas Iscariot, who is not a saint and is, according to some theological traditions, the one person that we know with some certainty is in hell.

The main message of the pope, it seemed to me, was that the example of Judas should be a constant reminder to all the faithful that being close to Jesus does not secure one’s own sanctity either here or in the life to come.  At all points in our life we are free to accept God’s grace and build up a relationship of love with Christ and we are free to reject that love and reap the despair and alienation that results from such a choice.

This was a timely message for all of us on this, our last full day in Rome.  Being on a pilgrimage is, in some ways, like the Transfiguration.  To borrow St. Peter’s words, it’s a good thing that we are here.  But we eventually have to come down from the mountain.

We have to go to our homes and, in our freedom, choose to apply in the ordinary circumstances of our daily lives for our good, the good of our friends and families, and ultimately for the glory of God, the grace that we have received in abundance over this past week.  It is in these moments that we either build up our relationship with Christ or walk away from him step by step.

Mass and the Catacomb of Santa Priscilla

After the conclusion of the audience, our group walked to a nearby parish church where Archbishop Buechlein was the primary celebrant for our final Mass together.  Then, in anticipation of what will happen in a much more permanent way tomorrow, we went our separate ways.

Some folks in the group went on a day trip to Monte Cassino, a monastery founded by St. Benedict some 1,500 years ago.  Others stayed in Rome for various pursuits.  My wife and I choose the latter option.

After eating some lunch, my wife and I took a taxi to the Catacomb of Santa Priscilla (http://web.tiscali.it/catacombe_priscilla/).  I had visited it 13 years ago and this return visit was a real spiritual treat.

I got to see and say a prayer before the oldest still-existing image of Mary, an image that dates from the first half of the third century, and the oldest still-existing image of the adoration of the Magi, which dates from about a half century later.

There were also frescoes of the Good Shepherd and of various biblical characters such as Moses, Jonah, and Susanna (from the Book of Daniel).  But there were also other images that weren’t strictly Christian in origin but which were employed to Christian ends: the peacock as a symbol of immortality, the phoenix as a sign of resurrection.

We also learned about some the grave stones that are there.  One was written by a father upon the death of his “sweet son.”  Others showed the love between spouses.  Another had a shoe carved into, apparently highlighting the craft of the deceased.

All of this, as well as the many tombs for little children and larger ones for spouses or siblings, called to mind that the early Christians were very human people.  This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but too often, I think, they’re viewed solely as stiff characters in the drama of persecution.

Coming to see the concrete circumstances of their lives, though, puts real flesh and bones (I think there might be a pun there…) on my meditations on the life of faith of these early disciples and what impact they could have on me now.

When they embraced the faith, they were taking a real chance.  Persecutions weren’t constant and some were restricted to a relatively narrow geographical area.  But they happened early enough in the history of the Church that one had to know that it was a real possibility and that there were very real risks involving one’s family and livelihood in being baptized.

Would that I would embrace the faith like these people did who lived in their homes with real people, worked at real jobs, and, with hearts buoyed by the virtue of hope, buried their fellow Christians and were buried themselves in these places.

But 40,000 people were buried in this catacomb.  Hopefully all of them are in heaven.  But some of them may not be.  They may have made the choice of Judas.

Piazza Navona and the Basilica of Santa Sabina

After completing our visit to Santa Priscilla, my wife and I took another taxi to Piazza Navona.  The fountain of the four rivers, the main architectural feature of the piazza, was covered in scaffolds.  Our main purpose in going there was to purchase a couple of water colors, which we did.

We also paid an almost obligatory visit to a gelateria.  This time it was to the fairly well-known “Tre Scalini.”  Very good.  Better than the Old Bridge in my opinion.

Our final stop of he day was to the Aventine Hill.  There we paid a brief visit to the Church of San Anelmo.  It is the church of a Benedictine abbey of the same name where monks of monasteries from around the world come to live as they study in Rome.

Our main visit, though, was to the Basilica of Santa Sabina.  This church was built in the first half of the fifth century, a little more than a century after the hey day of Santa Priscilla.  It is a starkly beautiful example of the Roman basilica style of church architecture.  Although some 1,600 years old, it has largely remained untouched since then.  No Counter-Reformation encrustations have been added to it.  In many ways, stepping in there is like stepping back into the heart of the patristic period.

It has long been cared for by the Dominicans and St. Dominic himself and St. Thomas Aquinas lived for periods in the attached priory.


It’s getting very later here in Rome as I write this last entry in the blog and I have a fairly early wake-up call.

The trip has certainly been historic.  I and so many others who love St. Theodora witnessed her canonized as Indiana’s first saint.

It’s also been very busy.  For in addition to traveling to and fro with the pilgrims, I’ve taken lots of photos, interviewed lots of people, and written blog entries and articles.  Hopefully this work will bear spiritual fruit for the folks who read my writing and see my photos who weren’t able to come to Rome

I’ve also deliberately not rested that much during the day because I don’t know when or if I’ll get back to Rome again and so in our periods of free time, my wife and I chose to go to places that we thought would be spiritually beneficial for us and, through us, for our children.

The one regret that I have is that I was unable to visit the crypt of St. Peter’s, which means that I didn’t visit the tomb of Pope John Paul II.  The line for such a visit was very long and this afternoon was about the only chance we had.

We made our choices though.  And I think our late Holy Father would have been pleased with them.  Hopefully the choices we’ve made in this trip and the prayers that we’ve offered will lead us closer to Christ and not, like Judas, to a sad separation for our Savior.

Until the next time, Rome, arrivedercci.

Posted by Sean Gallagher at 7:06 p.m. on Wednesday, October 18, 2006


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