Tuesday, 19 March 2013

XV Rome: The Eternal City

Minor ailments notwithstanding, it was wonderful to be visiting Rome, my excuse being that i’d been invited to a wedding in Calabria, in the far south of Italy, taking place at the end of the week. It meant that i could see the Vatican and the captivating interior of St Peter’s Basilica for the first time - on my only previous visit, as a feckless atheist teenager, i’d been wearing shorts and wasn’t allowed in. On Sunday 7th August i went to Mass in the little chapel at the airport, before taking a bus into town, from which could be seen a poster about an anti-war demonstration on the day before, 6th August, the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Before long i was in St Peter’s Square, but though the weather was more or less perfect, i realised my cold would preclude me from queueing to go inside the great church. After some time in an internet café, a nap on a park bench, and pottering about near the Colloseum, after dark i found a nice not-too-expensive hotel near Rome Termini train station. Feeling better on Monday 8th August, St Dominic’s day, i opted for an organised tour of the Vatican museums, with a young guide from the US, featuring of course a stunning wealth of breathtaking masterpieces, not least frescoes by Raphael and some very worthwhile daubs by Michaelangelo in the Sistine Chapel, the subject of a Russian language book which i bought for a friend. Also on sale was a well-thumbed copy of the second part of Pope Benedict’s epoch-defining biography of Our Lord, ‘Jesus of Nazareth’. Any doubts over buying it were dispelled, when i opened it to a page with a little fold in the corner, to find a commentary on these words from St John’s Gospel:
St Peter's Basilica, Rome

“I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in Me through their word, that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe that You have sent Me.” [John 17:20-21]

“For this the Lord prayed: for a unity that can come into existence only from God and through Christ and yet is so concrete in its appearance that in it we are able to see God’s power at work. That is why the struggle for the visible unity of the disciples of Jesus Christ remains an urgent task for Christians of all times and places.”

   Walsingham is almost unique, outside the Holy Land, in holding a place in the affections of the faithful of all three major branches of Christianity, making it the ideal place from which to set off, on Christian Unity Sunday,  on an expedition dedicated to the cause of Christian unity; “…so that the world may believe”. My prayer has been that God would take this pilgrimage as His own and use it expressly for this most dearly cherished aspiration. Because Christian unity is a matter of life and death. Not only in terms of the eternal salvation of the souls of people who can make themselves seen and heard (important as that is), but concretely, Christian unity is a matter of life and death for those who are hampered in their ability to be seen or heard. Who could have imagined, in the age of the electron microscope, that the course of western history would take such a barbaric turn, as to see the condemnation of our fellow human beings, deeming them fit for nothing more than summary slaughter, for the ‘crime’ of being invisible to the naked eye? These are our children - the most precious members of any and every society. These little infants are the future of our society. They are the teachers, nurses, builders, doctors, train drivers; sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, grandparents of the future. Or at the other end of life, how could we have become so unfeeling as to give credence to the notion that our fellow humans can be considered as no more than burdens, inconvenient remnants of the past, no longer worthy to occupy space on earth, for whom there must be a conveyor belt into the grave? Never has there been such merciless contempt for the weakest, most utterly defenceless members of our society as there is now. Christian disunity, insofar as it impedes efforts to speak out on their behalf, is the end of the world for those people who depend on someone – anyone, to speak for them. And ironically, given that selfishness undoubtedly is at the heart of our cultural malaise, this obligation to speak out is firmly rooted in self-interest. How many times must we see the words of Pastor Martin Niemoller, before acknowledging that they apply to us, here and now?

“First they came for the communists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a communist
Then they came for the socialists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a socialist
Then they came for the trade unionists
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for the Jews
And I did not speak out
Because I was not a Jew
Then they came for me
And there was no one left
To speak out for me”

“And Jesus knowing their thoughts, said to them: Every kingdom divided against itself shall be made desolate: and every city or house divided against itself shall fall.” [Mt 12:25]

   When the tour had finished i came round the Vatican’s magnificent outer walls, and back to St Peter’s Square. After an hour or so of joyful wonderment and meditation inside St Peter’s Basilica, and praying at the tomb of Blessed John XXIII, i took a photo of a pair of Swiss guards, and called out the name of San Dominico to some Dominicans in their distinctive black and white habits. The journey by train to Calabria allowed me to make yet another pilgrimage within a pilgrimage, to Bari, at whose thousand year-old Basilica i could pray for young people and the cause of Christian unity before the tomb of St Nicholas of Mira, the fourth century Bishop so dearly beloved of Christians, and indeed Muslims, and above all children the world over. May he please pray for us.     

   Mount Etna, the active volcano on the island of Sicily, fumed dramatically in the background as we celebrated the wedding, not far from Reggio di Calabria. Boarding another locomotive, i headed home via the enchanted Alpine scenery of Austria, before arriving in Munich, where it proved helpful to be able to fix myself up with one last improvised sleep, in the basement of a recently constructed apartment block. On the next day i economised by taking a train with numerous connections to Dusseldorf, including a passage through the valley of the Rhine, encrusted with seemingly dozens of fairy tale castles. An overnight coach from the Ruhr passed through Brussels on its way to Calais, from where we crossed by ferry to Dover, before reaching London on the morning of Monday 15th August, when the Church traditionally marks the Assumption of Our Lady into heaven.

   In expounding the relative merits of the three principal prayers of each decade of the Rosary, the Our Father, the Hail Mary and the Glory be, Blessed John Paul II stated that the summit of contemplation is focused on the last:

"To the extent that meditation on the mystery is attentive and profound, and to the extent that it is enlivened - from one Hail Mary to another - by love for Christ and for Mary, the glorification of the Trinity at the end of each decade, far from being a perfunctory conclusion, takes on its proper contemplative tone, raising the mind as it were to the heights of heaven, and enabling us in some way to relive the experience of [the Transfiguration], a foretaste of the contemplation yet to come: 'It is good for us to be here!'" [Lk. 9:33; RVM, no. 34].

   So conceivably, one might conclude from this that while the Rosary is a Marian devotion, in which Our Lady as it were takes us by the hand and leads us through the life of her Son, nevertheless its apogee, the Glory be, transcends Mary, and lifts our thoughts above the one who, after all, is but a mortal; the Mother, yes, but also a mere creature, in need of her Saviour, like everyone else. Could this be the key to unity? Must we moderate our devotion to Mary, seen as she is, even by some Christians, as a distraction, or worse an infantile preoccupation, an idol, even. Not on your life. Among human beings, nobody’s perfect – except St Mary, the Immaculate Conception.[1] On one level, the Glory be is a prayer of acclamation of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary; she who is, uniquely in our race, Daughter of the Father, Mother of the Son, and Spouse of the Holy Spirit:

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: World Without End. Amen.

[1] “The Immaculate Conception is a dogma of the Catholic Church maintaining that from the moment when she was conceived the Blessed Virgin Mary was kept free of original sin and was filled with the sanctifying grace normally conferred during baptism.” [Wikipedia]

Musicians and dancers gathering at Zocalo Cathedral, Mexico City, to mark the IXth anniversary of the canonisation of
St Juan Diego, 30 July 2011