Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Apostles and Onlookers: Santa Maria del Popolo

This week, our class was reading the Acts of the Apostles. If you haven't read this lately, I highly recommend it. I had remembered from previous readings of the book the sense it gave me of the incredible power of the Christian faith, the closeness of Christian community, and the sense of the immediate presence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of Christian believers. In the midst of Paul's travels, as he finds and creates community everywhere he goes (throughout the Roman Empire, of course), he remembers the community that has sent him, and he trusts God throughout, whether the process seems to be bearing fruit or not. Let's just say that, as I re-read this book here in Rome, its stories of faith and perseverance struck me anew.

Together with our reading of Acts, the class went this week to Santa Maria del Popolo. This church was built in 1099 and has an odd story of origin. The land on which it was built belonged to the Domitia family. The infamous emperor Nero was a member of this family, and after his suicide in 68, his ashes were buried on the family land. In 1099, a large walnut tree was growing on the site, and many crows hung about the tree, and people were convinced that the crows were in fact demons drawn to the site by Nero's spirit. With great ceremony, Pope Paschal II cut down the tree (and, some say, scattered Nero's ashes), and had a chapel built on the spot. Eventually, the church was rebuilt and renovated to become Santa Maria del Popolo.

It's a historic church, long served by members of the Augustinian order. When Martin Luther visited Rome in 1511 (then an Augustinian monk), he stayed in the cloister here. The artists who worked on renovations and side chapels (in various periods, obviously), included Raphael, Andrea Bregno, Bernini, and, of course, Caravaggio.

It was the two famous Caravaggio paintings that brought us here today. A little chapel at the front left of the church houses The Crucifixion of St. Peter and The Conversion of St. Paul. You can see the paintings with the links (unfortunately, photos weren't allowed). We spent some time looking at each painting, as well as some time talking about each. It is striking how young Paul is at his conversion and how old Peter is at his crucifixion. Caravaggio's attention to the details is amazing; consider the dirt on the bottom of the bare foot in the bottom left of the Peter painting. Given the way martyrdom has already taken shape as a theme for the course, we were very drawn to the Peter painting. We were especially intrigued by Peter's eyes looking to the nail in his own left hand (Is he regretting that he let himself get into this? Or is he remembering how the nail marks looked upon the hands of the Risen Christ?) and by the man in the upper left whose eyes seem to be upon Peter's face and whose arms seem to be as much cradling Peter's legs as lifting them (Is he just looking where he needs to look to get the job done? Or is he wondering at the faith that allows an old man the courage to face this brutal death?). Likewise, we were intrigued both by Paul's eyes (closed, as he sees a vision that, apparently, only he sees) and the man who holds the animal, seemingly unconcerned with Paul or his vision.

Interestingly, in the book of Acts, the story of Paul's conversion is told three times. In Acts 9:7 we read the story itself, which reports that the people with Paul heard the voice but saw nothing (Acts 9:7). Twice later, Paul tells the story. In Acts 22:9, he reports that they saw the light but did not hear the voice. In chapter 26, Paul tells the story again (to King Herod Agrippa II) and reports that everyone saw the light and fell to the ground. He says that he heard the voice, but does not comment on whether his companions did.

I've been thinking a lot since class about those two onlookers and what it is that they thought they saw. Do you mostly see an animal you have to care for since its rider has fallen? Or do you know (or learn) enough about the rest of the story to see that this man is experiencing something that will change not only the course of his own life, but really, the course of the life of the world? Or, in the case of the other, do you just see another man condemned to die in one of Nero's bloody celebrations of imperial power? Or do you somehow manage to see and to learn of the faith that brought him to that point?

All of us, of course, are onlookers in others' lives, whether we are looking at the faces around us or at the faces that history (sometimes with the help of artists!) has left us. Learning to see them, both as truthfully and as charitably as possible, is one of the most crucial skills for us to develop. And, of course, seeing others--especially martyrs, missionaries, and visionaries, but even onlookers--helps us to see the possibilities for ourselves as well.

I love that Pope Paschal's instinct to cut down the walnut tree and dedicate a church to Our Lady has meant that Peter and Paul, and other Christian stories and works of art, claim this particular place (and all of Rome, of course) much more powerfully than Nero and his demons.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

St. John Lateran: Constantine and the Church

This week, my class was reading the Gospel of John, and we made a site visit to St. John Lateran. St. John Lateran is actually the official cathedral of the Diocese of Rome. In fact, the official name of the place is the Archbasilica of the Most Holy Savior and Sts. John the Baptist and the Evangelist at the Lateran. As an archbasilica, it actually ranks ahead of, and is older than, all of the other basilicas. It is also dedicated principally to Christ, and only secondarily to the good saints John, the Baptist and the Evangelist. The name "Lateran" refers to the family of Plautius Lateranus, who owned this property up until the time of Nero, whom he conspired against, for which crime he was deprived of this property and executed. The property came into the hands of Constantine through his wife Fausta, and he gave it to Pope Melchiades just after his victory at the Milvian Bridge, in order for the pope to build a church.

We actually started our visit at the baptistry. Although there is a tradition that Constantine built this baptistry AND was baptized there, the former seems to be true, but the latter is not. In both the church and the baptistry, there is quite a bit of art celebrating Constantine and his conversion story. The picture above is one of five frescoes that ring the baptistry. It celebrates the famous story of Constantine's vision of the cross ("in this sign, you will conquer") before the Battle at the Milvian Bridge.

The class and I stood in front of this picture for a while. Let me remind you that, at this point in the class, not only have we read all four gospels but we've also read Craig Hovey's book To Share in the Body: A Theology of Martyrdom for Today's Church. We're primed to see the victory of the cross much more in terms of Jesus than in terms of Constantine. Although the idea is not a new one for me, I've never been so struck by how powerfully this story in particular turns the power of the cross from a power that we might name in terms like "self-sacrificial love" or "faithfulness even to the point of death" to something much more akin to military might. Constantine's vision really reappropriates the cross; the God who once suffered violence unto death on this instrument now uses it as a sign to bless certain forms of violence with victory.

As we stood there, one of the students pointed out (I'm paraphrasing, of course, but the gist was), "But God wanted Constantine to win, and to convert, so that He could use the Roman Empire to spread the Gospel. The Church wouldn't have survived without that." Now, that's a very powerful claim (I might have worded it a little more strongly than she actually did), but I think most of us think something a little like that, that the Church needs the cooperation of the powers of the world in order to survive. But I think that if we really think about that claim, we will begin to see how false it is. I'm not saying that God (and the Church) can't or doesn't use the powers of the world in such a way, but if we really believe that the Church and the Gospel would not have survived without the Roman Empire, shouldn't we put our faith in the Empire rather than the Gospel?

I told my students at the beginning of the semester that Rome is a place unlike any other to confront time and time again the question of whether the alliance forged between God and Caesar was the perfect synthesis, or whether it was a compromise of the Gospel, or (more strongly) even a betrayal of the Gospel. This week's visit really brought that home, I think. We took some time to appreciate both the baptistry and the main church as among the most ancient sites built explicitly by Christians for Christian worship in public. There is something very powerful about that. But it also raises a lot of questions about the costs and benefits that "going public" had for Christianity.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

St. Mark the Evangelist

This past week, my class read Mark's gospel, and we made a visit to the Basilica San Marco, near the Piazza Venezia. For those of you who don't know (as I didn't before I started prepping for this course!), St. Mark is the patron of Venice. In fact, the people of Venice are so serious about St. Mark that in the ninth century, a couple of Venitian merchants snuck into Alexandria and stole Mark's remains to bring him to Venice. The Basilica of San Marco in Rome was founded by Pope St. Mark in 336, and an unlikely legend says that it was built on the very spot where St. Mark the Evangelist lived when he was in Rome. The church was rebuilt in the 5th century, restored and improved in the 8th and 9th, and further transformed in the 15th and 18th. Some fragments of the 4th century church have been excavated beneath the current structure.

Our visit to San Marco was a lesson not simply in the life, death, and relics of the saint, but also in how life in Italy sometimes doesn't work quite the way we Americans expect. I had checked and found that the Basilica is open every Tuesday from 8:30-12:30--perfect for my 9am Tuesday classtime. I got there by about 8:40, hoping to take a quick peek inside before the students arrived. I arrived to find the gates closed and locked. It was particularly frustrating to look through the bars and see the sign that listed the same opening times I had found previously. I even had a chance to commiserate with an Italian gentleman who also stopped and looked longingly at the sign. "Non e aperta?" No, I guess not.

My students arrived and I decided to switch the class around a bit. We found an out of the way spot to gather and open up our texts and dive into Mark's gospel. We've also been reading Craig Hovey's To Share in the Body: A Theology of Martyrdom for Today's Church. In this text, Hovey argues that Mark's gospel, written for a persecuted church, is also a timeless reminder that all Christians of all times and places are called to be witnesses to Christ, even to the point of suffering for our faith if that is what is asked of us. It has been powerful to be reading this text here in Rome, where there are relics and reminders of martyrs around every corner. But I'm particularly glad to be reading this text with students (along with Scripture and with Scripture scholarship) because it really pushes them to see that martyrdom is not only a historical reality from a certain era of the life of the Church, but is theologically important in every time and in every place.

Returning to the church about 10:45, we found it open and were able to go right in. The students immediately noted the contrast with Santa Maria Maggiore--so much quieter, less crowded--and seemed to appreciate being away from the bustle of some of the more popular tourist sites we've been to. It's funny, San Marco almost didn't make the cut (so many sites to see here, so little time!), but I'm really glad it did. One of the first things we read this semester was Dei Verbum, the Second Vatican Council's Constitution on Divine Revelation (required reading for most Catholic scripture classes, I imagine!). I thought this would help us understand Scripture's importance in the life of the Church, which, of course, it does. But the council fathers saw fit to speak of tradition hand in hand with Scripture, and the way that the Church's collective understanding increases over time:

For there is a growth in the understanding of the realities and the words which have been handed down. This happens through the contemplation and study made by believers, who treasure these things in their hearts (see Luke, 2:19, 51) through a penetrating understanding of the spiritual realities which they experience, and through the preaching of those who have received through Episcopal succession the sure gift of truth. For as the centuries succeed one another, the Church constantly moves forward toward the fullness of divine truth until the words of God reach their complete fulfillment in her. (DV, #8)

What a gift to be able to visit these holy places where the sense of "the centuries succeed[ing] one another" is palpable, and the witness of believers from so many different eras seem to overlap upon one another.

Monday, October 3, 2011

A visit to St. Mary Major

This past week, our class visited the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore to enrich our reading of Luke's Gospel. This was another great example of the way the centuries of Christian faith in this place really bring to life the ways in which different eras of the life of the Church inform and shape its understanding of scripture, and the ways that gets expressed in the art of the Church.

Legend has it that the first church built on the site of S. Maria Maggiore was built shortly after Our Lady appeared in a dream either to then-Pope Liberius or a Roman named Giovanni, or perhaps both, letting them know that they should build on the site where they found snow the next morning. The next morning, August 5th (Rome is HOT in August!), snow was found on the hill where S. Maria Maggiore stands to this day. Now, parts of the current church date back to the time of Sixtus II (around the 430s), and there isn't any clear evidence of a prior structure, but it's a great story.

But the story of Sixtus building this church dedicated to Mary, immediately in the wake of the Council of Ephesus, which had confirmed and offered theological defenses for calling Mary "Theotokos" and "Mother of God," is also a great story. And, of course, on walking into the church, one can see artwork of Mary (and many other persons and scenes, especially biblical ones!) not only from the time of Sixtus, but from the time of the 12th century restoration, as well as earlier and later.

One of my favorite pieces to contemplate is now known as the "Salus Populi Romani." Legend holds that St. Luke the Evangelist himself painted this piece on the top of a table that Jesus himself had made (it is 3 foot by 5 foot!). Our Lady sat for the painting, and as she sat, she told Luke story after story of Jesus, many of which made it into his Gospel. (Ever wondered why Luke has more Marian stories than any other Gospel, and a more extensive infancy narrative than anyone else?) Again, according to the legend, the painting was kept by Christians in and around Jerusalem until it was discovered by St. Helena on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and she brought it with her back to Rome. (By the way, legend has it that St. Helena also brought back a piece of the true creche, also housed in this basilica.)

Of course, with a little digging, one finds that the earliest date modern scholars have been willing to give this piece is the fifth century, so these legends are likely false. But it was wonderful to watch the students encounter these pieces, reverenced for centuries, and try to sort through how best to think of them. We had a great conversation about the particular nature of the Incarnation: even if these pieces are not the ones, and even if in truth they have fallen to pieces, there were tables that Jesus made and sat at, there were beds and creches he slept in, there was a cross on which he was crucified, a tomb in which he was lain. We are, of course, in Rome, not in Israel, but I could almost see the claims of our very incarnational faith becoming a bit more real for them.