Well, we're back again from the land of apostles. We've had such an incredible pilgrimage and seen so much that it will take some time to digest it all. Fr. Alex was a valuable treasury of information about Rome, and he saved us a lot of wandering around wondering what everything meant and how it was all connected. We were also fortunate to have many people involved in the week. Pauline, who helps the School in many ways, came to join us. Here's a day by day account of what we did:
2.30 am - started our godly trip at an ungodly hour. Went to pick up the Padre and drive to Stanstead for a 6.00 am flight.
Having arrived to Ciampino we went to the Carmel at Sassone where we were staying. The staff there were amazing, especially Fr. Nemo who - as Vincent pointed out - was a priest, a cook and a receptionist all rolled into one! In the afternoon we went into Rome, and visited San Maria Maggiore, the Basilica which was dedicated to Mary the Mother of God in the 5th century, and which is built on the location where traditionally Mary caused snow to fall in midsummer. The Basilica has a relic of the Manger from Bethlehem. Then in the evening we went for Mass and dinner to the English College, where 20-something seminarians from England and Wales are training for the priesthood. They were very hospitable and gave us a tour of the college, including the upper section of the main church where many English martyrs are depicted at their execution. A pause for thought for these seminarians and for us who live in a time when we are relatively free to practice our faith...
In the morning we passed by Quo Vadis Church, traditionally the site where St. Peter, who was fleeing Rome during a time of government persecution, had a vision of Christ. Seeing Christ walking the opposite way into the city, St. Peter asked 'Quo vadis? (where are you going?)', to which Christ replied, 'I am going to be crucified again.' At this St. Peter took courage and went back to Rome. We then had a tour of the Catacombs of St. Callixtus where some 2,000 martyrs were buried and some 3,000 Christians. Fr. Alex celebrated Mass for our intentions in one of the chapels there. Then on to the Vatican Museums where we craned our necks back in the Sistine Chapel.
Today was the most important day for many of us. In the morning we had a tour of the Scavi, the excavated site underneath St. Peter's. What we saw there was a Necropolis ('city of the dead') where the Romans used to build mausoleums for their beloved deceased, this whole area being just outside of Rome. We saw many of these mausoleums, richly decorated with patterns and mythological stories on the inside, and in most of them a staircase would have taken the family from the tombs of their deceased to an upper balcony where they could overlook the whole necropolis and share a 'meal of the dead'. This site was also a place where Christians who died in the circus were buried - after the fire of Rome Emperor Nero appeased the population by persecuting Christians at his private circus where the Vatican now exists. Such was the fate of St. Peter, whose tomb became a shrine and was later elaborated upon by Constantine, who built the original basilica on that site. However, it wasn't until the mid-20th century that anyone was able to verify if St. Peter was actually buried there. At first it seemed not because there were no traces of him in the tomb of the shrine, but in a tomb above the shrine bones were found of a man in his 50's or 60's, who had been buried in the shrine previously, and who had no feet to be found - when St. Peter was crucified upside down they would have taken his body off of the cross by simply cutting his feet off at the top and burying the rest of him. We were able to see bones of St. Peter, something very humbling for us, because as Fr. Alex says it was through the seeds of martyrdom that the Church came into being. Looking at St. Peter's bones takes us back through 2,000 years of ordinary men and women giving account of the extraordinary hope that is within them.
In the afternoon we had an excellent tour of St. Peter's itself from James McCarthy, one of the Australian seminarians at the North American College (he came and stayed with us for Christmas). He told us everything from how there were no painting in the basilica - only moscaics - to how the top section of St. Peter's facade was added on to satisfy the proportions of the building and the square - so that's why you can't see the dome properly! He also pointed out the place where Pope John Paul II was shot, now marked by a little plaque:
A stone's throw from St. Peter's is the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith which is overseen by Cardinal Levada and which protects the teaching of the Church. Fr. Patrick Burke showed us the library, the little pink room where the head of the CDF meets bishops etc. to discuss particular cases where the faith has been attacked, and the meeting room where cardinals and priests make decisions among themselves concerning individual cases. 'People have this ridiculous notion that we excommunicate people left right and centre,' said Fr. Pat, 'It's a load of rubbish. If someone's work is publicly denounced, it means we've come to that as an absolutely last resort, mulling over the case, dialoguing with the author in question, talking to his superior or bishop, making sure first that what he says really can't be read as Church teaching, and all this takes as long as ten or twelve years.' Well, the Church is slow but sure.
I'll write up the rest of our trip when I get a chance...