January 31, 2008
While none of my blood is (sadly) Italian, my arrival in Rome was the closest experience to a homecoming I think I shall ever have. I expect that feelings will stir as I visit the island, Unije, from which my grandfather sailed for NYC in 1916″and again at the tomb of my ancestral sovereigns in Vienna. But not even the hallowed ghosts of the most benevolent secular government ever to reign over Christian souls evoke the same devotion as the actual seat of the Vicars of Christ, which I have been privileged to visit for this year’s seasons of Carnival, Lent, and Easter. I am staying a few hundred feet from the Janiculum wall”which the Latin inscription informs me was restored in 1869 by the Blessed Pius IX, the last pope to govern Rome. One must-see spot on my itinerary is the Porta Pia, which the anticlerical armies of Garibaldi breached with dynamite, and Pio Nono ordered the Swiss Guard and the Papal Zouaves to lay down their arms.
I’ve already been privileged to visit some historic sites, accompanying Thomas More College students on tours led by my learned colleague Dr. Paul Connell. We’ve explored the tangled, dusty streets of Trastevere”the Greenwich Village of Rome, now sadly as gentrified as Bleecker Street”in search of Rome’s most historic churches. The loveliest so far has been Santa Maria in Trastevere, one of the oldest Christian sites in Rome. The historical record tells that ground on this site began to exude a precious oil some 30 years before the birth of Christ”and that local Jews (who made up much of the population in ancient Trastevere) took this as a sign that the Messiah was nigh. Enough of them accepted the good news St. Peter brought to Rome that a Christian community sprang up around the site; the inscriptions from their tombs and catacombs, rudely inscribed in Latin and Greek, are plastered into the facade of the present church, a structure of medieval origin that is ornate with Renaissance, Baroque, and Rococo art. Best of all, its artworks are intertwined with the theme of oil—replete with virgins wise and foolish, all holding lamps.
The most significant spot in Trastevere, and perhaps in Rome, for those who care about the civilization of the West is a tiny chapel that dates from the 6th or 7th century called San Benedetto in Piscinula. Inside this badly battered, much restored little church is a crawlspace not much bigger than a coffin. It was in this monastic cell that St. Benedict lived during his time in Rome, before he removed to Subiaco, where he would compose the Rule of his religious order. Wiser men than I, such as the philosopher Alasdair Macintyre, have said that the only hope of restoration in the West will come from men like Benedict. It was monks of Benedict’s order who replanted the vines and restored the agricultural basis for life in a Europe rent by invasions of barbarian and Arab alike. One of the many inventions of the Benedictines was the liquor which bears their name. I wrote last year of Benedictine(s): “As the drink combines the leaves and blooms of field and fen to infuse a spirit, so St. Benedict yoked regular work and prayer to help men fuse with the Spirit. While the monks of the East might scorn and scourge the flesh, Benedict sought only to discipline it, to prune its passions and point it toward the Light. Monks of Benedict’s order weren”t known for burning pagan books”but patiently recopying them, in the confidence that the traces of wisdom they contained could nurture the growing body of Christendom.”
If I were to try to locate the Benedicts in Rome today, I’d have to leave Trastevere and head northeast, to another battered hole-in-the-wall parish called S. Gregorio dei Muratori. This church is served by the priests of the Fraternity of St. Peter”clerics who helped keep alive in the face of popular scorn and bureaucratic opposition the Church’s ancient Roman liturgy, which was cast off like an aging wife by an imprudent Pope Paul VI in 1970. It took an outright rebellion by the great African missionary Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre to save the ancient western rite from the memory hole. In 1988, when Pope John Paul II offered an olive branch to Lefebvre and his priests, it was rejected”except for a small group of priests who couldn’t endorse Lefebvre’s decision to ordain bishops without papal permission. These priests formed the Fraternity of St. Peter, and they accepted the deal which John Paul (at the urging of then-cardinal Ratzinger) had offered Lefebvre. It wasn’t particularly sweet”especially since few bishops around the world wanted much to do with priests they regarded as right-wing cranks. Meanwhile, the FSSP priests found themselves denounced as “traitors” and “dupes” by traditionalists who refused to make a deal with a Vatican they considered hopelessly compromised. Several of my friends pursued studies with the FSSP, whose program for anglophone seminarians was poorly organized at the time. Indeed, when the first crowd of hopeful young Americans arrived at Wigratzbad in (I believe) 1990, all the theology courses were either in German or French”but there were no language courses offered in either tongue. Recriminations over the split with Archbishop Lefebvre divided the seminarians into factions, and the food was awful even for Germany. As one would-be priest told me at the time: “All we have is meat and starch. I’ve been eating knudel for weeks. Every single person here has gained 20 pounds and is terminally constipated. No wonder we’re not getting along.”
It took some years to iron out such wrinkles. Now the Fraternity has a thriving English-language seminary in Denton, Nebraska, and serves around the world. What is more, its dogged insistence on retaining the reverent liturgy which (with few changes over the centuries) helped form saints from Benedict up through Padre Pio was vindicated in September, 2007 by Pope Benedict’s motu proprio Summorum Pontificum“which restored the old (“extraordinary”) form of the Roman rite to equal status with the new one crafted in 1970 (by an ecumenical committee). Interest in the old rite is spreading among the young, and youthful priests are taking lessons in Latin and proper rubrics. The bewildering scandal created in the 1970s by (let’s take these words one at a time) a Vatican… punishing… priests…for cleaving… to ancient… prayers seems likely to end”as the good Pope Benedict pursues a peace treaty with the still unreconciled traditionalists of the Society of St. Pius X.
This matters to more than Catholics. The Church is a bellwether of the fortunes of everything important to conservatives”family life, localism, education, you name it and the Church is crucial to its survival or disappearance. A wit in the 1920s once reassured the world that Bolshevism could not spread so long as it was restrained by “the German General Staff, the British House of Lords, the Academie FranÃ§aise, and the Holy See.” There isn’t much fight left in 1), 2) and 3), and since 1970 it has been unclear on which side much of the Church was playing. While the Church of Christ does not exist to save Western or any other civilization, such conservation is typically a happy side effect. It was Gregory the Great who saved the city of Rome from ruin in the Dark Ages and St. Benedict who passed along the light of learning all over Europe. Just now, I believe it is the priest of the FSSP who are handing on “the permanent things.” That’s why I was happy to join them this Sunday past for Solemn Mass at their hole in the wall. Just as the vast vineyards, libraries, and universities of the West crawled one day out of that cell in Trastevere, so the flame that these good priests have been tending at San Gregorio has relit every lamp in the Vatican.