February 13, 2008
Today in Rome I approached the throne of St. Peter and for the first time entered the Basilica built on his bones. I was blessed to make this visit not as a tourist or art student but as a penitent; I’d been procrastinating about going to see St. Peter’s baroque enormity, wanting to visit the smaller churches first on the advice of a native—who warned that after St. Peter’s the city’s smaller temples might seem “anticlimactic.” Since I’m to be here for three full months, I thought to wait at least until Holy Week. But the simple fact is I wanted to go to Confession, and the easiest places to find it in English are St. Peter’s, or Santa Susanna—a parish run by the liberal Paulist Fathers. Santa Susanna certainly is beautiful, but one foot in the door and the place fairly screams “Help, I’m being occupied by a bunch of American priests!” The tabernacle is shunted off to a side chapel out of sight, while in its place stands a large, ugly modern throne to enshrine the celebrant. Despite all the rococo fixtures, the feel is distinctly… suburban. At the exact spot where the Eucharist would normally reside in marble and gold, here stands a potted plant. In Orwell’s honor, I can only hope it’s an aspidistra.
The day started out at a much more humble spot, in the ancient Church of Santa Pudenziana, which holds the oldest Christian mosaic in Rome. Built on the house of the Roman senator whose daughter (Pudenzia) spent her youth collecting the butchered bodies of Christian martyrs to give them decent burial (her own head is reverently encased here in painted wax), the church is said to have once housed St. Peter himself. And tucked away in a side chapel one finds, beneath a modest sign announcing it, a marble altar on which St. Peter said his daily Mass. Elsewhere in the church lie the remains of a man whose relative once held St. Peter’s heir a hostage: Lucien Louis Joseph Napoleon Cardinal Bonaparte. The great-grand-nephew of the little Emperor, the good Lucien served as a cardinal in Rome and took part in the First Vatican Council—which was forced to disperse when anti-clerical Piedmontese invaded. Ironically, it was only the defeat of Lucien’s cousin, Louis Napoleon, in the Franco-Prussian War, that removed Rome’s French defenders—and delivered her to the anti-clericals who promised to “unify Italy.” (Natives tell me “We’re still waiting….”) The tangled skeins of history fray and lose their gold threads over time… until you stand before the grave of a forgotten Bonaparte in a dusty, half-forgotten church which is mainly used by Filipino migrants. All this, in a Roman senator’s house.
St. Peter’s square really does what all the art books promise: its colonnaded arms reach out to embrace the world. Once you pass through the brisk security lines, it’s a jump from light into darkness. The eyes take time to adjust. It’s impossible to take in one-tenth of the splendid artworks which reside here—the towering sculptures, the walls which hold not a single drop of paint, but are entirely made of colored mosaics, the baroque marbles depicting proud Counter-Reformation popes… and humble servants of the poor like Vincent de Paul. St. Helena, an Empress… and Juliana Falconieri, a blessedly neurasthenic nun who used to faint at the mention of sin. It makes perfect sense that this vast marble pile, heaped up with loving artistry in an age when papal authority was under challenge, and on the site where the first pope died, would expend much of its multicolored marble reasserting Peter’s primacy. There are churches throughout the city which focus on other mysteries of the Faith that catechized Europe, on the Passion, the Resurrection, the suffering of the martyrs, or any of dozens of attributes or apparitions of Mary. That is not the point here, though. This building stands for many things, but first of all for this: The fact that Christ has not abandoned us. That the Truth we seek is not to be found in tiny shards between the lines of a biblical critics’ crib of a butchered text, or even in the “inspired” heart poring over the Scriptures in his closet. We are not obliged to dig through the bone piles and fragmentary inscriptions of the Catacombs to find the “true” form of Christian life in an archaic reconstruction.
No, the Church is not a palimpsest, a puzzle, or even a proof. It’s a battleship, scarred and marked with patchwork here and there, with rivets fallen from its sides and the bleak records of a number of criminal captains whose best efforts could not sink her. As Noah’s ark must have, she sometimes reeks. (She’s stuffed to the rafters with sinful beasts like me.) But there’s nowhere else to spend our fleeting struggle with the sea. Far better to be a barnacle above the Ark’s water line, than the tallest tower to sink beneath the waves.
As I wandered from the Blessed Sacrament chapel in search of the anglophone confessionals, I thought: “When was the last time I saw nearly this much marble?” And then I recalled: It was on my first visit to the U.S. Supreme Court, on January 22, 1979. Those steps, too, I’m glad to reflect, were crowded with Catholics.
After a brief, businesslike confession with an English speaking priest from China—I wonder how many martyrs he counts in his family—I made my way to the great Cambio statue of St. Peter. Tourists were reaching up to touch his foot for luck. I paused, and kissed his toe.
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