The first copy of a particular comic strip arrived in my email inbox on Saturday, May 28th while I was still in Italy. I’m guessing it was in the paper that morning. It was from Jean Mc. and it was a copy of the Hagar the Horrible comic strip. As you probably know, Hagar is the Viking that finds himself in various circumstances. In this instance, Hagar is visiting his doctor and says, “Guess where I’ve been for the last month!” The doctor replies, “Italy!” Hagar responds, “Great guess! Did I pick up an accent?” To which the doctor replies, “No, you picked up fifteen pounds!”
As I said, Jean was the first to send this to me but they just kept coming for the rest of the day. It got to the point that I was wondering if you all were trying to tell me something!
I spent a week in Florence and a week in Rome. There is truly something very special about Florence, but from many respects, Rome truly does feel like the center of the world.
Charles Dickens in Pictures from Italy writes, “It is a place that ‘grows upon you’ every day. There seems to be always something to find out in it. There are the most extraordinary alleys and by-ways to walk about in. You can lose your way (what a comfort that is, when you are idle!) twenty times a day, if you like; and turn up again, under the most unexpected and surprising difficulties. It abounds in the strangest contrasts; things that are picturesque, ugly, mean, magnificent, delightful, and offensive, break upon the view at every turn.” And that is so very true.
You can be walking down a very narrow street that the sun might find its way to shine down on for an hour a day and then walk out into a sun-filled piazza with a bubbling fountain at one end and a cathedral towering above you at the other. Across the street from a gelato shop, you will find the ruins, many feet below the current street level, of the courtyard where Caesar was assassinated. And then you can walk into some obscure church and find some of the greatest works of art ever created. In the end, you are so overwhelmed by it all that you’re more exhausted than you are awed.
My advice to anyone who walks through these magnificent places: don’t forget to look up! The ceilings are as impressive (if not more so) as the surrounding walls and it was on one of the ceilings that I saw the one work of art that stopped me cold.
It was on the second floor of the Papal Palace in the Hall of Constantine, Constantine being the first Roman Emperor to legalize and convert to Christianity. The walls depict scenes in the life of Constantine and the Church, but the ceiling depicts another hall. In it stands a pedestal and on the pedestal is a crucifix. On the ground below and broken into many pieces is a statue of one of the old Roman gods. The fresco, by Tommaso Laureti, is called, The Triumph of Christianity. Not today, but you’re going to have to hear a sermon on that, but the point is that all of your senses are bombarded from every angle with light, color, sounds, smells… everything and it is amazing. Yet for me, all of that I was seeing was not what truly moved me. Let’s go back to Charles Dickens and his travels through Italy.
Dickens and his companions travel outside the old city walls to the Church of St. Sebastian. There they are met by a “gaunt Franciscan friar, with a wild bright eye” who was their guide through the catacombs that lie below the church. These catacombs have almost seven miles of tunnels where, in the early years, some 65,000 people were buried and of them, Dickens writes, “Graves, graves, graves; Graves of men, of women, of their little children, who ran crying to the persecutors, ‘We are Christians! We are Christians!’ that they might be murdered with their parents; Graves with the palm of martyrdom roughly cut into their stone boundaries, and little niches, made to hold a vessel of the martyrs’ blood.” It is at this point that Dicken’s Franciscan guide stops and says to them, “The Triumphs of the Faith are not above ground in our splendid Churches. They are here! Among the Martyrs’ Graves!” The faith of so many is not found in the vast buildings and treasures of art. Instead, the faith is found in the souls of God’s people, both the living and the dead, and I tell you about Dicken’s experience in this place because I also had the opportunity to walk through those very same catacombs. (I just finished reading Misery by Stephen King. The crazy lady in the book is Annie Wilkes and when Annie wants to say something is disgusting or creepy, she says it is “Oogy.”) Well, some may think this “oogy”, but as I was walking through those catacombs, I couldn’t help but trace my fingers through the niches where the bodies of the Saints once lay. I couldn’t stop from running my fingers along the walls touching what had been touched by so many faithful Christians who had come before me.
All the painted ceilings, great vaulted ceilings, domes, and masterpieces of art were truly overwhelming, but what truly moved my spirit was being so very near to these holy people and understanding that all that was above is built upon the foundation of those who were below.
I had the blessed opportunity to pray the Rosary at the tomb of one of my greatest heroes of the faith: St. Josemaría Escrivá. I touched this little medal of mine against his tomb, but as inspiring as it was to be in that place, it was so much more about being near to him and to greater holiness.
I had the opportunity to spend about thirty minutes in the Sistine Chapel. Before arriving, our guide helped us to understand what we were seeing and all that went into creating it. Amazing, but as I sat along the side staring up at the ceiling and the surrounding walls, I couldn’t help but think of all the great Saints that throughout the centuries had passed through this one place.
I saw the burial place of St. Paul and I saw a small niche in the catacombs below the Vatican above which, in Greek, was written, ΠΕΤΡΟΣ ΕΝΙ: “Peter is within” and in the niche was a small ossuary containing twenty-two bones of St. Peter. I confess, I cried, but it wasn’t just that place and those bones, it was more about being so near to one who had spoken to and learned from Jesus. One who had touched Jesus. So very close to the holy.
As Dicken’s Franciscan monk said, “The Triumphs of the Faith are not above ground…” they are here below, and it’s what is below that forms the foundation.
There was Escriva, but he was built upon the foundation of the martyrs at St. Sebastian and those like them, who were built upon the foundation of those greats who had passed through the Sistine Chapel, who were built upon the foundations of St. Peter and St. Paul. And what does Paul teach us about ourselves in his letter to the Ephesians? “You are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.” And St. Paul goes on to say, speaking to that church then and this church today, “In him… In Christ Jesus… you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”
Today is the celebration of the Holy Trinity and for me, all that I saw and experienced defined that last sentence and the workings of the Holy Trinity: the living and the dead who are in Christ Jesus are being built together into a church, the dwelling place of God—physically represented by the beautiful structures we build of marble and wood and bricks and spiritually represented by the communion of all the saints—and knit together by the very Spirit of God. Who we are is not only about what happened 2,000 years ago, but it is also about this building and the knitting together of all the saints including us today, and our role as a Christian people is to continue to build and form the foundation upon which others will build in the future, so that they might look upon our works and say, “The Triumphs of the Faith are here, found in those who built upon the solid foundation upon which we stand.”
Of all the greatest masterpieces and cathedrals, it is this foundation, this building, this cornerstone—Christ Jesus—which is the crowning jewel and you are one of the myriads of facets reflecting the light and glory of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Let us pray:
We pray You,
almighty and eternal God!
Who through Jesus Christ
has revealed Your glory to all nations,
to preserve the works of Your mercy,
that Your Church,
being spread throughout the whole world,
may continue with unchanging faith
in the confession of your name.