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Letter from Rome, February 29, 2020: Worldliness and The Eternal City

On the ebb and flow of faux glamour, tough times, and revived beauty.

Roma, santuario del Divino Amore, la chiesa antica. (Wikipedia)

I took a cab from my house to the press conference on Friday. Traffic was light. Let me explain: traffic was light, on a Friday, at about 11 am, on what are usually very busy sections of very busy streets. My driver was moaning the blues about the downturn in business. Coronavirus may not be killing lots of people, but it has worked over the travel and tourism industries. The folks in ancillary and adjacent businesses are feeling the hurt, as well.

It’s going to be a tough year.

If this health emergency magically disappeared tomorrow, it would still be a tough year: the damage is done, and there’s no undoing it. Oh, well. That’s the way of things. We drove past the Piramide — which, as it sounds, is a pyramid structure built by Gaius Cestius, a wealthy magnate in the early part of Augustus’s reign, to serve as his mausoleum — and we both remarked the seemingly endless work to fix a couple of pedestrian and traffic-flow islands.

Actually, we remarked on the seemingly endless lack of work: the project is staked out in orange netting, but no one was working. That’s hardly a scene peculiar to Rome, and not entirely unexpected at that hour of a weekday. It is the world in a nutshell, these days.

Actually, it wasn’t a press conference, for which I was headed, either.

It was a “Meeting Point” for journos interested in the new “task force” the Holy See has assembled to help bishops’ conferences and religious orders craft guidelines for handling abuse complaints. I’ll have more about it in next week’s edition of The Catholic Herald (don’t miss it!), so suffice it to say for now that it was rather less helpful than one might have hoped.

Earlier this week, at catechism class in our parish, our pastor announced a pilgrimage for the kids to Holy Cross in Jerusalem. I mean the basilica down the way from Rome’s cathedral, where there are relics of the True Cross, which St. Helen — Constantine’s mother — is said to have brought to Rome in the 4th century. Whether she did or she didn’t, the ones there now are fairly generally accepted to be medieval forgeries. Still, it’s a neat thing to do.

There was a bit of a to-do over the basilica a few years back.

Benedict XVI suppressed the Cistercian abbey that had the care of the place, after ordering an apostolic visitation that uncovered financial irregularities, ambiguous moral behavior, and a general attachment to the world. Reports at the time contained details like these from Giacomo Galeazzi for La Stampa: “The glamour world of Rome felt very much at home in the designer gardens of the Basilica di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, where they bought organic fruit and vegetables (which were actually bought by the monks from a nearby grocery store).”

Galeazzi explained that two decades under an abbot who had been a fashion designer in Milan before he entered religion had brought the complex to serve “as a meeting place for earthly and spiritual powers arranged by the Friends of the Holy Cross,” the Amici di Santa Croce, headed by a descendant of Charlemagne. “In short,” Galeazzi reported, “there was too much worldliness for one of the most venerated places of Christendom.”

It’s the sort of thing that happens from time to time in this city.

I think my 9-year-old daughter was still in a stroller the last time I was in the basilica. Come to think of it, that would have been about when all the business about the suppression was shaking out. Don’t quote me on that, though. In any case, I’m looking forward to the pilgrimage — and to another Roman pilgrimage tradition that will be picking up soon.

I mean the nocturnal one to the Sanctuary of Divine Love — il santuario di Divino Amore — on the outskirts of the city, which has been around since the Middle Ages and has been a steady draw for pilgrims since the 18th century.

Between the reunification of Italy and the Lateran Pacts, the shrine fell on hard times.

After some relics and ex voto offerings were stolen, Rome ordered a visitation, which brought the squalor into which the place had fallen to the attention of ecclesiastical authority. Pius XI ordered a restoration and appointed one of the inspectors to keep the shrine.

Pius XII moved the famous fresco of Our Lady of Divine Love inside the city during the war years, eventually to the church of St. Ignatius Loyola. He visited the translated Divino Amore shrine in 1944, and led the Romans in prayer to Our Lady for the deliverance of the city when it was rumoured the Allies were going to conduct a bombing campaign.

There’s a pretty ugly modern church there now, but there are other older churches and chapels, reasonably well kept, and the walk through the streets and out of the city through almost balmy Roman air of an evening and into the night is lovely stuff in late spring.


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About Christopher R. Altieri 127 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is Rome Bureau Chief for The Catholic Herald. He spent more than a dozen years on the news desk at Vatican Radio. He holds the PhD from the Pontifical Gregorian University, and is the author of The Soul of a Nation: America as a Tradition of Inquiry and Nationhood.

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