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Letter from Rome, March 23, 2020: Sacraments and groceries

The Lord’s ways are not our ways, His time is not our time, His purposes are His own. Here we are, all in this together now.

Detail of the high altar in Santa Maria ai Monti, Rome. (Ricardo André Frantz | Wikipedia)

For the past few weeks, I’ve been writing about coronavirus: how dangerous it is; and, how it is disrupting life here. Now, you all know what I’ve been talking about, and in ways I’d hoped and prayed you wouldn’t. I’m sorry about that. The Lord’s ways are not our ways, His time is not our time, His purposes are His own. Here we are, all in this together now.

I miss the Sacraments.

I went to my parish to light some candles on Sunday, and to see whether I could confess and receive Communion — our pastor has invited us to come and pray and seek the Sacraments outside of Mass — but I was late. The church was open, but empty. I didn’t see a candle in the adoration chapel, either, but that might have been a fluke. I was out that morning to buy groceries, and felt a bit uneasy.

The way things are going, I don’t think I’ll be doing that again.

I mean, we need the Sacraments and we need groceries, but we need groceries in a way very different from the way we need the Eucharist. I have it on good authority that God is good, and on the same authority that He is not to be tempted.

On Saturday, I’d made a run partway into town to buy groceries, but found the line to enter the supermarket wrapped twice around the parking lot. I gave some custom to the greengrocer across the way, instead, and resolved to try another supermarket closer to home the next day. That supermarket was closed — hence my few stolen minutes in church — though they usually do a half-day on Sunday.

I’d forgotten about the changes to store hours.

I’m not a regular at that greengrocer I mentioned, by the way, but he treated me like one: I think I spent about €15, which he was happy to have, and I was happy to leave. The greengrocers are lucky to be open at all, I suppose, but they rely on foot traffic, and there just isn’t much of that these days.

Most of the small fruit and vegetable vendors in the city these days are North African. One hears a lot of Arabic at them, and I love the sound of it. In my carefree bachelor days, when I lived in the Rione Monti — one of the last old quarters of the city, so called because it sits between the Esquiline, Viminal, Quirinal, and Caelian Hills — I used to tipple and waste time with the son of the woman who owned the local fruit and vegetable shop.

I learned a good bit of unprintable Roman dialect from him.

The Suburra in Monti is where Julius Caesar was born, and Messalina played. Monti is also notorious for its internecine rock-throwing battles and brawls with the denizens of the better known Trastevere neighborhood. Talk about old Roman.

The parish church is dedicated to Our Lady: Santa Maria ai Monti, it’s called. My son, Joseph, was baptized in the church, which houses the mortal remains of St. Benedict Joseph Labre, an 18th-century Frenchman born to prosperity, who gave it up to pursue the evangelical counsels at an age — 16 or 18 — at which he’d still be considered a boy today.

He first tried to be a Trappist, then a Cistercian and a Carthusian (not necessarily in that order), but he never quite took to monastic life, or it never took to him. I’ve always thought that it must take a special kind of nutty to get kicked out of three monasteries, and three in 18th-century France, at that: one must be accepted each time, which certainly must attest his character.

At any rate, he became a Third Order Franciscan — a beggar and a pilgrim — and eventually settled in Rome.

Benedict slept rough. He never had much to eat, and shared what he scrounged, and spent most of his time in prayer. To hear the Romans tell it, he levitated sometimes, and sometimes he bilocated. He fell ill outside the parish church in Monti (some time I’ll tell you more about the church, I promise) and died in a house nearby. He had a reputation as a holy man when he died. The boys of the city, who used to give him a hard time of it while he lived, are said to have run through the city proclaiming, E’ morto il santo! when he died.

Miracles began to be attributed to his intercession almost before his body was cold, dozens of them, of all shapes and sizes. He was laid to rest beneath an altar in a side chapel in St. Mary of Monti, now his chapel, where hundreds of ex voto offerings are kept. I think I’ve mentioned that the denizens of Monti had a peculiar tolerance of, and solicitude for, the crazy homeless people — one in particular, Signor Angelo — who lived there when I did, and I’ve always liked to think that maybe that was owing to the memory of St. Benedict.

I’m looking forward to my next visit.

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About Christopher R. Altieri 179 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is a journalist, editor and author of three books, including Reading the News Without Losing Your Faith (Catholic Truth Society, 2021). He is contributing editor to Catholic World Report.


  1. Benedict Joseph Labre is one of my very favorite saints. When my children used to dress up for All Saints Day, his was the easiest costume. It just involved raggedy clothes and dirt. I think he was also known for lice but we didn’t carry the authenticity that far.
    Thank you so much for sharing this.

  2. And PS, be safe out there. Where I live currently has the fastest rate of virus infection in the world and people aren’t paying attention like they should. I guess that’s a part of why our infection rate’s speeding up the way it is.
    Laissez les bon temps rouler needs to wait for now.

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