Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Touring Rome, Day 3: Playing the Pilgrim

Touring Rome, Day 3: Playing the Pilgrim

On Saturday, May 16, we returned to what apparently is pretty normal weather in Rome at this season, namely hot and sunny. Great weather for the photographer!

Rita and David and I had agreed to meet at Bonus Pastor at about 9:15. But the buses were so quick that I was there at 8:45. Since it was Saturday, there was no rush hour traffic to contend with. But I did share the 808 with a lot of young teens on their way to school. The Italians still go to school on Saturday a.m., and I guess they have Wednesday p.m. off.

Our plan for the morning was to bus out to the ancient Appian Way, which Rita was eager to see. Indeed, since we wanted to see the little church called Domine Quo Vadis and the catacombs of St. Callistus, we didn't have any choice but to take the Appian Way because that's where those sites are.

In my very best Italian [laugh here], I asked the bus driver to let us know where to get off for Quo Vadis. He obliged. The Appian Way along here is about 20 feet wide with about 2 feet of right of way or berm on either side, and high walls. Cars come zipping along at good clips. I did say with reference to the Colosseum that the Romans were great engineers, and their roads are still in use, not only in Italy but in many places. Unfortunately they weren't prophets, or they might have made the roads wider!
The two-lane Appian Way across the street from the catacombs of St. Callistus. We're waiting for a bus on that big, wide shoulder at the left!
Well, we managed to cross the road safely and get into the tiny church, which we shared with a small pilgrim group of some sort. As you may remember if you ever saw the mid-1950s film Quo Vadis, or perhaps read the novel, the story is that when Nero's persecution broke out in 67, Peter fled from Rome. Along the Appian Way he encountered Jesus walking toward the city. He asked him, "Lord, where are you going?" (Domine, quo vadis? in Latin). Jesus replied something like, "To Rome, to be with my people and be crucified in your place." So Peter relented, turned around, and was arrested and condemned. (It's believed he was crucified in the Circus of Nero adjacent to the Vatican Hill, and it's historically certain that he was then buried in the nearby public cemetery on the slope of the hill, where his tomb eventually became a secret place of Christian pilgrimage and, after Constantine legalized Christianity he built the 1st basilica in Peter's honor over the tomb.) Where Jesus stood, there in the road, a stone was imprinted with his footprints, and that stone is preserved in the center aisle of this little church called Domine Quo Vadis (see photo below). That's the story and, as the Italians say, Si non è vero, è ben trovato ("If it isn't true, it sure sounds good").

At the left of the sanctuary in the church is a fresco depicting the crucifixion of St. Peter--upside down, at his request, because he thought himself unworthy of dying in the same manner as our Lord.

We were happy to see that right across the street from Quo Vadis was the tourist entrance to the St. Callistus Catacombs. We'd been afraid we were going to have to risk a walk along the road for a few hundred yards. So we walked 900 meters (according to the sign) up to the entrance to the catacombs.

Poppies, poppies everywhere! in the fields as you walk up the long visitors' drive from the Appian Way past a couple of Salesian buildings toward the entrance to the catacombs. Rita and David were quite taken with the poppies too and have posted a large photo like this on their blog (

There are several Christian catacombs on the outskirts of Rome because in the 2d, 3d, and 4th centuries they wanted to have their own cemeteries, and they had to be outside the city walls. They're the property of the Holy See today. Of the number that are now open to pilgrims, we chose St. Callistus simply because it's administered by the Salesians and we have 2 communities in residence there, one for students (college level, I believe) and one for the guides and some retired confreres. The mausoleum where our last 4 rectors major are buried (not counting Fr. Chavez, obviously!), as well as other SDBs, is also located there.

The entrance to the Salesian mausoleum at the catacombs of St. Callistus
In my best Italian again, I asked for an American Salesian who's a retired catacombs guide and has stayed on at St. Callistus, and they managed to find him and we spoke briefly. As it turned out, I didn't really need to use Italian because, since it's a very busy place of pilgrimage, there are a lot of confreres and employees who speak English. Anyway, the 3 of us got a good tour as part of a large group of English-speakers, with the history, the theology, the art, etc., well explained.

We bused back into town, had lunch in a back street near the Pantheon, and then said our good-byes and mutual thanks. Rita and David wanted some personal time, quite understandably. So I continued my pilgrimaging by making my way to the only one of the 4 major basilicas that up to this point I'd never visited--for the very good reason that it's not so easy to get to. (I got quite lost trying to find it on foot in my last trip to Rome 4 years ago.) Even this afternoon I didn't grasp the bus route adequately and so had a mile's walk, but at least on the right road, till I got to the basilica of St. Paul, often further specified as "outside the walls," or as the Brits say, "without the walls" (meaning, of course, "not within the city walls," not "lacking walls").
As one approaches the basilica from the city, one comes first to a pretty large park, at the head of which is a strange-looking collection of steel forms--which turned out to be part of a memorial to Italian soldiers killed in Iraq.

Probably the most familiar view of the Pauline basilica is one taken in the cloister in front of the church, with the large statue of Apostle directly in front. I took one of those shots, but opted to use one here shot from an angle.

Parenthesis: the 4 major basilicas are St. Peter's, St. Paul's, St. John Lateran (Rome's cathedral), and St. Mary Major.

St. Paul's is huge, and it's beautiful, and it was certainly very busy this Saturday afternoon. That may have been in part because this is the Year of St. Paul, with special commemorations, ostensibly of the 2000th anniversary of his birth--that's somewhat arbitrarily chosen, for no one knows when he was born, but the event is worth commemorating--and with special indulgences.

Like St. Peter's with reference to its namesake, this basilica is built over the Apostle's tomb, and the bricks of the top of the tomb are visible in an opening in the floor in front of the main altar. I did a lot of photography inside and out, and I prayed for a while in the Blessed Sacrament chapel too--again for all those who've commended themselves to my prayers or whom I've commended to my prayers.
Crowd of pilgrims above the site of St. Paul's tomb

This is what you see when you get down there.

Unlike St. Peter's, St. Paul's is really in classical basilica style and not baroque. When I get photos up, maybe that'll be obvious. It's decorated with a great mosaic in the apse and with mosaics of all the Popes around the upper walls. Above the Popes are paintings (frescoes?) of Paul's life. There are also gigantic statues of Peter and Paul flanking, but a little in front of, the main altar, and some very large statues of some other saints in various far reaches of the church. Otherwise, the nave and side aisles are quite plain.

There were lots and lots of people there, including a TV team that seemed interested in one pilgrim group; I heard a woman being interviewed speaking what I think was American English but I didn't catch much. And there was a really big Italian pilgrim group that processed in led by a bishop (not liturgically vested), with altar boys, cross, candles, etc. (see photo).

Having finished my visit, I caught the 1st bus back into the city that I could, and then 3 more to get back to the Pisana in ample time for Evening Prayer and then supper. This time I had to wait "only" half an hour for the 808 after I got off the 881 at the head of via della Pisana.

The provincial secretaries of Europe had finished their meeting at noon, I guess, and they were gone. The editors (direttori in Italian--so I guess I'm a director too!) of the Salesian Bulletin were starting to arrive, as also were a bunch of province treasurers appointed in the last 4 years or so, who need to get their official orientation for the job (how urgent does that sound?).

And there was morning and evening the 6th day (of my stay in Rome), and on the 7th day (Sunday), I rested.

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