Remembering the Real in the Capital of the World
ROME, December 24, 2008 (LifeSiteNews.com ) - I’m in Rome. And it’s Christmas already. These facts have only in the last few days really sunk in. I’ve hardly noticed the last two months passing and have had no time to think about anything but work and the difficulties and expenses of moving from England.
I know, you who are reading probably already know this, having read the headlines of the LifeSiteNews.com stories I’ve written in the last two months, but it still seems very odd to me to find myself in Rome, The Capital of the World. Many mornings I wake in surprise and ask the cat, "What are we doing here?" She seems as unconcerned with the question as does the Urbs itself.
Today, I spent the day in a magnificent 17th century room, watched by the portraits of Baroque popes, cardinals and saints, helping to repair the hand made from lace on an antique linen altar cloth to be used tonight at the Midnight Mass in the only Roman parish dedicated to the ancient "Tridentine" liturgy of the Church.
My little gang of friends, the parish "irregulars", laity who help organise and prepare the Masses, bustled about the altar putting out its gold candlesticks and reliquaries. Steps away is a little church where the body of St. Vincent Palloti lies, like an ecclesiastical Snow White, in a glass and gold coffin, miraculously incorrupt after 150 years. Miracles, and wonders are the commonplaces of daily life. I’ve fallen into a strange and glorious dream.
This is a city of contrasts, where the ancient and the medieval, the pagan and the Christian, the Renaissance and the Baroque, the modern and the secular, are not separated. Time here seems not to operate in a line, but as a crowd in a piazza during a festival: all times and eras milling boisterously together at once. Romans, some looking in profile like the marble statues in the Capitoline Museum come to life, still leave candles and flowers at the statue of Julius Caesar on the anniversary of his assassination.
Here all things, even the paradoxes of modern life, live together in a tangled skein of the here and now. Rome and Christmas, the eternal and perennial; me and work, the immediate and transient.
This is Rome, a city and a state and a culture and, if not the cradle of western civilisation, its true home and place of its youth. But this city, when Christianity was just reaching out through the world, was already ancient, and the centre of the western world.
People have called Rome the capital of the world, and there is still a sense, fifteen centuries and more after what historians call the ‘fall of the Roman Empire’, in which this is its true name. I walk every day through its windey, twisty medieval streets, with the walls of the Baroque Palazzos held up by ancient Imperial Roman columns; the little portrait shrines to the Blessed Virgin, "Madonellae", on the corner of every building, statues of saints and angels, Roman generals, and nationalist politicians, the gypsy beggars, the graffiti, the peddlers of silk shawls, the blaring ambulance sirens, and the Carabinieri, the military police, keeping watch over the whole, carrying automatic weapons out of fear of terrorist attacks. Rome is the whole world, the ancient and the modern.
Rome has been called the most beautiful city in Italy and standing on the Ponte Sisto, looking down the length of the Tiber towards the ancient Mausoleum of the Emperor Hadrian, topped with its statue of St. Michael the Archangel, it is easy to believe that Rome is the most beautiful city in the world. It is the place where the cultural treasures of our civilisation are found in their original context. Where the great religious paintings of Carravaggio are not in museums behind bullet-proof glass, but over the altars for which they were commissioned.
And it is still true that all roads lead here. Earlier this month, the great Australian cardinal and hero of the antipodean pro-life movement, George Cardinal Pell of Sydney, celebrated Mass in our parish, giving a homily in Italian, laced (so I’m told) with his charming Aussie accent.
Rome is like a mountain peak from which all the world is spread out before one’s eyes and for a journalist, there is no more exciting place to be. I’ve observed that once in Rome, there is not much need for a travel budget since it is inevitable that anyone one might want to interview will eventually come here.
Tomorrow is the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord and the day to remember that we are not here forever, that even Rome itself will one day be gone and that only truth will have mattered. The only thing worth knowing will have been the incarnate Truth, the one Who came to us on a still night in an insignificant and unfashionable backwater province far from the centre of the Empire. The place where the Emperor would send you if you were unpopular at the Imperial court.
The other day, I took a walk through the centre of that Empire: the Roman forum, where the laws and governance of the whole world originated when Christ was born to the sound of Angels’ trumpets. In that forlorn and almost forgotten place, the Senate building from late Imperial times, a few columns and an arch were almost the only things standing. And even these have only recently been dug from under the city streets where they had lain forgotten for centuries.
It is said even here that the Feast of the Nativity is being forgotten in the midst of a secularised and commercialised - and above all forgetful - modern culture. And many have denounced this, complaining that the Christ Child and His mother, Joseph and the shepherds, the angels and the Magi are slowly being edged out in favour of Santa Claus and some of the most glittering shopping districts in the world.
But Rome is a place that never forgets and knows the difference between the transient and inconsequential absurdities of modernity and the Real. The wise adage "this too will pass" means more here than anywhere else because what matters, what is real and lasting, stays here, while all that is false passes down the Tiber and is forgotten.
Tonight the church will be full of worshippers and tomorrow the Holy Father, the man who is not only successor of the Apostles of Christ, but the inheritor and guardian of the entire ancient pagan and medieval Christian western world, will address the crowds in St. Peter’s square, and I will have answered my own question. This is what I’m doing here.