Autumnal Rome

Rome these past days has had a certain soft autumnal cast. The skies are gold and blue, as at other times of the year here, but the air is cool. The leaves on the trees don’t change into bright colors, the way they do in more northerly climes, before they fall. They go quickly from green to brown or gray, and then stand with a somber, subdued dignity over an Eternal City.

The only thing that seems to contradict this quiet contraction towards winter is the gathering of starlings, millions of them swirling above the Tiber River and nowhere else, especially at dusk, when they race around noisy and alive, feeding on food not visible to human eyes. At some point, they’ll head south together, to Sicily maybe, or even to Africa.

At this time of the year in Rome, the controversies swirling around the Church seem to fade back quite naturally into the large flow of millennia. I heard the other day from a reliable Italian friend, who had heard from a reliable Italian friend of his own inside the Vatican Curia, that a “new document” is going to be issued soon, probably in the next few weeks. Contents uncertain: maybe bio-ethics, gay marriage, some of the other issues roiling the Church.

It may be. And it may be that it will give another spur to worldwide media speculations about where the papacy of Pope Francis is likely to take things. I don’t know.

I’m here to give some lectures at one of the pontifical universities. And I’ll be talking more myself with people here about ecclesial controversies. But for the moment, it’s been helpful to be here without bothering too much about all that. And to be reminded that, for good and ill, Rome seems, beyond all human calculation, to endure. And even, in its way, to work.

I usually go to Sunday Mass at St. Peter’s – the music is beautiful and, for me, it has made a difference, several times, to pray and receive Communion over the bones of the first pope. Personal experience aside, however, we’re so familiar with the story that it’s difficult to imagine how a fisherman from a backwater in the Middle East came to the imperial capital and changed the course of the world. But so it was.

It would be like someone coming to Washington from a church in today’s Palestinian Territories and re-orienting America’s global power from the unholy mess it’s become to, in theory and to no small degree in practice, something like Christian principles.

    Yesterday in Rome’s Jewish quarter: not a Hittite in sight

But in keeping with the subdued sense of the City in this season, I went instead to Mass yesterday at the small Church of St. Bartholomew on the Tiber Island (the titular church of Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George, by the way). I became familiar with the place when I was writing The Catholic Martyrs of the Twentieth Century. For some reason, the Vatican Commission on the New Martyrs was set up in a side building attached to the church. And John Paul II later designated the site, and the Sant’Egidio Community, which has various activities there, as an official center for commemorating the “new” martyrs.

Sant’Egidio is a high-level, global peace and justice outfit. They go awry, in my view, at times in the ways they try to shape international affairs. (There are also rumors that they were involved in blocking Rocco Buttiglione – philosopher, now politician, longtime close friend of JPII – from being appointed by the Italian government to the European Union’s Commission for Justice, Freedom, and Security.) But they also do good work.

This year, they’ve organized a series of displays within the church commemorating the Catholics and other Christians martyred by various forces around the world in modern times – JPII’s “new martyrs.” It’s a sobering reminder of just how brutal the world remains, from a priest killed by the Mafia in Sicily to the millions of martyrs of Communism; from the dozens of religious figures gunned down by national security forces in Latin America to the many, all but unknown, Christians dead from various circumstances in Africa.

But I went there to attend Mass in a small quiet church. To my surprise, the Sant’Egidio community has a rather lively Sunday Mass, no small achievement in Rome. Many people – myself among them – look back with affection to the liturgy prior to the Second Vatican Council. But in many places it was less than an inspiration. It says something, that the French novelists Georges Bernanos and Francois Mauriac, both serious Catholics of opposite political orientations, planned books called la paroisse morte, “the dead parish.”

There was hand-clapping and an African drum at the beginning of the Sant’Egidio Mass. Usually a bad sign. But then it settled into quite moving and fervent song and prayer of a more contemplative cast – with a solid sermon about the resurrection of the body by a young priest. The church was full – and with lots of children. When the priest and servers processed out, to more clapping and drumming, you felt as if you’d been part of something alive, and to a real Catholic Mass.

Afterwards, I went over for lunch to the nearby Jewish quarter behind the main Roman synagogue – a reformed restaurant, so to speak, not one of the stricter kosher places. The American novelist Walker Percy used to say, “the Jews are a sign.” And: “Show me one Hittite [a mighty empire when the Jews were a small tribe] living in New York City.”      

Yes, quite so. And in Rome, in November, how remarkable that an ancient people still have a thriving community in a quarter marked by the ruins of an ancient pagan theater and several temples. And that a Church that has seen the rise and fall of empires, and whole civilizations, seems in one way so fragile and precarious, and in another to flourish, despite the martyrs and persecutions and corruptions, with the unbought grace of life.  

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.