Our journeys today took us to three of the four Major Basilicas in Rome: St. Paul Outside the Walls, St. John Lateran, and St. Mary Major. En route to our hotel, we had time to stop and visit St. Mary of the Martyrs, better known as The Pantheon.
This was the first day that the weather was sunny with no rain, though when we visited the Pantheon, which has an occulus that is not covered, there was a wet spot in the floor.
We had a small mini-bus today, which allowed our friendly driver, Rafaelo, to navigate some of the “rabbit warrens” that the Romans call streets. Since President Obama was still in town, we took a different route to St. Paul Outside the Walls than we usually would have. This gave Nancy the opportunity to highlight some of the sites along the Tiber.
St. Paul Outside the Walls is what is called a “tomb church,” meaning that the church is built over the tomb of a saint, in this case the Apostle to the Gentiles, Paul of Tarsus. The Basilica is care for by the Benedictines and it boasts a grand, open space for worship which means that the view is unobstructed to the magnificent apse with exquisite mosaic work. While it took awhile to figure out how to exit the basilica grounds, we eventually re-grouped at the minibus and headed the Catacombs of St. Callixtus, which were relatively close. (We also thought that we would have less of a chance of running into a blocked street due to the president’s presence in the city.
The Catacomb tour was interesting, but I have to say that I was glad that it was relatively short as I was beginning to feel a bit anxious down there. One of our group had the same thought, “I hope that there’s not an earthquake now.”
We then headed to the Cathedral Church of Rome, St. John Lateran. Somewhere here in St. John’s or the adjoining papal palace, St. Francis would have sought approval of the Order from Pope Innocent III. Nancy pointed out a set of bronze statues of Francis and his early companions that are near the Basilica. If you look at the statues from the back, it appears that Francis is holding up the Lateran Basilica, reminiscent of the dream that Innocent III had where he saw the Lateran Basilica collapsing, and a tiny man in a penitent’s habit rushed out of nowhere and supported the building. In the beautiful apse of St. John’s you see the smaller figures of St. Francis and St. Anthony
We then traveled to St. Mary Major with its ceiling that is decorated with some of the first gold brought back (some might say “stolen”) from the New World. Again, there is a marvelous mosaic in the apse depicting the Coronation of Mary.
What interested me most in this church was the small chapel with the icon of Mary and Jesus that the Romans refer to as Salus Populi Romani, (Protector of the People of Rome). The day after Pope Francis was elected he journeyed here, to St. Mary Major, to spend time in quiet prayer in front of this image. (He did the same before he departed for World Youth Day in Brazil). I took several moments in this Chapel to gaze at the image of the Blessed Mother and to ask for her intercession for a number of people in need at this time. I felt a deep sense of peace as I gazed at this ancient image. I hope that that same peace will be with those I lifted up in prayer.
As we drove back to the hotel, Rafaelo managed to drive us by some of the highlights of Rome: The Forum, The Baths of Caracalla, the Colliseum, to name a few, when we discovered that we had a bit of extra time and Steve asked if we would like to do a quick visit to the Pantheon since it was closed in the evening. Rafaelo parked the bus by Bernini’s Elephant with an Egyptian obelisk on top of it, and we piled out to see the interior of the Pantheon.
I asked Steve where Raphael’s tomb was and he kindly showed me where it is located. The space is truly amazing. The Basilica of the Assumption in Baltimore or the Jefferson Memorial come to mind as you stand in this ancient space.
As we walked to bus, I happened to see Gamarelli’s the tailoring shop that has provided the white cassocks (one in small, medium and large) for a newly elected pope. (There were no white cassocks out, but John Joseph saw a lovely red biretta on display as well as a “Fiddleback” chasuble. Alas, Rafaelo had arrived and John had to kiss his dream of a red hat goodbye.