As my colleague, Dr.Erik Walters, likes to remind his students in the New Testament class, Rome is like an onion. You can peel away a layer, only to find several more beneath it. Studying in Rome frequently requires students to move back and forth in time, often at the same site. Many of the sites the class has already visited this semester make physically tangible the continuities between Rome’s ancient and imperial past and its continuing Catholic traditions.
Last week we traveled a span of two thousand years in just a few brief hours when we visited the Basilica of St. Clement. Clement succeeded St. Peter as Bishop of Rome during the Apostolic period. The basilica was built on the site of a first century domus, usually the urban home of the Roman elite. Basilica is the term used for the court where the emperor heard legal cases. The atrium was the open courtyard that served as an entry; it often had a water fountain that would symbolically remind the guest of the source of their life (the emperor). The nave is the largest part of the basilica–it is where everyone would mingle prior to their hearing: clients, notaries, attorneys. It was called the navis because everyone was in the same boat. The emperor sat in the apse, the sphere of the divine. From his seat, called the cathedra, he passed judgement upon the accused. The physical geography visibly connects the Roman past and its Christian future. By the 6th century, Roman basilicas became Christian places of worship.
Our tour started at the 11th century medieval church, where we examined the mosaics and frescoes in the atrium, nave, and apse. The beautiful golden suns, the brilliant blue of the water, the cross with the white doves, the hand holding the laurel wreath, and the vine all visually reminded the congregation centuries ago, as it did our PC students, of the victory of Christ as the living vine and its branches, the church.
The basilica is also meaningful for PC students since it was Irish Dominicans who were responsible for the archaeological excavations of the earliest sections of the site. As we descended the stairs, we entered a 6th century church that served as the foundation of the church we had just exited. It was here that the saints Cyril and Methodius were buried in the 10th century. Descending even further, we arrived at the vestibule of a mythreum, an altar dedicated to a competing cult during the imperial era. This section dates back to 200; but it is not the oldest part. Finally, we reached the domus that was used in the first century as a site for Christian worship during a time when Christianity was illegal in the Roman Empire. Our climb up the stairs required us once again to move back through time, this time from the first century to the present.
One week later, at our site visit today, we once again moved back and forth in historic time several times. Our tour started at the church of St. Mary of the Angels. This church is considered one of the finest examples of Italian Renaissance architecture; yet it is situated upon the site of an extensive network of public baths built by the Emperor Diocletian during the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Today, it is also the site where funeral masses are held for Italian soldiers killed in action. From there, we visited the Church of St. Agnes and the tomb of St. Constance. The church was built in the 7th century. Below it are approximately 15 miles of galleries, part of a catacomb where people, including St. Agnes, were buried in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. Students remarked that they have had numerous experiences in their travels when they found themselves to be travelling across and between time.
Anytime we travel in Italy, we are called to peel the layers of the onion. I attended a conference in Bologna last weekend. While there, I had the opportunity to visit the Basilica of Santo Stefano, known locally as the Sette Chiese (Seven Churches). It is an incredible complex of churches and a monastery. Bologna Magazine calls it the “House of Many Mansions”. The earliest church in the complex was founded in the 5th century on the earlier site of a temple dedicated to the goddess Isis. Other parts date to the 8th, 11th, and 13th centuries. The frescoes, mosaics, and other artwork were breath-taking, and the fact that these churches and monastery have been in constant use for more than a millennium was awe-inspiring.
All of us, student and faculty alike, benefit from the broadening of perspectives, the growth in our historical understanding, and the placement of our Catholic faith and heritage within its geographical context. It also enhances our understanding of the universality of the Church. It is one of the gifts that the study experience abroad provides, and it is what makes the PC-Rome program both unique and special.
Thanks for tuning in. Go Friars!