Dispatches from Rome, Christmas 2016

Don’t it always seem to go
that you don’t know what you got ’til it’s gone;
they paved paradise


The trophies of the Apostles and of so many saints and martyrs shone as brightly as ever; brilliant basilicas and travertine tombs still signify to the senses that uncreated radiance which illuminate the elect in eternity.  Surely, no temporal foretaste can ever compare to the final glory which await the just in the New Jerusalem, but as far as earthly cities are concerned, Rome– our beloved Eternal City on earth– must surely come the closest.  No singular place in the world has enraptured my spirit as she has– wherefore this Christmas, I returned for the 30th time to tread the paths of martyrs, to venerate the tombs of the Apostles, and to once again see the successor of that Galilean fisherman upon whom the carpenter of Nazareth fashioned the enduring foundation of His Mystical Body on earth.

In one sense, my fascination with Rome will never die, and so my perennial predilection for the Urbs was, as in so many previous iterations, resoundingly confirmed; thus, I have once more decided, with MacArthurian resolution, to return again. But in another sense, I could not help but perceive that Rome had lost some of her luster. Something was palpably different, and only after looking back on the papal Christmas events was I at last able to recognize why the City– which had always elicited from me a deep sense of awe– now seemed a bit darker and bit duller, like an old precious vessel lightly dusted with the patina of amnesia and disuse.

The Christmas Missa in nocte at St. Peter’s was about as austere as I’ve seen a papal Mass.  The Holy Father, binding himself to the prescriptions of the rite for the most part, had his chance to make his mark during the homily– an opportunity that went ignored.  The points he raised were neither incisive nor especially inspired; Anglophone listeners proficient in Italian would have quickly recognized motifs already expressed more passionately, articulately, and ably by Robert Barron.  As directed by the rubrics of the Novus Ordo Missae for Christmas and Annunciation, the Pope dutifully knelt during the et incarnatus est of the Creed, which is even more strange, since he reverted to his conscientious habit of not genuflecting to the Sacred Species during and after the Canon.  Other old habits of his made their customary appearance.  After the Lord’s Prayer, one can always notice Francis deliberately bowing his head and slowing his speech at the phrase ne respicias peccata nostra, sed fidem Ecclesiae tuae, as if speaking directly to Him who has just become present on the altar.

The Urbi et Orbi too was perhaps the most anemic and unsatisfying I’ve ever attended, for, besides the actual Apostolic Blessing and plenary indulgence, it appeared no different than a run-of-the-mill Sunday Angelus. Francis seemed to have run out of ideas vis-a-vis the theological reflection on Christmas, and that aspect of the speech was both tired and short.  He then plunged into the part, invariably written not by the Pope but by someone in the Secretariat of State, which pleads for peace in various regions and countries around the world.  Here, the astute listener would have found two indications that the Spirit of Cardinal Casaroli– the Ghost of Holy See Diplomacy Past– once more treads imperiously through the Apostolic Palace.

In the first place, silence concerning religious liberty of underground Catholics in China is wholly consonant with the tireless (Cardinal Zen would say too eager) efforts of the Holy See to normalize relations with the People’s Republic.  Secondly, the Pope spoke of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, not of the conflict in Ukraine, as if sovereign Ukranian territory were not brazenly violated by rebels working under the aegis of Moscow, as well as by Russian forces properly speaking.  This conciliatory nod to Putin’s Anschluss and the signal to Beijing both show the triumphant resurgence of the diplomats of old– by which we mean the Ostpolitikeren, a totally different breed from the diplomats of Pacelli’s Segreteria, which vehemently protested the events of 1938.

Out of the bland theological quality of the Urbi et Orbi, one memorable point stood out to me above the others.  Pope Francis’s basic motif was that Love itself has taken flesh, and that this Love manifests itself in many ways.  Among the first he listed was the love of a man and a woman who come together to form una carne sola— one singular flesh.  With such a clear reference to the biblical doctrine on marital union, however, one is left wondering if His Holiness recalls what this Love Incarnate declared immediately after He cited Genesis: whatsoever hath God joined together, let none tear asunder.

When Francis conceded the Apostolic Blessing, he slowed down three times to emphasize three specific phrases, as he did at Mass after the Lord’s Prayer.  The three phrases were: dimissis omnibus peccatis vestris, remissionem omnium peccatorum vestrorum, and cor semper poenitens— all beautiful things to emphasize, really, if they are consonant with the sense in which the Church has always meant these words in the context of the Apostolic Blessing.  But to hear these words from this Pope in this time, as the drama of the last two synods and the controversy of Amoris laetitia continue to cast a shadow over the Barque of Peter, I finally recognized why Rome, which had for so many times been my shining city on seven hills, lacked that certain vibrancy to which I had been accustomed.

The entire Urbi et Orbi event was over in no more than 20 minutes, which is quite a letdown for me and my new acquaintances, most of whom waited three hours for seats at the very front of the great piazza.  I could not help but think back to how things were in illo tempore, before the Abdicator had abdicated.  I miss the man who, year after year, delivered fresh, penetrating, coherently luminous elucidations on the same yearly feasts, and in so doing, presented the faith as a multifaceted precious gem, whose sparkling clarity he made manifest by shedding light on the great mysteries from a myriad of angles and approaches.  In his voice and in his words, one experienced the Gospels, the Epistles, and the Fathers brought to life.  I yearn achingly for those feasts in which I sat patiently and wide-eyed apud Sanctum Petrum, whether for Masses or blessings Urbi et Orbi, treated to an exquisite lectio magistralis, my silent mouth agape as if trying to say:

Tu se’ lo mio maestro e ‘l mio autore,
tu se’ solo colui da cu’ io tolsi
lo bello stilo che m’ha fatto onore

Also dearly missing from these last four years was a tradition begun by Paul VI– God help me for admitting as much– in which, before the benediction, the Pope would greet the pilgrims in dozens of the world’s various tongues.  Montini, Wojtyla, and Ratzinger are intellectual giants who, since their younger years, had run the cursus honorum worthy of the papacy and were ably equipped to perpetuate this new tradition; Pope Francis, on the other hand, is something else.

My time in Rome was punctuated by brief stays in Siena, Assisi, and Cassino, and it seems that my brief visits to these places brought that profound spiritual edification which I sought in Rome.  I once again gazed into eyes of Catherine of Siena and looked into the place where she slept as a child, overawed at this young Dominican tertiary who dared to stare down the Avignon Papacy and to formally correct the Vicar of Christ.  In the bookstore of St. Francis’ Basilica in Assisi, I read his Epistula ad clericos admonishing clerics to zealously and jealously guard the sacred liturgy, while I prayed that the pontiff who took his name might do likewise and truly va a riparà la Chiesa.  After Christmas, I hiked the steep grades of the ancient foot path to the abbey of Montecassino at dawn; and passing by the Rocca Janula, Hangman’s Hill, and Snakeshead Ridge, with the towering heights of the Arunci Mountains on the opposing side of the sweepingly gorgeous Liri valley, I could not but remain ever mindful of all the Allied troops who– some vainly, some less so– baptized the banks of the Gargliano, the waters of the Rapido, the depths of the Gari, and these punishing, rocky slopes with their blood in the desperate fight to expel the forces of fascism from the Terra Sancti Benedicti, the same land which, time and again, had preserved the light of Christian civilization during the darkness of barbarian and Saracen incursions.  Breathless and sweaty after my rapid ascent, I fell to my knees at the tombs of Scholastica and Benedict, supplicating these sainted siblings to once more guard the Church’s true treasure from the attacks of the age.

The glory that was (and is) Rome is not, in primis, found in monuments of marble, of bronze, or of gold. All these are for naught if the City does not let shine her most precious treasure, the treasure to which Simon bar Jonah, by extending his arms and going where he did not want to go, stubbornly clung usque ad sanguinis effusionem.  Rome’s beauty shines through the ages because, for two millenia, the trophies of the saints and Apostles continually point to the One for whom they died.  Each templum, each fanum, each tropaion— each are but tiles on the great mosaic of the Roman Church, each an enduring sign that the elect who sleep within them, by virtue of their bodily dismemberment and not in spite of it, have thereby become perfect members of the Body of Christ.  Joining my voice with that of the saints, and echoing the Lord’s own words, I continually pray: rogavi pro te, O Petre, ut non deficiat fides tua; et aliquando conversus, confirma fratres tuos.  May the successor of Peter emerge from this night of Gethsemane, and in so doing, let the Eternal City, sanguine purpurata principis Apostolorum, radiate the fullness of its perennial splendor by its more perfect conformity to the eternal teaching of Christ the Lord.

E così sia.

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