Roman Overhauliday (with George Eliot)


Can a man of the cloth publicly admit that he has a hopeless crush on George Eliot?


If a person could travel through time, I would go immediately to 1846 to convince her that D.F. Strauss’ theses do not stand to reason. (We can read the gospels with all the naivete of St. Thomas Aquinas, and never worry. Really, we can.)

Then I would sit on an ottoman and listen to her talk for the next forty years. I could ride the machine back to 2012 just in time for All Saints Day Mass.

Chapter 20 of Middlemarch recounts the thoughts of young Dorothea Brooke Casaubon during her sojourn in the city of Rome. I defy anyone to find twelve pages with more human insight. Eg:

The weight of unintelligible Rome might lie easily on bright nymphs to whom it formed a background for the brilliant picnic of Anglo-foreign society; but Dorothea had no such defence against deep impressions. Ruins and basilicas, palaces and colossi, set in the midst of a sordid present, where all that was living and warm-blooded seemed sunk in the deep degeneracy of a superstition divorced from reverence; the dimmer but yet eager Titanic life gazing and struggling on walls and ceilings; the long vistas of white forms whose marble eyes seemed to hold the monotonous light of an alien world: all this vast wreck of ambitious ideals, sensuous and spiritual, mixed confusedly with the signs of breathing forgetfulness and degradation, at first jarred her as with an electric shock, and then urged themselves on her with that ache belonging to a glut of confused ideas which check the flow of emotion. Forms both pale and glowing took possession of her young sense, and fixed themselves in her memory even when she was not thinking of them, preparing strange associations which remained through her after-years. Our moods are apt to bring with them images which succeed each other like the magic-lantern pictures of a doze; and in certain states of dull forlornness Dorothea all her life continued to see the vastness of St. Peter’s, the huge bronze canopy, the excited intention in the attitudes and garments of the prophets and evangelists in the mosaics above, and the red drapery which was being hung for Christmas spreading itself everywhere like a disease of the retina.

Now, when I first laid eyes on Rome, some things about the city had changed since Dorothea’s time. Motorini—and automobiles in general—have made the place a great deal noisier and more treacherous. Mussolini constructed the grand concourse of the Via della Conciliazione, and later potentates have added motorcoach parking garages, carved into the hills. The Pope receives so many more visitors now than he did then, he must conduct many of his sacred liturgies outdoors, in St. Peter’s Square.

All that aside, I relate. Visiting Rome for the first time overhauled my soul. But the effect it had on me had another, wonderfully consoling dimension.

On that first trip I made to Rome, with some seminary brothers, I witnessed the beatification of St. Pedro Calunsgod, on March 5, 2000. The occasion of the saint’s canonization (last Sunday) has prompted me to reflect a little.

Was I harboring a small, provincial worldview—like dear Dorothea’s—when our plane arrived at Fuimicino airport? I did not think I was. I was the son of an internationally prominent metropolis. I had been to a few interesting places.

But what I did not have was: Any real insight into the magnificent complacency of the Roman point-of-view. As we read above, this complacency disturbed Dorothea to the bone. It had precisely the opposite effect on me.

Frankly, my religion was, at that point in my life, pinched. When it came to doctrines explicitated at the Council of Trent (and the world possesses no more important ideas than these), I lived in a perpetual state of tension.

In the Protestant intellectual world, the Council of Trent looms like Sauron’s fortress of Barad-dûr, menacing everything from the far side of a dark mountain range. From the vantage-point of the Germanic mind, the ideas of transubstantiation, sacred priesthood, and apostolic succession wreathe those mountains like impenetrable nebulae.

Easter Candle stand at St. Paul’s tomb
Now, praised be God, I knew the Tridentine doctrines are true.

This meant that I lived in the over-industrious intellectual realm I inhabited as if I were a cloaked alien, like Shylock in Venice. I fretted about always having a ready response to any apologetical challenge, a response elaborated with Thomistic subtlety and winning rhetorical punch. I worried that everything I held dear could be refuted at any moment, unless I could punch back with every bit of heft a Harvard professor, or a Ted Koppel, could muster.

Dorothea’s Quaker-Meeting-House-style country soul suffered violence at the hand of any Baroque interior. The spiritual chaos of ancient paganism oppressed her grievously. The languid way in which the city of Rome has managed to swallow everything without destroying any of it, or even trying to subject it to any particular order—this harrowed Dorothea’s pure utilitarian idealism to its core.

One way to put it might be: if Rome (as it stands–all its physical, spiritual, and aesthetic objects considered together in toto)—if Rome is real, well, then…The Progressive Era was a ridiculously shallow thing; the American Revolution may or may not have been an impressive development; even Shakespeare must take a place, inter pares, in a larger pantheon.

The Vatican Museums alone can deliver this blow. Again: When I first visited the endless galleries, I did not enter the place a rube. At least I had a claim not to be regarded as one. I had toured all the galleries J.P. Morgan paid for at the Met; I had seen the Elgin Marbles in London.

But it is not simply the quality of artifacts in the Vatican palace that covers you like an avalanche, nor is it simply the quantity. It is the casual unpretentiousness with which such an enormous quantity of premiere-quality works of art are arrayed before you—for you to look at or not, as you prefer. The Vatican Museums open themselves up before the visitor with the kind of lassitude a tiger shows in the heat of the day.

A room full of original ancient statuettes? Just a room? No. This is Rome; this is the Vatican. More like two basketball courts, with shelves upon shelves upon shelves from floor to ceiling, and all the art cluttered together so tightly that there’s no room for readable labels.

Back to the narrative: On our first morning, we went for a walk down into Trastevere, looking for a cold drink and bus tickets. We happened upon the church of Santa Maria. Hey, let’s duck in and check it out!

In an instant, we beheld an interior space more transcendent and magnificent than anything I had ever seen. We were out looking for Cokes.

…St. Peter’s. You visit St. Peter’s, and what do you do?

You visit the haunt of an enormously famous man, the Pope. You see people from every corner of the earth coming to visit. Not only is the Pope famous, he also occupies the most ancient office on earth. And he shepherds the largest flock on earth.

When you come to St. Peter’s, you also visit a lot of other popes, who are buried in the Basilica. Including St. Peter himself. The tour of the Apostle’s grave would be worth the price of the plane ticket, even if Michelangelo had never been born. The archaeology involved in authenticating the tomb makes the discipline of archaeology as interesting as it can be made to be.

But, of course, visiting St. Peter’s also means visiting the saint. A New Testament saint. And some other saints. How many saints have their glorious tombs in this particular building? Gosh…Blessed Popes JPII and JXXIII, Saint Popes Clement and Leo Magnus, Pius X. St. John Chrysostom. Some others. Also PXII. The austere beauty of Pius XII’s burial chapel could quiet any soul.

Of course, there is more to St. Peter’s Basilica than the holy bones located there. Michelangelo also made some contributions. And Bernini. Plus, when you’re a priest you get to experience the sacristy, its precise procedures, and its starched amices.

Interior of St. Peters by Giovanni Paolo Pannini
You also get to experience, no matter who you are, the impression upon first stepping into the building. A lot of marble died to build it

When one steps through the door, Bernini’s bronze baldachin over the high altar seems like a long way away, perhaps in a neighboring city.

But, in fact, it is much farther away than it appears to be. The interior of St. Peter’s is appointed so as to make the distances seem smaller than they actually are, to make the church a little homier. 🙂

St. Peter’s, however—even though it could reward a lifetime of visits—does not actually reveal the full depth of the Roman artifactual witness to the holy faith. I wonder if part of Dorothea’s oppression of spirit was brought on by her realization that the Vatican is, in fact, hardly more than the tip of the Roman iceberg.

How many churches are there in Rome that transfix the admirer in a way no church even in New York City can? To say that there are 100 such churches would not be an exaggeration. On one single day, we made pious visits to 38 churches. And that only included two of the seven hills.

Go for a walk, turn a corner. Here’s a church with a Caravaggio and two saints buried. Around another corner, here’s Santa Maria Maggiore. Wood from the crib of Bethlehem, coffered ceiling, Byzantine-era mosaic the size of Touchdown Jesus, St. Jerome’s and St. Pius V’s mortal remains, the altar where St. Ignatius Loyola said his first Mass, a chapel by Michelangelo.

Oh—here’s another church. With the steps from the Jerusalem praetorium. Across the street, Romanesque cloisters, relics of both New-Testament St. Johns, Leo XIII buried, the table from the Upper Room, medieval choir stalls, papal pedilavium apse.

Down the road, the marble forest called St. Paul fuori la Mura. With the Apostle’s tomb, archaeologically authenticated.

San Clemente: a medieval church with a world-famous mosaic, on top of a byzantine church with the relics of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, on top of a pagan chapel used by gladiators. San Giovanni e Paolo: St. Paul of the Cross entombed in genuinely ethereal splendor; in the nave, crystal chandeliers from the old Waldorf Astoria. Down the hill: a chair in which Gregory the Great sat.

Oh, and did I mention the Colisseum? That’s across the street. With the Arch of Constantine.

It will bowl you over. And we haven’t yet ascended the Aventine hill to tour the haunts of St. Thomas Aquino, or crossed the river to the Carmelite convent, or watched the evening dark descend upon the gothic arches of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. We have not walked across town to see St. Teresa in ecstasy, or the scavi where St. Peter probably said Mass.

And we have not yet sat down to eat and drink some Montepulciano.

The moral of the story: Council of Trent did not close any doors. The gracious Fathers kept them open. The truths are big enough to accommodate the whole world and all her history, stretching back in time to bizarre things none of us can really understand (like how the ancient Romans got the Egyptian obelisks across the Mediterranean), and also including metal detectors and iPads and multiculturalism and such.

Being Roman Catholic does not pinch a person’s worldview. Not being Roman Catholic does.


One thought on “Roman Overhauliday (with George Eliot)

  1. Father Mark,

    First, and foremost, Washington was, is, and will probably always be, a sleepy Southern town on the banks of the Potomac. You can take the boy out of the country; but you can’t take the country out of the boy. And, Washington, The District of Columbia, is filled with Rubes from the sticks; it’s what the Capitol is all about (here in the National Capital Area; I’ve never figured that one out).

    Second, how coy, framing a piece initiated by the notion of Mary Anne with the language of Mary Anne’s literary work — that of an enraptured late-teen girl, which captured the hearts and minds of every female of her age, and many of the males (you have to have something to talk ABOUT with THEM).

    Why, one would think that the worldly young man was actually smitten with the Eternal City. But, it don’t make no nevermind: looking down the valley at the fora, and reading the story of a germanic prince who came to Rome circa 700 AD, and agreed to join the “Holy Roman Empire” at the same sight — even in all its wilted glory — one can understand.

    Just the vestige of the glory of ages past, and the magnificence of the accomplishments of those ages, must engender humility. Why, it’s almost like Man’s attempting to comprehend God.

    In Him we trust.



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