Rome Bone Church Painting + Adventure in the Western Schism

The patron of the Catholic parish in Rocky Mount, Va: we mark the 795th anniversary of his death today.


This Caravaggio painting hangs in the museum attached to the Capuchin Church of St. Mary of the Conception, in Rome.

I had the chance to gaze upon the painting, shortly before I flew home from Italy. It falls in my favorite category of paintings: St. Francis memento mori.

To be honest, I didn’t make a special trip to the “Bone Church” this time. I just stopped-in to kill an hour. The nondescript-looking building sits around the corner from the pharmacy where I had managed to get an appointment to have a coronavirus test. (I needed a negative, in order to board the plane the following day.)


I had prayed in the Bone Church before, twenty years ago. It enraptured me then. It is an artistic masterpiece.

Capuchin Crypt in Rome

This time, though, I came away with a different thought.

The graves that the anonymous 18th-century Franciscan artist disturbed, in order to decorate his unique chapels–those graves should have been left in peace. Yes, we need to remember how short life is, every day. But not by disturbing other peoples’ bones.

…Before I got to Rome, I visited a number of ancient cities in Tuscany. I encountered monuments from the 14th and 15th centuries, monuments that turned my little Italy trip into An Adventure in the Western Schism.

Dante Vergil Delacroix
The Barque of Dante by Delacroix

Back in 2013, we remembered Pope Celestine V, the last Roman pontiff to abdicate, prior to Benedict XVI.

(Do not confuse Celestine V with Celestine III, who reigned during St. Francis’ lifetime. The earlier Celestine wanted to abdicate, but the Cardinals talked him out of it.)

We have this in common with the great Florentine poet Dante: living through a period with two living popes. One reigning, one retired. Dante was 29 when Celestine renounced the throne of Peter, in 1294.

In the Divine Comedy, Dante puts Celestine V in the antechamber of hell. There dwell…

the souls unsure, whose lives earned neither honor nor bad fame…

neither rebellious to God nor faithful to Him.

[They] chose neither side, but kept themselves apart.

Now heaven expels them, not to mar its spendor,

and hell rejects them, lest the wicked of heart take glory over them.

Mercy and justice disdain them.

Benedict pallium Celestine V
Benedict lays his pallium on the coffin of Pope Celestine V, in 2009. (L’Osservatore Romano photo)

About Celestine himself, Dante writes:

I beheld the shade of him who make the Great Refusal,

impelled by cowardice, so at once I understood beyond all doubt that

[in this upper circle of hell we find]

the dreary guild repellent both to God and His enemies,

hapless ones never alive.

Anyway, Pope Boniface VIII succeeded Celestine V in late 1294. And thus began a dramatic century+ of history–history that unfolded, in part, in the cities I got to visit last month.

Ecumenical Councils were attempted in Pisa and successfully accomplished in Florence; the pope resided for a decisive week in Lucca; Rome had the first-ever jubilee year, with hundreds of thousands of visitors to the city–and shorlty thereafter the papacy moved to France, for three-quarters of a century.

More to come on all this…

Bigger than Death

lio grave

Your ancestors ate manna in the desert, but they died. (John 6:49)

Seems a little rough to have so many explosions in the news in one week. We pray; we pray.

Better to pray and read the Word of God than to watch too much t.v. or spend too much time on the internet. Better to set a specific amount of time per day for “keeping up with the news,” and stick faithfully to that allotted amount of time as a maximum.

I mean, not to be morbid, but…

We pray. Of course, we pray for the repose of all the souls of the dead. For healing for all the sick and wounded in this world. For consolation for all the grieving and broken-hearted…

speed bump reaperThe fact is, though: the world is literally full of dead people. In every city or town there are numerous fields full of people’s moldering bones.

Why fret this week more than any other that, “we live in a violent world?”

Damn straight this world is violent: No one survives. Everyone winds up dead. Life on earth is fatal 100% of the time.

If I don’t die in an explosion, does that mean I am going to live forever?

Um, no. If I don’t die suddenly today, I will still be dead relatively soon anyway.

The Ethiopian asked Philip, regarding the Holy Scriptures:

About whom is this written? (Acts 8:34)

Good question, brother!

Who is the drama of salvation about? Who is the Bible about? Who is the life of Jesus about? Who lives the mysteries of quiet, humble, submissive death and eternal life in glory? Who has been made—not just for a short, frustrating, and fragile life punctuated by sessions on the couch—but for a noble, heroic life that looks the Grim Reaper squarely in the face and says, ‘Bring it on, little boy! I’m a child of God Almighty, and you are nothing but a little gnat in my face!’ Who was made to say this?

We were. Us. The Bible is about us. Christ lived for us. Heaven is for us.

Yes, the devil will have his day. May God have mercy and help us. May God comfort us and give us fortitude.

But, after all: Our ancestors have lived through tumultuous wars with explosions left and right every day. Our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world have to live that way now. Death comes. One way or the other, it comes.

But we are so much bigger than death. May God help us to see just how much bigger than death we really are.

Dust unto Dust

Did you know that the Roman Rite of the holy Catholic Church admits of particular local uses?

In other words, some priests are allowed to include ceremonies as part of the Catholic rituals that express the faith in a distinctive way. One example: Franciscan priests of the Holy Land are allowed to carry a life-size replica of the body of Christ in a procession on Good Friday. These particular uses must of course be approved by the authority of the Church.

Ashing-up a lot of people’s foreheads today has inspired me to work on a particular set of ceremonies, which I will entitle the “Memento Mori Use.” If approved, I will put the ceremonies into practice someday…

According to the Memento Mori Use, all Masses will be celebrated in black vestments. (On Easter Sunday, the priest will wear a black vestment with gold trim.) Mass will be celebrated every day using the prayers of the Rite of Christian burial.

–Christmas Mass in a black vestment? Christ was born to die, my friends.

According to the Memento Mori Use, a catafalque will be kept in front of the altar at all times, flanked by six candles.

The only difference between a funeral Mass and a daily Mass will be: at a funeral, the catafalque will support an actual occupied coffin. At all other Masses, the faithful will meditate on the fact that someday a funeral Mass will be said for each of us, and it will be just like this Mass.

The catafalque will figure prominently in the administration of all the sacraments in the Memento Mori Use. After a child is baptized, the baby will be placed on the catafalque, and antiphons will be sung reminding all present that we are born to die.

Memento Mori Use catechesis will require memorizing the Creed, the seven sacraments, the Ten Commandments, the Our Father, and the Dies Irae. (Parts of the Dies Irae will be chanted at all liturgies.)

M. M. confirmands will approach the Bishop wearing full-length black scapulars. Confirmation names will be chosen from among the Christian names of dead relatives. Before administering the sacrament, the bishop will stand beside the catafalque and encourage the young people: “Remember that you have your whole life on earth in front of you! And it is, in fact, very short.”

At weddings, the couple will kneel in front of the catafalque before exchanging vows, and the celebrant will invite them to meditate on this question:

“Dearly beloved, think about the fact that someday you will be dead and buried, and your children will be dead and buried, and your children’s children will be dead and buried, and the cemetery in which you are buried will be overgrown and forgotten, and no one on the face of the earth will remember you or your children or your children’s children.”

“Do you really think it is necessary to get married?”

In the Memento Mori Use, the priest will frequently stand before the altar holding a skull, and the faithful will process up the aisle and pause briefly to gaze upon the skull. M.M. Catholics will all try to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Sepulchre.

Memento Mori Use parishes will have titles such as Holy Death of Christ, Holy Death of St. Francis, Holy Death of the Martyrs, Holy Death of St. Joseph, Holy Death of St. Sebastian, etc.

The Memento Mori faithful will process through the cemetery not just once a year on All Soul’s Day, but on every Sunday. Boy Scouts in M. M.-Use-parish troops will earn merit badges by constructing their own caskets. Memento-Mori Catholics will generally prefer to sleep each night in their own caskets.

Memento Mori Catholics will be the most joyful of all the faithful, because the repeated ceremonies of the Use will have made death a friend and removed all fear.

What I am going for is a perpetual liturgical experience which will make the Ash Wednesday exhortation of, “Remember, man, that you are dust…” seem like the friendly greeting that, in fact, it is.

Because we are not long for this world, people.

[Thanks to M.J.P. for helping me work out the details.]

My Address? The Cemetery

The best place for a church and rectory is: The middle of the parish cemetery. The priest should live among the dead, with skeletons for his roommates.

At my little church, we don’t have a parish cemetery. But I have the next best thing: There is a beautiful, enormous, old cemetery right up the hill. Not only that, I have owned a grave in this cemetery for years.

Barring a transfer, I will spend the rest of the history of the world in this neighborhood. My bones will moulder alongside those of my most long-term neighbors.

St. Augustine was a fearless preacher. For example:

God isn’t too grand to talk even to fools. Some of you may say, perhaps, “And how did God talk to a fool?” O my brothers and sisters, how many fools is He talking to here, when the gospel is chanted?

Anyway: The saint was talking about Luke 12:20, when God says to the rich man building bigger barns, “You fool, today your soul is required of you.”

The discipline of clerical celibacy is a constant reminder that death is near.

This is a great blessing: Every time we Catholics come to church, we are confronted by a man who has no inheritance in this world. The members of his body have been put to death. He lives with a foot in the grave, shrouded in black at all times.

This helps us all, we priests included. We need this discipline as much as everyone else. We priests did not choose it; it chose us. The discipline of celibacy has made us bearers of the ultimate truth.

Fool, today your soul will be required of you.


The man is incredible:

Whoever wishes to come after me must take up his cross and follow me. –Mark 8:34

tombstone cross

This is what the Son of God said. He went to heaven after He rose from the dead, so we certainly want to follow Him.

But wait: Are we fools to want to follow Christ? To come after Him, we must take up our crosses. This is what He clearly says. We have to be clear on what He means.

The cross was the implement the Romans used to kill their worst criminals. The cross may mean many things to us, but when the Lord first used the term 2,000 years ago, the cross meant one thing: execution, the death penalty.

Among Christians, to speak of one’s crosses has become a metaphor for all kinds of difficulties. It is a good metaphor.

But: We cannot use the phrase as a metaphor if we do not first consider the literal meaning. We cannot forget what the cross essentially is. The cross is an instrument of one thing—death.

Continue reading “Death-Defying”

Sicut Transit Gloria Mundi

amd_thrillerPerhaps, dear reader, you remember that we have touched on our love for Michael Jackson before.

The album “Thriller” was fun in just about every way–all the songs were good, the videos were delightful, the Vincent-Price cameo was priceless.

Human Nature” is on my iPod perennially. I liked the album “Bad,” too. “Man in the Mirror” was a great song.

Also, let’s not forget that M.J. was acquitted of all charges.

May the King of Pop rest in peace.

mt olivetSpeaking of death, today I drove past the one small piece of real estate I own.

It is only a few square feet.

But it will be more than big enough, when the time comes.

Act V, Scene 1 of Hamlet opens with two gravediggers joking with each other.

The one asks the other, “What is he that builds stronger than either the mason, the shipwright, or the carpenter?”

The other replies, “The gallows-maker; for that frame outlives a thousand tenants.”

The other replies:

I like thy wit well, in good faith: the gallows
does well; but how does it well? it does well to
those that do ill: now thou dost ill to say the
gallows is built stronger than the church: argal,
the gallows may do well to thee. To’t again, come.

The second one can’t come up with another witty reply, so the first one says:

Cudgel thy brains no more about it, for your dull
ass will not mend his pace with beating; and, when
you are asked this question next, say ‘a
grave-maker:’ the houses that he makes last till

The entire scene is very long. Here is the second part of it, worthily done by Kenneth Branaugh and our old buddy Billy Crystal, from the 1996 movie version.

Then, later on in the scene, my favorite phrase from all of Shakespeare makes its appearance. Laertes is bickering with the priest. Laertes thinks his sister Ophelia’s funeral has been too short.

Laertes. What ceremony else?

Priest. Her obsequies have been as far enlarg’d
As we have warranty. Her death was doubtful;
And, but that great command o’ersways the order,
She should in ground unsanctified have lodg’d
Till the last trumpet. For charitable prayers,
Shards, flints, and pebbles should be thrown on her.
Yet here she is allow’d her virgin rites,
Her maiden strewments, and the bringing home
Of bell and burial.

Laertes. Must there no more be done?

Priest. No more be done.
We should profane the service of the dead
To sing a requiem and such rest to her
As to peace-parted souls.

jozy-altidore-2Laertes. Lay her i’ th’ earth;
And from her fair and unpolluted flesh
May violets spring! I tell thee, churlish priest,
A minist’ring angel shall my sister be
When thou liest howling.

“Churlish priest!” Maybe, after this Year of the Priest is over, we can have a Year of the Churlish Priest, and I will be the poster-child.

…P.S. How about our soccer team!

And the Natinals just shellacked the Red Sox! (Not that I am in favor of inter-league play.)

Greedy and Envious? Try Poverty and Love

He found in the temple area those who sold oxen, sheep, and doves, as well as the money changers seated there. He made a whip out of cords
and drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and oxen, and spilled the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables…At this the Jews answered and said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?”
(John 2:14-19)

The Lord Jesus drove the greedy merchants and money-changers from the Temple. The Jewish leaders envied Christ’s authority and power. So in the gospel reading, we have seen both greed and envy. These are two of the seven deadly sins.

Continue reading “Greedy and Envious? Try Poverty and Love”