When I was in the Holy Land in February, we visited the cave in Bethlehem where St. Jerome spent years translating the Holy Scriptures. The cave is just a few yards from the grotto of the Nativity of Christ.
St. Jerome was originally laid to rest in a little chapel in his cave in Bethlehem. But then, when the Muslims were threatening to take over Bethlehem, the Christians took St. Jerome’s relics to Rome, where they would be safe.
St. Jerome’s tomb is now the High Altar in Santa Maria Maggiore, immediately above the reliquary of the Manger of Bethlehem. This morning I finally got to greet the Doctor and Father of the Church, the patron of the study of Holy Scripture.
Today was a gift which the good Lord, St. Peter, the saints of Rome throughout the ages, and Michelangelo gave to us.
So that the loving fantasy
which made of art an idol and a king for me,
I now will know with how much sin was laden,
with that which all men desire against their will
Nor painting, nor sculpture, now can calm
The soul that turns to that divine love
That in the cross opens its arms to receive us.
On our busride from Orvieto to Rome, we were treated to a brief talk by an expert on Michelangelo. The expert is Dr. Ann White, my mom. She quoted these lines from a sonnet which the great artist of Renaissance Rome wrote near the end of his life.
Michelangelo is: the sculptor of the Pieta, the painter of the Sistine Chapel, and the architect of the St. Peter’s Basilica, among other things.
We were walking across St. Peter’s Square as the sun was rising. Our Mass was in the crypt of the Basilica, just a few yards from the tomb of the Prince of the Apostles.
There is nothing like being in St. Peter’s Basilica between 7:00 and 9:00 in the morning, when the only thing going on is quiet prayer at all the altars. (There are dozens of altars in the largest church in the world.)
We had reached the final goal of our pilgrimage. Deacon Walker preached about St. Peter, about his remarkable transformation from humble fisherman to shepherd of souls.
The tomb of our dearly beloved late Pope John Paul II was just a few feet from our chapel. We were surrounded by saints and popes.
After Mass, we made our way to the Vatican Museums, the Papal Palace of former days. It is the most extensive art collection on earth. We saw sculptures, wall paintings, tapestries–not to mention the splendid architecture of the buildings themselves.
The tour of the Museums concludes with a visit to the Sistine Chapel, site of the Papal Conclaves.
Then we toured the Basilica, stopping to visit Bl. Pope John XXIII, Pope St. Leo the Great, Pope St. Pius X, and the Chair of St. Peter. We saw countless magnificent works of art, including the Pieta, Bernini’s bronze altar canopy, and his famous sculpture on Pope Urban VIII’s tomb.
Some of us braved the climb to the lantern at the top of the Basilica’s dome. From there we could see the entire city of Rome, bathed in mid-day sunlight.
After lunch, a group of us took a tour of the Vatican “Scavi,” the excavations of the cemetery in which St. Peter was buried. Scientific archaeology has determined that there is no reason to doubt that the altar on which the Pope says Mass is directly above the tomb of the Holy Apostle. We were able to lay our eyes on the original grave of St. Peter, and to see his bones, which are now kept in a plexiglass box. We recited the Creed and the Our Father.
The sun was setting when we emerged from the Basilica. We had spent the entire day in the world’s smallest sovereign state, governed by the Successor of the fisherman we had come to visit.
St. Peter saw to it that many, many graces were poured out on us humble pilgrims. Surely there are some graces in it for you, too.
Hopefully one of them will be a renewed sense of communion with the universal Church of Christ, founded two millenia ago. The Roman Catholic Church confesses the faith of the Apostles. She is given life by the power of the Holy Spirit. She embraces the entire earth.
In other words, She is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. She is shepherded by the Pope.
The sun was rising over Rome as we passed through metal detectors in the colonnade of St. Peter’s Square and made our way towards excellent seats near the foot of the Basilica steps. We tried to keep warm in the crisp air. From the microphone next to the Pope’s chair, an American Monsignor welcomed all the pilgrim groups from the United States, including St. Mary of the Assumption, Upper Marlboro, Maryland!
Then the Pope arrived, passing in the popemobile just a few feet from our seats. By this time the sun had climbed high into the sky. We were surrounded by a large group of Bavarians on one side and Polish on the other. The Holy Father was greeted with cheers and singing in many languages.
Pope Benedict talked to us about St. Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith. We chanted the Our Father with him in Latin. Then he gave us his blessing.
After the General Audience, Fr. Gus DiNoia welcomed us into the meeting hall of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. This is where Pope Benedict conducted meetings for over twenty years when he was the Cardinal Prefect. The offices of this dicastery (ie., department of the Roman Curia) are in the “Holy Office” building, right next to St. Peter’s.
This afternoon, we visited the Catacombs of St. Domatilla. Then we made our way to the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls.
All of us were rendered speechless by the splendor of the church, and by the fact that we had reached the tomb of the Apostle of the Gentiles. We toured the church, admiring many beautiful adornments, including the portraits of all the Popes since St. Peter.
We celebrated Holy Mass in the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament. Then we made our personal visits to St. Paul’s tomb.
I have been to this holy place before. But this year is special: the 2,000th anniversary of St. Paul’s birth. A new set of doors has been installed on the left side of the entrance, the Holy Doors for the Pauline Year. They are painted with the scenes of St. Paul’s conversion and martyrdom and marked with the following incription in Greek and Latin: “It is no longer I, but Christ who lives in me.”
When the Lord Jesus comes again in glory at the end of time, all the dead will rise again. The saints will rise to everlasting happiness.
The bodily remains of the saints are a precious reminder of our hope for eternal life. That is why we have shrines for their graves. To visit the body of a saint is to draw close to the glory of God. Venerating the body of a saint is an act of faith in the promises of Christ.
For the past three years, my brother and his wife have lived one block away from a saint. My little two-and-a-half-year-old nephew has lived his whole life two hundred yards away from the body of a holy nun.
Someday the neighborhood saint will rise again in glory. When she does, it will be on Ft. Washington Avenue in Manhattan. My brother, sister-in-law, and nephew live a block away from the Shrine of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini in Washington Heights, New York.
Whenever I go to visit my brother and his family, I try to visit Mother Cabrini, too. Believe it or not, I have run into people I know at the Shrine there. It is a small world.
Since my brother is Presbyterian, and my sister-in-law and nephew are both Jewish, they don’t pay much attention to their neighborhood saint. There is a little festival on her feast day, so they know that her feast day is tomorrow (November 13). But that is about all they know.
They do not know that she was a brassy and tireless champion of the poor. They do not know that she traveled all over North and South America founding convents. And they do not know that someday they will see her alive in their neighborhood. (Though perhaps they will have moved to the suburbs by the time the Lord comes again. Or maybe they will be resting in their graves then, too. It could be today; it could be countless years from now.)
I don’t think a lot of the people in Washington Heights appreciate how fortunate they are to have a neighbor who is a canonized saint. At this point in history, there are very few neighborhoods in the western hemisphere that have such a privilege.
I try to pray to Mother Cabrini for my brother’s family as often as I can. May my brother and his wife see the light, and go and kneel at Mother Cabrini’s tomb and pay their neighborhood saint some respect. They simply could not ask for a more desirable neighbor.
In the meantime, I pray that she will watch over them.