“Four Majors” of Venice

Hopefully everyone knows that Rome has four major basilicas.

A pilgrimage to the Apostolic See of St. Peter involves visiting these four churches: 1. St. Peter’s tomb at the Vatican. 2. St. Paul’s tomb, at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls. 3. The cathedral of Rome, St. John Lateran. 4. St. Mary Major.

The pilgrim who visits all four obtains an indulgence. I have had the privilege of leading pilgrims to the four majors not once, but twice, in 2006 and 2008. Also, I have visited them as a private pilgrim on three other occasions.

Far be it from me to suggest that Venice stands as a kind of ‘second Rome.’ Yes, you don’t have to evade speeding motorini in Venice; you just listen to the burbling of vaporetto propellers in the canals–which many travelers probably prefer. But only Rome is Rome. Only the bishop of Rome is the pope. Only Rome has four official major basilicas.

I would like humbly to suggest, though, that Venice also has four major basilicas. For the pilgrim to visit.

Unofficial “majors.” Rome has the tomb of St. Peter, prince of the Apostles. But Venice has the tomb of St. Mark–briefest of the Evangelists, which has to count for something.

Granted: Most of the people who trundle themselves to Venice do so in order to ride in gondolas and take selfies. But some venture there as pilgrims, out of devotion to God and His saints.

So I propose these “four majors” of the Serene City.

I include these four because they stand on the major islands of the city, rather than on remote, secondary islands.

St. Mark’s and Santa Maria della Salute face each other across the opening of the Grand Canal, which flows like an S through the city, and divides it into two parts. The Frari and San Zenipolo stand on opposite sides, buried inland, deep in the neighborhoods.

1. St. Mark’s marks the center of Venice. All the canals, and all the alleyways, ultimately lead there.

per san marco sign venice

(No reasonable person tries to use a map in Venice. The alleys have names, but it’s practically impossible to know what those names are. You just follow the signs for either San Marco or the Rialto, and eventually you wind up somewhere good.)

Saint Mark's Venice

Believe it or not, I found the interior of the basilica that houses my baptismal patron’s relics rather underwhelming. Yes, the gold mosaics glitter all over the walls.

St. Mark's Venice interior
(most of these photos come from Wikipedia)

But the church seems considerably more impressive and mysterious on the outside than it does on the inside. Inside, to be honest, St. Mark’s seems a little dingy.

2. Santa Maria della Salute sits right on the water, across from San Marco. The early seventeen-century Venetians built this octagonal geometric masterpiece to thank our Lady for saving them from the plague.

Santa Maria della Salute on the water

Dome of Santa Maria della Salute, Venice, Italy.

3. Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari sits on the same side of the Grand Canal as Santa Maria della Salute.

Frari Venice exterior

Frari main altar Titian Assumption of the Virgin Mary
Titian’s world-famous Assumption hangs in the apse
Frari Venice choir stalls.jpg
the choir stalls stand in the middle of the nave, behind a stunning rood screen

Frari Venice rood screen

4. Santi Giovanni e Paolo, aka San Zenipolo (back on the San Marco side of Grand Canal)



the stained-glass windows in the apse fill the huge church with light

…Venice has other basilicas that a pilgrim could profitably cross the earth just to visit. Like San Giorgio Maggiore, which looms across the lagoon from Piazza San Marco, on an island all its own. Or San Pietro di Castello, the original cathedral of Venice, which I mentioned in an earlier post.

I never made it to Guidecca island to see the Redentore, or to Torcello island to see the really ancient cathedral (going back to before Venice became Venice), with it’s world-famous apse mosaic:

Torcello cathedral Venice apse mosaic Virgin Mother

Also, Venice has other, smaller churches aplenty, many of which deserve encomiums beyond my ability to produce.

Like Santa Maria dei Miracoli, which sits quietly by a small, largely un-used canal, unassumingly waiting to send you into a rapture upon entering…

Santa_Maria_Dei_Miracoli_interior Venice

…So, yes: Venice is not Rome. But it does indeed have some seriously major basilicas and churches. Worth going on pilgrimage to pray in.

Greetings from My Patron’s Home

Rialto Bridge view
View from the Rialto Bridge on a moonlit might

Now, what news on the Rialto? (Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice, Act III, scene 1)

I accidentally got on a water-bus going in the wrong direction. Wound up on the finger of land that separates the Venetian lagoon from the Adriatic sea. And I saw something I hadn’t seen in days. An automobile.

…Today I had the opportunity to go to confession and celebrate Mass at the tomb of my baptismal patron. (Photography strictly prohibited inside.)

Saint Mark's Venice

They keep some magnificent paintings in the old palace of the doge, right next door.

Palazzo ducale deposition Christ cross

Palazzo ducale penitent Magdalen
penitent Magdalen
Venice and Pope Alexander VII offering isle of Lefkada to St. Peter
Venice and Pope Alexander VII offering the Greek isle of Lefkada to St. Peter, after a victory over the Turks

I visited the ancient church which held the cathedra of the Patriarch of Venice until just a couple centuries ago. (St. Mark’s basilica had served simply as the doge’s chapel for a millennia, before becoming the cathedral.) Found this inspiring sculpture of the triumph of the cross.

Triumph of the Cross San Pietro di Castello Venice

In the church of Saints John and Paul, martyrs, this stunning sculpture of St. Jerome.

St Jerome Venice

And the foot of St. Catherine of Siena.

foot of St Catharine of Sienna, Saints John and Paul Venice

I had mentioned that Fra Paolo Sarpi, and the Venetian controversy with Pope Paul V, preoccupied me. I found the memorial of Father Sarpi.

Paolo Sarpi

Paolo Sarpi statue close

And his grave, on the isle of the Cimeterio.

Cimiterio Paolo Sarpi Venice

I have a million more things to tell you, dear reader, about this most-perplexing of places–where they developed a government like ours, a thousand years before we Americans even amounted to glimmers in our daddy’s eyes. Where, at 2am, all you hear is the light lapping of water in the canals. Visiting Venice makes me feel like I have not understood the world anywhere near as well as I thought I did.

The smell of the sea air has done me a lot of good. Say a prayer for my safe flight home tomorrow, if you please.

Visiting Venice without Clichés

Othello relating his adventures to Desdemona by Becker
“Othello Relating his Adventures to Desdemona,” by Carl Becker

Shakespeare’s Othello begins in the streets of Venice. The Moor general has quietly married the fairest of all Venetian heiresses, Desdemona. The renowned cosmopolitanism of Venetian society strains to the breaking point at this. A black man has presumed to marry into a senatorial family.

But the Venetian senate has more pressing matters at hand. The Turks threaten their dominion over the fair sea. Othello will lead them in battle…

…Gore Vidal wrote a little history of Venice, complete with pictures. He insists that Venice has become a lovable cliché. When I arrive at Piazza San Marco, after visiting Trent, Verona, and Milan, I anticipate having to navigate many choking crowds of gawking cruise ship off-loads.

I intend, nonetheless–in spite of the “tourist-trap” aspect of the scene–to visit the relics of my baptismal patron at the Duomo. And to see the fair city. Without a single cliché.

I will focus instead on the legacy of Fra Paolo Sarpi and the Venetian Interdict of 1606.

When you look carefully at the facade of the Vatican Basilica of St. Peter, you see the name of the pope who completed the building, Paul V (Camillo Borghese). New popes present themselves to the world immediately below those chiseled words.

Paul V Borghese

Well, Pope Paul V also cancelled all Masses and sacraments (except last rites), for the entire Republic of Venice, for a year. At least he tried to.

Anthony Trollope wrote the chronicles of Barset. His brother Thomas Adolphus lived most of his life in Italy. Thomas Adolphus Trollope concerned himself with all things Italian, especially the Risorgimento. He wrote an utterly gripping, if wrong-headed, account of the Venetian Interdict of 1606, called Paul the Pope and Paul the Friar.

What happened? The Venetians held two criminal priests in custody, intending to judge and sentence them according to their laws. Pope Paul objected, insisting that he alone had jurisdiction.

What followed involved… 1. The enunciation of many of the principles of the U.S. Constitution, well over a century before Thomas Jefferson’s birth. 2. A crisis of Catholic identity not unlike the one we face right now, subsequent to the sexual abuse scandal. 3. A ‘test’ of the effects of the Council of Trent.

Now, please don’t think my interest in a four-century-old controversy between Rome and Venice amounts to mere antiquarianism. Let’s remember this also:

The Holy and Apostolic See of Rome certainly predates the Patriarchate of Venice. On the day St. Peter died at the foot of Vatican hill, the city of Venice didn’t even yet exist as a small island village. The pope created a diocese of Venice in 774 AD.

But the current length of residence in their sees is about the same, for the two lines of bishops. The popes left Rome in the fourteenth century; didn’t return until 1377. And even after that, the city of Rome experienced lengthy hiatuses of papal residence. We remember Pope Martin V as the hero who truly brought the papacy back to Rome for good–in 1420.

So the popes rightly developed an enormously high esteem for the Patriarchate of Venice, the inheritor of the genuinely ancient patriarchate of Grado (which managed to preserve itself for generations as simultaneously Roman and Byzantine).

In recent centuries, the pope customarily created a newly appointed bishop of Venice a cardinal at the subsequent consistory. Remember, two pope-saints of recent memory, John XXIII and Pius X, both entered their respective conclaves as Cardinal Patriarchs of Venice. (So did Pope John Paul I).

The Patriarch of Venice became such an “automatic” cardinal, in fact, that he acquired the unique privilege of wearing scarlet immediately upon his appointment as Patriarch–even before any consistory. That is: before the pope actually creates him a cardinal, the Patriarch of Venice nonetheless dresses as one. Since he certainly will become one, in a matter of weeks.

Francesco Moraglia Patriarch Of Venice Inaugurates His Mandate
new Patriarch Francesco Moraglia arrives in Venice, March 2012

Except when he doesn’t. The current incumbent Patriarch of Venice, in office now for nearly eight years, remains an Archbishop. He enjoys no right to enter the Sistine Chapel at the next papal interregnum. He sits neglected by the pope, clothed in what by now seems like “borrowed” scarlet. Francesco Moraglia’s scarlet robe, in fact, has become something like Miss Havisham’s wedding dress.

Not an interdict, to be sure. But this inexplicable situation plagues Venetian Catholics like an open wound…

…I will endeavor to unfold these matters for you, dear reader, as the good Lord allows me the time and energy to do so.

In the meantime, I ask for your prayers, that heavenly graces will accompany me on my little journey.

Ciao for now.

Onomástico Sermon

St Mark tomb

Our first reading at Holy Mass today, from St. Peter’s first letter, ends with, “I send you greetings, as does Mark my son.” Salutat vos Marcus filius meus. These words adorn the sarcophagus of St. Mark, in the high altar of his basilica in Venice.

Inside the stone coffin: the mangled remains of the martyred bishop. St. Peter had sent Mark from Rome to Alexandria, Egypt–at the time, the second-most important city in the Empire. After eight fruitful years there, St. Mark was captured by enemies of the faith, while he was saying Mass. They dragged him through the streets for two days, and he died of his injuries on April 25, AD 68.

Someday I hope to visit my heavenly patron at his uniquely beautiful Venetian tomb. Apparently an angel had appeared to the saint once, when his travels had brought him to Venice. The angel said, “Peace be with you, Mark, my evangelist. Here your body will rest.” Maybe the next time I go to Roselawn, I will receive the same message. (That’s the local cemetery here in Martinsville. 🙂 )

Anybody seen the new St. Paul movie? Is St. Mark in it? Maybe not, since St. Paul and St. Mark apparently disliked each other. We read in the Acts of the Apostles that they traveled together briefly, then suddenly separated. There’s a happy ending, though: It seems that they patched things up later. St. Paul wrote to St. Timothy, asking that Timothy bring Mark with him to see Paul.

St. Mark and St. Paul had in common that they collaborated with the original Apostles, while they themselves had not lived with Jesus during His pilgrimage on earth. Nor had Paul or Mark seen Him during the forty days after Easter.

If we think about it, that makes their faith even more amazing. Faith in Christ unto a martyr’s death, having embraced Christianity by pure trust in the Church’s nascent Tradition.

In other words, Saints Mark and Paul entered into the Christian mystery like we have entered into it. The Nazarene about Whom we have heard—and thank you St. Mark! for writing down what St. Peter said about Him!—this Nazarene man is worth living and dying for. He is worth spending all our energies on. He is the only-begotten Son of the eternal Father, the Incarnate Divine Love.