By Amber Noel
More than once on our trip to Rome I thought about The Canterbury Tales. There we were: students (Nashotah House, Notre Dame), a few married couples, a retiree, deacons, priests, and a bishop; a registrar, a lawyer, a French ambassador’s wife; Catholics, Episcopalians, Anglicans; Americans, Canadians, a Nigerian — not a motley crew, exactly, but a pilgrim band nonetheless.
In Rome there’s not just one “holy, blissful martyr for to seek,” but more martyrs and saints and relics than you can count. And our purpose for being together was to see these things, study together, and pray during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
Here are a few things I saw, and a few things I learned.
The beginning of a pilgrimage is overwhelming. You’re not quite sure what you’re seeing. Where’s the restaurant? I take a left at the what? The Colosseum? You’re taking stock of the group and your place in it. Testing your scant Italian. Getting to know the sounds and smells, roads and food, mood and logic of a place.
Before being there, I thought of Rome as a gritty, gorgeous, and probably-multiple-times-baked-over religious tourist destination, which was no doubt still amazing in every way, but the sense of real sanctity was probably hidden, given the accumulation of, well, history, religious bureaucracy, souvenir-selling, frippy rococo art, and two-story Bernini sculpture. Isn’t it all just too — stuffed? I’d like Rome, I was sure; but I was equally sure I’d like Assisi better, where God had more room to breathe.
(I actually came to love Bernini, the agitation, aggression, and glory of his sculptures, and the way they break the fourth wall. They’re like visual trumpet blasts. But if you want to be convinced yourself, I suggest either reading Ben Lima’s article from our last issue, or go to Rome yourself and hire Sara Magister as your tour guide.)
The first lovely surprise I encountered, taking a midnight stroll my first night and finding myself accidentally at the Vatican, was the palpable sense of holiness about Rome. Dear reader, please don’t be affronted that this was a surprise to me. I was raised a good Protestant.
Within hours, Rome became one of my favorite cities. It was the late walk by the Tiber that did it. It was the lights of St. Peter’s Square (in the middle of security cars and seagulls eating trash and people sleeping on the sidewalk, and one American street preacher), illuminating centuries of a messy ministry of shepherding. It was also the noise and press and energy of young people filling a nearby piazza, almost making trouble for the police, but not quite, drinking and flirting and paying for dinner over thousands of years of ruins. Within hours, a blessed reminder bloomed in my heart: human history and human stuff are not tartar buildup God scrapes away before working. Of course not. He gets into the mix, “scraps it up” with everything we bring to the table. Incarnation is the basic way God works with our planet.
So. Lesson two: now I’m convinced of Rome as mother in some sense, exemplar in some sense, of what it means for a place to receive God’s presence.
By “holy city,” I also mean a place where holy people have lived, died, and — even — left their things: prayer books, rosaries, robes, letters. Saints’ bodies can sanctify what they touch. We know this from Scripture, maybe even from experience. Why can’t the saints’ relics sanctify a whole city? There are plenty in Italy to do the job. Among a few of these whose bodies, tombs, and belongings we saw include Peter and Paul, Andrew and John Paul II, Sebastian and Agnes, Irenaeus and Franz Jägerstätter, Gregory the Great and Maximillian Kolbe, Francis and Clare, Alexander Men, Oscar Romero, and St. Francis’s patroness, who baked his favorite cookies. And many, many, many popes.
Our first church visit also shaped the lessons of this pilgrimage in a particular way. The first evening together (my solitary walk had been the night before), we gathered at San Gregorio church and monastery, from which Gregory the Great first sent Augustine of Canterbury to England. I had the sense here of the sheer accumulation of the things “God has in store for those who love him,” of generations of provision. “If it weren’t for what happened here, we wouldn’t be here today.” Although I do believe that “God can raise up children… from these stones,” apostolic succession is precious, and its implications for Christian unity can be personal and deep.
San Greg’s was also where I caught my first set of miracle stories, and really, I don’t mean to gush, but when it comes to a certain Catholic brand of miracles, I am far more credulous than not. (There was only one relic I saw that made me say, “Not sure about this one, folks”: a piece of marble that purportedly holds the impression of two perfectly parallel footprints of Jesus. He must have stepped in while the marble was still wet?) One of my favorites is the one in which Gregory is saying an “Ave, Maria,” and Mary appears with an “Ecco, Gregory!”
Again: where I expected distance and pomposity, I met sweetness, intimacy, the largesse of God’s tenderness and care. A little symbol of this to me were the images of doves peppered throughout the golden grandiosity of St. Peter’s Basilica, their pink eyes peering at me at eye level or low to the ground, offering an olive leaf. Michelangelo knew what he was saying.
Miracle stories are everywhere in Rome, and everyone’s heard at least a few dozen. The warmth and familiarity of many of these stories is really remarkable. Yes, the archeologists just happened to find that letter from St. Peter to his mother. Yes, of course St. Catherine appeared to help the 20th-century peasant woman bake her bread. I made those up, but they’re of the type you’ll hear. And they shift your mindset. You’re in a place where these things (at least probably most of them) really happened. And what’s sweeter than watching those with whom you’ve just shared a whole day of travel, topped off with cacio e pepe, ox tail, and a round of amaro, now entirely sober, kneeling, bowing, weeping, praying, lovingly kissing an altar rail under a mosaic of the miracle-working Christ and his Mother, or in the pink and white light of a martyr’s chapel? That’ll move you to prayer for Christian unity, friends.
And this brings us to the ministry of Peter, whose bones we venerated together, and who is a vital subject for Christian unity. How do Christians who are not Roman Catholic receive the ministry of the Pope, the inheritor of Peter’s ministry? Obviously, a — if not the — historically divisive question.
But maybe those days of divisiveness are drawing to a close. In Rome we met, prayed, and worshiped with several leaders from the pontifical office for Christian unity. The Roman Catholic Church has been exploring ways of sharing the ministry of the See of Peter since Vatican II, and is making a visible effort to reform the papacy, hoping to reflect more fully the synodality of the early Church. We saw this, in workshops, welcomes, tea times, repeated requests for Anglican presence and feedback. Gregory the Great himself first called himself as Bishop of Rome servus servorum Dei. This ancient model and its contemporary application left us all, I think, at times, a bit gobsmacked. How did we get on the front rows of this Vatican event? Did we seriously just meet Pope Francis? Wait, wait… The cardinal is hugging Linda!
I would highly recommend a pilgrimage to Rome with Christians of different traditions. You’ll have the experience you have. But then you’ll see it through their eyes, too. Christian unity in our age is the discovery and rediscovery of history together, witnessing God’s work together, the confirmation of a shared love of God. It is the uniting and united witness of what the Holy Spirit is doing in any place (helped, I think, by practice in the great Holy Cities), the Spirit who is the deposit and guarantee of our shared inheritance in Christ. Seeing this takes a large historical view, experiencing together the physical articles of the faith (mosaics, churches, weeping icons, grilles, statues, chapels, La Scala Sancta), time and prayer together, staying together in Airbnbs. Understanding and honoring one another’s love for God in its varied (if sometimes contested) expressions, and our various vocations in that love, and sharing them under the roof of the Church — that is ecumenism and its goal. And, like the city of Rome itself, it’s a gift of God.
Along with the New Jerusalem, I can’t wait to see the New Rome (and the New Constantinople, the New Alexandria, the New Canterbury). The air will be filled with smells and bells and the streets with rowdy ragazzi and resurrected saints. History won’t be forgotten. As a sister of Jerusalem, her “gates will never be shut,” by night or day, and they will call her, too, “the city of the Lord.” La Cittá Eterna — like the sacraments, spiritual authority, unity, salvation, life itself — is never what it is by anything but gift and grace, the life and death of saints, and God’s patience. Like other cities, perhaps, yet uniquely, she is a synecdoche for the Church, mixed and gritty, glorious and exhausting, self-referential, vivid, ponderous, sinful, transforming, and, if you care to learn more about yourself as a Christian, worth a visit in your lifetime.