There are many well-known treasures in the city of Rome, and then there are some which ought to be more well-known, yet are not. Yet, on second thought, perhaps it would be better if they were to remain unknown so as to remain a holy site and not a tourist trap.
Just 4 blocks from the Casa Santa Maria is a church known as Santa Maria in Via Lata. The name only tells you what street the Church of St. Mary is on, and it must be distinguished because there are about 20 churches in Rome that all bear some title of our Lady. In fact, the chapel at the Casa is one of those churches: Santa Maria dell’Umiltà (Our Lady of Humility).
Back to the story…as was the case with most churches built or renovated in Rome, when this Church (Santa Maria in Via Lata) was renovated during the 15th and 17th centuries, excavations uncovered an ancient house-church; that is, a private residence where Mass was celebrated during the period when Christianity was illegal in the Roman empire. Evidence suggests that this house belonged to a gentleman by the name of Luke. Now, this fellow Luke was a doctor and an artist and a writer. Hopefully, you’ve read some of his works: the Holy Gospel according to St. Luke or the Acts of the Apostles. This gentleman, Luke, had some friends, and they were named Peter and Paul. Due to some certain acts deemed unacceptable by the Roman government, Paul was put under house arrest in Rome, but since he had no house of his own, he had to rely on his good friend Luke. In typical fashion, Paul was chained to a pillar, but could receive guests who wished to visit – mind you, this was a courtesy on the part of the Roman empire (see Acts 28). Eventually, Paul was beheaded – also a courtesy for Roman citizens; the “riff-raff” would just be crucified – for his actions and his preaching which were deemed treasonous by the Roman authorities.
As the years passed, this small, yet powerful group became interested in the objects connected with these important people who had given such a noble witness to their beliefs by accepting death rather than reject what they were convinced was Truth. The pillar and chains which bound Paul were considered important enough to retain, and they are found in this house, said to have been owned by Luke, all of which was discovered during the excavations of this relatively little “chapel” Santa Maria in Via Lata.
So, I got to spend a fair amount of time in this tiny little space with only 5 other people passing through the whole time, while outside (on one of the bigger streets in Rome – Via del Corso) the world rushed past unaware of the treasure hidden below, about 15-20′ below to be exact.
The pillar is topped with a jar, the contents of which are unknown to me. Posters beside the pillar contain the writings of St. Paul during his time under house arrest. It was quite beautiful to meditate on these lines written by St. Paul in this sacred place: Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David: such is my gospel, for which I am suffering, even to the point of chains, like a criminal. But the word of God is not chained. In fact, the words “the word of God is not chained” are etched into the pillar. Above the pillar on a white stone plaque are the words: Remember my chains (Colossians 4:18). What a peaceful and powerful place. Lastly, preserved nearby where the chains, wrapped around the base of the pillar, now laid out for display. How stark and how profound those words become when reflected upon in this very place…the word of God is not chained.
We can easily encounter the footsteps of the saints in this holy city, and completely waste the opportunity that is offered to us almost daily to draw upon their intercession, their witness, and their heavenly wisdom so as to obtain the prize which they already enjoy. Above all is the connection we truly share with these holy men and women in the communion of saints. St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us in his commentary on the Creed: All the good that the saints do is communicated to those who live in charity, for all are one. Commenting on this, one renowned Thomist wrote: the charity of the weakest member is elevated by that of the one who is most spirited, and the charity of both is held within the infallible charity of the whole Church. Just think; we have a share in their heroism. They share with us their great love for the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit which strengths our often weak love for Them.
Wherever we may be, may we draw upon the power of our victorious brothers and sisters in Christ so that with St. Paul we may say: I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. From now on the crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge, will award to me on that day… (2Timothy 4:7-8)