This is a city with millennia of history; why should I expect anything other than lots of cool surprises? Yes, I’m a slower learner. Now, since yesterday was a day that ends in “y,” so it was a good day to visit yet another of the 5,000 (yes, 5,000) chapels in Rome. This time it was a neighborhood to the south around the Colosseum. Inside the local neighborhood church of Santa Maria dei Monti (Saint Mary of the Mountains – see, yet another Church dedicated to the Blessed Mother), I knew that St. Joseph Benedict Labre had spent much of the last years of his life, and even died nearby, but that was the extent of my knowledge. His was a remarkable story of a poor man who lived on the streets but was gifted with a remarkable sanctity known to MANY people; in fact, when he died, young people ran through the streets yelling, “The saint is dead” and everyone knew who they were speaking of. So…in typical fashion, I made my way around all the side chapels and then I found this:
For those of you who haven’t brushed up on Latin lately (that included me), it says: here lies the body of St. Joseph Benedict Labre; I guess the marble tomb provides rather conclusive evidence.
While that was quite a spiritual treat, that wasn’t the end of Saturday’s adventure. Next stop was the Basilica of San Pietro in Vincolo (St. Peter in Chains). In this Basilica, just below the main altar is a reliquary containing the chains which held St. Peter prior to being delivered by an angel, as well as the chains which held St. Peter while in Rome; there’s a cool story behind the miraculous fusing of these 2 chains into one in the presence of the Pope which proved the authenticity of both. Again, that would be a spiritually enriching thing to see in itself, but wait, there’s more! Maybe I’ve said this before, but on entering a new church, I typically sit down for a time (15-20 minutes), and try to absorb the beauty of this holy place, …and rest after a long, hot hike.
So, while making my way through the Basilica, I was approached by one of the Basilica guards, who, incidentally, probably wasn’t guarding much. After discovering that I was an American who spoke Italian, albeit slow Italian, she excitedly invited me into the sacristy. Not being in a hurry, I thought this might be a fun adventure. I soon learned that this is the titular (“home”) church of Cardinal Wuerl of the Archdiocese of Washington DC when he is in Rome and that he would be visiting next month, so she and the sacristan invited me to come back for the dedication of a refinished organ, presided over by Cardinal Wuerl. After a nice chat, they offered me a coffee (typical Italian custom), and a restroom stop, for which I was most grateful because there are no public restrooms in Rome.
In the midst of all that, the conversation between the sacristan and the guard changed topics such that the guard grabbed a key that appeared to belong to some 9th-century lock. She started talking about the tomb of the 7 brothers from 2Maccabees7 who are buried underneath the chains of St. Peter. Even if I didn’t understand the Italian, it didn’t take long to put 2 & 2 together; I asked directly just to make sure, but somehow I was being granted private access to this tomb. So we walked past numerous people and through an ancient gate to a small space with the tomb of these 7 holy brothers. Sadly, the tomb is closed to the public because countless people found the ancient artwork to be inadequate and so decided to scribble their signatures across these priceless pieces.
If you’re not familiar with the story of these remarkable brothers and their mother, you NEED to read this story, and even if you are, read it again. This is one of my favorite stories in the Sacred Scriptures; after being tortured physically and psychologically, these 7 brothers and their mother refused to deny their Jewish faith, and in the process, demonstrated a profound understanding of the theology of creation and of eternal life. Their witness, as with the witness of all the martyrs, inspires the rest of us shleps to remain faithful to Christ and His Church in situations which are admittedly FAR less difficult to endure!
Are you starting to see a theme? A powerful, hostile culture persecuting a small, yet dedicated community of the faithful who would persevere to see that culture converted by their remarkable dedication and witness to the authentic love of God. Tertullian’s words constantly prove themselves true in the course of history: the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians. One last fact: the marble that lines the floor and walls surrounding the reliquary with St. Peter’s chains were all taken from the ancient Roman buildings built by those pagan emperors who had imprisoned St. Peter in the first place. Doubting whether or not it’s worth staying faithful? Just consider the overwhelming evidence written in stone and iron.
By the way, I’d put that on the list of good days in Rome.