Thursday, August 13, 2009

Glorious and Triumphant, Humble and Enduring

To the casual tourist or even pilgrim at first glance Rome seems to be a giant museum of the baroque period. It almost seems as if there were a huge building spree in the 16th and 17th century and then somehow all the artists and architects collapsed from exhaustion and went elsewhere. It looks like there is a church on every corner in Rome, or even two to a corner, all filled chockablock with dense baroque art and architecture. In every church every inch of space is filled, literally from floor to ceiling with the intense, romantic art that reflects the values, taste and concerns of the Catholic Church in the Counter-Reformation era. In the midst of this abundance of riches I began to feel as if I had entered into some parallel universe, a living history museum from the mid-17th century. Rome can easily seem like a singular monument to the phenomenon of the Church glorious and triumphant.

But gradually I noticed something else, evidence of the Church humble and enduring. In the nooks and crannies of numerous baroque monuments were testimonies to a deep, powerful contemporary faith that speaks to the needs of our hurting world. I saw this in little glimpses of the Catholic faith living and active in the midst of so much history.

* In a church with mosaics dating to the 6th century a couple was celebrating their marriage while tourists and pilgrims wandered in and out taking pictures as they quietly entered into the sacramental commitment of a lifetime.

* One Saturday evening several of us went to an English liturgy in the Duomo (Cathedral) in Florence. We were a rather motley crew of hot, sweaty, English speaking travelers celebrating the sacred mysteries at the site known to Michelangelo, Giotto, Donatello and others, as we celebrated the same sacrament that they did.

* In the Church of San Ambrogio in Rome, next to the relics of St. Polycarp, martyr of the 2nd century, was a small shrine to a contemporary, African, Trappist monk who has been beatified. There are still saints being made and honored in our midst.

* In a church that dates to one of the earliest “house churches” of Rome, which displayed a relic of pillar against which Jesus was scourged, the immigrant Filipino community in Rome has a vibrant, faith-filled parish.

* One evening we went to a church which also boasts a lineage from the earliest centuries and whose outside walls were lined with bits of marble inscriptions dating to the 4th century. Inside we went to a packed Vespers service of the San Egidio community, a contemporary faith community dedicated to helping the urban poor.

The monuments and history of Rome are amazing to see and a great way to appreciate the breadth and depth of our faith. But it is also challenging to see that our faith is not just the stuff of history and monuments, it is living, active, challenging and humbling to all of us who continue to strive to live the way Jesus called us to live.

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