Published October 21, 2021
I was in Rome last week with my wife, on a long-planned holiday in the Eternal City. I say it was a holiday, and it was. The quantities of gelato and carbonara I consumed while I was there attest to this fact. But as visits to Rome always are, it was also a pilgrimage.
We began most of our mornings visiting St. Peter’s for Mass and Eucharistic adoration. We toured the scavi beneath the basilica and prayed before the very bones of St Peter. We prayed at the tomb of St. John Paul II, whose witness profoundly shaped both our lives in innumerable ways.
We were in St. Peter’s Basilica on the feast of St. John XXIII, whose body is displayed beneath the great mosaic of St. Jerome. My wife and I reminisced about the last time we had been in Rome together – as university students during the Great Jubilee. We had been together in St. Peter’s Square for the Mass at which Pope St. John Paul II beatified Good Pope John.
I went back to find the homily Pope John Paul II gave when he beatified John XXIII. I’d forgotten that Pius IX and three others were also beatified that day. Here was a reminder of the continuity of the Petrine ministry: the anti-modern pope par excellence, Pio Nono, beatified alongside the man who ushered in the Second Vatican Council. Both John XXIII and John Paul II, of course, would eventually be canonized together, by Pope Francis, in 2014.
I went back to find the homily John Paul II gave on that day in 2000 and found his words striking. At a time when history itself is a battleground and when our capricious, merciless age presumes to judge all that has come before, it’s worth remembering:
Holiness lives in history and no saint has escaped the limits and conditioning which are part of our human nature. In beatifying one of her sons, the Church does not celebrate the specific historical decisions he may have made, but rather points to him as someone to be imitated and venerated because of his virtues, in praise of the divine grace which shines resplendently in him.
The saints are not saints because they were indefectible in life, but because they attained to those virtues – those perfections – by which they were made transparent to the light of the One by whom they were perfected. The saints are transparent to the light of Christ.
The universality, the catholicity, of the Church is always palpable in Rome. Pilgrims flock from all corners of the globe. (Several locals commented on the surprising amount of German being spoken in Rome these days.) The streets around the Vatican are filled with a dizzying array of religious habits. But on this visit, I was struck by the particularity of the Roman Church. Two things drew in particular drew my attention to this while we were there.
The first was hearing the names of saints and martyrs in the Roman Canon. I hear these names every week. I’ve been hearing them all my life. Nor was this the first time I had heard them in Rome. But my proximity to these people – to the places where many of them lived, where they grew in love for the Lord, and where many of their mortal remains lie buried – struck me deeply. They surrounded me.
Linus, Cletus, Clement, Sixtus, Cornelius, Cyprian, Lawrence, Chrysogonus, John and Paul, Cosmas and Damian…
And the others…
John the Baptist, Stephen, Matthias, Barnabas, Ignatius, Alexander, Marcellinus, Peter, Felicity, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia. . .
Most of these men and women were martyred or buried (or both) within a few miles of where I knelt as I heard them. I have rarely felt the reality of the Communion of Saints so palpably as I have in Rome. I’m sure others have experienced the same.
Which brings me to the second powerful reminder of the locality of the Church of Rome: our visit to the church of Santo Stefano in Rotondo. Famous for being an ancient example of a church-in-the-round (there’s a reason they didn’t build more of them) the original church was commissioned by Leo the Great in the 5th century.
The frescoes of martyrs that adorn the interior walls of the Church were painted more than 1,000 years later. The images are gruesome. So gruesome, in fact, that Charles Dickens described them this way:
Such a panorama of horror and butchery no man could imagine in his sleep, though he were to eat a whole pig raw, for supper. Grey-bearded men being boiled, fried, grilled, crimped, singed, eaten by wild beasts, worried by dogs, buried alive, torn asunder by horses, chopped up small with hatchets: women having their breasts torn with iron pinchers, their tongues cut out, their ears screwed off, their jaws broken, their bodies stretched upon the rack, or skinned upon the stake, or crackled up and melted in the fire: these are among the mildest subjects.
Each painting is accompanied by a description, lettered in both Italian and Latin, of what awful thing is being done to whom – and on whose orders. From Nero to Diocletian to Julian the Apostate, the names of the guilty are not forgotten.
To a Catholic from the United States, these martyrs are so many ancient witnesses from far-off lands. To Romans, they’re mostly locals – murdered by local magistrates, and buried in churches and shrines across the city. Rome remembers her martyrs. Rome remembers the men and women slain on the orders of cruel pagans whose ruined palaces and temples are a stone’s throw from the church in which they are so commemorated.
Holiness lives in history. And in all the saints, and especially in the martyrs, the light of Christ bursts through into history. Rome remembers her martyrs, and what an astonishing place to be allowed to join in that remembrance. I am filled with a pilgrim’s gratitude.
Stephen P. White is a Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.