Saturday, March 8, 2008

4th Week of Lent: Santa Croce in Gerusalemme

It was a rainy day as I approached the Basilica of Santa Croce. It is one of the seven churches (Italian: Sette Chiese) that pilgrims were traditionally expected to try and visit during their stay in Rome. (The others are the basilicas of St. Peter, Saint Paul Outside the Wall, Saint Lawrence, Saint Mary Major, St. John Lateran and Saint Sebastian.)

Santa Croce in Gerusalemme was consecrated around 325 to house the Passion Relics brought to Rome from the Holy Land by St. Helena of Constantinople, mother of Constantine I. At that time, the basilica floor was covered with soil from Jerusalem, thus giving it the title "in Gerusalemme." The church is built around a room in St. Helena's imperial palace, Palazzo Sessoriano, which she adapted to a chapel around the year 320. The church was restored in the 12th Century, giving it three naves, a belfry and a porch. In the 18th Century it was modified giving it the Baroque appearance it has today.

Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be satisfied.

I have always been a person to "check out churches." Rome is an unbelievable city to feed my appetite for church buildings. They are everywhere! I remember being told in elementary school that men should take off their hats when passing a church. If that was still a custom, men would never have hats on their heads here in Rome.

What am I seeking when I got to a church? What do I see? What speaks to me? How do I respond? What hunger is being satisfied?

During Lent I am visiting a different church each week that is a designated station church for that week and I bring with me one of the beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount.

As I walked into the front door of the Basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, I was surprised to find myself in an oval vestibule with a dome and lantern. It was a nice space and I would have liked to sit for awhile there, but there were no seats.

I walked into the nave of the basilica and experienced a very cold interior after spending time in the light filled vestibule. I did a little exploring around the church and walked into the entrance for the Chapel of the Relics. Beyond this entrance was a set of steps leading into a room that had a photo exhibit showing parallels between Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI and a second room containing information about the soon to be beautified Nennolina, an Italian girl who died of cancer at the age of six in 1937. She used to leave letters to Jesus every night on her bed stand. There was an exhibit with some of her clothes and toys. Nennolina is buried here in Santa Croce, her parish church.

I encountered several groups of people in the basilica. Near the front door were two beggars standing together counting the coins in their plates. Outside the Chapel of the Relics a small group of English speaking pilgrims were making the Stations of the Cross, while inside the Chapel there was a woman kneeling before the shrine and two tourist peering into the glass enclosed reliquary. In a side room there was a solitary man prostrated before a crucifix and a life sized reproduction of the Shroud of Turin.

In the apse of the basilica about a dozen monks had begun chanting vespers. They seemed oblivious to everyone else in the church. I settled myself into a pew in the nave thinking about all of the people in this basilica. What individual needs do we have that we want to have satisfied? What are we seeking in this church this afternoon? Somehow, we are united together in the kingdom of God!

Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be satisfied.

As I think about my life in Rome, I realize that my main work here is teaching fifth grade. Over half of my students have parents working for world relief organizations: FAO-the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, WFP - the World Food Program, and IFAD - International Fund for Agricultural Development. These are parents who are dedicating their lives to helping alleviate world hunger and malnutrition. By teaching their children, I am participating in this work in a small way. Together we are striving for a better world, and it is satisfying to know this.

Outside the Basilica of Santa Croce there is an interesting gate leading to the monastery garden. It is made of a tangled grill with hanging hunks of colored resin.

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