Welcome! This blog celebrates both the local and the catholic -- that is, universal -- aspects of the Roman Catholic Church by sharing reflections on experiences of the Church in a variety of settings and cultures. Postings will come from around the world and around the corner. You don't have to be a Catholic to come along.

Monday, November 29, 2010

God's Stained Glass Windows

Ann and I recently celebrated our 35th wedding anniversary -- several times.

The most recent celebration was a wonderful dinner at a great restaurant for the wedding party, their spouses, and our descendants. Even though I was suffering the pain of a kidney stone for about the last hour, it was a delightful occasion.

On the anniversary date itself a couple of weeks earlier, we also celebrated with dinner at a restaurant for just the two of us. Meals of this kind always remind me of the Eucharist, and we celebrated with that, too. The evening before our anniversary we went to Mass and received a blessing from our pastor.

That reminded me of our 30th anniversary, which we spent in Barbados. On the morning of our anniversary, which was a weekday, we attended Mass at St. Francis of Assisi with our two friends who live in Barbados. This is an interesting church for several reasons: Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair used to worship there even before he became Catholic, the church was formerly a movie theater, and it sits on a beach.

Plus there's one more distinguishing feature of the church: There are two windows behind the altar that are not stained glass windows. Instead they are clear-pane windows, often left open, through which you can see the beach and the Caribbean beyond.

To me this view of some of God's most beautiful creation as backdrop of Mass is as inspiring as any stained glass window.

Monday, November 22, 2010

St. Cecilia

Today, Nov. 22, in addition to being the anniversary of the deaths of both C.S. Lewis and President John F. Kennedy 47 years ago, is the Feast of St. Cecilia.

She is best known as the patron saint of music. For this reason, the internet reports that the 1970 Simon and Garfunkel song "Cecilia" is really a metaphor about the frustrations of a composer deserted by his Muse, personified by the saint. Whether that's true or not, it is true that Paul Simon's later song "The Coast" makes reference to "the little harbor church of St. Cecilia."

Wherever that church might be, it is certainly not the Roman basilica St. Cecilia in Trastevere that we visited a few weeks ago. We took part in the Sunday vigil Mass there, happily noting that this was a not a museum but an active parish -- there were flowers in the church left over from a wedding.

In my travel diary I noted that the two outstanding features of the church were a magnificent marble altarpiece with a statue of the saint in death (above) and a crypt that had been an early Christian burial vault.

We spent quite a bit of time in the vault after Mass. It was clear that we were amid the ruins of what had once been the home of a wealthy Roman. Only later did we learn that Roman was St. Cecilia herself, beheaded in her home in 230 A.D. A church was erected over the home in the 4th or 5th Century, and rebuilt in the 9th Century.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Feast alert!

Heads up, there's a great feast coming!

On Nov. 18 the Church celebrates the dedication of two of the four major basilicas of Rome, St. Peter's and St. Paul Outside the Walls.

Any tourist can appreciate the beauty and the historical importance of these ancient churches. But to Catholic pilgrims they mean so much more. For recent archeological research has confirmed beyond reasonable doubt what tradition always held: That the Emperor Constantine in the 4th Century erected the predecessors of these churches over the tombs of the apostles for whom they are named.

Anyone -- you need no special pull -- can arrange for what is called a Scavi Tour beneath St. Peter's Basilica to see the bones of the saint. To summarize a long and complicated history, the bones were discovered in the middle of the last century hidden in a box on which had been scratched the simple words "Peter Within." Forensic analysis of the remains produced no reason to disbelieve the label.

The bones of St. Peter lie immediately below the high altar of St. Peter's Basilica. I have seen them twice and found the experience equally emotional both times.

A short subway ride away, at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, a sarcophagus holding the remains of the Apostle to the Gentiles is partially visible just below the main altar. A lighted glass case holds what tradition says are the chains that held St. Paul imprisoned in Rome.

There are also two new features of the basilica dating only to the recent Year of St. Paul -- a special door, like a Holy Year door, and an eternal flame lit by bishop of Rome, Pope Benedict, and the archbishop of Constantinople, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, at the beginning of the Year of St. Paul.

Medallion-shaped paintings of all the popes from St. Peter to Benedict XVI line the walls of the basilica near the top. St. Paul (since above in the statue in front of the basilica) was crucial to the growth of the early Church, but it was founded on St. Peter. How fitting that these saints share a feast day, and so do their churches in Rome.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Mother Church

Earlier this week we celebrated the mother church of Christendom -- and it's not St. Peter's Basilica.

Since the 12th Century, November 9 has been the Feast of the Dedication of St. John Lateran in Rome. Erected by the Emperor Constantine in the early 4th Century and rebuilt many times, San Giovanni Laterano is the pope's cathedral in his capacity as bishop of Rome. (St. Peter's Basilica is not in Rome, of course, but in the Vatican City State.) Until the 14th Century, the attached Lateran Palace was the official residence of the pope.

The universal nature of the Church was brought home as I looked at the wooden confessional boxes around the church. Signs above listed languages of the confessors. For example, one polyglot priest could listen to and absolve sins in English, Italian and Irish Gaelic.

Candlesticks throughout the basilica ended in electric light bulbs instead of candles. Beneath the main alter lies the mortal remains of Pope Martin V, who died in 4131. For some reason, people throw coins and bills at it.

Like many of the great churches, St. John Lateran so is vast that's it's hard to appreciate all its wonders -- one masterpiece piled on top of another. The baldacchino over the papal altar, shown above, is decorated with 14th Century frescoes. Another fresco may be by Giotto.

But the most significant sight to me when we visited last month was the bishop's chair at the far end of the basilica, for that is the chair of Peter.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Holy Face in Lucca

There's a long tradition in Catholic popular piety of venerating statues, often of mysterious origin, that have come to be associated with miracles. Our Lady of Charity, said to be better known in Cuba than Jesus Himself, and the Infant of Prague both date back to the early 17th Century.

The Volto Santo -- Holy Face -- is even older, though not as old as once believed. The statue, housed in a chapel inside the Cathedral of St. Martin in Lucca, Italy, has been a popular destination of European pilgrims since the Middle Ages. The photo above shows the Cathedral, which we visited last month. Photos of the statue by ordinary visitors are, understandably, forbidden.

The Legend of the Volto Santo is long and complicated, but begins with the belief that it was carved by Nicodemus, the Pharisee-disciple of the Lord. Or at least the body was, with the dark Holy Face completed by divine intervention. Art historians today believe the hollow statue, which might have been intended to be a reliquary, was created sometime between the late 11th and early 12th centuries.

Many non-Catholic Christians, particularly in the non-liturgical denominations, tend to see veneration of statues as idolotrous or nearly so. But on the day we visited there was a long line in front of the little chapel that has housed the statue for centuries. To me it's perfectly understandable that as embodied human beings we long to have a physical representation of the divine.

After all, that's why God became one of us.

Friday, November 5, 2010

The Cross on the Cathedral

The inside of almost every Catholic church offers a visual feast: statues, paintings, stained glass windows, and more. But in on the way in, most of the time we hurry past some interesting images outside as well.

For example, the main portals of the Pisan-Romanesque Duomo di San Martino (St. Martin Cathedral) in Tuscany's ancient walled city of Lucca, is notable for highly regarded 13th century carvings by the artists Nicola Pisano and Guidetto da Como. (The cathedral itself was begun in 1063.)

On a recent visit there, I also saw a Jerusalem Cross on the outside front wall. This familiar style of cross, made of up one big cross and four smaller ones together representing the wounds of Christ, comes from the shield of Sr. Godfrey de Bouillon, leader of the First Crusade.

Tradition holds that Sir Godfrey founded the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre in 1099. Today the order exists in large part to support the dwindling ranks of Christians in th Holy Land. And the symbol of the order -- which appears on the capes, berets and medals of the knights and ladies -- is the Jerusalem Cross.

So what's it doing on a cathedral in Lucca? According to a small book available at our hotel, which I read but did not buy, there's a connection between the Duomo di San Martino and Holy Land: pilgrimage destinations. Why pilgrams have been coming to San Martino since the Middle Ages is a subject for another time.

What goes on inside churches is the most important. But what's on the outside is sometimes very interesting.

Monday, November 1, 2010

A Blessed Emperor

On this All Saints Day, I find myself thinking about a blessed that I never of until last month.

In the back of a church in Vienna, I found a little pamphlet -- available in a multitude of languages -- telling the story of Blessed Emperor Charles, described as "Prince of Peace for a United Europe."

A member of the famous Habsburg family, Charles (Karl in German) was the last emperor of the Austro-Hungarian empire (Charles I) and the last king of Hungary (Charles IV), as well as the last king of Bohemia and of Croatia.

He succeed to the throne in 1916, the middle of World War I, upon the death of his great uncle, the much better known Emperor Franz-Joseph. The was made possible by the assassination two years earlier of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo, which touched off the world war.

A soldier by training, he pursued peace and banned his army's use of poison gas. As a ruler, he was guided by Catholic social justice teaching. But he was not a ruler long. He withdrew from the administration of the state -- not using the word "abdicate" -- on Armistice Day, November 11, 1918.

Weakened by pneumonia and two heart attacks, he died of respiratory failure on April 1, 1922 in exile on the Portuguese island of Madeira with his wife and eight children (the last of them in utero). He was 34 years old.

According to the pamphlet I picked up in Austria, the moto of his life was as he is said to have repeated on his death-bed: "My entire efforts are always in all things to recognize and follow as clearly as possible the will of God even in all its completeness." He died in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.

Long viewed as a model Christian ruler, Charles I was beatified by Pope John Paul II on Oct. 3, 2004. Two miracles have been recognized through his intercession, one of them involving a Baptist woman from Florida. His feast day is Oct. 21, the date of his marriage to the Empress Zita in 1911.

Jesus said it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter heaven. How encouraging that some saints can work even that miracle!