Holy Ground

In Rome, All Paths Lead To History

I recently traveled to Rome with Mary, Our Lady of Light. I sat in coach, she in a plastic PVC pipe in the overhead compartment. She was painted on a piece of rolled-up canvas and I was accompanying her to her new home in the chapel of my religious community’s headquarters. Mary, under that somewhat obscure but lovely title, is the patron of my community, the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, and I had been commissioned to create an image of her, which I was now delivering.

Our community’s house is beautifully situated in Trastevere, one of the most ancient and interesting of Roman neighborhoods. It is halfway up the highest of the city’s seven hills, called the Janiculum. When you look down from this hill, you get a stunning panorama of the Eternal City. The toughest decision I faced each morning, after descending the thirty-three steps from the front door of our house to the street, was whether to turn left and climb to the top of the Janiculum, where there’s a magnificent Baroque fountain, or turn right, downhill, and walk around Trastevere. The heart of Trastevere is the ancient Basilica di Santa Maria, one of the oldest parishes in the Christian world, renowned for its stunning mosaics. Whichever way I decided to turn, a treasure hunt awaited me—as did a very steep climb, either coming or going. And, since this was August in Rome, a steep climb had to be finished by noon: after that, things get a little toasty under the Roman sun, which revolves around the earth, as decreed by popes of yore.

It was sublime. I had five days to do nothing but wander and sketch, with only two things on my must-do list: a walk up and over the Janiculum to Saint Peter’s, which I’d already visited several times over the years; and a tour of the Jewish ghetto, just across the Tiber from Trastevere. It had been calling to me ever since I read about the renowned Roman Jewish fried artichokes in the travel section of the paper years ago. My desire for new and interesting food (and cold beer) outweighed my desire to see more Baroque angels swirling around yet another dome. When you’ve been to one Counter-Reformation church you’ve been to them all.

So, on my first full morning I decided to get the churchy thing out of the way and turned left to make a pilgrim walk to San Pietro. And a true pilgrimage it was—as evidenced by the sweat pouring from me. (Have I mentioned how hot it was?)The Roman Catholic schoolboy in me was eager to bask in the power and glory of the ever-ancient, ever-new universal church; the artist in me wanted to savor and sketch the magnificent art and architecture; and the American in me came really close to calling an air-conditioned cab but restrained himself. Pilgrimages are supposed to be irksome.

St. Peter’s Basilica can hold sixty thousand people, and I think they were all there that morning. The line to enter, which snaked halfway around the piazza, moved slowly. There we were, people of every race and tongue gathered from the four corners of the earth. The more intelligent ones (not I) had umbrellas, as only the morbidly thin (again, not I) could find relief in the teeny sliver of shade cast by the ancient Egyptian obelisk in the middle of the square. We all patiently wended our way toward the metal detectors.

As I waited to walk through the huge bronze doors, I wondered if I would have the same reaction I had the first time I entered St. Peter’s Basilica twenty-five years ago. Then, my breath was taken away by the sheer size of it all—height, width, and depth on a scale difficult to describe. The little baby cherubs holding up the holy water fonts at the entrance are six feet tall. I was slack-jawed and breathless that first time, too overwhelmed to do much drawing.

This time, not so much. My sketch of Michelangelo’s Pietà, which is just on the right as you enter the basilica, pretty much captures what a different experience this trip was. It occurred to me that perhaps I’ve become harder to impress over time. After you pass the Pietà, to which I couldn’t get very close because of the crowd, there aren’t very many images of Jesus to ponder—or of Mary, for that matter. But there are plenty of symbols of the kingdom, the power, and the glory of Rome. It’s all Barberinis and Borgheses, Bramantes and Berninis. Papal tombs and monuments fill the side aisles and altars.

A mammoth marble Gregory XIII spilled into my path as I made my way to visit John XXIII. The irony didn’t escape me—this tripping over the elaborate marble train of a prince’s robes on my way to see the tomb of a proud peasant papa. I made a note to myself to look into this Gregory XIII and see what he had done to merit such a memorial.

Admittedly, a part of me felt a tinge of excitement at being a baptized part of this splendid display of human achievement and imagination. But I didn’t feel any holier. Nor was I aware of holy ground beneath my feet. And my pen wasn’t gliding across the pages of my sketchbook as much as I’d hoped it would. I was left with no heightened awareness of God to contemplate on the way home. Other than a few reflections on how my faith has apparently evolved over the years, I was more concerned about making it to the house in time for dinner, and about whether I’d left the air conditioner on in my room. Please, God, let it be so.

The next day I went in the opposite direction: downhill, through Trastevere and across the Tiber to the old Jewish ghetto of Rome. My first stop was the synagogue, a most unusual building that features the only square dome in the city, an intentional contrast to all the round domes of the churches that dot the skyline. It was here that John XXIII asked his driver to bring him the first night he was elected pope. Sitting silently in the back seat of his limousine, he prayed for a while, and then went home. It was also here, a generation later, that John Paul II became the first pope in history to pray in a synagogue (sticklers might say the second pope, after Peter). These two great modern popes, each a survivor of WWII, each a witness to the Shoah, were passionate about healing our relations with the Jews after two millennia of hostilities.

Beneath the synagogue is a museum with artifacts such as liturgical objects and furniture, along with a lot of historical information. I read about Pope Paul IV (1555–59), who built a wall around the ghetto and forced Jews to wear silly yellow hats on the streets. Later, I discovered that he also stepped up the Inquisition, called Ignatius of Loyola a heretic, waged war on Spain, and stopped the Council of Trent because it was too progressive.

The museum also provided interesting facts about Gregory XIII (1572–85), the pope I’d run into the day before at St. Peter’s. It turns out he was a strict enforcer of the official policies regarding the Jews, which, in addition to the yellow hats, included curfew laws and the sixteenth-century equivalent of separate water fountains, park benches, and seats in the back of the bus. I left there a very sad man.

What moved me the most that morning was what I saw next: the tiny church of San Gregorio della Divina Pietà (heavenly mercy), which is situated right at the entrance to the ghetto, alongside the synagogue. Over the centuries, Jews were forced to go to St. Gregory’s for conversion classes on Thursday evenings, the night before their Sabbath. On its façade is a faded eighteenth-century mural of the Crucifixion by Stefano Parrocel. Over the door, in Latin and Hebrew, is an inscription from the prophet Isaiah. It reads: “I stretch out my hands all the day to a rebellious people who walk in evil paths and follow their own thoughts.”

On October 16, 1943, in the square just outside this church, one thousand Jews were rounded up by the Nazis and sent to concentration camps, from which only sixteen returned. I stood and sketched in this spot, trying to take it all in: the church, the synagogue, the faded Crucifixion with Mary and John at the foot of the cross. I tried to imagine the mayhem on that awful autumn morning. I also tried to picture Blessed Pope John there, praying for peace in the back of his limousine on a moonlit night just fifteen years later. And later still, John Paul II praying there with the head rabbi of Rome. I knew I was on holy ground; my pen couldn’t move fast enough across the pages of my sketchbook.

From there I walked farther down the street to a row of kosher restaurants, lured into one by the waiter’s promise of the best fried artichokes in Rome. While I sipped my cold beer and savored the crisp delicacy known as “carciofi alla Giudia,” I added details to the drawings I’d started, my sketched impressions of a faded crucifixion on a humble little church named Heavenly Mercy and a towering synagogue with a square dome. As I drew, I considered four popes: the two who created the ghetto so long ago, and the two who came as pilgrims centuries later to pray for mercy, beg forgiveness, and free us from the chains of a shameful past.

Published in the 2010-04-09 issue: 

Michael O’Neill McGrath, OSFS, is an artist who lives and works in Camden, New Jersey. His newest book, St. Cecilia’s Orchestra, is forthcoming.

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