Visitors to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome often don’t realize that the magnificent baroque church is built over the site of a still more ancient basilica, built by Constantine and then torn down completely by Pope Julius II during the Renaissance. Over the course of the next century, today’s basilica was rebuilt by the likes of Bramante, Giulio da Sangallo, Raphael, Michelangelo, Carlo Maderno, and Bernini.
Surprisingly little of the original church remains, so I was fascinated this week to see a few of the mosaics saved from the first basilica at a special exhibition on medieval Rome at the Museo di Roma. The exhibition displayed work from the other four major basilicas, each of which has a unique history. The complex around St. John Lateran, another Constantinian construction, has changed greatly over the centuries and the interior of the church was redone by Francesco Borromini in the 17th century, though the shape of the basilica remains basically the same. St. Mary Major preserves the magnificent mosaics from its Roman days, but St. Paul Outside the Walls was entirely rebuilt after a fire burnt it down in the early 1800s.
Here are a few pictures form the papal basilicas’ medieval past.
A few weeks ago I mentioned José Granados’s fine new book Introduction to Sacramental Theology: Signs of Christ in the Flesh. It’s full of interesting insights. Since I’m working on putting the final touches on my book about baptism of desire, one line that indirectly touches on the theme of desire stood out.
I often point out that our rituals are meant to form us. They shape us and make us into new beings, especially the sacraments of initiation. In this regard, Granados points out that rituals form our desires as well.
“For in our action there is always more than what we have put into it; and for that reason we desire, when we act, more than what we think we desire.” (309)
The action of the liturgy, in other words, implies desiring certain things and in a certain way. When we participate in the liturgy, therefore, those desires become our own. This insight gets at what makes the sacraments irreducible, why they cannot be replaced with just having the right ideas, and what makes baptism of desire such a difficult and fascinating topic.
I don’t have much time for leisure reading this semester, but I was pleased to pick up Lee Oser’s witty satire Old Enemies as I settled back into Roman life last month. It’s both funny and thought-provoking. In fact, you can read the thoughts it provoked in my review “Hope in the Ruins” published at Law & Liberty. I also muse about what grounds we have for hope during the West’s current self-destructive cultural moment.
This article by Richard Doerflinger in America magazine “The U.S. bishops aren’t the extremists in the abortion debate” makes what I think are some very important points about the Catholic Church’s teaching on abortion and public policy. It answers a few questions I’m sometimes asked and clears up some misunderstandings.
Catholic teaching does, in fact, allow for an incremental approach to ending abortion, as Pope St. John Paul II taught in Evangelium Vitae, 73. This means that, while Catholic politicians can never legitimately vote for more permissive abortion laws, they can in good conscience make reasonable compromises when advancing pro-life legislation.
It’s back to school time in Rome. Yes, the Roman academic calendar starts and ends about a month later than the American schedule–which is a good thing since the first couple of weeks of September were too hot to think, let alone study.
And this year, for the first time since starting Kindergarten 1985, my student days are behind me. I’ll be on the other side of the classroom this year, teaching full time at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. Since I have to get to class, I thought this week I’d post an interview with my new boss, the Gregorian’s new Rector, Fr. Mark Lewis, S.J. You’ll see why I’m excited to be teaching at the Greg and to be working for Fr. Lewis. His words on the perspective history provides are particularly valuable.