Mosaics in the Basilica, Mosaics in the Neighborhood

Today Richard and I walked about a mile and a half to the neighborhood known as Trastevere.  Our destination was the Sant Egidio community and the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere.  The Basilica is one of the oldest in Rome.  Legend has it that the first public Mass was celebrated in Rome in this basilica, or rather the predecessor to the building we visited.  The first sanctuary, according to Wikipedia, was built in the third century in 221, and began as a house church in the 100’s.  The current building’s basic floor plan and wall structure design date from the 340’s.  An inscription in the building claims it was the first church dedicated to Mary in Rome although some say that claim belongs to Santa Maria Maggiore.   I know we have seen and visited many, many churches here that are dedicated to Mary in some way or another.  They collectively are referred to as the Marian Shrines.   This church is definitely one of the group of the fist 25 parishes established in Rome.  It has been rebuilt several times with the present structure rebuilt in the 12th century.  The columns inside the building were recycled from the Baths of Caracalla, across the Tiber from it.  In the 19th century it was pointed out by scholars that the columns had engraved on them figures from ancient pagan Rome, Pius IX ordered that they be hammered off.  The beautiful mosaics date from the late 13th century.  My impressions of this church were of brightness and color.  The mosaics contribute a lot of color and a lot of story.  The ones circling the sanctuary, all gilded, tell the life story of Mary.  Many of the churches we have been in are darkish, including St Peter’s, with a prevailing greyness to them.  This one was different.  I also sensed there was a lively community involved with this church.  There was not a speak of dust anywhere.  Bulletin boards contained announcements just like any suburban parish in the states, even though this is an historic basilica.  The woman in the gift shop was engaged in her work and seemed quite proud to be there.   You sense this church has deep roots in the community.  And the community we walked through to get to this church was a lively one.  It was a warren of streets that you sense have been the way they are for centuries. Very few of them ran in a neat, straight line and there were many small piazas and lots of cul de sacs.   A lot of color was in the buildings with a lot of vegetation growing around them, up the walls and climbing between buildings.  If you have an imagination of an Italian/Roman village, this is the model.  There were a lot of craftspeople on the streets today, selling both handmade items and the usual kitsch that is probably imported from China. We came into the area during the traditional Roman lunch hour, 1 to about 2:30 and there was no end of sidewalk cafes with all the wonderful smells of Italian cooking to provide for the crowd.  Lots of people were congregated in the large square in front of the church sitting on the steps of a large fountain.  I was disappointed the fountain was not running.  I have seen only a few fountains in my time in Rome that did have water.  This was a very colorful crowd with not only tourists from all over but also lots of immigrants from Indian, the Mddle East and Africa.  All kinds of people were out on the streets, speaking all kinds of languagesf.  The colors of all races formed their own mosaics on the streets just as vibrant as those in the basilica.  Pope Francis has made a special effort of recognizing this community, where there are a lot of immigrants, homeless folks and just folks on the short side of life at the moment, and the Sant Egidio movement stationed just around the corner from the church.  Earlier this spring, he came to Santa Maria in Trastevere at the invitation of the leader of the Sant Egidio community for a vespers service.  Francis and this man are quite close.  Sant’ Egido began in 1968 by a group of high school students in response to the call of Vatican II for the church to become active in the world.  It started in the small church next to the headquarters named Sant’ Egidio (Saint Giles) but now holds its liturgies in Santa Maria Trastevere.  It claims 50,000 members in 70 countries around the world according to wikipedia.  Besides doing a lot of local community work here in Rome with the homeless and poor…..all of the caps, scarves, and soccer shirts people toss to Pope Francis when he rides around St. Peter’s Piazza on General audience day are donated to this group….they are involved in actions to abolish the death penalty and they brokered a peace settlement of a long-standing civil war in Mozambique.  They are one of the global leaders on HIV/Aids running a lot of hospices for victims and pushing scientific research. They have made quite a name for themselves in reconciliation work.  Since the founding of this group they have made a very dedicated practice of prayer life with the community members coming together every evening for prayer.  We headed there to see if there was someone to talk with us.  Richard, with his involvement in  Catholic Worker, was especially interested in forming some connections.  The doors were locked and no one answered the buzzer the first time we tried.  We then headed to one of the sidewalk cafes and enjoyed a glass or two of some tasty locally brewed beer.  After quenching our thirst we headed back to Sant Egidio to try again.  Still no one there but we met some folks from Taipei China (Taiwan) and struck up a conversation.  The group consisted of two priests, another man who was Buddhist and was a CEO of a major hospital and a young student.  They were in Rome for a conference at the Vatican of dialogue between Buddhist and Catholics.  We had  a delightful conversation with them.  It has been my experience that when people know you are from Montana they get a delightful smile and say “Yellowstone Park”.  Not so for the one priest.  His smile was because he knows an elderly missionary priest of the order of the Divine Word in Taiwan who is from Montana, Fr. Barkley Schmitz.  This priest is now 92 years old and says he wants to die in Taiwan where he has spent his life serving the people.  It was a delightfully colorful day.  We felt we had really experienced a normal Roman neighborhood, one of the more colorful ones making up the mosaic that this town has always been and probably always will be.  Its history as a mosaic of cultures dating from the time of the Romans who brought back as slaves conquered peoples from all the countries they were in just sorta has driven it that way.   Tomorrow will be my last day here as Monday I will head to Modena in the Regio Emilia area of Italy to then catch a bus up into the Appenines where my dad’s parents immigrated from in the early 20th century.  I will come back here for the flight home and my final goodbyes to Rome.  I have to say I have enjoyed my time here even though big cities are not quite my thing.  It does not feel like a big city. It feels like a mosaic of small villages each with its own character.  Also there are no tall buildings here except for St Pete’s.  That’s the arrangement worked out between the Vatican and Rome.  Tomorrow Richard and I will meet some of the other Catholic Church Reform International folks for Mass at Caravita where we held our meetings.  This is a Jesuit church and they have an English Mass on Sundays. We plan to then go to lunch together.  If it works out, I would like to try to go to the Angelus in the Piaza San Pietro to wave one more time to Papa Francesco, a fitting way to take leave of here.

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One Response to Mosaics in the Basilica, Mosaics in the Neighborhood

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