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Even in Rome, one can fall prey to the common experience of not checking out the treasures in one’s own backyard (or underneath one’s feet, as the case may be). Underneath the Caelian hill, starting under the basilica of John and Paul, are a labyrinth of Roman houses, tunnels and other structures dating back to the first centuries after Christ.
The Lay Centre residents were lead on a tour of the church itself and the Roman houses beneath by Fr. Augusto Martrullo, the Passionist priest who serves as rector of the basilica of San Giovanni e Paolo. We concluded the day with Sunday Eucharist in the chapel of the Passionist founder, St. Paul of the Cross, in honor of the Passionist Saint Gabrielle of Our Lady of Sorrows, whose feast it was.
The Caelian hill was the site of the Temple of Claudius, which was raided for Nero’s Nymphaeum, which in turn was raided for the Flavian Amphitheater (Coliseum). On the edge of the hill were several houses known as insulae – blocks of apartments for artisans. At some point several of these were combined to create a single large domus – a house for the wealthy. This was thought to have belonged to the brothers John and Paul, who served as officers in the court of Constantine (c.312-337) and who became Christians, converting part of their house to serve as a domus ecclesiae – a house for the Church. During the reign of Julian [the Apostate] (c.361-363) they were martyred.
The original church was built over the house by St. Pammachius, a Byzantine senator. It is a church, Padre Augusto says, whos history is one of constant renovation and reconstruction, having been damaged or destroyed during the sack of Alaric and the Visigoths in 410, an earthquake in 442, and the sacking by the Normans in 1084, among others. The most recent renovation was in the early 18th century when the entire church, which had been for almost 1400 years a great example of paleo-Christian architecture, was baroquified by the cardinal-titular Fabrizio Paolucci.
Clearly considered a tragedy, this baroque “renovation” destroyed some of the ancient frescoes when a contraption was inserted that would raise and lower the monstrance during the new “forty hours devotion” that was becoming popular. It also destroyed the original design of the nave, cutting off light from the 13 high windows and turning the traditional five-aisle basilica into a single nave. It removed the altar from the center of the church (over the tomb of the martyrs) to a position in the west transept.
Later, when Cardinal Spellman became the titular of the basilica after Pius XII was elected pope (thus vacating his previous titular church), he imported 33 chandeliers from the Waldorf-Astoria in New York to decorate the church (or so I was told by one Passionist; another disputes this origin of the chandeliers). Spellman also helped restore the façade of the church to the original Paleo-Christian look. It has remained the titular for the cardinal-archbishops of the “city that never sleeps” ever since, currently held by Cardinal Egan.
The houses underneath the basilica were discovered in 1887 by a Passionist Padre Germano. At the beginning of the 21st century, under Padre Augusto’s watchful eye, they have been restored and a new museum created, which opened in 2002.
The museum now includes displays of first century amphorae as well as 12th century Arabic plates and pottery that had been used to decorate the bell tower added at that time. The rooms are in many cases well preserved, including some third or fourth century frescoes, including one that will be instantly recognizable to almost any student of church liturgy and history, a figure in the Christian orans position in a room full of pagan representations.
Though currently off-limits, one can also see the entrances to various tunnels and other chambers which are thought to have served as training and barracks for gladiators, giving them access to the coliseum from underground.
The basilica does not serve as a parish, but is a popular wedding location. The Eucharist is celebrated on Sundays by one of the Passionists in the chapel of St. Paul of the cross, with music by some of the Passionist students. The piazza in front of the church remains one of the most well-kept examples in the city of medieval Rome, and has been used as a setting for several films and television spots. A small road along the side of the church, under the flying buttresses, is thought to be one of the oldest roads in Rome in continuous use as such.
Much is being made of today’s centenary birthday of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, known in life as Mother Teresa, and rightly so. As the first, and so far only, pastoral associate of the first parish dedicated to her after her beatification, I had already developed something of a devotion to this latest holy Teresa. Living within a stone’s throw of the Missionaries of Charity Roman HQ helps too!
The Lay Centre is of course in a section of the Passionist Retreat of John and Paul, their international general house, where today is already tomorrow and one of their own is honored on the calendar. Blessed Dominic Barberi is likely best known for his missionary work on the British Isles and for being the priest who received Bl. John Henry Newman into full communion with the Catholic Church.
Our director, Dr. Donna Orsuto, is on an around-the-globe lecture tour this summer, and discovered a timely quote from one of Newman’s letters that describes my home in Rome and the case of canonization for the Passionists’ founder, St. Paul of the Cross:
On November 15, 1846 to his friend Dalgairns, Newman writes:
“What do you think of Mr. Spencer having joined the Passionists? I am very glad for Father Dominic’s sake. We went to their House here [Rome] with Cardinal Acton. It is very clean and beautifully situated. We saw the various remains (dress etc) of Venerable Paul—They expect he will be canonized by the end of three years. Suppose we all become Passionists.”
From The Letters and Diary of John Henry Newman, volume XI, p. 274.
The world just keeps getting smaller!
As part of our week of events celebrating the official Inauguration of the new site of the Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas, a number of our board members and residents gathered for a celebration of the Eucharist in the rooms of St. Paul of the Cross, founder of the Passionists, presided by Father Donald Senior, CP.
Fr. Senior celebrates 50 years as a Passionist this year, is a renowned New Testament scholar and president of Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, the largest graduate school of ministry formation in the United States. He also serves on the Pontifical Biblical Commission and concelebrated mass with the Holy Father on Thursday morning (the unscripted homily for which made headlines).
As a member of the Lay Centre Board for several years, Fr. Senior was a key figure in bringing the Passionists and the Lay Centre together, making this new home a possibility,something for which the entire student community is deeply grateful!
Conveniently, the proper of saints includes settings for St. Paul of the Cross’ feast day (Oct 19) which we used, along with the daily readings for Friday. The reading from Acts 5 recounted the ‘prophecy’ or judgement of Gamaliel to the Sanhedrin concerning the Apostles:
“For if this endeavor or this activity is of human origin, it will destroy itself. But if it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them; you may even find yourselves fighting against God.”
(Timely, as the last few weeks have shown the human elements of the Church all too clearly.)
Paul Francesco Danei was born into a wealthy merchant family in 1694 near Genoa, Italy. With over 2000 extant letters from his lifetime, we know a lot about his struggles and spirituality, and his intentions for what would eventually become the Congregation of the Passion of Jesus Christ. When he came to Rome originally, it was not to found a religious order but something more like one of today’s lay movements – he did not seek ordination, and did not want a monastic or mendicant order. He and his brother sought jobs in one of the hospitals in Trastevere, still in operation today, as what we would know of as orderlies.
The 18th century Roman curia was not yet ready for something this ‘outside the box’ however, and his request for permission for a society of non-ordained, non-religious ministers was rejected, and he was moved into a more familiar model, eventually being ordained at St. Peter’s in 1727 by Pope Benedict XIII. His vision remained for a mission to those who were in closest solidarity to Christ’s passion – the poor, marginalized, the migrant workers – and he continued to resist classical definitions of religious life. Instead of a monastery, the houses are “Retreats”, implying a place of solitary refuge to replenish the soul and then go back into apostolic ministry, rather than to remain cloistered and focused only on the community. Their ministry was preaching, giving retreats and parish missions, but not commonly in education or staffing parishes directly.
St. Paul also did not seek leadership in his own order, but was elected superior for life. Possibly unrelated, he recounts nearly 50 years of spiritual aridity, a time without emotional, visceral faith to reflect his intellectual assent. That blessing only came near the end of his life, which he spent in the rooms in which we celebrated the Eucharist today, wandering the garden of the Retreat we now call home.
This Retreat had belonged to another religious order, a Congregation of Jesus, which had been around for centuries but diminished by the time of Paul. Probably because of his reputation for compassion, St. Paul became confessor to many people, including a couple of popes. It serves as both glory and shame to the order today – as I have said before, it is a beautiful place, a genuine retreat, an Oasis in the City of Rome. It is also more than was ever needed, and has never been filled by the Passionists, and too easy a temptation to adapt models of monastic life never intended by the original charism of the Founder and the Congregation.
The Passionists are in the midst of a paradigmatic shift, the ongoing reception of the Second Vatican Council’s mandate to orders to rediscover their distinct and varied charisms. They are becoming less national and more globalized – though relatively small in numbers (about 2100) they are in almost 60 countries. Inviting the Lay Centre into the Retreat that houses the Generalate, we see a move to underline the founder’s original ideal of lay community and ministry, and the building up of spiritual ‘alliances’ with partners in the ministry of the Passion.
Friday, we met with the Father General of the Passionists and his General Council. Tonight we had the privilege to pray with the Passionist students and invite them over for Italian cioccolate caldo – something more akin to hot chocolate pudding than the kind of drinking hot chocolate I’m used to in the states.
About twenty of their students, most Italians, joined about half the Lay Centre residents in the evening after to get to know one another. It was our first opportunity to put names to the faces we’ve seen here and in the universities. It was also a test of my very minimal Italian, as the brothers I spent most of the night speaking with had virtually no English!
The Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas is no longer at Foyer Unitas in the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj on Piazza Navonna. I have mentioned before that the lay Centre moved just this summer to the Passionist Monastery of Sts. John and Paul on Monte Celio, just south of the coliseum, on the site of what once served as the Temple of Claudius, Nero’s Nymphaeum, and childhood playground for Pope Gregory I the Great.
We met tonight with the men who made such a move possible, Father General Ottaviano D’Egidio and his general council – four Passionist priests who advise the Father General and represent different quarters of the world’s 2200 passionisiti: Fathers Denis Travers (Australia), Clemente Barrón (Texas), Luis Alberto Cano (Spain) and Luigi Vaninetti (Italy). It all started a little over two years ago with an email from Passionist Father and renowned Scripture scholar Donald Senior to members of the General Council suggesting such a move. From there, Fr. Denis met with Donna and conversation commenced. Two years later, we were able to welcome the Passionist general council to dinner as a small sign of thanks to our landlords, and to get to know the community a little better.
Passionists take the traditional three solemn vows of any monastic community – Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience – then add a fourth: to spend his energies in promoting remembrance of the sufferings of Jesus, to keep deep in our hearts the memory of the cross and to do what is in our power to remind others of it. This vow defines the purpose of the Passionist community, and the ubiquitous “Sign” of the order, designed by founder Paul of the Cross, reminds them at every moment of this vow. Likewise, the black habit, which is worn in mourning for the passion and death of Christ on the cross.
Though not the original house of the order, the monastery that the Lay Centre now calls home is the ‘mother house’, and several other groups are present: the Father General and his general curia, the students of the order studying at the Pontifical universities in Rome, the staff of the retreat house and of the Basilica of John and Paul, and sisters who serve as the cooks for the monks – about 80 people in all.
The Father General’s opening remarks noted that at first, some of the order were unsure about admitting a lay community into the monastic grounds – and a coeducational, ecumenical, and interreligious community at that! But after a few weeks, he began to wonder if we had indeed moved in – barely seen or heard, we were like ghosts! I think that’s a compliment coming from someone whose day begins in the early hours before God Himself is stirring from slumber!
For our part, I think we were just grateful for the opportunity to express gratitude at living in the most beautiful compound in the City, second only to the Vatican Gardens themselves.
Before coming to Italy, I had never met a Passionist and really did not know much about the order. I think the only one I had even heard of was New Testament scholar Donald Senior, president of Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.
In the nearly 300 year history of the order, however, they have clearly made an impact on Italy and other parts of the world. The monastery where the Lay Centre finds its home is certainly one of the largest in Rome. And one of the Passionist saints, the young St. Gabriele of Our Lady of Sorrows, is one of the most popular in Italy. It was to the shrine and pilgrimage center of St. Gabriele that the students of Rome were invited on Saturday.
This is the seventh annual pilgrimage of the students of Rome at the beginning of the academic year, and the first to go to the Santuario San Gabriele at Isola del Gran Sasso d’Italia, in the Abruzzo region – about two hours bus ride from Rome, and not far from L’Acquila, epicenter of the 5.8 tremor in April.
Of the 308 deaths in the earthquake, 50 were university students, who were remembered at the liturgy and throughout the day at the retreat.
This serious note was mixed with the World Youth Day style music and liturgy that seemed to mark the tradition for the weekend – it reminded me, in fact, of our Archdiocesan Youth Convention for high school students, which was celebrated the same weekend in Seattle. Except that there were a couple hundred priests (mostly graduate students) – so many, in fact, that the communion procession for the presbyterate took longer than for the rest of the assembly, which I do not think I have seen any other time.