Page 10, 27th March 1975

27th March 1975
Page 10
Page 10, 27th March 1975 — Why go to Rome?

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Organisations: Second Vatican Council
Locations: Rome, Canterbury


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Why go to Rome?


Many people will be setting off on pilgrimage to Rome this year without a clear notion of why they should do so. Isn't a Holy Year centred on Rome unsuitable for the modern Church? Doesn't the Pope's invitation seem out of place with much of what he has achieved In his pontificate, characterised as it has been by decentralisation and pluralism? Does not his gesture betray a movement away from ecumenism, a tendency to triumphalism?

You have bought your ticket to Rome, then, perhaps not quite knowing why. What has the pilgrimage to offer you? When you have struggled from the train at Termini, or through the Customs at Fiumicino Airport, and won through the Roman traffic to your hotel, go as soon as you can to the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore.

One of the city's four major basilicas, it was built in the middle of the fifth century by Pope Sixtus III, who used for the nave marble columns from a market built by the Emperor Augustus in the first century. Later centuries have made many additions and changes,


Setof Sixtus' basilica still Set in a busy area, it is always alive with worshippers and tourists. Enter through the Holy Door and stand at the bottom of the nave facing towards the high altar. Along the whole length of the nave, above Augustus' columns, runs a series of mosaics depicting Old Testament characters, from Abraham to Joshua, which culminates in an arch over the high altar bearing scenes from the early life of Christ.

All of these are from the original basilica, but the scene is dominated by a thirteenthcentury mosaic in an apse behind the altar. Here are represented Christ and Mary seated together on a throne in Heaven, surrounded by saints and angels. With a firm, dramatic gesture he is setting a crown on her head.

The glow of the golden background fills the apse: one seems to see not a flat, hard mosaic but an infinite haze of glory. This is a Marian image of a kind that we are not accustomed to in England, where Mary is usually depicted alone, or carrying the Christ-child.

But it belongs to an ancient tradition, to which new life was given by the Second Vatican Council's Constitution on the Church, a tradition which secs the Mother of Jesus as "the image and first flowering of the Church as she is to be perfected in the world to come."

As one stands and stares, one has an opportunity to locate oneself, to recognise oneself as a pilgrim on that journey that was made also by Abraham and Joshua, by Augustus and Sixtus, by Christ and Mary.

It is a journey on which one's companions are the very men and women who even now wander here and there in the basilica, a pilgrimage towards the glory in which Christ and Mary are enthroned.

As you advance towards the altar, you walk on a floor that was laid in the twelfth century, and beneath a fifteenth-century ceiling, gilded with the first gold brought to Europe from South America. To your left and right are chapels where St Ignatius Loyola and Pope Pius XII respectively celebrated Mass for the first time.

Here the Church's rites have

been celebrated for more than 1,500 years, and almost every century has left its memorial. The bringing together of expressions of the Faith from so many ages can strike chords in our response to the Christian mystery that have never, or rarely, been struck before.

Santa Maria Maggiore is only one among many opportunities that Rome offers for deepening or extending one's understanding of the Faith. Rome is a good city to wander in, and it would be a pity if visitors did not detach themselves from organised parties, if only for a morning, to wander in groups of two or three and see what the city has to offer them individually as pilgrims.

A pondering of the ancient traditions of the Church, as evidenced in physical monuments, a rassourcement, a returning to the roots, can be the occasion for that inner renewal which the Pope has named as one of the purposes of the Holy Year.

Such renewal in the individual, whether sought in a great basilica, in the tiniest hack-street oratory, or even on a crowded bus, is the source for that corporate renewal in the Church that is an indispensable part of the ecumenical movement.

When we delve into our traditions, back into the centuries before many of the barriers that now divide Christians were ever erected, we find ways of expressing our faith that are part of a common European heritage, and can help to overcome differences that arc more cultural than doctrinal.

One would not wish to suggest that Rome is a more suitable place to visit on pilgrimage than the Holy Land, or Lourdes, or Walsingham, but that like those centres, Rome has something distinctive to offer the pilgrim, Primarily, of course, the Holy Year pilgrimage is a pilgrimage to the shrine of Peter. St Peter's can seem cold and overpowering on a first visit, and for many pilgrims a week is too short a time to overcome this initial impression,

A useful defence is to make for the nooks and crannies, and an Englishman will naturally seek the tomb of St Gregory the Great, who at the end of the sixth century sent St Augustine of Canterbury to evangelise the English. (One wonders what he made of Sixtus' mosaics in Santa Maria Maggiore, put up at a time as distant from him as is Queen Victoria's coronation from us.)

Gregory lived in a troubled age and knew, to use Dante's words, how heavy is the mantle of Peter to him who would keep it unstained. Among all the cares of maintenance, political crisis in Italy and the need to consolidate the Church's sometimes uncertain hold over recently converted barbarian tribes, he did not forget the obligation of mission that his office imposed on him.

Englishmen and not only Catholics have good reasons for making a thankful pilgrimage to Rome.

However much pluralism and decentralisation develop, we shall always do well to turn our minds to the shrines of Peter and Paul, to the nature of the apostolic office, and to the responsibilities it brings. And we do well to turn our minds to Rome, if only because there is a desk in the Vatican where the buck stops.

From remembering Peter and Gregory. one passes naturally to thinking of him who now bears the care of all the Churches. Paul VI has named reconciliation as the second theme of the Holy Year, and recently has spoken often of the need for reconciliation within the Church.

With this theme must he linked the theme of mission, the concern of the Synod of Bishops held last year an event which the Pope sees as intimately connected with the Holy Year. Christians need to be one because their task is one, and exacting.

In his Bull of Indiction, rich in suggestions, and 2like much that Popc Paul writes -. eminently readable, he urges us to sec this year as an opportunity to reflect, at the end of ten years of experimentation which

have followed the Council, to discern what is most valuable in our discoveries, and to make choices and commitments for the future.

This call to unity is not an imposition of uniformity, still less a step into the past: it is a call to mission for the future.

St Peter's is at its best when full of people, with the Pope presiding over the Eucharist at the central altar. It is here that the point of the Holy Year seems to be most clearly made.

The Papal liturgy, while solemn, has none of the court ceremonial that was to be seen in the Holy Year of 1950. One does not visit Rome to see ostrich feathers, a triple crown, silver trumpets. One is invited to make the pilgrimage in order to focus on the central mysteries of the Faith, to take one further step in the pilgrimage of the human race towards God.

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