Over the next few weeks, I’ll be teaching a course for Loyola University Chicago’s Institute of Pastoral Studies here in Rome at our local campus, as I do each summer. While my students will be focusing on the diverse ecclesiological visions and priorities we all experience as Christians living out a daily commitment that is closely connected to the past and radically open to an unknown future, my colleague Professor William Schmidt will be offering a course on the transformative engagement and study of sacred spaces, focusing on the spirituality of pilgrimage.
We coordinated our syllabi to share some communal immersive experiences, largely rooted in the historical route of the “seven churches,” with some additional visits to Ostia, Castel Gandolfo and the Via Appia Antica so as to design our “in situ” lectures as incorporating the beauty of the natural world here in Italy, in addition to our trek through the patrimony of the riches of Rome’s urban city center (“centro storico”).
This tradition of the seven churches has a long and storied history, where each presents a unique “prism” through which to view our faith in the triune God, the One who Saint Augustine once described so powerfully as “ever ancient, ever new.”
The route includes stops at the following basilicas (many of which, I must admit, sound strange to my ear when listed in English): Saint Peter’s, Saint Paul’s Outside-the-Walls, Saint John Lateran, Saint Mary Major, The Holy Cross of Jerusalem, Saint Lawrence and Saint Sebastian. Some pilgrims visit all in one day on foot, which is a herculean task.
While Peter and Paul — often recognized as the unofficial second set of “twins” after Romulus and Remus who “baptized” the Empire and thus re-founded Christian Rome — are likely the most famous of these holy sites, the next two, San Giovanni in Laterano and Santa Maria Maggiore , are among the most fascinating and awe-inspiring churches in the whole of the Eternal City. With over 900 churches, that’s saying something powerful.
The Lateran basilica dedicated to the two John’s (the Baptist and the Evangelist/beloved disciple) is actually the cathedral of Rome — shocking to some when they realize that the Vatican and Saint Peter’s are not the official “mother church” of the Catholic world. That’s the reason we liturgically celebrate the dedication of this important location on Nov. 9 each year. One highlight I always mention in the stunning Constantinian church is the tomb of Pope Leo XIII, perhaps the most important and founding voice in the 19th century of the discipline that would eventually come to be called Catholic Social Thought. He receives far too little study and adulation for his groundbreaking contributions to the realms of religious engagement with labor issues and economic justice.
When we visit Saint Maria Maggiore, I encourage the students to appreciate not only the venerated wood that tradition holds was that of the Savior’s manger in Bethlehem and the depiction of Mary as the “health and patroness of the Roman peoples,” dubiously ascribed to the hand of Saint Luke, but also the art and splendor of the gold brought from the New World to adorn the ceiling and altarpieces. However, I also ask them to ponder how this history can highlight what Professor Peter Phan of Georgetown has recently argued are complementary magisteria to that of the episcopal teaching office of the Roman Catholic Church: the magisterium of the poor and the magisterium of indigenous religious practices and ways of life. If the best teachers are in fact the most committed learners, engaging wherever profound and life-altering wisdom can be gleaned, then the spoils of conquest brought back to Rome have more to educate us about than the glories of governing office and ecclesial power. The pilgrim people of God, especially those forgotten by the ones in the privileged victor’s position of telling the narrative of history, are as the deacon Saint Lawrence (Lorenzo!) once put it, “the real treasures of the church.”
I look forward to providing the Camden Diocese with more insights and information here from my unimaginably lucky position (for which I thank God every day) close to the beating heart of our global faith, with its attention evermore focused on the peripheries whose lives and voices this center ignored for far too long. Rest assured that each and every one of you, with the spoken or unspoken burdens you carry in your hearts, are remembered daily in my prayers at some of the sites most sanctified by the spilt blood of those who came before us in our transformative and mysterious Faith, that courageous “yes” to the unfathomable God of surprises.
Originally from Collingswood, Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.