Sabbatical Final Week

My last week of sabbatical has been spent entirely in Rome. As a tourist, Rome is overwhelming, dazzling, and exhausting. As a Christian, Rome is overwhelming, embarrassing, and troubling.  A good example of the conflicting images can be found in the Church of the Gesù, the mother church for the Jesuits. On one hand, there is a moving tribute and altar to contemporary martyrs, and displays showing the amazing mission work of the Jesuits. But just a few feet away are majestic sculptures of the Cross being used to beat down heretics (which primarily meant Protestants when the sculpture was made.) The ceiling is a violent fantasy of Christianity, led by Ignatius of Loyola, who ushers good Roman Catholics to heaven, while Protestants and believers of other stripes are all cast down to hell (literally falling out of the painted ceiling as sculpture!)  Across town is another ironically sad image: St. Francis (who lived and died for poverty) is depicted in a golden, ornate frame over an elaborate altar in a church dedicated to the Holy Stigmata of St. Francis (thus, completely missing the point of the stigmata– his identification with Christ in bearing his wounds.)  As busloads of tourists from all over the world are led through “Christian” buildings, I wonder what message about Christ they could possibly be getting. And yet….it’s Rome, and there’s also beauty in every direction, hopefully pointing towards the Author of All Beauty.

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By a BRIDGE is the only way I will ever cross the Tiber. (The tiny dome in the middle of the picture is St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican.) “Crossing the Tiber,” or “swimming the Tiber” River is a phrase describing one’s conversion to Roman Catholicism. I love many Roman Catholics and much of their spirituality but there is nothing like a week in Rome to comfirm for me that my catholicism is in the Anglican Tradition.

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St. Peter’s Basilica: grand, impressive, bombastic.

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“The Mystical Marriage of St. Francis and Poverty,” by Ottaviano Nelli (1380-1448) in the Vatican Museum. A poetic way of describing a concept that was difficult in Francis’s day and is difficult in ours.

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The Church of Santa Maria Assunta in Badia fiorentina, Florence (Last week, but fits better with this week’s pics.) This is a wonderful space in the care of The Community of Jerusalem, a Roman Catholic community of vowed religious and lay people whose mission is “to live in the heart of the city in the heart of God.” Founded in 1975, this community is doing amazing things around urban mission and spiritual life in a number of European cities.

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An altar dedicated to contemporary Central American martyrs in St. Bartolomeo all’Isola, a Franciscan church in Rome currently in the care of the Community of St. Egidio, another vibrant, lay-led religious community of the Roman Catholic Church particularly serving the urban poor and needy. (There is a Community of St. Egidio working out of a parish in Arlington, VA).

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Image of Jesus the Good Shepherd from the Catacombs of Priscilla, Rome, an absolute highlight of the week. Amazing and deeply moving to tour this Christian burial place used from the 2nd to 4th centuries. In addition to the image of the Good Shepherd, we also saw one of the earliest known images of the Virgin Mary, from the 3rd century. (This picture is from their website since photography is not allowed.)

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Another highlight was worshipping at the chapel of the Anglican Centre in Rome, a wonderful place of welcome “that promotes unity in a divided world” and represents the Archbishop of Canterbury in Rome.

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After the Tuesday Eucharist, Archbishop David Moxon, director of the Centre, hosts a lunch for everyone who has attended. This week the congregation included Methodists, Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and an Orthodox person. Countries represented included the U.S., England, Scotland, Nigeria, New Zealand, Pakistan, Italy, and Australia.

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Bearing the cross of Christ– an extraordinary image in the bronze door of Santa Maria degli Angeli e Dei Martiri in Rome, by Polish sculptor Igor Mitoraj, 2006.

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A perfect ending to an amazing two-month sabbatical: Friday night Stations of the Cross at the Franciscan parish of St. Sylvester and St. Dorothy (Trastevere, Rome). “We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you; because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.”

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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