Last week I had the incredible privilege of making pilgrimage with some parishioners to the Eternal City, the original Urbs: ROME. “Rome,” just saying the city’s name conjures images and themes that overwhelm. And while this page is dedicated to faith and culture in DC, the connections between the two cities are so close that I thought I’d share some reflections from my trip. But how does one break down Rome? How can you choose one thread from the tapestry of her history mythic, pagan, Christian? The one word I want to consider I’ve already used, “overwhelming.”
Ask anyone who’s visited Rome about their experience; the responses always include something like, “Oh well you know, you could spend a lifetime there and still not see everything.” or “We just scratched the surface… which gives us a reason to go back.” It’s all true. I lived in the Eternal City for five years. It can never be fully comprehended. Numerous historians and essayists have commented on this reality. Most recently, I’ve been reading a book by Eleanor Clark, “Rome and a Villa” (Harper, 2015). Clark expresses the exasperation of trying to understand Rome. The city is so crowded with histories: a church on every corner, a ruin under every cobblestone, an endless series of seeming contradictions somehow living in harmony… It’s as hard to make cohesive sense of as life itself. She presents a wonderful metaphor. Paris, Clark says, is like a stunningly beautiful woman to be marveled at with awe… and consequently distance. One needs that distance to take in her full beauty and reverence it. Rome -on the other hand- is a generously proportioned matron aunt who hugs you so close and with such affection that you nearly suffocate in the intimate confines of her crushing embrace.
Clark’s offers her metaphor with a certain dark comedy, a slightly sardonic bitter taste, but I’d like to look at it through eyes of faith. You see, what I referenced earlier is so true. Rome is as hard to comprehend as life itself. Like our own lives, we encounter Rome. We know there is something good there, but we can’t quite make sense of it… If only we could round out her sharp edges, mend her tattered glory and perfume her with an air of linear cohesion then it would all make sense… But Rome’s mystery is not a distant veiled beauty. It is deeply familial. It’s as in-your-face as sin and virtue… as the hug from your aunt. And as with your favorite aunt’s suffocating squeeze… Rome… indeed life itself… is hard to appreciate in our youth. Only in the next life will we have the perspective needed to realize that as confusing, chaotic and crushing as it felt there was -over and above all else- LOVE there. A love that defines and affirms us… the Love of Christ embracing the ugly, healing the sick, forgiving the prostitute and somehow bringing life from death. This is not only the marvel that is Rome… It is the marvel that is, precisely, “Roman” Catholicism. Our faith is indelibly marked by the Eternal City… and in an age when Pope Francis -and more locally Cardinal Wuerl- calls us to dive into the mess of the city and make it a place of invitation, and embrace for the lost being a son or daughter of Rome is a great starting point.