Almost exactly seven years ago, I packed a big black bag, boarded my first-ever airplane, and flew to Europe with a friend. I hyperventilated, sure I would drown somewhere in the Atlantic. I didn’t.
Our trip lasted three weeks. We picked up more friends as we moved from Rome to Paris, from Burgundy to Dublin. But Rome was the inaugural and, for me, most important stop.
The first day was hellish. After many cramped hours, we emerged onto the blazing asphalt of Fiumicino Airport. We got into a hot bus that hurtled down a hill, toward a mass of graffiti-bombed walls and knots of umbrella pines. We disembarked at Termini, the Roman rail hub.
My non-Italian-speaking buddy then stared at me hopefully while I, nearly crying from exhaustion, dredged up rusty word combinations I hazily remembered from college. Due panini, per favore. Get us two sandwiches, please. Mille grazie. Thanks so much. Cinquantatre Via Napoleone Terzo, per favore. Please take us to 53 Napoleon III Road. That was our hostel.
Suddenly we were in an elevator that smelled like lavender, rosemary and dust. Then we were in a silent and stuffy dorm room with big old Italian shutters. I had a headache. I went to bed.
The next morning, we got bread and espresso at the neighboring bar. In Italy, when you go to a bar, you go for coffee. Then we walked. Excluding our Wednesday general audience with the pope, for which we had chairs, and our limited hours of sleep, we basically walked for three days.
Rome is not entirely old: we made much use of an internet kiosk on the Via Barberini populated by hipster types. But American cities have nothing like the Pantheon and the Colosseum, the Forum and the catacombs, all impressing upon you the mind-boggling antiquity of everything. Perhaps it was my imagination, but I also sensed the city’s oldness in its merchants, those sellers of red-pepper pizza and chocolate gelato and Pope Benedict bottle-openers, who so blandly and efficiently took away our money. They seemed to say: You are mere tourists. You pass away quickly. Rome does not pass away. Rome is forever.
And, while the great Roman forever stretches back to the Caesars, it is mostly the forever of the Catholic Church. You quickly grasp this even while perusing piles of pre-Christian ruins. Stones in the Forum bear relatively fresh Latin inscriptions announcing that Pope Gregory XVI restored the area in the 1830s. And when you enter the Pantheon, emblazoned with the name of Marcus Agrippa and formerly dedicated to all the gods, you immediately glimpse pews and altar, candles and crucifix, reminding you that this is officially the church of Santa Maria dei Martiri, so you should genuflect just as in your neighborhood parish.
Churches. Like Thomas Merton, who gave a wide-eyed account of his trip to Rome in The Seven Storey Mountain, I soon found myself cataloging the endless series of churches I visited, churches that haunt me still. Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri, discreetly tucked into the Baths of Diocletian. Santa Maria sopra Minerva, which has really creepy organ music. San Giovanni in Laterano, the papal cathedral, where I attended evening Mass. The Gesu, mother church of the Jesuits. San Pietro in Vaticano, or St. Peter’s to you. Santa Maria Maggiore. San Carlo al Corso. San Paolo fuori le Mura, which boasts portraits of every pope ever, though many are conjectural: who knows what Linus, who came right after Peter, looked like?
I once thought I knew something about omnipresent Catholic culture. I grew up Polish in a small suburb that used to have six Catholic churches and still has three. I have mostly lived and worked in what author Eugene Kennedy called “the thickly Catholic stretches of the [Chicago] archdiocese.” But Rome was another level altogether.
Above all, in Rome I was in constant communion with the dead. I crossed one church threshold after another to find multitudinous slabs bearing the funerary inscription D.O.M., for Deo optimo maximo (“to God, the best, the greatest”). These were usually the graves of cardinals. Pope Innocent III was, rather weirdly, interred directly above the Lateran gift shop. I almost tripped over the tomb of Catherine of Siena. At Santa Maria Maggiore, I paused in a chapel to get my bearings and was jolted to find myself right next to Pope St. Pius V, whose wizened, twisted body was enshrined in glass, protected by silver mask and gloves. More deliberately, I sought out the gold casket of Ignatius Loyola at the Gesu so I could pray there. Rome’s centuries upon centuries of dearly departed are as close, as real, as matter-of-fact as any of the living.
After years of processing Rome back stateside, I realize how much the city molds the church in its own image. The impermeability of the Vatican to outside voices has various reasons, ranging from the theological to the venal, but its physical location matters. Pope Paul VI reportedly once said that 1,500 years was a “brief interval.” It is the sort of observation that makes sense in Rome as almost nowhere else. When you live and breathe Romanita, it is easy to brush off the petitions of progressive American Catholics as myopic and irrelevant: You are mere tourists. You pass away quickly. Rome does not pass away. Rome is forever.
We must indeed demand justice. But we must know the lay of the land first. We need it to inform us as we move forward.