Rome's Day for the Dead; "Nostra Aetate" Turns 40

How the Eternal City Recalls Its Departed Loved Ones

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, NOV. 4, 2004 ( The raucous, pleasure-loving Romans become somber and contemplative once a year. Autumn’s shorter days and overcast skies set the stage for Rome’s solemn commemoration of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.

Unlike America, where Halloween festivities with predominantly pagan imagery tend to overshadow the Christian feasts, Italy basically ignores Halloween and celebrates All Saints’ Day as a national holiday. This feast opens a week when every city, town or village takes time out to remember the dead. The great cemeteries of Rome — Campo Verano and Prima Porta — even add special bus services so that every Roman can go and visit loved ones.

A heartening scene in this city of self-absorption is to hear a fashionable, jet-setting young Roman beg off an outing with friends to accompany his family to the cemetery to visit his grandparents’ tombs. Here, death isn’t hidden away or viewed with ghoulish amusement; the memory of departed loved ones is a cherished part of family life.

Once there, they bring flowers (Roman florists have capped prices this year to avoid excessive gouging) and some have a little graveyard picnic in accord with the pre-Christian Roman traditions of the «refrigerium.» This was a meal at the tomb of an ancestor, and Romans always remembered to pour a little milk or wine into the grave so that the dead would be able to celebrate as well.

The early Christians also celebrated the dead through ritual meals at the catacombs, the most famous site being the room in the catacombs of St. Sebastian used for repasts commemorating Saints Peter and Paul.

In the immense Campo Verano Cemetery on the southeast side of the city, more than 300 consecrated altars permit Masses all day for the dead. George Weigel, in his «Letters to a Young Catholic,» offers a moving reflection in the mausoleum of the North American College near the tomb of a young seminarian.

In Roman parish life, remembering the dead is not only limited to these few days of jaunts and dining. The most common act of penance is to pray for souls in purgatory while parishes hold daily Masses for the souls of the deceased of the neighborhood, praying each day for a different street of the parish.

Italy being the culinary country that it is, also produces a special sweet for this period, the «ossa dei morti» a bone-shaped, bone-dry cookie.

Many sites in the city encourage meditation on mortality. Most famous is the Capuchin crypt decorated over the course of the 18th century with the bones of monks who had once been buried there.

The Church of Santa Maria dell’Orazione e della Morte, belonging to the confraternity that oversaw the collection and burial of the unclaimed dead, has a similar crypt. Members dedicated themselves year-round to praying the Office of the Dead. This practice gained such popularity that they were able to build a church on the ritzy Via Giulia with a travertine facade complete with winged skulls, flying hourglasses and a skeleton bearing a scroll reading «hodie mihi, cras tibi» which translates «today me, tomorrow you.»

This year, I thought I would visit another site connected with this solemn time of year, the Purgatory Museum. This museum — a single display case — is housed in the sacristy of the Church of the Sacred Heart of Suffrage. This unusual church sports a unique, elaborate French gothic facade along the Tiber.

This site belonged to Father Vittore Jouet, a French priest, and a number of faithful from the Prati quarter of Rome who erected a little chapel to offer prayers for the dead. In 1897, a fire broke out in the chapel and all present saw what appeared to be a suffering face by the altar through the flames. Even after the fire was extinguished, the image remained, and many believe it to be the visage of a soul suffering in purgatory.

Many people contributed to the building of the church which would host this image, today kept under lock and key outside the sacristy on the right transept of the church. Father Jouet, who personally donated a great deal toward the building of this church, chose the gothic design to remind him of his beloved France.

Father Jouet then traveled extensively around Europe looking for other evidence of suffering souls in purgatory and brought his findings back to the little museum in the Sacred Heart church.

The museum mostly contains objects bearing burnt fingerprints of the dead beseeching the living for prayers. One glass frame contained a nightcap, belonging to a certain Louis le Senechal, with the five fingerprints of his deceased wife around the crown.

Whether or not one chooses to believe that these ghostly fingerprints were actually impressed by the hands of the dead is secondary, the point of the museum being to remind the faithful of the necessity of prayers for the dead and our own eventual need for those same prayers one day.

So while the Americans were lining up to vote on Tuesday, the Italians were fervently praying for the souls of their beloved departed. Reminders both of the passing nature of all things in this world.

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The Art of Interreligious Dialogue

2005 will see a number of 40th anniversary celebrations for important documents from the Second Vatican Council, such as «Gaudium et Spes» and «Dignitatis Humanae.» On Oct. 28, the council’s declaration on the relation of the Church to non-Christian peoples, «Nostra Aetate,» kicked off its 40th year with several events around the city.

The most significant was the conference held at the lay center at Foyer Unitas, with high-powered speakers such as Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, president of the Pontifical Council on Interreligious Dialogue, and Archbishop Michael Miller, secretary of Catholic Education. On the same day, the art world paid its homage by opening an exhibit entitled «Popolo dei Sogni» (The People of Dreams), consisting of 50 small etchings drawn from the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, by Roman artist Vittorio Pavoncello.

As figurative art does not play a large role in the Jewish tradition, these images seem hard to approach at first. But the commentary of the chief rabbi of Rome offers guidance by noting that when interacting with the sacred, sight is not usually the first form of contact. «Hearing is the primary sense and vision is secondary,» he writes. With these thoughts in mind, the pictures take on greater meaning and offer much opportunity for reflection.

The cycle offers no narrative scenes. The visitor reads the biblical verse under the etching and then peers into the shades of gray and black, allowing the eye and mind to relate the illustration to the text. Some scenes are quite recognizable; a patterned rectangular block, similar to a modernist skyscraper, for the tower of Babel, or a flowering garden where Moses washed ashore.

The human figures become recognizable only after a while — a pair of legs and arms outlined as simple symmetrical arcs with a smaller pair of arcs defining the head and corresponding to ears. Pavoncello’s people are simple — they have arms to offer, limbs to journey and ears to hear. No eyes, no mouth.

The most memorable images are those of dreams, a very common medium of divine revelation in the Old Testament. These images are schematic, almost childlike, indicating the receptivity of humans during sleep.

Archbishop Miller’s address focused on the reception of «Nostra Aetate» in Catholic educational institutions, emphasizing the need for Christians to understand the traditions of the Jewish people so as to better promote dialogue. Pavoncello’s exhibit provides a cultural opportunity to put this understanding into practice. While the Christian tradition is highly visual, with a rich body of figurative art underlining the visibility of the Divine in Jesus, and the Jewish tradition is auditory, dwelling on the voice or call of God, both pe
ople have a common desire: They are «the generation that longs to see Your face» (Psalm 24:6).

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Euro-youths Stand Up for Christian Roots

Last Friday, Rome saw history made. Not that this is a new thing, as Rome has made much history over the years, but the arrival of the heads of state from 25 European countries to sign the Constitution of the European Union was a remarkable sight.

The city rose to the occasion, preparing traffic routes, cleaning facades and arranging suitable settings and backdrops for the leaders.

The brilliant colors of the flags of 25 nations enlivened the stern stone courtyard of the Conservator’s Palace on the Capitoline Hill. But for all the optimistic smiles and handshakes, a troubling note echoed through the day. Although the European Union ousted Minister Rocco Buttiglione for daring to express his Catholic belief that homosexual behavior is sinful, and ignored John Paul II’s request that the Constitution remember the Christian roots of Europe, the Holy Father, ever ready to maintain channels of dialogue, sent his blessing to the gathered leaders.

Reiterating the denial of Christianity’s role in the creation of Europe, the site chosen for the signing was significant. The Conservator’s palace stands on the ruins of the former temple of «Jupiter Optimus Maximus» — Jupiter Best and Greatest — the foremost temple of ancient Rome. This temple, which had been destroyed by the early Christians, who remembered the thousands martyred in the name of Jupiter, literally lent its support to Friday’s proceedings.

The Capitoline Hill itself, one of the oldest of the famous seven hills of Rome, was the religious center of the old city and its name from the Latin «caput» (head) typified Rome’s ambition to become «caput mundi,» the head of the world.

The document was signed in the Sala dei Orazi e Curiazi, a hall painted in the 1590s by Cavaliere D’Arpino with scenes of the foundation of ancient Rome. Romulus and Remus, King Numa and the brothers Horatii stood by as painted witnesses to the signing.

At the same time, Italian youth rallied around the Piazza Navona to sign a petition asking the European Union to reconsider mentioning Europe’s Christian roots. They also chose their topography carefully. Piazza Navona rests on the remains of a former track and field stadium built by the emperor Domitian in about A.D. 86. Under Emperor Diocletian in A.D. 304, this stadium became the site of the martyrdom of St. Agnes.

St. Agnes, one of Rome’s most venerated martyrs, was tortured and killed as a very young girl. She steadfastly declared herself a Christian in the face of the tremendous might of the Roman Empire and remained firm in her faith, despite being humiliated, burned and eventually decapitated. On the site of her passion, 1,700 years later, the young people of Italy demanded that the memory of her sacrifice and that of thousands of others be honored.

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Rome Campus. She can be reached at

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