Sealing the Christmas Season; Madonna of Medicine

Nativity Scene Finally Taken Down

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, FEB. 3, 2005 ( Never let it be said that Rome doesn’t know how to party, at least liturgically. The Christmas season just drew to a close this week as the crèche and tree in St. Peter’s Square were finally packed away.

Throughout the last weeks of January, puzzled visitors nudged one another asking whether there was a reason that the tree was still up or if Vatican employees were just lazy.

The Catholic calendar works on a slightly different time-scale than that of marketing and sales. While shops consider Christmas day the end of shopping season, here Christmas is just the beginning of festivities. The reminders of this joyous period traditionally stay around until Feb. 2, the feast of the Presentation.

But even as the Christmas lights come down and the grayness of February encroaches, the Romans respond with the bright confetti and the brilliant costumes of Carnival, squeezing the last few days of jubilation before the long haul of Lent.

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Healthy Reminder

Last Sunday a special celebration took place, co-hosted by the patriarchal Basilica of St. Mary Major and the city of Rome. Together they commemorated the feast of the transfer of the icon Madonna Salus Populi to its present location, the Borghese chapel of St. Mary Major.

The icon, whose name means Our Lady Health of the People, has been in the church for 1,500 years. Legend attributes its creation to St. Luke, physician and Evangelist, who is held to have made the first portrait of the Madonna and Child and for this reason is the patron saint of painters. According to medieval guidebooks, this icon would be that portrait.

The icon earned its title during the plague of 597. Rome’s population was being decimated by illness. Seeking intercession from the Blessed Virgin, Pope Gregory the Great organized a procession bearing the image from St. Mary Major to St. Peter’s Basilica.

As the procession approached the bridge to cross the Tiber River, legend has it that St. Michael the Archangel appeared over Hadrian’s tomb (today known as Castel Sant’Angelo in honor of this event) and, before the eyes of all, re-sheathed his sword. The plague ended and from that moment on, the Madonna Salus Populi became the protectress of the city in times of pestilence.

The Madonna has since been carried in procession through the city many times over the years, the last time being in 1837 when Pope Gregory XVI led the faithful to pray for the end of a cholera epidemic.

During World War II, the faithful made frequent pilgrimages to the Madonna Salus Populi as bombing went on day and night on the outskirts of Rome.

The commemorative Mass, celebrated by Cardinal Bernard Law, archpriest of the basilica, was splendid, well worthy of honoring Rome’s great protector. The mosaics shimmered in all their golden glory and the magnificent choir filled the church with sacred song, enhancing the grandeur of this age-old tradition.

The cardinal and several concelebrating bishops focused the soaring splendor around the altar. Their gold and white feast-day robes, with flashes of purple and red denoting their office, echoed the porphyry and gilt bronze of the canopy and altar.

Seated behind the celebrants near the choir were dignitaries in dark suits wearing the red, white and green sash of Italian magisterial office. This delegation from the city of Rome also had a part to play during the celebrations.

At the moment of the offertory, two Rome policemen in full dress uniform, with one side of their dark capes thrown over the shoulder to reveal a splash of red lining, came up the aisle bearing a golden chalice. This chalice is a gift offered annually by the city of Rome to the Madonna Salus Populi in thanks for her maternal care.

In these days that the Holy Father is hospitalized with a nasty chest flu, a bug which has been plaguing the city since early January, it is a good time for all of us spiritual Romans to invoke once again the aid of the Madonna Salus Populi.

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Dorothy’s Daring

This year marks the 1,700th anniversary of a particularly savage moment in the persecution of Christians by Roman emperor Diocletian, and as a result many jubilees of martyrdoms will be celebrated.

The Vatican got a timely start on this important anniversary by publishing the Roman Martyrology last Dec. 4, listing the more than 7,000 saints and martyrs venerated by the Catholic Church.

Opening the year of martyr jubilees is the feast day of St. Dorothy, martyred in Caesarea of Cappadocia (modern-day Turkey). Her church in Rome, San Dorotea in Trastevere, started celebrating her feast, coming up Feb. 6, with a three-day conference.

Two papers set the scene by describing the state of Christian life in Cappadocia at the time of St. Dorothy and talking about her historical placement in the martyrology in both the Eastern and Western Church.

The third paper, given by Franciscan Father Gianfranco Grieco, professor of Church history and contributor to L’Osservatore Romano, dealt with the relevance of the devotion to St. Dorothy today.

St. Dorothy’s story lies somewhere between fact and legend, and in many ways the beauty of the account of her passion has worked against her because of what appears to scholars as literary embellishment. Nonetheless, insists Father Grieco, we have much to learn from her.

Dorothy’s great virtue brought her to the attention of the Roman governor Sapricus in Cappadocia during the years that the emperor Diocletian was trying to eradicate Christianity through exemplary executions.

The young woman was put on trial and questioned but she refused to renounce Christ. Shown instruments of torture, she proved fearless. The governor then thought to corrupt her faith by placing her in the custody of two women who had been persuaded to renounce Christ. The example of Dorothy brought these women back to their faith and they too died martyrs, burned in a furnace.

Faced with Dorothy’s resolution, the governor ordered her torture, using hot irons, rack and beatings. But the heroic young woman remained firm, smiling at her persecutors and telling them that soon she would “be with her spouse Jesus Christ in the garden of God’s delights, where the trees are always covered with fruits and the lilies are perpetually white.”

On the way to her beheading, Dorothy encountered the lawyer Theophilus who had been one of her interrogators. Jeering at the saint, he called out, “When you get to your spouse’s garden, send me some apples and roses.”

Just before she died, a child appeared by her side bearing three apples and three roses. She sent the child to Theophilus who was so astounded by the miracle and the example of Dorothy that he too converted and was martyred. Their feast days used to be celebrated together.

St. Dorothy is the patron of gardeners and florists, but also brides, and some say that the tradition of the bride carrying the bouquet to the altar comes from the gift of Dorothy to her persecutor.

Father Grieco pointed out that Dorothy brought a gift not only to Theophilus but also to her Divine Spouse. Her bridal bouquet was composed of the “souls she had brought back to Christ through her example.”

Therein lies the lesson that St. Dorothy can teach people who are living 1,700 years later. “Her gift of flowers, a gesture of affection toward her persecutor tells modern Christians how to respond to hostility,” the Franciscan priest said.

Father Grieco reminded us that Dorothy was an example of living the words of John Paul II in his message of peace on Jan. 1, “overcoming good with evil.”

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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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