Rekindling Forty Hours; the Why of an Academy

A Basilica Wows Rome With Eucharistic Adoration

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, MAY 26, 2005 ( Santa Maria Maggiore proudly crowns the Esquiline Hill. It is Rome’s most important church dedicated to the Blessed Mother as well as a patriarchal basilica. This week it also led Romans and pilgrims alike toward a greater experience of the Year of the Eucharist.

From May 19 to 21, Rome saw the Forty Hours devotion offered for the first time in decades. The basilica stayed open all day and all night allowing residents and pilgrims to stop by for a few moments with the Blessed Sacrament.

The Host was in a monstrance on the high altar, above the crypt containing the relic of the Christ Child’s crib. Under the splendid canopy of porphyry columns entwined with gilt bronze candles, the altar was beautifully decorated with flowers and candles to create a glorious setting for the Eucharist.

The event even piqued interest among the more jet-setting crowd. Santa Maria Maggiore is located near a train station, but over the last few years, the area has been developed with trendy restaurants and nightclubs.

Elegant revelers heading home from fancy watering holes were astonished to see a staid, old church staying up later than they were. Entering, they were even more taken aback at the sight of people praying while they had been partying.

Over the two days, the complete Liturgy of the Hours was prayed publicly, another rarity in modern-day Rome.

The Forty Hours devotion recalls the time span during which the body of Christ lay in the tomb. The practice of this solemn exposition began in Milan, somewhere between 1527 and 1537. It seems to have been first proposed by the founder of the Barnabites, St. Anthony Zaccaria, although accounts vary.

The first recorded Forty Hours took place in the cathedral in Milan at the altar in the left transept dedicated to the Madonna dell’Albero. In a climate of terrible plagues as well as fear of the Turkish fleet pressing hard against Christendom, the devotion was introduced in this cathedral and then spread to all the Milanese churches. It devolved rapidly and soon the practice received the concession of an indulgence.

Eventually the 40 hours became part of preparations for important feasts. This year Forty Hours adoration precedes two feasts which will coincide on the same day, Corpus Christi and the feast of St. Philip Neri.

Corpus Christi is one of the very few days one can still see a grand papal procession in Rome. The Pope carries the Host from St. John Lateran to St. Mary Major as thousands turn out to participate. St. Mary Major could not have chosen a better way to prepare herself for Benedict XVI’s first Corpus Christi procession.

But for Rome and the Forty Hours, St. Philip Neri was the matchmaker that bought the two together. Among the many things this great saint did to revitalize the spiritual life of the city, he introduced the Forty Hours to Rome around 1550. With the support of St. Ignatius and the Jesuits, the devotion spread to all the churches in Rome and out into the world. The Body of Christ was adored every day, all day, all over the world in a truly Christian definition of globalization.

We can pray that St. Mary Major’s initiative might reignite that same fire throughout the world.

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A John Paul II Legacy

Walking along the long gallery of the Vatican Museums, tourists often pause to look out of the window over the Vatican gardens. They point to a stunning white construction, with terraces and fountains nestled among the trees and ask, “What’s that?” To which they often hear the cynical reply, “The pope’s pleasure palace.”

While it was indeed built in 1561 by Pirro Ligurio as a recreational villa, few visitors ever learn that today the Casina Pio Quattro houses two formidable Vatican think tanks, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences.

The Academy of Sciences, founded in 1603, studies the mathematical, physical and social sciences. Its members have included many Nobel prize winners, such as Max Planck and Guglielmo Marconi. A plaque on the wall of the Casina honors Galileo Galilei, a member of its predecessor Lincean Academy.

The Academy of Social Sciences was founded by Pope John Paul II in 1994. The executive committee of this academy had a planning meeting last week in Rome, and I had the opportunity to talk with the president of the institution, Mary Ann Glendon (a personage near and dear to this writer), about its projects.

Q: What is the Pontifical Academy of the Social Sciences and why was it founded?

Glendon: In 1991, John Paul II observed in “Centesimus Annus” that the Church needs more constant and more extensive contact with the modern social sciences if she is to make her own contributions effectively.

Three years later, he established the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences to serve as a kind of think tank whose research could offer the Church elements which she can use in the study and development of her social doctrine.

By giving the new social science academy the same headquarters and the same chancellor as the 400-year-old Pontifical Academy of Sciences, he also helped to promote dialogue between the natural and the human sciences.

Q: What was John Paul II’s relationship with the academy?

Glendon: John Paul II was a philosopher-Pope who traveled the world speaking truth-to-power from the beginning to the end of his pontificate, and as such he would often remind the academy that our role was to bring the wisdom of the social sciences to bear on human realities “with a view to finding solutions to people’s concrete problems, solutions based on social justice.”

Our audience with John Paul II was always the greatest moment of the academy’s annual plenary session. In greeting us, he would comment on the topics we had chosen and the publications we had produced. He offered many suggestions regarding the substance, method and spirit of our work which were and remain very valuable to us.

Q: What is the academy working on now?

Glendon: Our last plenary session should have been in April but due to the death of John Paul II it was postponed until November.

For this meeting we will study concepts of the human person in the various social sciences. This choice of subject grows out of the centrality of the human person in Catholic social thought and therefore the need to look more closely at whether and to what extent the ideas of personhood that prevail in the various social sciences are consistent with Christian anthropology.

Then in April 2006 we will have the second phase of our Intergenerational Solidarity and Human Ecology Project — this time shifting the focus from the problems of aging societies to the situation of children and young people in the age of globalization.

Q: How has the new papacy affected the academy? Are there new projects being considered to reflect the concerns of Benedict XVI?

Glendon: The academy has several ongoing projects — in particular on globalization. Currently, members of the academy’s council are preparing to report to the Holy Father on our activities and to solicit his guidance regarding ways we can be helpful to him and to the magisterium.

Since Pope Benedict XVI is a member of our sister academy, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, he is already familiar with how the academies work and we are hopeful that he will take an active interest in our projects.

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He Saved Romans From Nazis

A few steps from St. Peter’s Square and the grandeur of the basilica, a simple exhibition recounts the life of a man who worked quietly and humbly during the Nazi occupation of Rome saving the lives of Romans, Jews and Catholics alike.

“Father Pancratius Pfeiffer: A General without Weapons” is the title of the exhibition of posters, videos and video footage arranged in the Palazzo Cesi
on the Via della Conciliazione where this brave priest lived as superior general of the Salvatorian Order.

The show opened on May 12 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Father Pfeiffer’s death in 1945 and will run until June 18.

Born in 1872 in Bavaria, he entered the Salvatorian order in 1890 and was ordained in 1896. He worked as secretary in the Vatican office for papal receptions from 1908 until he was elected superior general of his order in 1915.

The Nazi occupation of Rome began in 1943 and lasted nine months. During this time the Gestapo regularly arrested Jews, political enemies and clergy. Father Pfeiffer met with Nazi officers and negotiated the release of many of these prisoners.

The exhibition is filled with testimonies of those saved by the intervention of the priest.

He was the “energetic and indefatigable courier of Pius XII and Monsignor Montini in obtaining my release,” wrote a certain G. Vassali.

Another testimony by G.A. Gariboldi says, “In the name of the pope and of humanity, he succeeded in snatching numerous hostages from the jaws of death.”

While the exact numbers are unknown, in Rome alone 400 hostages were certainly saved, among whom were eight members of Rome’s Jewish community on their way to execution.

Father Pfeiffer spoke modestly about his efforts. “My duty is to help,” he once said. “In my position one acts for justice, neither expecting gratitude nor fearing ingratitude.”

His work speaks volumes about the power of Christian faith to influence the world for good.

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Update: Madonna of Light

Regarding the Natalia Tsarkova painting of “The Madonna of Light” (see last week’s Rome Notes): It was unveiled at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on May 19.

The painting will be on exhibition in the Mysteries of the Rosary Chapel at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. To learn more about Tsarkova and the Primavera Fine Art Foundation, see

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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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