Making Music at St. Mary Major; the Becket Battle

A Basilica’s Reminder of What Christmas Is Really About

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, DEC. 15, 2005 ( While Romans throng the streets, counting down the shopping days until Christmas, the Basilica of St. Mary Major is valiantly attempting to remind Christians what the real countdown is about, the birth of Our Savior.

It is fitting that St. Mary Major, the oldest church in the West dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, built to celebrate the Council of Ephesus’ proclamation of Mary as «Mother of God,» should lead Romans through their spiritual preparations. For as the feast of the Nativity approaches, thoughts turn to Mary, patiently waiting those last weeks with the Jesus in her womb.

At the beginning of Advent, to heighten the sense of anticipation, the basilica hides its most important relic, the fragment of the manger where the Infant Jesus was placed, behind screen doors. During the Midnight Mass of Christmas Eve, the crib will be returned to view with a grand procession around the church.

A splendid concert at St. Mary Major marked the close of a triad of Marian feasts — the Immaculate Conception on Dec. 8, Our Lady of Loreto on Dec. 10 and Our Lady of Guadalupe on Dec. 12.

The timeless Christmas motet «Dies Sanctificatus» by Giovanni PierLuigi da Palestrina, choirmaster of St. Mary Major in 16th century, reminded listeners of the many generations of pilgrims who had celebrated Christmas in the church. Monsignor Valentino Miserachs, present choirmaster of the basilica, revealed the vitality of the tradition of great music at St. Mary Major with his «Laudate Dominum.»

An appreciative gesture toward the fine composers of St. Peter’s came with the performance of «Rorate Coeli» by Domenico Bartelucci, former choirmaster of the basilica at the Vatican.

An unusual and very beautiful addition to the program was Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, conducted by Francesco Ciampa, winner of the Italian national competition for orchestral direction. By the end of the evening, the dazzle of the magnificent mosaics of the church and the splendor of the sound left everyone in joyous expectation of the glory of Christmas.

The last step toward readying St. Mary Major for the holidays is eagerly awaited. For on Dec. 15, one of the world’s oldest Nativity scenes will be put on public display in a new setting, more than 400 years after the chapel in which it was originally placed was demolished during a restoration project.

The Holy Family and the Three Magi were sculpted by Arnolfo di Cambio between 1290 and 1292. Arnolfo was commissioned by Pope Nicholas IV to restore the ancient oratory of the Crib, a small chapel to the right of the main altar where the relic of the Crib had been kept for centuries.

Nicholas IV, the first Franciscan Pope, wanted to re-create the first Nativity scene, arranged by St. Francis in 1223 in Greccio as a «tableau vivant,» with people playing the parts of the saints.

Arnolfo, both architect and sculptor, designed a new space for the relic, adding the figures of the ox and the ass, St. Joseph and the Three Kings. While there must have been a figure of the Virgin and Child, it was destroyed in the 16th century and replaced by the present statue.

The figures, about 3 feet high, were carved in relief against a backdrop painted blue and highlighted to represent a night sky. The relic of the Crib was placed in the center of the arrangement on a disk of purple stone.

The entire chapel was transplanted as a block by Pope Sixtus V when he built the majestic Sistine Chapel for the Blessed Sacrament in 1585. It was placed under the altar in a special crypt, which was only opened on Christmas Eve.

The chapel of the Crib has a special connection with two of the greatest saints of the Roman Counter-Reformation. St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, celebrated his first Mass there and St. Gaetan, founder of the Theatine order, had a vision of the Virgin Mary handing him the Christ Child while praying in the chapel.

But this year, because of necessary restorations to the crypt, the Nativity will be moved to the Museum of St. Mary Major. There, visitors will be able to see the figures with their skillfully carved expressions of joy and wonder, examples of the true spirit of Christmas.

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Roads to «Dignitatis Humanae»

All roads lead to Rome. This phrase seems as true today as it was 2,000 years ago. Last Saturday, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty drew scholars from far and wide to a daylong conference at the Gregorian University in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on religious freedom, «Dignitatis Humanae.»

In keeping with its mission to defend the religious freedoms of all faiths, the public interest law firm-cum-think-tank assembled Christian, Jewish and Muslim speakers to address the matter of church-state relations.

Becket Fund founder Kevin Hasson opened the conference by recalling the mounting threats to religious freedom that led him to establish the organization 12 years ago with a team of lawyers. He celebrated the fund’s record of 53 victories and no losses, including many landmark cases in U.S. state and federal courts — some of which he has written about in his recent book, «The Right to Be Wrong: Ending the Culture War Over Religion in America.»

The first group of speakers situated «Dignitatis Humanae» against the background of Catholic tradition and doctrine. Jesuit Father Kevin Flannery, a professor at the Gregorian, forcefully rebutted the claim made by some recent scholars that the document had represented a radical change rather than a development of doctrine. The 1965 declaration, he pointed out, does not endorse a «right to error» but rather a right to be free to seek the truth, a right that is grounded in the dignity of the human person.

Furthering the argument, Oxford’s Father Ian Ker, an expert on Cardinal John Henry Newman, showed how the document met Newman’s sevenfold test for an authentic development of doctrine.

The rest of the program focused on the practical implications of the document with Italy’s Culture Minister Rocco Buttiglione delivering a robust defense of the role of religion in public life, based on his own experiences as the rejected nominee for commissioner of justice on the European Commission.

He was followed by Legionary Father Thomas Williams, dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum athenaeum, explaining why the Church avoids the problematic language of religious tolerance in favor of religious freedom. Unlike respect for the freedom and dignity of others, the Enlightenment notion of «tolerance» betrays a negative prejudice toward religion, and paves the way toward relativism and indifference, he warned.

The role of Pope John Paul II in making religious freedom a centerpiece of Catholic thought and diplomacy was the subject of papal biographer George Weigel and professor Karl Ballestrem of the University of Eichstaett in Germany. Professor Gosta Hallonsten of Sweden’s Lund University explored the question of religious freedom in the writings of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI.

The last panel of a very full day was devoted to contemporary religious liberty issues in three very different contexts. Harvard Law professor Mary Ann Glendon focused on the «forgotten teachings» of «Dignitatis Humanae,» namely, the passages dealing with the rights of communities and the right of individuals to free exercise within communities. That area, she argued, was the site of the most serious challenges to religious liberty in the United States today.

The next speaker, attorney Mohammed Fadel, devoted his remarks to the openness of the Sunni Muslim tradition to religious freedom, followed by Rabbi Alan Mittelman, who addressed the question of foundations for religious freedom within the Jewish tradition.

It was a tribute to the quality of the program organized by the director of the Becket Institute in Rome, Raphaela
Schmid, that the Gregorian’s conference center was still full when, after a long day of lectures, Michael Novak offered his concluding observations.

Novak ended on a buoyantly optimistic note, summing up all the positive elements that had been brought out during the conference, such as Rocco Buttiglione’s recognition of the European resistance to secularization, Mohammed Fadel’s cautious assessment of recent trends in Islam, and the successes of the Becket Fund in the United States.

Schmid, in an interview after the conference, said that she was particularly gratified by the close correspondence between the conference themes and the Angelus message the Pope had delivered the week before.

«In his Angelus message of 4 December 2005,» she said, «Pope Benedict XVI commemorated ‘Dignitatis Humanae,’ saying that ‘after 40 years, this conciliar teaching is still most timely.'»

Schmid added that the Holy Father «went on to discuss, in a typically sensitive manner, the various obstacles to this teaching in the contemporary world, noting that religious liberty is still ‘very far from being effectively guaranteed everywhere’ and even where it is recognized on paper, it is hindered by political power or, more subtly, by ‘the cultural predomination of agnosticism and relativism.'»

«It was very encouraging to think that at the Becket Institute we are on the same page as the Holy Father,» she said.

Schmid insisted that «conflicts involving religious liberty are as much a concern as ever, though they take different forms in the United States than in China or Pakistan, for example.» «Dignitatis Humanae,» she said, «seems even more relevant today than when it was written — and I guess that’s what it means when people say it’s a prophetic document.»

This conference was the first in a series of events that the Becket Institute will put on in Rome to draw attention to the complexities of this issue. Becket’s leaders hope that the lawyers and scholars who took the road to Rome last week will blaze new paths for the future of religious freedom.

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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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