Spotlighting a Hero; a Look at Mary's Homeland

Benedict XVI Lauds Christian Witness in Troubled Times

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, DEC. 4, 2008 ( Though a beloved treasure for Romans, the Basilica of St. Lawrence Outside the Walls hovers at the bottom of the must-see list for most pilgrims and tourists. Although one of the minor patriarchal basilicas and a stop on the St. Phillip Neri Seven Churches route, St. Lawrence’s often remains devoid of visitors.

Last Sunday however, Benedict XVI, with his tireless efforts to reclaim our Christian traditions, put St. Lawrence back on the hot spot map. In honor of the 1,750th anniversary of Lawrence’s martyrdom, the Pope celebrated Mass on the tomb of the Roman deacon.

After Lawrence’s slow death by torture and fire at the hands of the Emperor Valerian, his remains were laid to rest in a simple grave outside the city walls. Along with Sts. Peter and Paul, St. Lawrence was given a shrine by the Emperor Constantine and, as in the case of St. Agnes, a large U-shaped covered cemetery was constructed around his tomb to accommodate the many people who wanted to be buried near one of Rome’s most illustrious martyrs.

Even today, the cemetery of Verano engulfs St. Lawrence’s Basilica as Rome’s most important burial ground.

The shrine and cemetery grew into a large church under Pope Pelagius, who brought the body of St. Stephen, the first martyr, to rest side by side with Lawrence, but the basilica truly blossomed in the 13th century.

In wake of attacks and harsh struggles with the temporal issues of the age, the church of St. Lawrence became an emblem of a stronger and brighter Rome. An elegant bell tower, an ornate porch and numerous decorations in inlaid marble rekindled admiration for this churchman who served the poor, obeyed his Pope and loved Christ unto death.

Martyred by an empire intolerant of the Christian message, St. Lawrence has fueled the resolve of many others in like situations over the centuries. Blessed Pope Pius IX, who died in exile within the walls of the Vatican palace in 1878, asked to be buried near the proto-martyrs. The predicament of the 19th-century Church, emarginated and homeless after the unification of Italy, bore similarities to that of the early Christian martyrs.

Mosaics sheathe Pope Pius’s burial site in a dazzling skin of color and light; the ancient form of art recalls the early Christian homages to their martyrs. Although the tomb shelters a man who was humiliated and scorned in his lifetime, the brilliantly shimmering space extols Pius’ glory in heaven.

Just as St. Lawrence suffered in the turmoil of his age, so his church fell victim to the tumult of our modern times. On July 19, 1943, the Minor Patriarchal Basilica of St. Lawrence was bombed, destroying almost the entire building, causing extensive damage in the cemetery, and killing 3,000 people.

During his homily on Sunday, Benedict XVI praised his “venerated predecessor” Pope Pius XII, reminding the Romans how Pius “ ran to help and console the harshly affected people, among the still-smoking ruins.”

It seemed as Pope Benedict noted that “this year is the 50th anniversary of the death of the servant of God, Pope Pius XII,” there was a comparison to be made. St. Lawrence suffered a slow and painful martyrdom, while the memory of Pope Pius XII has also endured a long destructive roasting by the hostile forces of secularism.

Yet the church still stands, restored through the efforts of the Pope and the Romans in five years and still ready to rally what Pope Benedict described as examples “of intrepid Christian fidelity to the point of martyrdom.” In this year of St. Paul, as we revisit the very roots of the Church, we have a new opportunity to see our tradition with eyes unclouded by misinformation, and at long last recognize our heroes and history.

Benedict XVI also stopped at the tomb of Alcide de Gasperi in the porch of the church. This Italian statesman, who strongly opposed the establishment of a Communist government in Italy and became a co-founder of the European Union, is under consideration for beatification.

Jailed for opposing fascism, Alcide de Gasperi suffered poverty and was ostracized during the hard years of pre- and post-war Italy. His simple monument was made by Giacomo Manzù and represents Gasperi’s favorite saint, St. Virgilius, the patron of his home of Trento. This eighth-century saint was nicknamed the “Geometer” for his knowledge of geography as he evangelized from one part of Europe to another.

As a great statesmen and a powerful witness of Christ, Alcide de Gasperi and the many others resting in St. Lawrence Outside the Walls, suggest that this overlooked basilica has many lessons to offer future generations of Christians as they try to live out their vocations in troubled times.

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Glimpses of the Past

On Nov. 20, journalists, guides and interested locals crowded into the Vatican Museums for an unusual event. Instead of stepping into frescoed salons, they filled the ultramodern conference center. Instead of craning their necks to see a painting or sculpture, they were leafing through a book of black and white photographs.

Modern art at the Vatican? Yes and no. The pictures were taken in the 20th century by Monsignor Salvatore Garofalo, a renowned Neapolitan Biblical scholar, but the subject of the photographs was the Holy Land, the ancient terrain of the Bible.

Monsignor Garofalo was responsible for the new Italian translation of the Bible after the Second Vatican Council. He also served as a canon of the Basilica of St. Peter and was an indefatigable pilgrim to the Holy Land.

Upon his death in 1998 at the age of 87, Monsignor Garofalo left to the Vatican his immense treasure of photographs and archeological material of the land of Abraham, Moses and Christ.

The first volume of his photographs “Gerusalemme e la Palestina. Uno Sguardo tra Bibbia ed Archeologia. La Terra Santa Nelle Fotografie di Monsignor Salvatore Garofalo,” with texts by Lorenzo Nigro, was presented by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. The Pope’s secretary of state observed that when pilgrims visit the Holy Land today, they see a modernized city, but the photographs of Salvatore Garofalo allow a glimpse into a landscape similar to that which the Virgin Mary saw as she traveled toward Bethlehem.

During the recent synod on the Word of God, the Fathers recalled Pope Paul VI who named the Holy Land “The Fifth Gospel.” Reading the Bible in the land where the events occurred helps “both pilgrims and students, through this experience, to understand better the physical and geographic placement of the Scriptures and in particular the relationship between the two Testaments.”

Like St. Jerome, who left Rome to write his translation of the Bible in Holy Land, Monsignor Garofalo spent his life continuing to deepen his understanding of Scripture through visits to the place where the events happened.

His pictures, less than half a century old, vividly present the rough landscape of sharp contrasts where the story of salvation unfolded. The young shepherds in his photos look ready to be summoned by angels to the Christ Child’s manger, while the stones and brush of the desert appear to be missing only John the Baptist.

In a rapidly changing landscape, Monsignor Garofalo’s views of the Holy Land have become a precious document to recall the land of the covenant, the Incarnation and man’s Redemption.

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

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